Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s clampdown on dissent in Matabeleland claimed up to 20 000 lives.
EPA/Aaron Ufumeli/ Pool
In January 1983 Robert Mugabe’s government launched a massive security clampdown in Matabeleland. It was led by a North Korean-trained, almost exclusively chiShona-speaking army unit known as the Fifth Brigade. They committed thousands of atrocities, including murders, gang rapes and mass torture.
Mugabe’s government called the operation Gukurahundi. This is chiShona for “the rain that washes away the chaff (from the last harvest), before the spring rains”.
It is estimated that between 10 000 and 20 000 unarmed civilians died at the hands of Fifth Brigade.
An analysis by the author of official British and US government communications relevant to the Matabeleland Massacres has shed new light on the British Government’s wilful blindness to Operation Gukurahundi, including its diplomatic and military team on the ground in Zimbabwe during the atrocities. The information was obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests to various British government ministries and offices and to the US Department of State.
The unique dataset provides minutes of meetings and other relevant communications between the British High Commission in Harare, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s office, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence in London, as well as the US Department of State and the US Embassy in Harare.
The attacks’ ramifications continue to be felt by survivors and their families. The children born of rape at the hands of the Fifth Brigade face ongoing discrimination and generally find themselves in hopeless situations.
The catalogue of brutalities committed by the Fifth Brigade include:
- One man learned that his child was abducted from school by the Fifth Brigade and forced to catch poisonous black scorpions with his bare hands. He was stung and died before being buried in a shallow grave (interview with survivor TH, 2017). His only “crime” was to be Ndebele.
- Entire families were herded into grass-roofed huts, which were then set alight (interview with survivor AN, 2017).
- In Mkhonyeni a pregnant woman “was bayoneted open to kill the baby”. Also, “pregnant girls were bayoneted to death by 5th Brigade in Tsholotsho”, killing the unborn babies.
- Young Ndebele men between the ages of 16-40 were particularly vulnerable. They were frequently targeted and killed or forced to perform demeaning public sex acts.
The data provides a unique insight into the British government’s role in Gukurahundi. It also establishes what information was available to the British government about the persistent and relentless atrocities; what the British diplomatic approach was in response to this knowledge; and what the British government’s rationale was for such policies.
The data evidences, for example, that the British Foreign and Commonwealth offices were aware that:
there was much talk – and evidence – of widespread brutality by the Fifth Brigade towards [Ndeble] villagers.
In a cable forwarded to the US embassy in Maputo and Dar es Salaam, then-US Secretary of State George Shultz stated:
what we are addressing is not simply a bad policy choice by the GOZ [Government of Zimbabwe] to deal with a difficult security situation in a section of their country. What is involved is the very fundamental issue of relations between the two parties, between the Ndebele and the Shona.
The West German ambassador to Zimbabwe, Richard Ellerkmann, thought it “ominous” that “Mugabe, in his latest speech in Manicaland, had used the Shona equivalent of ‘wipe out’ with reference to the Ndebele people, not just ZAPU people, if they didn’t stop supporting the dissidents”.
However, “most poignant for Ellerkmann was the remark of a German Jewish refugee in Bulawayo who said the situation reminded him of how the Nazis treated Jews in the 1930s”. (Cable American Embassy, Harare to Secretary of State Washington DC, 11 Mar. 1983).
There could be no doubt in the minds of the British that Gukurahundi was Zimbabwean government policy. On 7 March 1983 Roland “Tiny” Rowland, a British businessman and chief executive of the Lonrho conglomerate with heavy economic commitments in Zimbabwe, met Mugabe. The documents indicate he subsequently reported to the American ambassador in Harare that he was convinced Mugabe was:
fully aware of what is happening in Matabeleland and it is Government policy. Mnangagwa (Zimbabwean Minister of State Security) is fully aware and he was in the meeting when they discussed the situation in detail.
The author’s analysis provides clear evidence that the British diplomatic and military teams in Harare during Gukurahundi were consistent in their efforts to minimise the magnitude of Fifth Brigade’s atrocities.
It is indisputable that this is the general theme of the available cables that were forwarded from the British High Commission in Harare to London during the period analysed.
The analysis also clearly proves that, even when in receipt of solid intelligence, the UK government’s response was to wilfully turn a “blind eye” to the victims of these gross abuses. Instead, the British government’s approach appears to be have been influenced solely by consideration for the white people who were in the affected regions but were not affected by the violence.
Rationale for realpolitik
The rationale for such naked realpolitik is multi-layered. It is expressed clearly in numerous communications between Harare and London. One cables notes that:
Zimbabwe is important to us primarily because of major British and western economic and strategic interests in southern Africa, and Zimbabwe’s pivotal position there. Other important interests are investment (£800 million) and trade (£120 million exports in 1982), Lancaster House prestige, and the need to avoid a mass white exodus. Zimbabwe offers scope to influence the outcome of the agonising South Africa problem; and is a bulwark against Soviet inroads… Zimbabwe’s scale facilitates effective external influence on the outcome of the Zimbabwe experiment, despite occasional Zimbabwean perversity.
One can but assume that “occasional Zimbabwean perversity” refers to Gukurahundi.
In a more general sense it is quite clear that, apart from the immediate perpetrators, external bystanders also have to be held accountable at least to some extent for the unbridled atrocities that took place in Zimbabwe.
With the end of Mugabe’s long reign drawing ever closer, it is imperative that the international community help develop strategies to help Zimbabweans address the prevailing impunity and lack of accountability for the crimes of Gukurahundi. That is critical for the establishment of truth, justice, and accountability for the victims, survivors and their families.