Gukurahundi ghosts haunt Mnangagwa

On March 5 1983, at a rally in Victoria Falls, Emmerson Mnangagwa delivered a threat, using language that would be echoed 11 years later by the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide.

As The Chronicle reported at the time: “Likening the dissidents to cockroaches and bugs, the minister said the bandit menace had reached such epidemic proportion that the government had to bring ‘DDT’ [pesticide] to get rid of the bandits.”

Mnangagwa’s analogy would have been perfectly comprehensible to
his audience. The cockroaches and bugs were supporters of Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) and, more generally, members of the Ndebele ethnic group.

The “pesticide” would be deployed by the Fifth Brigade, the infamous North Korean-trained army unit that had already begun its crackdown in Matabeleland and the Midlands, home to most of Zimbabwe’s Ndebele population.

The crackdown was named Gukurahundi — meaning, in Shona, “the early rain that washes away the chaff”. It was extraordinarily brutal.


By the time the military operation was over, in late 1984, an estimated 20 000 people had been killed (this figure comes from the International Association of Genocide Scholars, though the death toll is almost impossible to verify). Many more people had been tortured or displaced.

Gukurahundi is the original sin upon which Mugabe’s authoritarian regime was founded, even though it took a few more decades before his glowing liberation hero reputation began to tarnish. As historian Stuart Doran put it, this was the “darkest period in the country’s post-independence history, notwithstanding the bloody notoriety of the last decade-and-a-half”.

And Mnangagwa, who now succeeds Mugabe as president, was allegedly involved in both inciting and executing the violence.

“Mnangagwa played a critically important role. You can’t describe him as the architect of Gukurahundi, because that was Mugabe, but he was a critical component,” said opposition politician David Coltart.

In his 2016 book, The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe, Coltart wrote in detail about the complicity of Mugabe and Mnangagwa in the massacres.

“Mnangagwa was minister of state security at the time, responsible for the Central Intelligence Organisation. The CIO raided Zapu’s offices well before the Fifth Brigade were deployed, and they got the details of Zapu structures — all the names of district chairmen and district committees. So when the Fifth Brigade were deployed, they were deployed with CIO operatives who had these names. And they literally went village by village,” Coltart told the Mail & Guardian.

“In 1983 they just killed people where they found them. And in 1984, when the political heat was too much … they changed tactics and they set up concentration camps. The Fifth Brigade would still go with the CIO, with those lists, and pick up these leaders and then take them to the concentration camp, where they were then murdered or tortured.”

Despite the evidence, Mnangagwa denies involvement in Gukurahundi. In a rare interview with the New Statesman last year, he blames everyone else instead: “How do I become the enforcer during Gukurahundi? We had the president, the minister of defence, the commander of the army, and I was none of that. My own enemies attack me left and right and that is what you are buying.”

But as he prepares to assume the presidency, it is Mnangagwa’s own words from that dark time that must surely come back to haunt him.

From another 1983 speech recorded by The Chronicle: “Blessed are they who will follow the path of the government laws, for their days on Earth will be increased. But woe unto those who will choose the path of collaboration with dissidents for we will certainly shorten their stay on Earth.”

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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