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.”

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Africa Editor for @MailandGuardian. Also @ISSAfrica.

Related stories

As opposition mounts, Zimbabwe’s president lashes out

Emmerson Mnangagwa has accused ‘dark forces’ of destabilising the country

Hope is locked away in Zimbabwe

Hopewell Chin’ono backed President Emmerson Mnangagwa when he succeeded Robert Mugabe. Now he’s in jail

Unfollow the leader: The Twitter campaign against Zimbabwe’s president

Campaigners urge Zimbabweans to unfollow the president on Twitter

Malawi celebrates independence day, but the first president left his mark

The historical record shows that Malawi’s difficulties under Hastings Banda were evident at the very moment of the country’s founding

Rule of law must first be strengthened by people power

Dynamic grassroots movements are especially needed in authoritarian states where institutions are fundamentally broken

Zimbabwean journalist ‘fears for his life’ after being singled out by Zanu-PF

Hopewell Chin’ono recently published a series of Facebook posts that outline alleged connections between President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s son and a company that was awarded tender to supply equipment to prevent the spread of Covid-19
Advertising

Vaccine trial results due in December

If successful, it will then have to be manufactured and distributed

White men still rule and earn more

Women and black people occupy only a few seats at the JSE table, the latest PwC report has found

The PPE scandal that the Treasury hasn’t touched

Many government officials have been talking tough about dealing with rampant corruption in PPE procurement but the majority won't even release names of who has benefited from the R10-billion spend

ANC still at odds over how to tackle leaders facing...

The ANC’s top six has been mandated to work closely with its integrity committee to tackle claims of corruption against senior party members
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday