Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Digging up the graves of Gukurahundi graves – and burying the evidence


I never met my maternal grandfather. But I hear he died a cruel death. He used to work for Coca-Cola in Plumtree Town,not far from the border with Botswana, and would go back home on weekends to the dusty village of Tjehanga, deep in rural Plumtree.

He found them waiting for him one afternoon when he came back from work. They had been to the homestead several times earlier that day, asking my aunts and uncles questions, and planting fear in everyone’s hearts. By the time they led him off, everyone kind of knew he would never be back.

Decades later, a neighbour confessed to knowing where they had taken khulu. The family was then taken there and, sure enough, they found human bones at the scene. In August last year, we held a huge memorial service for my grandfather. We invited all the village neighbours and all my relatives, paternal, too; everyone converged on my gogo’s home to pay our last respects to a man none of his grandchildren had ever met.

We put a beautiful tombstone on the place the bones lay and everyone felt at peace. My grandmother said to me:“Sengingazifela mamo”(I, too, can now die in peace).

I am a tortured soul. Are those really my grandfather’s bones in that grave?

President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration recently announced they had a meeting with a group called the Matabeleland Collective and discussed the way forward concerning Gukurahundi. They then announced a set of concessions they were willing to make for the sake of progress.

One of them was that we could now debate Gukurahundi freely. Debate? Here is a man, alleged to have taken an active role in the genocide in which 20000 of our people were murdered, and he is graciously allowing us to debate the massacre of our relatives? How insulting. How utterly disdainful.

But that’s not today’s story. Today I want to talk about Mnangagwa’s other “concession”. His administration also announced that families are now free to exhume their relatives’ remains for reburial.

This is not the benign action that it first appears.

On Sunday April 28, a family that had been requesting to rebury their relative finally got their wish. After the exhumation, Brezhnev Malaba, assistant editor at The Zimbabwe Independent, tweeted this:“Gukurahundi mass graves are a crime scene. How do you commence exhumations, as the National Peace Commission did today in Tsholotsho, without contaminating the evidence? There’s no justice in allowing the killers, like their victims, to become nameless, faceless statistics.”

There were no police present, no mapped-out plans by the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, an initiative to address the legacy of Gukurahundi, put together by the Robert Mugabe-led government before his ousting and adopted now by the current regime. Had a local nongovernmental organisation that offers forensic expertise not been present, the exhumation would have gone on with no forensic record whatsoever.

Like my family did with my grandfather, they would have just taken a bag of unidentified bones, done a few rituals, reburied them and continued with their lives.

Gukurahundi graves are crime scenes and must be treated as such. Any exhumations must be treated as a gathering of evidence. This is the only way there can be real justice for both victims and perpetrators. At the very least, forensic experts must be present to do the actual exhumation and identification, following strict protocols. The commission must be present with a clear plan of how all exhumations must be conducted.

One is left wondering how safe the remains of those victims are once they have been exhumed.There is a need to safeguard them and transport them securely to laboratories where experts can work on them.

The security of those experts must also be guaranteed by the state. Judging by the repressive nature of the government, there is a danger that anyone seen to be gathering evidence will be viewed as an enemy of the state.

Rural Zimbabwe,where most of these massacres took place, is quite traditional and the exhumations should take that into account. Appropriate traditional and religious officials can be called in to carry out the necessary rites and rituals. Among other people, there should be the involvement of police and judicial and other legal experts. Families must be involved,too,and, at times, even perpetrators who can direct us to where victims are buried.

After all evidence is gathered, we must know who the bones belong to, how the person died, when and who killed them?

Many Zimbabweans are tired of Gukurahundi. Victims are tired of the bitterness. People from Mashonaland are tired of hearing about it and being falsely implicated. The tribalism that emanated from the genocide is escalating. We are ready to move on and to forgive —but not to forget.

Peace cannot come without justice. At the very least, Zimbabweans deserve to know exactly what happened in those dark days in the 1980s and the evidence that proves what happened must be protected. Unless exhumations are conducted with dignity and accountability, those Gukurahundi graves will continue to haunt us.

‘There’s no justice in allowing the killers, like their victims, to become nameless, faceless statistics’

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Thandekile Moyo
Thandekile Moyo
Writer/Editor/Translator, The Zimbabwe Heritage Trust.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

Basic web lessons for South Africa: Government hacks point to...

Recent cyberattacks at the department of justice and the space agency highlight the extent of our naïveté

‘The children cannot cope any more’: Suicide in Calvinia highlights...

How Covid-19 has intensified the physical and emotional burdens placed on children’s shoulders.

More top stories

Sisters pave the way with ecobricks

The durable bricks are made from 30% recycled plastic, some of which they collect from a network of 50 waste pickers

If the inflation-driving supply strain in the US lasts, it...

In South Africa, a strong trade surplus, buoyed by robust commodity prices, will cushion our economy against pressure arising from US policy

Farmers squeezed by big retailers

It may be beneficial for consumers when supermarkets push to get the lowest price from suppliers, but it can harm the farmers

Covid-19: No vaccine booster shots needed yet

Scientists agree it is important to get most of the population vaccinated before giving booster jabs

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…