Gukurahundi @39: How the genocide was indemnified, justified and hidden


On this 39th anniversary of the deployment of Fifth Brigade, let us take a few moments to remind ourselves of some crucial facts. On or around 20 January 1983, the Fifth Brigade-led genocide was launched in Matabeleland and the Midlands with Tsholotsho, Lupane and Nkayi in Matabeleland North and Zhombe, Silobela and Lower Gweru in the Midlands being the hardest hit. Within weeks thousands of people had been killed, mostly through mass executions, thousands forcibly disappeared, raped, and an entire population in those areas tortured. With a change in the modus operandi here and there, the genocide spread into Matabeleland South hitting hard Matobo, Bulilima-Mangwe, Gwanda, Umzingwane and Beitbridge. Over the few years that followed, the Fifth Brigade and its supporting hordes of co-perpetrators led by the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), Zimbabwe Intelligence Corps (ZIC), Zipolis, Zimbabwe Republic Police Support Unit, Police Internal Security Intelligence (PISI) and other units of the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA), committed untold atrocities. By 1987 when the physical genocide led by the military ended, tens of thousands of children had been orphaned, thousands of men and women widowed, hundreds of thousands subjected to torture and starvation, thousands displaced and driven into exile, and property pillaged.

Justification of the Gukurahundi genocide

The atrocities were not an accident or acts of overzealous troops. Instead, knowing the nature and scale of the crimes that were going to be committed, the ZANU-PF government put together a well-orchestrated plan not only to enable the commission of the atrocities, but also to provide a pretext, hide and rationalise the atrocities, and ultimately shield perpetrators from accountability. To achieve this the government mobilised in particular the law, pseudo dissidents and the media. Let us consider these in turn.

Firstly, to make sure that the genocide was committed without the fear of prosecution, in July 1982 perpetrators were indemnified through the Emergency Powers (Security Forces Indemnity) Regulations. Under these regulations the security forces involved in the operations in Matabeleland and Midlands could kill, rape, torture or do anything without facing any criminal or civil liability and people could be detained without trial indefinitely. So, what perpetrators were going to be doing over the coming years was legalised in advance. To ensure absolute immunity, perpetrators were, in addition to the indemnities they were granted ahead of the atrocities, also amnestied for their crimes in 1988. The amnesty provisions were deliberately made wider than the 1982 indemnity in order to free from civil and criminal responsibility even those that might not have been covered in the indemnity regulations. This included politicians who were not necessarily members of the security forces.

Secondly, the atrocities needed a justification. A few hundred dissidents and criminal bandits who went about robbing stores, something that only required law enforcement and political resources to deal with, were painted as a grave security threat to Zimbabwe. To provide cover for the genocide, government went even as far as creating its own pseudo-dissidents who massacred people, robbed businesses and buses, raped women and girls, and perpetrated other forms of brutalities. Thus, the deployment of security forces was rationalised as necessary to both the local and international audience. Contrary to the government’s narrative that the deployments of Fifth Brigade and its co-perpetrators was necessitated by the “dissidents menace”, in reality the targets were civilians, including men, women and children. Zimbabwe had enough military and police capabilities to deal with any security threats and criminal activities. Besides, the evidence amply shows that the Fifth Brigade did not have any meaningful impact on the dissidents or bandits. It did not have to, because dissidents and bandits were not its focus, but innocent civilians.

Thirdly, the government mobilised the biggest propaganda and cover-up exercise in the history of the country targeting Zimbabweans in other provinces and the international community. Zimbabweans and the entire world were misled into believing that the country was facing a huge rebellion in Matabeleland. ZAPU and ex-ZIPRA combatants were framed as security threats without any evidence. To cover up atrocities, only the state media was allowed into the killing fields. Private local and international were barred. As a result, there was a complete media blackout. Under the cover of this information darkness, unspeakable atrocities were committed. The only true information that came out was from part of the church, fleeing survivors and some very brave local and international reporters who risked their lives to save lives through the media. For its part the state-media hyped on dissidents and whenever it referred to killings by security forces they were downplayed as crossfire incidents.

Gukurahundi impact on the economy of Matabeleland

Besides the mass killings and other crimes that took place, the Gukurahundi genocide had immense consequences on the lives of people in Matabeleland and Midlands. The two regions were cut off from meaningful development activities for close to 10 years, justified on insecurity. Also, the selection of targets for killing had the goal of economically destroying whatever would be left.  Teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers, and other professionals were specifically targeted. In so doing, besides indiscriminately targeting civilians in general, the genocide also eliminated the leadership of society, took away breadwinners of families and crippled the economic potential of the region. The thousands of teachers, nurses, engineers, and other professionals who were killed have not been replaced. Having eliminated professionals, in addition to preventing others from being trained, the government from that time until today has been replacing them with workers from other regions of the country.

For these reasons, the state of schools, education, roads, hospitals, and the economy in general in Matabeleland in particular today is a direct and indirect result of the Gukurahundi genocide. As such, while the mass killing through the security forces ended in the late 1980s, the effects of the genocide across the board have lingered on with devastating impact on Matabeleland and Midlands. Every field of life has been touched and no person has not been affected.

Driving the narratives

Since the commission of the Gukurahundi genocide the state has been trying to manufacture, control and direct the narrative. Initially the Gukurahundi genocide operations were explained away as standard law enforcement activities. Allegations of atrocities were vehemently denied and often belittled as isolated incidences of cross fire. When this could not be sustained, the narrative evolved to blaming dissidents and ZAPU for the atrocities. In the late 1990s, faced with overwhelming evidence of atrocities perpetrated by the state, the narrative evolved into “moment of madness” and then, after 2017, “let bygones be bygones. Lately the government has been trying to come up with a Gukurahundi-resolution process that it can control. Such a process would have a predetermined outcome that does not include acknowledgement, truth and justice. As a consequence of trying to control the narrative and shield perpetrators from the consequences of their criminal actions, the government is looking for a malleable body that can do its bidding to lead the programme. For this purpose, the government has been hopping from one forum to another, shopping for one that will meet its goals. The state is looking for a mechanism that would deliver favourable results to the perpetrators and not to the victims and one which will allow it to influence or even lead the process and decide the outcome from behind the scenes. Inevitably, if the government succeeds in its plan, the institutional mechanism chosen would lack all the attributes of an independent and impartial body that meets international standards and norms.

Over years the modus operandi might have changed but its goals remain the same. The state still wants to control the narrative of what Gukurahundi was all about, sweep the atrocities under the carpet, and let bygones be bygones, deny truth and justice to victims, and protect perpetrators from being held responsible. Instead of a victim-centred process and outcome, the state wants a perpetrator-led process and a perpetrator-centred outcome. The state wants a process where victims and survivors would be by-standers watching from the terraces while the government determines everything on its own. Such a process does not meet international standards and norms of the resolution of mass atrocity crimes like Gukurahundi.


For the foregoing reasons, the state’s attempt to control the narrative on Gukurahundi or sweep the atrocities under the carpet must be rejected. At the minimum, the key pillars of the resolution of the Gukurahundi genocide are full acknowledgement of responsibility, truth telling before an independent and impartial body, an independently-determined comprehensive and complete package of reparations, accountability, and institutional and legal reforms to guarantee against repetition. This must be accompanied by the full recognition of the rights of society and affected individuals to the truth and to know about the circumstances of the commission of the atrocities, who played what roles, and a full disclosure of the fate of those who were subjected to enforced disappearances. This, not perpetrator-led processes, would meet and serve the best interests of victims and survivors.

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