History Monday: Gukurahundi Part 3

Hi, this is a Nehanda Radio article seeking to explain the Gukurahundi genocide.

There were major outbreaks of violence between ZIPRA and ZANLA guerrillas awaiting integration into the National Army near Bulawayo. The first of these was in November 1980, followed by a more serious uprising in early 1981.

This violence led to the defection of many hundreds of ex ZIPRA members back to the bush, and the general atmosphere of instability and suspicion led to the concealing of arms on both sides. (Arms had also been concealed by both ZANLA and ZIPRA forces before they entered Assembly Points (APs) prior to Independence. They had done this as a safe-guard in case Independence failed, or one of the main external parties did not win the 1980 election.)

The antagonisms between the two guerrilla armies hardened into hostilities between their political parties, as ZANU-PF became convinced that ZAPU was supporting a new dissident war in order to improve its standing in the country. ZAPU, in turn, has expressed its belief that ZANU-PF used the pretext of the disturbances as a long-awaited opportunity to crush ZAPU once and for all. There is no denying the political nature of events as they unfolded in the 1980s, as the Shona speaking, ZANU-PF supporting Fifth Brigade ruthlessly persecuted the Ndebele speaking, ZAPU supporting residents of Matabeleland.

Indeed, one of the tragedies of the 1980s was that events served to harden regional differences along tribal and linguistic lines. While the Unity Agreement has, on the face of it, healed the rift, some would contend that Ndebele speakers have neither forgotten nor forgiven 5 Brigade. Richard Werbner in his book, Tears of the Dead, refers to 5 Brigade as being a symptom of the “catastrophe of quasi-nationalism” in Zimbabwe. Werbner states that the polarization that occurred in Zimbabwe in the 1980s cannot be solely explained as the consequence of mythical hostile tribes invented by colonial settlers in their policy of divide and rule, although the existence of such a “history” could be seen as a necessary but not sufficient basis for what followed.

Rather, quasi-nationalism should be seen as the product of the new Zimbabwean nation-state’s struggle to assume power and moral authority. Werbner also argues against events being interpreted as simplistically “ethnic” in nature. While mainly Ndebele speaking, people in Matabeleland and targeted parts of the Midlands in 1980 were representative of many “tribal” and linguistic backgrounds: what they had in common was that there was widespread support in these regions, both historically and in the 1980 elections, for ZAPU.

The catastrophe of quasi-nationalism is that it can capture the might of the nation state and bring authorized violence down ruthlessly against the people who seem to stand in the way of the nation being united and pure as one body…. it is as if quasi-nationalism’s victims, by being of an opposed quasi-nation, put themselves outside the nation, indeed beyond the pale of humanity.

In Zimbabwe in the 1980s, a certain sector in the nation had been identified as “other”: the purging of this “other” became necessary for the purification of the rest of the nation. It is surely no coincidence that 5 Brigade was also called “Gukurahundi”, which means “the rain that washes away the chaff from the last harvest, before the spring rains.”


In the 1980s, the ZANU-PF Government came to draw on an array of legislation from before Independence. It also installed personnel from the former Rhodesian intelligence services in key positions, and some of these personnel used their continued influence to further South African interests by destablising Zimbabwe.

One of their most significant achievements was to enhance distrust between ZANU-PF and ZAPU and their respective military wings. Inter-party tension pre-dated Independence, but notions of traditional hostility between the “Shona” and the “Ndebele” played into and were consolidated in the conflict of the 1980s.


1. Nehanda Radio (2012) ‘Gukurahundi Massacres: Zanla-Zipra antagonism (Part 2)’

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