History Monday: Gukurahundi -The Dissidents Part 1

Hi, this is from Nehanda Radio


The numbers of dissidents were probably no more than 400 at their height. Their attrition rate was very high, with approximately 75% being killed, captured, injured or fleeing to Botswana

At their peak, dissident numbers in Matabeleland South were around 200, but by the Amnesty this had been reduced to 54. In Matabeleland North, dissidents numbered around 90 at most, but again, by the Amnesty, only 41 remained. In western Matabeleland, dissidents numbered 90 at their peak, and around 27 at the Amnesty. Ultimately, only 122 dissidents would turn themselves in, countrywide. It is possible that a handful of people who were more correctly criminals than dissidents, and who had committed similar crimes, did not surrender at this time.


Dissidents frequently point out that, in direct contrast to the war for liberation, they had very little popular support in the 1980s. This they attribute to the comparative strength of the forces against them, and the dissidents’ inability to protect civilians who fed them from being persecuted in turn: “quite the opposite: their activities drew Government crackdowns in which civilians suffered greatly.” In addition, while civilians had been prepared to suffer to protect the armed comrades when liberation was the clear goal, there was no perceivable long or short term benefit for civilians in helping dissidents in the 1980s. In 1981, dissidents were sometimes greeted with sympathy, when they told how they had been persecuted in the army.

However, sympathy deteriorated rapidly, partly because of ZAPU policy regarding dissidents, partly because of the disrespect and violence with which dissidents treated local people, and partly because some blamed the dissidents for the heavy costs to civilians of the government repression which followed. While the dissidents themselves did not fear 5 Brigade much, considering it to be an inefficient fighting unit dedicated to killing civilians, the local population feared the Brigade greatly. Locals therefore gave help only with reluctance, or at the point of a gun.

The dissidents were particularly resented for their insistence that villagers kill chickens, a luxury food, to provide them with relish: they also raped young women. When help was given, the dissidents did not perceive this help as politically motivated: “They gave us support knowing our lives were at stake”. Interviews in the case study areas make it clear that civilians saw themselves as once more “caught in the middle”, as they had been in the 1970s liberation war.

On the one hand, if they supported dissidents, they were likely to be punished, detained or killed by 5 Brigade or other army units, but if they refused this support, or if they reported dissidents, they were likely to be punished or killed by the dissidents. This phenomenon is marked in the resettled villages of Nyamandlovu. (See “Village by Village Summary”, under Eastern Nyamandlovu, page ). Here dissidents burnt out 2 resettled villages. 5 Brigade saw the smoke, and drove over.

The dissidents escaped, but villagers were left to face interrogation by 5 Brigade, resulting in the only death in this incident. There are on record from Tsholotsho, interviews which report people being beaten or killed by 5 Brigade for going to 5 Brigade camps to report the presence of dissidents in their area. In Matobo too, especially in Khumalo Communal Lands, civilians reported how they often found themselves trapped between dissidents who demanded food and returned on subsequent occasions making ever more violent threats about what would happen to any villagers who reported their presence.

Several families fled the area for Bulawayo or Botswana, rather than face the continual dilemma of what to do about the dissidents.


1. Nehanda Radio (2012) ‘Gukurahundi Massacres: Dissident Numbers (Part 7)’

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