History Monday: Gukurahundi – The Onslaught Part 2

Hi, this is from Nehanda Radio and a 1997 report commissioned by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP). This is a continuation from last History Monday


The Food Embargo was a major factor in events in Matabeleland South in 1984. Throughout the early months of 1984, residents of Matabeleland South were suffering from starvation caused in the first place, by three consecutive years of drought and in the second place, by government restrictions preventing all movement of food into and around the region. Drought relief was stopped and stores were closed. Almost no people were allowed into and out of the region to buy food, and private food supplies were destroyed.

The psychological impact of the food embargo was profound. While the village by village summary which follows does not make continuous reference to the food embargo, many of those interviewed mentioned its effects. All events which occurred, did so against the background of a seriously weakened and demoralized populace, who were having to watch their children cry and beg for food which their parents were unable to provide on a daily basis.

State officials, largely in the form of the 5 Brigade, also actively punished those villagers who shared food with starving neighbors. The speeches of 5 Brigade commanders at rallies repeatedly stated the desire of the government to starve all the Ndebele to death, as punishment for their being dissidents.


In the cruelest speeches, people in the region were told they would be starved until they ate each other, including their own wives and children. Those interviewed recount how they struggled to stay alive during the embargo, by eating the roots and fruits of wild plants. However, in some areas the 5 Brigade tried to prevent even this, and punished people for eating wild marula fruit. Even water was severely rationed. People also talk of risking their lives and breaking the curfew to share food with neighbors after dark, and their disbelief at seeing bags of maize ripped open and destroyed wherever 5 Brigade found them – on buses or in homes.

CCJP archives reveal grave concern at the food situation, which missions in Matabeleland South monitored on a continuous basis. Their requests to be allowed to administer food in rationed amounts to their parishioners and employees were denied by the authorities, although St Joseph’s Mission was allowed to feed 300 under-fives on a daily basis. Other feeding schemes which had been operating collapsed as mealie meal stocks ran out.

CCJP also kept track of which stores were open, and on which days. From March onward, the total ban on stores was slightly modified. 3 stores in Matobo were opened for only 2 days a week, at Bidi, Kezi, and Maphisa (Antelope). This meant that people near St Joseph’s Mission were 60 km away from the nearest store, too far to walk in a day under curfew conditions. Others were even further away.

People were banned from the use of any form of transport under the curfew. This not only affected access to operating stores, but also access to clinics. All the hospitals and clinics in Matabeleland South reported falling attendances, and a concern at the fact that sick people were unable to walk the often extensive distances to reach help, and could die as a result. In addition, those being beaten by 5 Brigade were expressly forbidden to seek medical help, even if they were within the vicinity of a clinic.

There is mention that even operating stores were not allowed to sell mealie meal. On some occasions the stores were opened purely for propaganda purposes. There is a reference in mission correspondence to Col Simpson of the Paratroopers opening a store for 3 hours to coincide with a tour by the local press on 10 March 1984. On 21 March, 84 people gathered at Bidi Store and waited all day only to be told that no mealie meal was to be sold. This was the pattern at other stores too, where people gathered, having walked 30 km or more, and would wait for hours only to be told they could not buy anything.

Stores were not allowed to restock any products during the curfews, and those which occasionally opened soon had no food of any kind to sell. The army took control of the regional National Foods depot to ensure mealie meal was not distributed to stores. Anyone wishing to buy food in Bulawayo to send to relatives in curfew zones, needed a permit from the police or army, and these were rarely granted.There are also in interviews many accounts of people being brutally tortured when found waiting at shopping centers, the accusation being that they were trying to break the food curfew.

School-teachers were among the few who were allowed food, as the government expressly intended the schools to remain open, but the teachers were severely restricted in terms of how much they could request, to prevent them from feeding others in the region. Mechanisms of how teachers received food depended on the orders of local army commanders: some were allowed transport into Bulawayo to buy for themselves, others were only allowed to place a food order with the army who then purchased on their behalf.

This placed teachers in an awkward position with others starving in their areas: while teachers may have had some food, their pupils had none. CCJP records indicate a request for supplementary feeding through the schools being denied, and reports falling school attendance as pupils become faint with hunger, and as others flee the area hoping to find a place in schools in Bulawayo.

At some mission schools, pupils would be given a drink of `mawehu’ (Mahewu), made from a local grain by mission staff during lessons, but staff comment that this was not enough to sustain their growing bodies. Pupils also had to face being picked up and beaten up by the army – mission staff were very aware this was happening, but were powerless to protect the schoolchildren.

In addition to preventing food from coming into the area, 5 Brigade also broke down fences around fields to allow cattle to graze whatever few hardy crops might have survived the drought, thus ensuring that starvation was absolute. Catholic Mission staff in affected areas expressed increasing alarm and by the end of March 1984 they began to fear for the lives of the sick, the elderly and the very young. As people became more desperate, there were even those who wished to be detained, in the hope that in custody they might at least receive food.

In fact, those in custody were kept in appalling conditions and received little food. Hunger and the problem of getting food to those nearing starvation became a dominant theme in CCJP correspondence during the curfew months. The food embargo alone was thus a significant and effective strategy which proved to 400000 ordinary people in Matabeleland South the power of the State to cause extreme hardship.


1. Nehanda Radio (2012) ‘Gukurahundi Massacres: First 5 Brigade Onslaught (Part 11)’

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