Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Battle for Matabeleland

Mugabe and Tsvangirai take their election campaigns to an area where tens of thousands of people were killed by the president’s troops.
By Tafi Murinzi

President Robert Mugabe and his key opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, both take their election battles this weekend into a province where a crack army unit directly answerable to Mugabe slaughtered an estimated 30,000 men, women and children 20 years ago.


Mugabe and his ruling ZANU PF party have only ever been able to control Matabeleland, heartland of the minority Ndebele tribe, by force. It was once the stronghold of the old Zimbabwe African People’s Union, ZAPU, led by the late Joshua Nkomo.


Two decades ago, growing lawlessness in Matabeleland by a group of around 400 disillusioned ZAPU dissidents - who killed six Australian, American and British tourists - gave Mugabe the opportunity to crush Nkomo, ZAPU and the Ndebeles.


Capitalising on his friendship with the then North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung, Mugabe used around a hundred North Korean military instructors to train a special unit, the Fifth Brigade, made up entirely of the majority Shona ethnic group, to crack down on Matabeleland in a campaign that became known as the “Gukurahundi”, meaning literally “the wind that blows away the chaff before the spring rains”.


From the moment it was deployed in Matabeleland in 1983 under General Perence Shiri, the Fifth Brigade waged a campaign of mass murder, beatings and arson deliberately targeted at the civilian population.


“Villagers were forced to sing songs in the Shona language praising ZANU PF while dancing on the mass graves of their families and fellow villagers who had been killed and buried minutes earlier,” wrote Martin Meredith in “Robert Mugabe”, a biography of the Zimbabwean president. “The scale of violence was far worse than anything that had occurred during the Rhodesian war.”


To this day the Mugabe government has not acknowledged the tens of thousands of murders the Fifth Brigade committed in Matabeleland, nor have those responsible been called to justice. General Shiri, who was known as “Black Jesus”, was promoted to head of the air force and remains one of Mugabe’s closest supporters.


The impact of the Gukurahundi on Matabeleland has proved ineradicable. It has left a huge, raw, unhealed wound among the people of the region who remember the many massacres.


Mugabe subsequently established a one party state, but since the return of Zimbabwe to a multi-party system, it is the MDC that has commanded the loyalty of the people of Matabeleland.


Mugabe’s trip to Matabeleland is a clear attempt to woo reluctant voters. “He would like to win something in Matabeleland in order to legitimise his rule,” said Gordon Moyo, who heads a civic education lobby group called Bulawayo Agenda. “He feels he has been ostracised in Matabeleland and wants his government to be seen as a truly national government.”


Matabeleland returns 21 of the 120 directly elected members of the national parliament. But eyes will be most firmly fixed on the constituency of Tsholotsho, an unremarkable, very dry district around a small town some 120 kilometres northwest of Bulawayo.


It was in Tsholotsho that Mugabe’s aggressive and hyperactive information minister Jonathan Moyo, architect of the country’s repressive media laws, set off a Zimbabwean political earthquake three months ago.


Tsholotsho is Moyo’s home village and at a secret meeting there he plotted with a dozen other senior ZANU PF officials to oust Mugabe’s choice as his new vice president, Joyce Mujuru - a fellow member of the president’s Zezuru sub-clan of the Shona, who in her days as a resistance fighter bore the nom de guerre “Mrs Spillblood”.


But Mugabe discovered the Tsholotsho plot and Moyo was sacked from the government, ending his hopes of being elected as the constituency’s ZANU PF member. The truculent Moyo reacted by deciding to stand as an independent against the sitting MDC member, a woman who was Mugabe’s chosen ZANU PF candidate.


Moyo, who had exercised widespread patronage, courtesy of the huge government funds at his disposal when he was Mugabe’s favourite cabinet minister, believes he can win the seat.


“He is seen as someone who has brought development to the community,” said a local schoolteacher. Moyo has been given credit for constructing a local grain depot, tarring dirt roads and providing electricity to a local business centre and several schools. He has handed out blankets to local hospitals in winter and given computers to schools, in an area from which more people have fled to South Africa to escape economic misery than any other part of Zimbabwe.


Tsvangirai, who will be desperately trying to defend the lacklustre sitting MDC member of parliament, Mtoliki Sibanda, must have Moyo firmly in his sights.


Meanwhile, Mugabe has a number of reasons for wanting to succeed in this area. As well as gaining a foothold in Matabeleland, the president wants to destroy the ultra-powerful minister who masterminded the mass invasions of white farms as well as crafting the draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy.


The president is willing to take the risk of venturing into Tsholotsho and the neighbouring constituency of Lupane, where some of the worst Gukurahundi massacres occurred, because Moyo is trying to establish a new network of independents and disillusioned ZANU PF supporters to challenge the power of his former mentor.


If Moyo loses in Tsholotsho he will be cast into the political wilderness and Mugabe, who has now been in power for 25 years, will have crushed yet another potentially dangerous political challenger.


Tafi Murinzi is the pseudonym for an IWPR journalist in Bulawayo.