Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The Language of Violence
Mugabe uses the rhetoric of revolution to excuse repression,” a prominent liberation war veteran, Wilfred Mhanda, observed recently of the harsh and offensive language that Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's head of state, frequently uses.
Zimbabwe's late vice president Joshua Nkomo recalled in his autobiography, The Story of My Life, that he had a humiliating encounter with Mugabe in 1981, when Mugabe was prime minister. As a cabinet minister, Nkomo asked the premier whether reports about the secret training of a private army were true, although they had not been discussed in cabinet. Mugabe retorted with an arrogance and vehemence that has become characteristic, “Who are you? Why should you be consulted?”
Nevertheless, Nkomo soon got his answer in the most horrific of ways. What was to become the Fifth Brigade, a crack army unit answerable directly to Mugabe, was being trained clandestinely in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands by more than a hundred military instructors sent from North Korea by the dictator Kim Il Sung in preparation for a ruthless crackdown on the Ndebele people of Nkomo's home provinces in Matabeleland.
The assault by the 3500-strong 5th Brigade on the Ndebeles, in the west and south of the country, began in January 1983. By the time some 20,000 Ndebele villagers had been massacred and countless others tortured and terribly beaten, Mugabe said the operation - launched by Colonel Perence Shiri, one of Mugabe's former guerrilla chiefs - had been necessary to weed out Ndebele dissidents who wanted to topple him.
But many analysts believe the assault was directed at the Ndebele as a whole, not just the radicals in their midst. "Throughout Matabeleland as a whole [dissident] numbers never exceeded more than 400 at the peak of [their] activity," said Zimbabwe historian Martin Meredith of the Ndebele "revolt" in his book "Robert Mugabe: Power, Plunder and Tyranny in Zimbabwe".
Meredith went on, "They [the dissidents] had no coherent policy other than to commit random sabotage. Some were ordinary criminals. They had little popular support and their reputation for murder, rape and coercion made them even less popular."
As the mass murders by Shiri and the 5th Brigade in Operation Gukurahundi (a Shona word meaning, “The early strong rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains.”] continued, Mugabe dismissed protests from Nkomo with the warning, “If you try something I will crush you.” In a speech on his own Shona ethnic territory, Mugabe described Nkomo as "a cobra" whose head must be crushed along with its body -- Nkomo's PF-ZAPU party and its supporters were based in Matabeleland.
When Nkomo protested that the 5th Brigade was killing and beating up the civilian population, Mugabe told him that in dealing with an insurgency "it is difficult for the army to distinguish who is a dissident and who is not. People should not hide dissidents".
The real motive behind the Fifth Brigade's storm of terror was to cow the Ndebele, destroy PF-ZAPU and establish a one-party state with Mugabe at its head, which he achieved in 1987.
When Catholic peace and justice activists accused Mugabe and Shiri of conducting a reign of terror in Matabeleland that included "wanton killings, woundings, beatings, burnings and rapes [that had] brought about the maiming and death of hundreds of people who are neither dissidents nor collaborators", Mugabe responded by warning a gathering in rural Matabeleland, "We have to deal with this problem quite ruthlessly. Don't cry if your relatives get killed in the process ... Where men and women provide food for the dissidents, when we get there we eradicate them."
Over the years, Mugabe's language has become ever more coarse and callous. In 1998, the then editor of the weekly Standard newspaper, the late Mark Chavunduka, and his chief reporter Ray Choto reported an alleged coup attempt within the armed forces. They were arrested by police who handed them to the army, whose interrogators tortured the men so severely that they had subsequently to be flown to Britain for several months of treatment in a London clinic under the protection of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.
Asked for his reaction to the torture of the journalists, his fellow citizens, Mugabe told Voice of America radio, "The army had been provoked. I will not condemn my army for having done that. They can do worse things than that."
When he launched the brutal confiscation of white commercial farmland in 2000, which plunged the country into anarchy and a spiral of economic decline, he warned farmers who resisted, “We have degrees in violence ...I will be a Black Hitler ten-fold!”
There followed a period when the laws of the land were virtually suspended as Mugabe launched his so-called "fast-track" land reform programme, ostensibly to resettle poor blacks but in reality to destroy what he perceived as the power base of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC - the white commercial farmers and their mainly black workers.
After narrowly winning the parliamentary election of July 2000, which was marked by unprecedented countrywide violence, Mugabe told his ruling ZANU PF congress in the following December, “We must continue to strike fear into the heart of the white man. The white man must tremble.” White farmers were assaulted, tortured or killed on their farms after Mugabe intensified his verbal attack, describing them as "enemies of Zimbabwe who will die" if they resisted the invasions of their homes and properties.
But MDC supporters and farm workers bore the brunt of Mugabe’s fury that an opposition party had dared try to remove him from power. It is estimated that at least 200 people were killed and thousands of others injured in the lead up to the subsequent presidential election in 2002, widely criticised as fraudulent but which maintained Mugabe in power.
When the MDC recently announced plans to launch mass protests at the start of what its leader Morgan Tsvangirai said would be “a cold season of democratic resistance”, Mugabe responded in Shona, “Be warned. We have trained armed men and women who can pull the trigger.” He said the army would deal ruthlessly with “those planning illegal regime change on behalf of Tony Blair and George Bush". Mugabe's spokesman Nathan Shamuyarira also boasted that his boss and ZANU PF have “a long and successful history of violence”.
When the country's top trade union leaders attempted to demonstrate in September this year for improved basic wages and the provision of anti-retroviral drugs for Zimbabweans dying from AIDS at a rate of more than 3,000 a week, Mugabe ordered a police assault. The trade unionists were hospitalised with broken limbs. Mugabe said he had no apologies to make to the "pot-bellied" labour chiefs, and went on, "They [protesters] will be beaten up, so there is no apology for that ... We cannot have a revolt to the system. Some are crying, 'We were beaten up.' Yes, you were beaten up. When the police say move, move. If you don't move, you are inviting police to use force."
MDC Secretary-General Tendai Biti said that under Mugabe Zimbabwe had become "a predator state characterised by tolerance for violence". Mugabe's predeliction for violence was demonstrated yet again in May 2005 when he launched Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out the Filth) in a nationwide blitz against urban slum dwellers and informal traders perceived to be mainly supporters of the opposition. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s special envoy on human habitat, Anna Tibaijuka, said the campaign “was executed with military ruthlessness with no regard for human suffering”. She estimated that 700,000 to a million people had been left homeless and without a source of livelihood.
As his militias and police bulldozed, sledgehammered and torched the homes of the poor, Mugabe commented, "Our cities and towns had become havens for illicit and criminal practices and activities which just could not be allowed to go on."
In January last year, when three to four million people were desperately hungry as a result of crop failures and the farm invasions, Mugabe refused international food aid for the starving, saying foreigners were "foisting" food upon unwilling Zimbabweans, before adding, "We are not hungry. We don't want to choke on your food."
Targets of Mugabe's hatred are numerous. But while attacking foreigners, white farmers, Ndebeles, political opponents and others, he retains some of his most vindictive rhetoric for homosexuals. He has branded gays "un-Christian" and "un-African" and as "lower than pigs and dogs". He attacks his most hated foreign enemy, Tony Blair, by calling him a "gay gangster" and blasting him for having homosexuals in his cabinet while boasting in Shona that his own cabinet is full of amadoda sibili (real men) who can distinguish between "Adam and Eve and Adam and Steve". He once said, “Homosexuals have no rights whatsoever. If pigs and dogs don’t do it, why must human beings?”
While Mugabe throws out insults like confetti, he dislikes them so much when aimed at him that his government introduced the Public Order and Security Act, POSA, which makes it an offence to say anything that risks "undermining the authority of or insulting the President". This prohibition includes statements likely to engender "feelings of hostility towards" the president, cause "hatred, contempt, or ridicule" of him, or any "abusive, indecent, obscene, or false statements about him personally, or his office”.
One businessman was convicted of "insulting” the president after saying Mugabe had "printed useless money" - something nearly every Zimbabwean agrees with since inflation topped 1,200 per cent. A bus passenger was jailed after a Central Intelligence Organisation agent listened to him arguing with his brother and telling him not to be "thick-headed like Mugabe".
Under the law, South Africa's much loved Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu would go straight to prison in Zimbabwe. Tutu in several speeches has said Mugabe will only be remembered for being power crazy, adding, "Mugabe seems to have gone bonkers in a big way ... [He is] on the slippery slope to perdition."
But perhaps Tutu, unlike ordinary Zimbabweans, would escape prosecution, just like the man who has been dubbed the "Tutu of Zimbabwe", the country's senior Roman Catholic cleric, the Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube.
Ncube is the most outspoken and fearless Zimbabwean critic of Mugabe, but the head of state, himself a Catholic, has as yet refrained from prosecuting the archbishop.
When it comes to insults, Archbishop Ncube has gone just about as far as it is possible to go. "We are all praying that the Lord will take Mugabe away soon," he once told IWPR. "Everyone is fed up with him, including his own [party] people. We're all hoping against hope that something will happen."
He has said many similar things, once describing the president as a "deceitful, cunning and sly criminal ... a lip-service Christian, a mere murderer watching his people sink".
The archbishop enrages Mugabe so much that he has accused the prelate of "Satanic betrayal" for opposing English cricket tours of Zimbabwe and has denounced him as an HIV-positive homosexual who rapes and impregnates nuns.
In one of his responses, Archbishop Ncube said, "I don't think Christ would have survived in Zimbabwe. Mugabe's government doesn't like people who speak the truth. Plenty of people [who criticise the government] have died mysteriously. Christ wouldn't have had a chance."
Temba Gumpo is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight