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

Matabeland Anger Mounts

Local groups calling for regime change, and willing to back any party with a strategy for removing Mugabe from power.
By David Ncube
A deep, simmering bitterness towards the ruling ZANU PF party is growing in Matabeleland, uniting the local Ndebele people in a militant determination to bring down President Robert Mugabe and his government.



Political analysts in Bulawayo, Matabeleland's biggest city, are warning that the region is a time bomb, which could detonate if Mugabe and his Shona-dominated government remain in power after the next presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2008 and 2010.



Analyst Jethro Mpofu told IWPR, "My fear is that, come 2008 or 2010, if there is no satisfactory change that will give hope to the people of Matabeleland, I am afraid that there will be a violent explosion."



There is a growing sense of alienation in the region, in the west and south-west of the country, particularly among young people, some of who attend football matches wearing shirts bearing a picture of a raging bull, the old symbol of the former Zimbabwe African People's Union, ZAPU, the liberation movement founded by the late Dr Joshua Nkomo, a widely revered Ndebele.



Mpofu said it is the young people, more militant and vocal than their elders, who seem certain to resist another election won by Mugabe - who has been in power for more than 26 years - and his party.



Tired of their region being neglected and lagging behind in development, several organisations representing the interests of the minority Ndebele people, who have never felt they fully belong to independent Zimbabwe, have mushroomed. The Ndebele, offshoots of the Zulu people of South Africa, constitute about 16 per cent of the 11.5 million population of Zimbabwe: the Shona, concentrated in the north and east, account for about 70 per cent of the population.



Some of the organisations are calling for regime change and will back any party that has a strategy to remove Mugabe from power. Others want Matabeleland to be an independent state. Apart from what they see as the Mugabe's government's deliberate negligence of the region, they accuse the head of state of having attempted to exterminate its people during widespread massacres in the 1980s by his personal military hit squad, the notorious North Korean-trained 5th Brigade.



The 3500-strong 5th Brigade, made up entirely of men from Mugabe's own Shona ethnic group, massacred some 20,000 villagers and tortured and assaulted countless others in a ruthless crackdown on the Ndebeles beginning in January 1983. Mugabe said Operation Gukurahundi (a Shona word meaning, "The early strong rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains.") had been necessary to weed out Ndebele dissidents who wanted to topple him.



Political scientist Dr John Makumbe, a Shona and a representative in Zimbabwe of the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International, said, "They (the Ndebele) are now more militant and vocal than ever before because of the hardships they have been experiencing. The whole country is in trouble, but they feel that they are worse off. They want to kick out the government and Mugabe."



Makumbe, based in Harare, added, "People in Matabeleland are more united and can mobilise each other more effectively than in any other parts of the country. There is a strong sense of coordination and mobilisation in Bulawayo."



The people of Matabeleland have never forgiven Mugabe for unleashing the 5th Brigade on them from 1983 to 1985 during the Gukurahundi. They have long memories of public executions, of people being forced to dig their own graves before being shot, and of relatives being tipped down mine shafts by the truckload. They remember Mugabe boasting, "We have degrees in violence"; and dismissing an Amnesty International report on the massacres as "a heap of lies" from "Amnesty Lies International".



Early last month, ZANU PF's information and publicity secretary Nathan Shamuyarira, one of Mugabe's closest colleagues, exacerbated this already dangerous situation by saying he has no regrets about the 5th Brigade's atrocities. Having heard his utterances, the people of Matabeleland feel more betrayed than ever, realising that Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union, ZANU, colleagues remain unrepentant.



To stop the slaughter, Nkomo agreed that his ZAPU movement be absorbed in 1987 into the then prime minister Mugabe's ZANU. The result was ZANU PF (ZANU Patriotic Front), in which all real power remained with Mugabe's Shona-dominated faction.



A former sergeant in ZAPU's Zambia-based liberation guerrilla army, Max Mnkandla, now president of the Zimbabwe Liberators platform, founded by liberation war fighters who believe the ideals of independence have been betrayed, said, "Because of what Shamuyarira said, we are now openly going for regime change. We are going to support anyone that can unseat Mugabe."



Mnkandla, whose father was killed by 5th Brigade soldiers, added, "That Gukurahundi issue is painful for most of us as it was a merciless struggle by ZANU against defenceless people with no army. We now intend referring Shamuyarira to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to be charges with genocide and other war crimes."



Felix Mafa, director of the Bulawayo-based Post Independence Survival Trust, a non-government organisation that gives assistance to survivors of the Gukurahundi massacres, said, "Shamuyarira showed us that the old ZANU was not repentant and Mugabe was also not repentant. We now realise that the statement Mugabe made when he said at Joshua Nkomo's funeral that it [the 5th Brigade offensive] was 'a moment of madness never to be repeated' was nothing but a political statement.



"If he was sincere, he would have said something, in the form of an apology for Shamuyarira's statement; but to date nothing has been said. They are not repentant."



Shamuyarira was asked at a public meeting if he had any regrets about Gukurahundi. He replied, "No, I don’t regret. They (the 5th Brigade) were doing a job to protect the people ... That's a situation that we would like to put into history. It's not a fair question to put to me. Why should I be answering this 25 years later?"



David Coltart, a human rights lawyer who defended ZAPU's leadership, including Nkomo, against charges of treason by Mugabe's government during Gukurahundi, said, "The statements by Shamuyarira indicate that he is either exceptionally callous or that he simply does not know what happened in the Midlands and Matabeleland areas during that time, because a person with the slightest clue of what happened would not make such reckless statements."



Coltart recalled affidavits he had taken during Gukurahundi, "Women spoke of how their husbands, sons and relatives would be abducted or simply gunned down in cold blood. Others spoke of how their neighbours would be herded into huts, which would then be set in fire, while all village people who were in ZAPU leadership structures were killed."



But the most worrying development for Mugabe is a devastating attack made upon him by his vice president, 83-year Joseph Msika, concerning Gukurahundi. Enraged by Shamuyarira's comments, Msika said he approached Mugabe about his attitude towards the events in Matabeleland in 1983-87 and was not satisfied by the answer he received. "When we asked him (Mugabe) about the disturbances, he apologised to me personally, but I was not convinced," said Msika, a ZAPU veteran who was appointed national vice president following his party's merger into ZANU PF.



Msika went further and said his old friend and ZAPU colleague Nkomo was the true father of Zimbabwe's independence, not Mugabe. When Mugabe claimed to be the one who launched the liberation struggle, he was telling lies, said Msika



Msika's attack came late, more than two decades after the Matabeleland killings, drawing mixed reactions from the Ndebele people. Some applauded him for standing up and stating his views on the painful issue. Others said that, just like the late former justice minister Eddison Zvobgo, the ailing Msika was seeking forgiveness for his long silence from the people of Matabeleland before he dies.



Zvobgo, a Shona widely seen as a presidential candidate, earned acclaim and respect shortly before his death in 2004 when he publicly apologised to the victims of Gukurahundi and their families, confessing that the memories were giving him sleepless nights. As he was a senior member of the ruling party, it was widely assumed

that he was apologising on behalf of all ZANU PF.



"I don't think Msika cares about what they [ZANU PF] will do to him. He is trying to make up with the people of Matabeleland by saying he is on their side. He is looking for redemption," said Dr Makumbe.



Makumbe, however, said the people of Matabeleland should not be fooled as Msika has been enjoying the privileges of selling them out by supporting Mugabe for the past two decades.



He said it was almost irrelevant for Msika to be speaking out now. Makumbe said Msika should have used his position as vice president to influence the government to give the Gukurahundi dead dignified burials and to compensate the victims and their families. He should have also demanded that Mugabe publicly apologise to them.



The Survival Trust's Mafa disagreed. He said Msika should be applauded for his statements. "Msika has been disturbed by Gukurahundi and he wanted to put the record straight," he said. "Unfortunately it is too late but he must still be applauded for that. Msika was angered by Shamuyarira and he has shown that he is prepared to be fired by Mugabe for those statements."



Analyst Jethro Mpofu commented, "Our government is a government of secrets. A lot has been eating at Msika throughout his entire political career. His statement is a political death wish, something that has been eating at him which he needed to say out in the open."



The Zimbabwe Liberators' Mnkandla said Msika had now come to his senses, clearly feeling the need to put his views on the public record before he dies.



Msika, together with a handful of other former ZAPU leaders, have been widely accused of betrayal of the Ndebele people since they signed the 1987 post-Gukurahundi Unity Accord that created ZANU PF. Over the past two decades they have been steadily losing the support of Matabeleland's people.



Effie Mazilankatha-Ncube, executive director of the Matabeleland Empowerment Services Association, a regional self-help association, said in a letter published in the weekly Standard that former ZAPU leaders from Matabeleland who had accepted lucrative posts in Mugabe's ZANU PF hierarchy "are no different from ancient colonial governors who represented British interests in our country ... (They) are hostages and they know it."



Mpofu concurred, describing the former ZAPU leaders as "colonial constables". He went on, "They were watchdogs of Mugabe instead of representing the people of Matabeleland. They represent Mugabe not us and they will never win in Matabeleland."



The unity accord was signed reluctantly by Nkomo on December 22, 1987 to spare further Ndebele loss of life at the hands of the 5th Brigade. It followed police raids on Nkomo's home ordered by the then police minister Enos Nkala, a man known for his abiding hatred of the ZAPU leader and his movement. Nkomo's aides and bodyguards were arrested along with several hundred ZAPU officials elsewhere. Nkomo lashed back, "We accused former colonisers who used detention without trial as well as torture and yet do exactly what they did, if not worse. We accused whites of discrimination on grounds of colour and yet we have discriminated on political and ethnic grounds."



But Nkala was not deterred. He banned all ZAPU rallies and meetings and ordered the closure of all ZAPU offices. All ZAPU-controlled district councils were dissolved.



Nkomo was eventually ground down and acceded to the unity accord - but to this day it is viewed by a majority of Ndebeles as mainly benefiting the elite from both the Shona and Ndebele ethnic groups. They contend that unity has not benefited them in any way except for stopping the killings by Mugabe's military. "The unity accord was a non-event," said Mnkandla. "We don't want to see or hear anything about [it]. They are just words that don't represent anything. We don't want to celebrate that holiday (the anniversary of the accord) on December 22: they should actually scrap it from the holiday calendar. Who is it benefiting? Certainly not the people of Matabeleland."



Nineteen years after the 1987 accord, Matabeleland still believes it sits on the sidelines. The lingering impact of Gukurahundi on the region is indelible. The bitterness against the government unambiguously manifests itself at election time. Matabeleland remains the only region where ZANU PF cannot claim a rural support base. Now Shamuyarira may find he has thrown petrol on an already smouldering fire with unpredictable consequences for the Zimbabwean state.



David Ncube is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.