I am aware that by exploring this issue I am treading on a minefield as by Zimbabwean socio-political tradition, the subject is often emotionally-charged and shrouded in great controversy; hence any attempt to explore it can be easily misinterpreted or deliberately distorted.
Nonetheless, my instinct tells me that ignoring such a burning issue will be tantamount to scholastic cowardice and burying our heads in the sand. Perhaps the time has come for a constructive national debate on this topic because we cannot go on like this, that is, if we are to continue calling ourselves an independent country. We need to be independent politically, economically and intellectually.
I can confidently say that while most Zimbabweans today feel Mugabe has presided over a brutal regime that persecuted MDC leaders and supporters, not much attention is being paid to atrocities before 2000, including Gukurahundi massacres. Political violence in Zimbabwe did not start in 2000. It has a long history.
Minister Sekai Holland claims the culture of violence was brought by Mzilikazi, but that sort of claim can only come from conflict entrepreneurs or merchants of lies.
The issue of Zimbabwe’s political violence and atrocities must be understood in its context, space and time.
There are those who claim the Gukurahundi massacres were a revenge for Mzilikazi’s and Lobengula’s historical raids in Mashonaland region. By this logic, it is claimed Mzilikazi and Lobengula committed atrocities in Mashonaland hence Mugabe’s retribution mission via the deployment of the murderous Fifth Brigade to Matabeleland and Midlands areas where its killing machine left 20 000 civilians dead.
Of course, Mzilikazi was not the architect of mfecane and attendant violence (the time of trouble and mass migration) and the concomitant territorial wars. Mfecane was there before Mzlikazi but it was fuelled by the rise of Tshaka who triggered mass movements across the sub-region, from present day South Africa across Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania.
Prior to the arrival of Mzilikazi in Zimbabwe there were fierce territorial wars between the Shona and other tribes and among the Shona themselves. So Mzilikazi did not introduce violence but struggled for survival within the context and circumstances of the time where the politics of the spear and assegai ruled in the absence of constitutional orders and the rule of law, international laws and conventions to promote peace and stability.
Which brings me to the point that the Mzilikazi era which was precipitated by the rise of Tshaka and mfecane belongs to the primitive era where there were no nation-states and constitutional orders as we know them today. The period was defined by the law of the jungle –– survival of the fittest –– and everyone fighting against everyone while the Gukurahundi era falls under the modern era governed by international laws, including four Geneva Conventions of 1949. The primitive territorial wars were obviously backward and they happened under a completely different situation and different circumstances.
It was only after 1945 that the world properly defined codes of conduct for the army or any security agents to prevent primitive-style raids and wars. These codes were put in place to assure the modern world that lessons have been learnt and standards have now been set.
According to Gutman and Rieff (1999), the codes were intended to be a firebreak between civilisation and barbarism. The difference between the Mzilikazi era and the Mugabe period is like chalk and cheese in terms of political order and international law; they clearly belong to different epochs of civilisation.
The Nuremberg tribunals of 1945 set down the principle that there were such things as crimes against humanity, systematic crimes against civilians that can occur inside a country but that might be tried anywhere else.
After 1945, which became the fire break between civilisation and barbarism, the power centres of the world went further and intertwined the country’s human rights record with the performance of the economy.
The Genocide Convention of 1948 gave legal meaning and force to the worst crime in the lexicon. The 1949 Geneva Convention codified and advanced the rules governing wars between states, differentiating legal conduct from illegal acts of war.
Together with the two Additional Protocols of 1977, the Geneva Conventions are the central summation of the agreed rules governing the conduct of war.
Perhaps it is important to know that at the heart of the international humanitarian law are grave breaches such as targeting non-combatants or civilians. These grave breaches or serious crimes are found in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the first Additional Protocol of 1977.
The Additional Protocol 1 of 1977 states that the civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts of threats of violence, the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population, are prohibited.”
However, this law turns out to be customary because even if Zimbabwe has not ratified it, its provisions are universally applicable. This probably explains why President Mugabe cannot retire despite signs that he is too old and tired. He knows that these international provisions can be easily applied on him.
Most importantly, the post-1945 world, particularly the international humanitarian law makes it illegal for anyone to support a mass-murderer –– doing so one can be easily branded an accomplice of mass murders.
It has been suggested in a certain vein of contemporary thought that if scars of the past are hidden away there will always come a time when those scars will suppurate and become a poison that will engulf all of us even the future generations.
As a student of restorative justice versus retributive justice, I am an advocate of psychotherapy and symbolical healing which comes in various packs such as openly discussing burning issues that continue to blight our beloved nation, Zimbabwe.
There is crystal clear evidence that Zimbabwe today is a deeply-divided nation among the black community than it was before independence, hence the need to come up with mechanisms to establish a stable country that functions in compliance with the international humanitarian law.
I wonder how Mugabe wants to be remembered long after he is gone. The fact that the Ndebele/Shona tribal tension has become intergenerational is symptomatic failure of our politics and more so an indictment on our leaders. It also reveals that our politics has for far too long thrived on ethnic grounds, if not catalyse it. To be precise, our brand of politics has suppressed public debate on burning issues such as the one under scrutiny here.
Those who say Mugabe should not apologise and redress the Gukurahundi situation until Ndebeles (who among the Ndebeles) apologise for Mzilikazi’s and Lobengula’s raids are clearly politicising and tribalising an issue under which remedies can be found under national and international law.
I find this argument not just absurd and myopic, not only because it encourages tribal hostilities and more massacres in future but also on account its lack of grounding in current national laws and international conventions.
This irrational argument (which reeks of ethnocentricism and not an intellectual discourse at all) suggests that all Shonas (not Mugabe and his murderous regime) were responsible for Gukurahundi. Of course this is ridiculous. The Shona people did not commit massacres in Matabeleland, it was Mugabe and his regime who were certainly motivated by the pursuit of political consolidation and hegemony to achieve their one party and socialist state agenda. The campaign had ethnic undertones, no doubt, but to make it appear as if it was a Shona versus Ndebele conflict is not just a dull and awful discourse but clear bigotry.
For sure, there are serious questions to be asked about the role of ethnicity in Zimbabwean politics and Gukurahundi. We know for certain that ethnic politics are alive and well elsewhere in Africa. Most of the conflicts in Africa today have an ethnic dimension. Ethnicity is usually harnessed by bigoted and reckless politicians to win political power and access to state resources. So it is legitimate to ask what has been the role of ethnicity in African politics?
What has been the role of tribal politics in Zimbabwe’s past civil strife, including Gukurahundi? What was the role of ethnicity in Mugabe’s rise to power? These are issues which we should be able to debate freely without fear or favour! We also don’t have to reduce an intellectual discourse around such issues, including Gukurahundi, to an Us versus Them dichotomy and mentality.
By refusing or fearing to confront our past honesty and bravely in the community and national interest, are we not just perpetuating the problem? Are we not guilty of moral indifferences by ignoring such dangerous signs of an angry society? British criminologist Steven Box (1983) has argued that someone who is indifferent to causes of harm displays more disdain for humanity in general. Those who support Mugabe and his atrocities for whatever reason are clearly showing cold disregard for humanity. If the law doesn’t, then history will judge them harshly.
l Tshuma is a journalist currently wrapping up his PhD in poverty and social justice in transitional nations in the United Kingdom.
By Admore Tshuma