Gukurahundi, Mugabe’s Cold War cover

THIS is the last part of the article by Kent State University’s Professor Timothy Scarnecchia, an expert on Zimbabwean and African history, on the Zimbabwean government, apartheid South Africa and the international community’s role in the Gukurahundi campaign in the Cold War context.

Timothy Scarnecchia

Perhaps one of the reasons why the British diplomats “steered clear” of bringing up the Gukurahundi with the then prime minister Robert Mugabe was that they knew he would not easily acquiesce to their criticisms.

His style was always to push stridently the limits of diplomacy and meet threats with counter-threats.

This strategy had, after all, brought him to prominence at the Geneva conference in 1976 and pushed him forward as the favourite of the Americans during the Lancaster House talks in 1979.

In late 1983, the white air force officers who had been acquitted by the Zimbabwean courts because their confessions had been obtained through torture, were detained by the Zimbabwean government as threats to the state, based on the same detention laws the Rhodesians had used against Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo in the 1960s and 1970s.

This action produced a much larger outcry in London than had the Gukurahundi.

When the United Kingdom began to suggest that funds would be withheld until after the release of the air force pilots charged with treason (and not about Gukurahundi atrocities), Mugabe shot back in the local press: “If the British do not give us money to buy land, we will not tax the people of Zimbabwe to buy back their own inheritance.

We will just take the land and not pay for it.”
United States support for Mugabe as part of Chester Crocker’s “constructive engagement” policy with South Africa came under criticism in the US Senate in 1983.

Andy DeRoche notes that it was conservative Senator Jesse Helms who challenged Crocker’s 1983 budget request for US$85 million to go to Zimbabwe in 1984. Helms asked Crocker if US funds would “go to support a one-party Marxist system that Mr Mugabe is building?”

Crocker reminded Helms that the US had pledged a three-year total of US$225 million to Zimbabwe back in 1981. To some extent, this was “a matter of the US keeping its word”. DeRoche concludes: “Despite Crocker’s efforts, Congress approved only US$40 million to Zimbabwe for 1984.”

A good example of how Mugabe’s strategy worked to tie the Gukurahundi to external destabilisation efforts can be seen in his speech to religious leaders in Harare in April 1983. After detailing attempts by white Zimbabweans, Bishop Abel Muzorewa’s UANC and Nkomo’s Zapu to attack his government, Mugabe states: “The list is long. The common thread in all of this has been the desperate attempt, often backed by South Africa, to destabilise our young republic with the ultimate object of overthrowing my government.”

Mugabe then lists the alleged crimes of dissidents he characterised as South African allies: “These elements, who now see South Africa as their ally, have killed and maimed hundreds of innocent people, kidnapped innocent Zimbabweans and foreign visitors to our country, burned thousands of dollars worth of both government and private property and seriously threatened the completion of government projects designed to bring food, water, schools, health facilities and other benefits to the people.”

After having associated the crimes of the dissidents with South Africa, and also blamed them for the failures of the security state to mobilise resources for development, Mugabe rationalises the Gukurahundi as a necessary step to defend “our sovereignty”.

“We shall proceed with ever-increasing vigour to crush them. Let us reiterate in this regard that our consciences are very clear. … In these circumstances, my government has full moral — not to say political and constitutional — authority to wipe out the scourge that would debilitate and finally destroy our sovereignty and unitary nationhood.”

Mugabe then goes on to give the rationale for what has more recently been called “patriotic history” to justify violence against the people of Matabeleland and Midlands.

Answering criticism that the Fifth Brigade violated human rights, Mugabe answered: “Our military operations in parts of Matabeleland have cast doubt on our commitment to these rights. May I seize the opportunity of reminding them of our brief history.

For many years, some of us, refusing to yield on matters of basic principle, were incarcerated for our total commitment to freedom and justice in circumstances in which many of our present critics were cringing in fear.

And that is not all, for our unyielding dedication to those human rights also bide us to take to arms in a bitter protracted national struggle in which several leaders, commanders and thousands of our young men and women lost their lives.

“Surely, these credentials give us better title than our holier than thou critics to sermonise others, including them, on what true commitment to human rights means … Accordingly, the struggle against political bandits and their collaborators will continue unabated until every corner of Matabeleland has been rid of every dissident element.”

Writing for the UK Guardian in early July 1983, Andrew Meldrum (now expelled from Zimbabwe) reported of the continued trauma and fear in Matabeleland, as: “Church and humanitarian groups blamed the army for so far slaughtering more than 2 000 people in February and March in its campaign to control anti-government dissidents.”

Schools had re-opened, but teachers told Meldrum how soldiers kidnapped students and “kept them at their camp for two weeks to teach them loyalty to Mugabe’s Zanu PF party”. Once they returned, they were tasked with teaching their classmates pro-Mugabe songs during all-night pungwes or meetings.

The use of the Fifth Brigade was therefore more than dealing with the dissident threat.

It was a campaign to destroy support for Zapu in areas of the country where it still had a strong following.

In September 1983, while the Fifth Brigade was still deployed and had established torture and death camps in the two Matabeleland provinces and the Midlands, Mugabe was at the White House meeting with US President Ronald Reagan. The official press release of their closing remarks is instructive. After welcoming Mugabe, Reagan noted how Mugabe’s “wise leadership has been a crucial factor in healing the wounds of civil war and developing a new nation with new opportunities”.

Reagan compared Zimbabwe to the US, echoing the Carter administration’s earlier vision of Zimbabwe as a multiracial democracy.

“The US and Zimbabwe have much in common. We both came to independence through a revolutionary process. We are both multiracial societies. And our constitutions offer protection to all our citizens, black and white, ensuring their political freedoms as well as their individual rights … We look to Zimbabwe for leadership in Southern Africa … Zimbabwe can provide a firm foundation of economic viability and political stability and serve as an inspiration in its part of the world,” Reagan said after his meeting with Mugabe.

Mugabe used the opportunity to offer Reagan and the US government “our heartfelt thanks and appreciation for that support which the United States has given us all along the way”. After noting differences between the US and Zimbabwe on the US plan to link Namibian independence to the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, Mugabe states: “We all are opposed — we both are opposed to interference in the domestic affairs of a country by another.”

Mugabe then re-assured the Americans that: “We are determined that a non-racial society shall exist in Zimbabwe and that racism, tribalism, regionalism, and whatever other ‘isms’ — these are things of the past. What we would uphold as fundamental is that principle which binds us together and makes us one regardless of our race, colour or creed.”

Careful not to engage the South Africans and not to move too quickly to bring in the Soviets and Cubans, Mugabe managed to create his own Cold War shield that allowed him and Zanu PF to settle their longstanding rivalry with Zapu and Nkomo.

The testimonies of victims clearly indicate that outside of the 400 Zapu dissidents and the 100 South African supported Super-Zapu, there was very little in the way of direct military resistance to the Fifth Brigade.

In fact, the Fifth Brigade did little to engage with the armed dissidents, and there were certainly sufficient Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) forces already deployed in the affected provinces to engage the dissidents if that had been the goal.

South Africa’s Super-Zapu was also not in itself capable of defeating the regular ZNA forces, let alone the Fifth Brigade. Coming to the defence of Zapu would have been too costly for the Soviets or the South Africans.

The diplomatic strategies of Nkomo and others in Zapu to stop the killings failed as they had no external allies by January 1983, a reality Mugabe was aware of because he now had the tacit support of the Soviets as well as the support of the British and Americans.

Commenting on the Gukurahundi and the arrests of Zapu leaders in 1983, Vladimir Shubin, a Soviet representative who played a key role in the Kremlin’s support for African liberation movements, explains: “All these developments were of concern to us, although we were not in a position to influence them.”

Like the Americans and British, the Soviets were worried that the South Africans would exploit the situation. Soviet support for Zapu, and therefore the South Africa’s ANC military wing Mkhonto weSizwe (MK), in south-western Zimbabwe on South Africa’s border would risk drawing the South African military into a direct conflict.

Investing in their relations with Mugabe and Zanu PF was seen as the better strategy for the Soviets. It was against this backdrop of Cold War stalemate that Mugabe and others in Zanu PF found the space to carry out the Gukurahundi in order to defeat Zapu and consolidate Zanu PF’s control of the state.

The diplomatic record for British involvement in the Gukurahundi will be available soon, perhaps by 2013-2014.

The US record may be available soon as well. But the type of histories these files will produce will need to question traditional Cold War assumptions.

The Gukurahundi is a tragic chapter in southern African history that still requires a great deal of historical work.

This history will have political ramifications in the future, not only for restorative and restitutive justice in Zimbabwe, but also for a transformation of Zimbabwean politics away from the Zanu PF model that has dominated for the past 30 years.

American and British support for Mugabe, particularly to the extent that military aid and training was provided to assist in the killings of civilians, will require further investigation.

Similar to the recent court cases in the UK for victims of the British involvement in Mau Mau, or research on American and British support for Paul Kagame’s Rwandan forces, there may in fact be the possibility of larger culpability from a number of external forces in the case of the Gukurahundi that still needs to be explored.

This preliminary reading of the South African Department of Foreign Affairs files, while understanding their incompleteness given declassification and sanitising issues in the apartheid-era security sector, suggests that South Africa’s motivations in 1983 were not as straight-forward as Zanu PF and the many Western anti-apartheid activists and analysts suggested at the time.

As the South Africans observed, the Zanu PF logic was that since Pretoria supported Unita and Renamo, international audiences could be convinced that South Africa was behind all Zapu dissident activities.

This logic masked the close co-operation between Zanu PF and the South African Defence Forces in a campaign against the ANC’s MK.

The relationship between Zanu PF and the ANC would only improve in the mid-1980s when former South African president Thabo Mbeki negotiated a better relationship with Mugabe.

Initial attempts in 1980 to obtain Zanu PF support for the ANC, according to Tor Sellström, were met with lack of enthusiasm by State Security minister Emmerson Mnangagwa who told the Swedish ambassador in Harare that Mugabe’s government “found no reason to embrace ANC” because it was “only after Zanu’s electoral victory that the ANC had shown interest in bilateral relations”.

By the late 1980s, the Soviets were also more comfortable in Harare and there was even talk of selling MIG fighter planes to Mugabe, something that would have threatened South Africa’s air superiority for the first time. The deal never went through, but it indicates how quickly power relations began to shift as the Western nations, largely because of domestic anti-apartheid pressure, turned against Pretoria.

The subsequent dramatic end of the Soviet Union created a situation where Mugabe would once again turn to Western institutions for financial and military support.

The first three years of Zimbabwe’s history were extremely costly for some Zimbabweans, treacherous and lethal for others.

The Western Cold War priorities of reaching a settlement, holding an election, providing large amounts of aid to keep Zimbabwe pro-West, and then turning away from any responsibility for what happens inside Zimbabwe cannot be ignored.

As Zimbabweans continue to struggle for political rights, as well as peace and security, the history of the Gukurahundi will remain contested and alive.

It would be overly simplistic to view the Gukurahundi tragedy as solely the product of a particular type of Cold War rationalisation.

Nevertheless, diplomatic historians need to play a role in historicising this tragedy as part of the longue durée of Zimbabwean, South African and southern African foreign relations.