Gukurahundi: Why the UK ignored the grisly atrocities

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THIS is the last installment in a three-series article by Kent State University’s Professor Timothy Scarnecchia, an expert on local and African history, on the Zimbabwean government and apartheid South Africa’s collaboration in the Gukurahundi campaign, and why Britain ignored the atrocities in the context of the Cold War.

Timothy Scarnecchia

We republished the article in the aftermath of Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko’s misleading claims that President Robert Mugabe had nothing to do with Gukurahundi, which he alleged was a conspiracy of Western powers, Britain in particular.

The South African Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) representatives in Harare were good at maintaining their official ignorance of “Operation Drama” — Pretoria’s destabilisation campaign.

One of the key double agents working for the South Africans while also serving in Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation, Kevin Woods, admitted in a 2006 interview he worked with these South African-trained Super-Zapu agents and that he was aware at the time they were responsible for much of the dissident violence, including the murders of white farmers.

Geoff Hill, who has written extensively on Gukurahundi, quotes a 2002 BBC Panorama documentary that investigated Britain’s support for the then premier Robert Mugabe during the Gukurahundi.

Hill notes that Martin Ewans, British high commissioner in Harare at the time, admitted on camera that his instructions from London were to “steer clear of it” when speaking to Mugabe.

“I think Matabeleland was a side issue,” he said. “The real issues were much bigger. We were extremely interested that Zimbabwe should be a success story, and we were doing our best to help Mugabe and his people bring that about.”

Given this avoidance of the issue from London, it is informative to examine how South African diplomats in London read the British’s lack of concern about the Gukurahundi.

In early February 1983, Britain’s minister of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Cranley Onslow, and minister of state for Overseas Development, Timothy Raison, visited Harare.

After the two returned to London, South African diplomats interviewed the head of the Central African Department of the FCO, a Miss T Solseby, about Onslow’s and Raison’s visit.

Given the South African diplomats’ confidence about the absence of South African involvement in destabilising Zimbabwe, they presented a rather sanctimonious attitude about British support for Mugabe during the Gukurahundi and the trials of the white Air Force of Zimbabwe (AFZ) officers — both of which, to some extent, were influenced by South African destabilisation efforts, as the sabotage of the Zimbabwean air force base had been supported by South Africa.

While the exchange demonstrates South African diplomatic duplicity, it also demonstrates the FCO’s defensiveness over their support for Mugabe and Zanu PF.

In the Cold War context, the British were able to look the other way on Fifth Brigade atrocities by offering further development funds and even new planes to the Zimbabwe government to replace those blown up by white Rhodesians working for the South Africans.

The FCO’s position, as projected through the South African narrative of the meetings, was that South Africa’s destabilising efforts in Zimbabwe continued to impede Britain’s efforts to build a strong non-communist ally in Mugabe. Thus it was futile for South Africa to continue to criticise the FCO for co-operating with Mugabe.

The meetings exchanges reveal the strategies at work and Zimbabwe’s ability to benefit from British Cold War priorities.

According to the report of the meeting, Solseby explained that the reasons for Onslow and Raison’s visit to Harare had to do with “the deterioration in the security situation in Matabeleland” which had “caused the FCO to re-evaluate its views of the progress towards internal reconciliation”.

In addition to the “security situation in Matabeleland”, other reasons for the visit were the allegations regarding white Zimbabwean air force officers being tortured by Zimbabwe’s CIO agents while in prison after the bombing and destruction of aircraft at the Thornhill air force base.

The result of the visit, according to the South African’s record of what Solseby indicated to them, was that the UK was “encouraged by Mugabe’s continuing commitment to pursue a policy of reconciliation with Nkomo, the Matabeles in general and with the white community”.

Based on these commitments from Mugabe, “Britain has assured the Zimbabwe government that previous policies and aid pledges will be maintained.”

Evidence of Britain’s support came from Raison who “signed an agreement for a £20 million pound transfer”. Raison also reiterated Britain’s commitment “to provide £30 million pounds for land resettlement … as part of the overall commitment to provide £115 million pounds in aid”.

Both Onslow and Raison pledged that Britain would assist Zimbabwe in rebuilding the AFZ, and although Raison did not mention South Africa by name, he did make “a public statement which deplored acts of sabotage against Zimbabwe’s road, rail and pipeline links as well as the AFZ”.

In the interview, Solseby said that “Onslow was concerned about allegations that South Africa was actively destabilising Zimbabwe”. And while Onslow “did not state his concerns publicly”, he “regards it as being significant that numerous Zimbabwean whites made such allegations to him”.

The interpretation of Raison and Onslow’s concerns, according to the South Africans, was that “by destabilising the country, South Africa is playing into the hands of the extremists in Mugabe’s cabinet who advocate stronger repressive measures”.

The argument that the South Africans put to the FCO was that “notwithstanding the attempts to blame South Africa for all their problems, are Mugabe’s own actions against Nkomo not the determinant factor?”

The South Africans “pointed out that, no sooner had Onslow left Zimbabwe than the Zimbabwean government announced that it will move a motion of censure against Nkomo and Zapu”. According to the report, the FCO’s response to the South Africans was that while they had to appreciate that the Zimbabwean situation “moved in cycles” — it had its ups and downs.

This and similar platitudes were stated in a totally unconvincing way. Within a few hours of the interview, latest atrocities committed by the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland were major news in the electronic media.

The South African analysis of Whitehall’s views concluded: “We cannot believe that the FCO is itself convinced that the situation is as ‘encouraging’ as they say it to be. Nevertheless, the reputation of the (Thatcher) government and the FCO remains closely linked with the diplomatic ‘success’ of bringing Zimbabwe to recognised independence.”

The British asked South Africans if they had any information on whether Zapu and the dissidents were trying to get Soviet surrogates to support them. The FCO said it had some information to suggest this is the case.

South Africans replied that they did not know although they assumed, however, that the object of the question might have been to suggest that support for Zapu would further aims of the Soviet Union.

One of the more telling comments from the South African DFA diplomats in London, and consistent with the “ignorance” of their Harare counterparts, was that the FCO had no response to their counter-arguments regarding destabilisation.

This was in accordance with the current FCO attitude which is essentially a refusal to accept that South Africa is in no way involved, for instance, in supporting Renamo.

The London representatives of the DFA continued to deny South Africa’s role in the destabilisation of Zimbabwe, or even Mozambique. Roger Pfister suggested that after the South African securocrats took over the control of the South African government in 1980, “the military significantly curtailed the DFA’s influence after 1981”.

However, the continued denial by South African diplomats in London and in Harare of Pretoria’s involvement in Zimbabwe would seem to indicate the important ongoing role of the DFA in providing cover for the destabilisation operations.

While the South Africans carried out a covert strategy of destabilisation, they refused to provide any direct support for dissidents. One case found in the DFA files was a passionate appeal from a purported Matabeleland activist in London who sought out South African support for the creation of a Ndebele state through the supply of weapons to his organisation.

Amos Dlamini, who was working as a social worker in London in 1983, nonetheless made claims to a large network of followers in Matabeleland.

Dlamini impressed the South African embassy in London with his links to Nkomo and the ANC’s Oliver Tambo, but they were unconvinced by his appeal. They forwarded his letters and an account of their meeting to the DFA officials in South Africa.

One DFA official noted in the margin that an appropriate response to the London embassy would be to say “we do not know Dlamini and do not give him any information. It may be a trap.”

The assumption was that the Zimbabwean government may have set Dlamini up to make a request for weapons in order to expose South Africa’s destabilisation efforts.

Once he realised that the South Africans were not going to take his appeal for support of an independent Ndebele state seriously, Dlamini lashed out in a subsequent letter to the South Africans for choosing destabilisation rather than support for the non-communist government he proposed.

Dlamini concludes: “In effect therefore your government prefers a containment by destabilisation rather than a containment by stabilisation … South Africa is not a friend … It is cold, aloof and full of spite for the black-skinned person.”

Given the realities of the Gukurahundi against the backdrop of the Cold War and South Africa’s regional strategy, Zapu was virtually “friendless”, while Zanu PF managed to obtain support of the West, the Soviets, and to a certain extent even South Africa so long as Zanu PF and the Fifth Brigade continued to target Zapu, Zipra, and by extension the ANC’s ability to operate in Zimbabwe to fight apartheid South Africa.

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