ON March 21 2019, President Emmerson Mnangagwa flew from Harare to Bulawayo on a jet chartered from the United Arab Emirates — an extravagant arrangement — for a meeting with Matabeleland-based civil society organisations under the banner of the Matabeleland Collective to discuss the emotive Gukurahundi genocide in which he is implicated. Many questions have arisen since then about the meeting, its organisation and what Matabeleland Collective really is and whose mandate the grouping is championing. This week, Zimbabwe Independent correspondent Nkululeko Sibanda (NS) spoke to Women of Zimbabwe Arise (Woza) founder, Jenni Williams (JW, pictured) — one of the prominent members of the Matabeleland Collective — about the meeting, and attendant issues. Below are excerpts of the interview:
NS: Would you explain to us what the Matabeleland Collective is and its objectives?
JW: The Matabeleland Collective is a grouping of civil society organisations and churches who decided to form a unified voice and platform to talk, primarily to four issues of concern that affect the people of Bulawayo, Matabeleland North and South, namely the healing process around Gukurahundi; (and) the devolved system of governance, which we call compensatory devolution development and social inclusion in the economy.
NS: What activities or programmes have you been involved in as a collective to ensure that you succeed?
JW: First, I think it has to be understood that the key institutions that agreed to come together to do programming on those four issues have a long-term working relationship, which partly spans beyond 20 years work in these spaces. But the activities that we have done collectively, I should say, started when we went to the car park at the Bulawayo City Hall as Matabeleland-based civil society where we began the conversation with the people, asking them what they really wanted done in Zimbabwe to shake off the poverty that has ruined their lives.
The people started talking and the issues they raised then were taken note of and compiled into key asks. After that, we called a very huge convention on the second of December 2017, where we further crystalised those issues and refined them. After that engagement, we were then deployed by the people to go and tell the President (Mnangagwa) of those issues they had raised and that they wanted these issues addressed.
NS: Calling yourselves the Matabeleland Collective speaks to a regional grouping pushing a regional agenda. How do you relate with other civil society organisations throughout the country?
JW: At our initial conversations, we classified ourselves as the western region because we were cognisant of the fact that Gukurahundi happened in a few spaces in Matabeleland and the Midlands provinces. We were aware of the fact that there were people who had to flee to areas such as Mashonaland. We said we wanted our voices to be more prominent in those areas where the disturbances really took place.
We were also alive to the shifting contexts around who resides in Matabeleland and that is one of the issues we needed to take into account. We felt that this key genocide of Gukurahundi was supposed to be the first ask to government where we agreed that we needed to lift the lid and have a discussion on that and start a healing process; many other things can start to happen. And so we feel that most civil society organisations and the church in the region can start to identify that there is a key healing that needs to be allowed to take place and then enable them to come on board.
Our issues have currency throughout the region.
NS: Civil society organisations stand accused by government of getting external funding to push the regime change agenda. Talk to us about who funds the collective?
JW: As I said, the activities started off at the car park at the City Hall in Bulawayo. It has been an incredible journey for the collective as almost all of our activities are unfunded. These have been oiled by the commitment of the member organisations and their stakeholders to what they want to achieve. This has kept the dream of a better Matabeleland alive and going.
We are hoping to secure funding because we are now going to start a bigger programme on Gukurahundi. Funding is a thing that is secondary to us. I think that the question on regime change is a question that government people can best answer since it’s an allegation they make themselves.
NS: Let us delve deeper into the emotive Gukurahundi issue. Do you think that the figure of 20 000 people who are said to have been killed by the North Korea-trained Fifth Brigade gives a true account of what could have happened at the time of the disturbances or it was a conservative figure?
JW: That figure has been used several times by various people. It is very unfortunate that we have challenges where the genocide has not been much of a subject that people have spoken about openly; documented openly; shared in terms of experiences. People have not shared experiences about it and it means we are 36 years behind in terms of documenting what really transpired. We can take that figure and work with it. As a woman, I would also want to have a disaggregation in terms of how many women were murdered then and things like that. It’s a lot of catching up on the very many issues that we have to do for those 36 or so years.
NS: Would you agree that 20 000 people were killed or you feel this is a conservative figure oe an exaggeration?
JW: I think, from a collective perspective, it is too premature for us to conclude that the figure was either conservative or real. I think it is important to look not only at the figure of 20 000, because in a certain way that figure was drawn from statistics using other means, but to look at ways in which we can address issues such as identity documents and other important documents such as death certificates for those who were murdered during the Gukurahundi genocide. These are very important documents for survivors of this genocide.
NS: There is a disagreement over the description of the 1983-1987 conflict. Those in Matabeleland call it a genocide. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s spokesperson George Charamba calls it a war. Where does the collective stand on this?
JW: For us, I think we are not ashamed to call this a genocide because it was targeted at a specific tribe and grouping of people. Yes, there may have been perceptions that those people of a specific tribe supported a specific political agenda, but the fact that many of those murdered were of a certain tribal connotation, means that this fits into the United Nations description of genocide. We believe that Zimbabwe must accept that this was a genocide and allow a truth-telling process to take place.
NS: The commission of inquiry reports into Gukurahundi, such as the Chihambakwe Commission report, have not been released by the state. What has the collective done to ensure that this and other reports are released to the public?
JW: Yes, absolutely that is a very important question. It is surprising why those reports were never published and hidden somewhere. It is one of the key pillars of our demand, as a collective, for the de-criminalisation of Gukurahundi and that Zimbabweans are allowed to be involved in a truth-telling process. One of our member organisations, Ibhetshu Lika Zulu tried to take legal action to get those reports released and we will continue to push to have those reports released.
We believe that it is not only the Zimbabwean government that has to publish reports on Gukurahundi and what happened there. The British government also has a lot of secret reports on Gukurahundi and they also have to make those reports public. The truth, one day, must be fully told.
NS: How does the British government feature in Gukurahundi as far as the collective is concerned?
JW: As far as we are concerned, and from testimonies of people like Comrade Dumiso Dabengwa and others who were involved at the time, the British government was aware of what was happening, given that they had intelligence from senior army officials at the time of transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. The British government, in our view, should be held liable. We should be able to review, together, and look at what they could have done differently during that transition period.
NS: In broadening the discussion, you bring in the British government. Where does that leave the ANC and South African government since Umkhonto WeSizwe is said to have owned some of the arms that sparked some of the Gukurahundi disturbances in Matabeleland?
JW: South Africa and many other governments will have to speak to the roles they played in the Gukurahundi issue. This is part of the truth-telling process we are talking about and these are the concessions from the Government of Zimbabwe that we were keen to get to say there must be dialogue which will unravel all these issues and bring them to the table for discussion.
And now that we have those concessions, we will need to have those truths being told. And we have been assured that those that will speak the truth will be protected. We now we await to hear the truths.
NS: In the past, government has been edgy about establishing the Gukurahundi Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
After your engagements with government officials, is there an undertaking this could come to life?
JW: The National Peace and Reconciliation Commission has been promulgated and it has been given life. We might not be happy that it has not been properly funded. But we have had engagements with them over the past few weeks and they too have been encouraged by the responses from government. We expect the NPRC to partner with us very closely as we embark on this Gukurahundi unravelling process that will put victims of this genocide at the centre. We also hope that the NPRC will also respect the deep-seated pain and anguish that people in this region have suffered and act in a manner that realises this concern.
NS: Some people argue that the NPRC is weak and led by ineffective people. Can it competently drive this process?
JW: We have been involved in prior meetings with the NPRC. They seem to be weak in their planning and their structures appear to me weak at some point as well. We have come from strategic planning meetings with them where they have had to look back at where they have come from and are starting to fix those areas where they have been failing.
NS: Now, as advocates of a Gukurahundi Truth and Reconciliation Commission, how do you propose that those found guilty are dealt with in terms of Zimbabwean law and international law?
JW: I think it is prudent that we take note that we are not dealing with a few perpetrators. We are dealing with hundreds of those people. I think we must come up with an African method of healing and holding of those that perpetrated the genocide to account. Zimbabwe needs a Zimbabwean framework on how to hold the Gukurahundi genocide perpetrators to account.
NS: The collective surely has its own proposals on how this matter of justice with regard to the perpetrators should be held. Take us through that.
JW: As a collective, we feel we are still at the early stages of that process of dealing with this matter. Remember we have just gotten our concessions from government last week and we will need to consult with the communities on what they think is the best way to deal with these perpetrators.
NS: From the collective’s perspective, who was responsible for Gukurahundi?
JW: Well, definitely the former head of state, Robert Mugabe, was the one who gave orders. And under international law, a head of state who gives orders in situations that result in genocide is the one who is ultimately responsible for the genocide. So, he has to answer for the orders and why he gave them.
NS: Mugabe came out and claimed that Gukurahundi was a “moment of madness”. Does that not suffice for you as an explanation?
JW: No, it is in no way a satisfactory answer. We need the full truth as to why he deployed those forces? How many soldiers were deployed? How many people were killed? How many people lie unburied up to this day? And where the killing fields were? We want the truth and we must have the whole truth. For healing, we must be able to understand who did what, where, why, when and how?
NS: President Mnangagwa’s statements prior to the 1983 disturbances, where he described the Ndebele people as cockroaches who deserve to be sprayed with DDT, reportedly kick-started or fuelled Gukurahundi genocide to an extent. Does that not make him liable for Gukurahundi?
JW: We have seen the reports in the newspapers and on the internet. He has not denied or admitted to those things in our engagements with him. We await that day where he, as head of state and government, will come out and acknowledge what was done and who did what. He should be honest with us and with the people of Matabeleland and Zimbabwe in general on this issue so far.
NS: But you have met him several times. What has he said about his involvement?
JW: We have met him as a collective and he has come to us as the head of state. We have not met him as a perpetrator.
NS: What have victims of Gukurahundi said on reparations?
JW: The people of Matabeleland have given us broad strokes. We now have those strokes into what we have called the Matabeleland Compendium which details what they feel should be done. But with regard to the nitty-gritties, we have left that open for further engagement with the communities that were affected by the genocide.
NS: It came as a surprise to many when you were seen holding a meeting with President Mnangagwa on Gukurahundi yet he had a role in the atrocities. Why did you not push for this during Mugabe’s era since he is the architect of the genocide as most people say?
JW: Many colleagues before us tried to engage with his government on the Gukurahundi issue. Your “moment of madness” statement (by Mugabe) is evidence or proof there was engagement with the former president. Tribute must be paid to those who took the initiative. Just as we might not get the results now, we have taken the initiative of clearing the bush and trees along the way.
NS: Most people wonder how you convinced Mnangagwa to come to Bulawayo to engage on Gukurahundi?
JW: The compendium, for us, was a very key document for us in the collective. We ensured that we packaged it properly so that it would be a compelling document which, when we tabled it, gave the president the challenge to come and engage with us. We used new language and that compelled him to engage.
NS: Who played the role of linkman to take you directly to the President? We understand you did not go through the normal channels.
JW: It is absolutely not true that we used other means to get to the President. We used the right channels. First we went to the President’s Office where we engaged with all the technical people there. We even went to the Office of the Vice-President Kembo Mohadi, whom we showed our document. We met the president’s adviser as well and that is how we got the appointment after an 18-month chase.
NS: Why did you meet Mnangagwa alone without his usual entourage of vice presidents and other senior government officials?
JW: Remember, we asked to meet with the president and not with the entire government because that is what the mandate of the December conference was all about. That was what our letter to him said. That is a question that he and his lieutenants have to attend to.
NS: There is an allegation that some of the president’s lieutenants and members of his party from Matabeleland are not comfortable with discussions of what they call the divisive Gukurahundi issue. Would that explain why they were absent from that meeting?
JW: You will need to appreciate that we believe they are all in the know about these issues. We held a three hour meeting with Vice-President Mohadi where we presented our compendium document to him. It was a cordial meeting. We have not met Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, but if he would want to meet us, why not? We are awaiting his call. We can tell him home truths too.
NS: You have had run-ins with the state. How was it for you to sit on the same table with the man whose government has caused you so much pain in your activist life?
JW: To be quite honest, I never thought that would ever happen. I thought that would remain a dream and I am still coming to terms that that would ever happen. I think God has given me a heart that does not bear grudges. I have been arrested over 70 times in my life. I have been traumatised and remain traumatised up to now.
NS: You stand accused of selling out the people of Matabeleland to Mnangagwa and the Zanu PF regime and that you are trying to use this process, working with Mnangagwa, to cleanse his image over his prominent role in Gukurahundi. How do you respond?
JW: How are we cleaning his image when we told him to the face that the Gukurahundi era was a genocide? How do we clean his image when we demand that action should be taken to address the Gukurahundi genocide? We told him what we think and feel. We were open with him on how his government has tormented and terrorised people of this region and I wonder how people see this as a clean-up and public relations stunt.
NS: There are allegations that you have been captured and that some of the members of the collective have been paid to work with Mnangagwa. How do you respond?
JW: Honestly, it is not easy to capture some of us. Many of the faces have been working for development of Matabeleland for many years. To talk about us being captured is very unfortunate and untrue. We will not be prepared to take a cent from Mnangagwa or any person from government. That is why when we were told of this meeting with the President, we made our own arrangements. That was meant to maintain our independence. I would really like to call on our colleagues and the people, in general, to respect us and to also appreciate that we are mature and wise enough to stick to principles of self-agency. That is why we have pushed for devolution and succeeded in it. Why would we sell out now? And to gain or achieve what out of it, honestly?
NS: Do you think Mnangagwa and his government are sincere in this engagement with you?
JW: The judgment whether they are sincere cannot be one made by me alone. It is one that has to be made by the people of Matabeleland after observing how the government, through cabinet, will deal with the issues that have been born by this engagement. We are tired of words from government officials and it’s time for action.