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Gukurahundi: Four decades of seeking justice

(Ziyange Aurony/AFP)

Today marks Zimbabwe’s 40th Independence anniversary from British colonial rule. For the first time since gaining independence this year’s national commemorations were set to be held in Zimbabwe's second-largest city, Bulawayo. Traditionally, the commemorations are usually hosted at the 60 000 Chinese constructed National Sports Stadium with the event mainly attracting ZANU PF supporters. By moving the event to Bulawayo, the ZANU PF government argues that the idea is in line with the devolution concept that ZANU PF is pursuing. However, some critics from Bulawayo and the Matabeleland had indicated that they were not going to be part of this extravagance where millions of dollars where to be spent amid poverty, corruption, the closure of democratic space and abuse of human rights, 40 years after the country got its independence. For a majority, it's Not Yet Uhuru!

The country’s independence was a product of a protracted war waged by two liberation movements, Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and Zimbabwe Peoples Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) comprised the official military wings of the two main parties.

The war was put to an end by the Lancaster House Agreement of 21 December 1979. However, after general elections in 1980 and formal assumption of office by the black government ZANU which assumed had an upper hand during the war and had caused the British to ascent to the Lancaster House agreement felt threatened by ZAPU cadres which it called dissidents. As a result, then-president Robert Mugabe launched an operation dubbed Gukurahundi resulting in the killing of thousands of Ndebele speaking people in Matabeleland and Midlands. Fearing the continued massacre of the people Joshua Nkomo ZAPU leader and founder gave in to the unity accord which was signed on 22 December 1987 which saw the two political movements becoming one ZANU PF.

Gukurahundi and Its aftermath

The memories of the Gukurahundi continue to linger in the minds of the people in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces. Until today, the government of Zimbabwe has not on any occasion accepted responsibility for the atrocities they committed in Matabeleland. The late former president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe until his last breath refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing or take full responsibility for the atrocities choosing to call it “ a moment of madness”. This was neither an apology to the people of Matabeleland nor was it an acceptance of the responsibility. Three years later after the disgraceful fall of Mugabe his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa who played a pivotal role during the period when he was serving as Minister of State Security has also failed to acknowledge and at least apologise to the people for the Gukurahundi atrocities.

To address the Gukurahundi, which has become a thorny issue after he assumed the presidential office, the government of Mnangagwa set up a National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, a product of the new constitution adopted in March 2013. The NPRC has 10 terms of reference some of which include promoting national reconciliation by encouraging truth-telling about the past, facilitating the making of amends and providing justice (Sections 252 (c). This and other functions, if implemented in earnest, would surely address the Gukurahundi issue in a manner satisfactory to the victims. However, the NPRC has dismally failed to implement the functions as outlined in the Act signed by Mnangagwa, its failure is largely due to the lack of political will on part of the sitting government. The government itself seems to have no confidence in the NPRC as evidenced by the use of an “independent commission” after the 01 August killings, the work could easily have been done by the NPRC.

The composition of the commission itself is dubious and its independence and autonomy are compromised. Members of the commission were appointed based on their loyalty to the president. This has seen the NPRC being largely rejected in Matabeleland and thus failed to conduct any singe hearing to date. The rejections were on the basis that the commission was filled with Shona speaking people who were alien to the Matabeleland atrocities and could not objectively conduct hearings and come up with plausible conflict resolution solutions.

Suffice to say, that if our government was honest and committed to addressing the wrongs committed in Matabeleland, they should have learnt one or two things from the Rwandan model of conflict resolution. The Rwandan Model of conflict resolution after the Rwandan Genocide entailed the established community courts known as “Gacaca” which allowed the communities to confront their past and find a way forward.

The families of the people who were killed during the Matabeleland genocide have not found closure as evidenced by their continuous requests to exhume and rebury their relatives, a request which the ZANU PF government has continuously and persistently turned down. The government has said that exhumation and reburials should be conducted in the context of a policy which the government is in the process of developing. There were even civil society organisations such as the Ukuthula Trust based in Bulawayo that has been carrying out exhumations in districts of Matabeleland who were stopped in November 2019 by the government when the Minister of Home Affairs said the exhumations should be put on hold until the exhumations policy has been crafted.

Exclusion in development

The Matabeleland region also bemoans the lack of development initiatives in the region. Since the collapse of Zimbabwe’s industry that was witnessed in 2008 which saw a total collapse of a once-lucrative industry especially in Bulawayo, the government has made no effort to revive the Bulawayo industries. The region has been characterised by an exodus of the young population to neighbouring South Africa, which has also affected even agricultural productivity leaving the region more prone to drought as the able-bodied have all flocked in search of greener pastures. The Matabeleland Zambezi Water project which was meant to provide water to the arid Matabeleland region has been on the cards for a very long time but has never been implemented. The distribution of food aid has not been as transparent as the vulnerable members of the community are left out and food is distributed on a partisan basis. In the deadly COVID-19 pandemic Zimbabwe Television news bulletin showed people in Gwanda camped in the bush to harvest Mopani worms which are now their source of living and income. The individuals indicated that they had not harvested in their fields, they had no food and were living on "macimbi". Instead of offering a solution to their plight, the government responded by sending the police to chase them away and ensure that they stay home to avoid the spread of the deadly pandemic.


As we mark 40 years of independence Matabeleland remains underdeveloped and there are genuine concerns from that should be urgently addressed by the government which for many years has been politicking and paying lip service to the plight of the people in Matabeleland. The efforts by Mnangagwa’s government at devolution which could not be discussed freely during Mugabe’s era have now gained momentum and if genuinely implemented could go a long way in addressing some of the topical issues in Matabeleland.

According to Chigwata in his paper, genuine devolution will entail the decentralisation of power that diffuses substantial governmental powers, authority, responsibilities and resources to sub-national or local units. Devolution of power by the Harare government will result in the devolved units enjoying political, fiscal and administrative autonomy. More importantly, devolution will entail the supervision of provinces rather than their micromanagement as what is being done by the Harare government. As enshrined in section 264 (2) of the Zimbabwe constitution devolution is meant to ‘give powers of local governance to the people and enhance their participation in the exercise of the powers of the State and in making a decision affecting them' (Chigwata 2019). This will result in the allocation of resources to those areas where they are required most resulting in every Zimbabwean citizen gaining from the resources that Zimbabwe is endowed with.

The government should address the Gukurahundi atrocities, they should acknowledge the wrong they did, and they should compensate for the loss of lives and property. Like what the government did for the 01 August 2018 killings the government should establish an independent commission of enquiry for the Gukurahundi killings. However, it should not end with the hearings and reports as witnessed with the Mothlante Commissions where the government is failing to implement the recommendations of the commission. Healing of the affected communities should be community and victim driven rather than an imposition on the people by the government. Families should be allowed to exhume and rebury their loved ones who were killed during the disturbances, this will give them closure.


40 years after the attainment of independence from the colonial rule the people of Matabeleland have nothing much to celebrate and commemorate as theirs has been an ardours journey marred by the Gukurahundi disturbances, followed by an almost collapsed unity accord. Besides, the region has faced many challenges drought being chief amongst them but the government has not shown any concern and has not come to their rescue. The same scenario applies to the development of the region which has not been done in haste as it has been done in other areas particularly where Zimbabwe”s elitist leaders come from or where they have vested interests.

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