The Soweto uprising, the Gukurahundi experience and lessons learnt for Democracy

By Mlondolozi Ndlovu




Since the United Nations’ “Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948”, democracy became an emotive topic across most advocacy circles.

It is interesting to see how the events of June 1976, in the then apartheid South Africa can be analyzed in relation to the post-independence, state perpetrated atrocities in Zimbabwe, generally referred to as Gukurahundi.

The question is; are there any lessons to be learnt from such experiences for democracy to thrive the world over?


In about the second week of June 1976, some protests began around the areas of Soweto. The Rhodesia Herald of June 17, 1976, carried a report which gave an account of what transpired around Phefeni Junior Secondary School when students protested against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools at the climax of apartheid in South Africa.


The clashes spread to such areas as, Barragwaanath, Krugersdorp, Meadowlands, Braamfontein, Witwatersrand and later to the Black townships of Pretoria.


Within a few days, an estimated 50, mainly black students lost their lives while hundreds were injured.


The movement of trains and public road transport was disrupted mainly in Soweto and Johannesburg.


It came out clearly that the whole massacre of June 1976; was a major factor of what can be appreciated as the students’ pro-democracy activism in South Africa and possibly beyond its borders, then and now.


Though it might not have been clear as to whether the students’ protests were coordinated by a visible political movement like the African National Congress (ANC), it was clear the power of youthful resistance had to be nurtured in raising the stakes against undemocratic political structures.


One curious fact was that the activities of the South African black students also coincided with the prominence of such characters as Steve Bantu Biko.

The “Makers of Modern Africa Profiles”, published by the Africa Books Limited in London, 1981, narrated that Steve Biko studied medicine at the University of Natal, between 1966 and 1972, during the days of the Black Consciousness Movement of which he was among its founders.


Biko, who had been instrumental in the establishment of the South African Students Organization (SASO), died in September 1977, a year after the Soweto students’ uprising at the hands of the infamous Apartheid Bearue of State Security, (BOSS).


Thus one pertinent lesson was that the apartheid government had in the '70s strengthened its capacity to crush an urban-based insurgency that was waged primarily by such organizations as the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).


During the Soweto uprising, a Special Anti Urban Terrorist unit was deployed for the first time and was made up of handpicked serving police members across the country, as reported in the Sunday News of 20 June 1976.


This was similar to the Police Support Unit in Zimbabwe, inherited from the previous Ian Smith government.


It had primarily served as an anti Terrorist Unit that was issued with light arms and manoeuvred easily among civilian mobs using a variety of weapons.


It became clear that any insecure undemocratic system would always be apprehensive of urban dwellers that could easily congregate for a common cause with or without a clear leadership structure.


The international community through the platforms of the United Nations (UN) condemned the actions of the South African government.


The UN further adopted a resolution against South Africa as recommended by its Special Committee on Apartheid.


The massacre of June 1976 also took place towards a Summit that was set to be held between the then American Secretary of State, Dr Henry Kissinger and the South African Prime Minister, John Vorster.

The American government developed some cold feet towards South Africa of which Vorster visited West German in a desperate move to maintain a support base among pro-US NATO Allies.

The then Swedish Prime Minister, Mr Olof Palme was quoted in the Rhodesia Herald of June 18, 1976, denouncing apartheid.


Thus one huge lesson came out that pro-democracy lobbying must be brought to the international community and supported from there.

By 1985, Zimbabwe had seen 5 years of independence from the Rhodesia Settler regime.


Unfortunately, Zimbabweans had seen a coordinated and undeclared genocide orchestrated by the state especially in the Midlands as well as south lying regions of Matabeleland.


The disturbances that ended towards December 1987 were generally referred to as Gukurahundi.


Gukurahundi in Shona meant the early rains of the season that swept away anything undesirable and was the vocabulary used in the high circles of the ruling ZANU PF.


The Sunday News of July 7, 1985, reported that ZANU PF swept to victory in the general election of that year.


It captured 63 of the 80 Common roll seats in the House of Assembly. During the same week, the then Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe had a week-long visit to the Peoples’ Republic of China.

The massacres perpetrated by the State in Zimbabwe during those years seemed to have something that could relate to the South African situation.


Whereas in SA, the Apartheid government had created some ground for tense race relations, in Zimbabwe, the state fermented some ethnic tensions.


In its pursuit against the contending nationalist party, PF ZAPU, the ZANU PF government alleged that there was an imminent rebellion against its authority.


The media was also complicit in that act when The Chronicle of June 18, 1981, published an editorial by the then Editor Geoff Nyarota which stated that “The army must hit hard and harder in Matabeleland if peace is to prevail in that region”.


Thus another lesson learnt for Democracy in the 21st century was that undemocratic governments thrive on inciting some tensions against racial as well as ethnic groupings for their political survival.


By deploying troops in the Midlands as well as Matabeleland provinces, the state facilitated a convincing impression that such areas were generally anti-establishment by their ethnic character.


The irony about Zimbabwe was that the matter never came to be a priority of neither the UN General Assembly nor the Security Council. In reality, democracy has become an international subject matter.


Charles Sibanda, a former member of the later defunct PF ZAPU said, “Gukurahundi was the official name of the 5th Brigade of the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA), after independence.

The Brigade was made up generally of former ZANU PF refugees in Mozambique who never took part in any military action against the Rhodesia Security Forces.

It was some kind of Special Unit in the sense that most of the ex-ZANLA, ZANU PF’s military wing had failed to rise in the Commissioned ranks of the military during the British monitored integration of the former Rhodesian Army, PF ZAPU forces, ZANLA and some rag-tag pro-Muzorewa militias which went by the name “Pfumo Revanhu" which means "The People's Spear".

Thus the ZANU PF government felt that it had no control of the army that stood at four Brigades left by the Rhodesians.”


In reality, the Five Brigade displayed some pro-Chinese Bravado, specialized in martial arts, carried some light arms and became outwardly a force that was against the general civilian population of the Matabeleland as well as Midlands regions.


Thus it also came out clear that for Democracy to prevail, there was a need for a balanced National ideology that was well supported in the constitution and incorporates racial as well as ethnic equality before the law.


The government of Zimbabwe kept on blaming South Africa for supporting Super ZAPU, possibly a bandit rebel group that was expected to behave like RENAMO from Mozambique.


In reality, Super ZAPU might never have existed but such utterances made by the Zimbabwean Prime Minister at a rally at Tongogara Business Center covered in the Sunday News of 22 September 1985 were meant to justify the heavy-handed deployment of the military in Matabeleland.


In Zimbabwe, the state seemed to have felt very insecure about the student population in the rural areas.


Towards the end of November, Luke Mhlanga a Headmaster at Thekwane High School in Matabeleland was killed by unknown Bandits, according to the state media.


The hidden feeling was that the ZANU PF government created some rouge-armed elements to justify the intervention of the army and cause further casualties in Matabeleland.


During the Gukurahundi massacres, the ZANU PF government was a favourite of the British Foreign policy and depended heavily on British military advice before the Land Reform Programme of the latter years.


In finality, the lessons from such case studies can be summarized by realizing that Democracy can never thrive when the state, creates so-called Special Units that are meant to neutralize the pro-democracy sentiments among the people, disseminates a racially or ethnically skewed message and acts to gain international allies.


Mlondolozi Ndlovu is a practising Journalist, Development Practitioner and Media Researcher based in Harare, Zimbabwe. He is the founder and leader of a growing association of budding journalists, the Young Journalists Association (YOJA). He writes in his personal capacity.

Search By Tags