By Paul Trewhela, 04 January 2014
SOUTH Africans need to think about gukurahundi, what it means for South Africa – and what it means, when it means so little.
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe received loud cheers when he appeared at the memorial tribute to Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto last month. Similarly, Andile Mngxitama – who spoke on the BBC television programme, Question Time, two days later in a debate staged in Johannesburg, wearing the red beret of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters – published an article in the Sunday Independent earlier in the year under the title, Mugabe hero of African liberation.
According to Mngxitama’s opening sentence, “President Robert Mugabe is the greatest black statesman alive today in Africa.”
The question is: What does it mean, when South Africans celebrate Robert Mugabe?
There is no question that Mugabe ordered the mass murder of more than 20000 isiNdebele-speakers in Zimbabwe in the two years after January 1983, when his Fifth Brigade –- trained by the fascist dictatorship of North Korea, and responsible to himself alone as prime minister – was deployed to kill in Matabeleland.
Wikipedia states this about the massacre: “Most of the dead were shot in public executions, often after being forced to dig their own graves in front of family and fellow villagers. The largest number of dead in a single killing was on March 5 1983, when 62 young men and women were shot on the banks of the Cewale River, Lupane. Seven survived with gunshot wounds, the other 55 died.
“Another way 5 Brigade used to kill large groups of people was to burn them alive in huts. They did this in Tsholotsho and also in Lupane. They would routinely round up dozens, or even hundreds, of civilians and march them at gun point to a central place, like a school or bore-hole. There they would be forced to sing Shona songs praising Zanu, while at the same time being beaten. These gatherings usually ended with public executions. Those killed could be ex-Zipras, Zapu officials, or anybody chosen at random.”
Zipra: the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army was the army of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu), led by Joshua Nkomo, the political rival of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu).
The army of Zanu which was fighting against the government of Ian Smith over the same period as Zipra in then white-ruled Rhodesia was Zanla, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army.
The word “gukurahundi” is an expression in the chiShona language, meaning “the first rain that washes away the chaff of the last harvest before the spring rains”.
The grim reality of Zimbabwe is that both of its main political parties – Zanu and Zapu – were and remain tribalist political parties, not nationalist parties. Both armies, Zanla and Zipra, were in effect tribalist armies.
In the best firsthand account so far of the joint military campaign in 1967 by Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) together with Zipra in the Wankie and Sipolilo areas of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia, under the white minority regime of Ian Smith), the two authors – both isiZulu-speaking members of MK, Thula Bophela and Daluxolo Luthuli – register their shock when they and their comrades discovered a huge difference of principle between MK and Zipra
“The Zipra men puzzled the MK soldiers,” they write in their joint autobiographical history, Umkhonto we Sizwe: Fighting for a Divided People (Galago, Alberton, 2005). “They spent much of their time boasting about what they intended to do to Zanla if they ever met up in the bush. They swore they would wipe them out…It seemed they considered Zanla the real enemy and not the Rhodesians.”
As the two authors recall, “This Zapu-Zanu rivalry would cause us great distress later.”
What happened, however, was this: between the Wankie/Sipolilo campaign in 1967 and formation of the first independence government of Zimbabwe in 1979, for a variety of reasons Zipra failed as a military force, while Zanla succeeded.
Zipra and Zapu rested on a minority tribe, the Ndebele.
Zanla and Zanu rested on the overwhelming majority tribe, the Shona.
The phrase “gukurahundi” for the campaign of mass murder of the amaNdebele by the Zanu government meant that the minority tribe was to be punished. Human beings were to be treated as “chaff”, as dead dry husks of maize from the previous year’s harvest.
The account in Wikipedia of the Gukurahundi genocide is consistent with the detailed, carefully researched account published by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, together with the Legal Resources Foundation of Zimbabwe, under the title Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands, 1980-1988 (Hurst and Co, London, 2007. First published in 1997 as Breaking the Silence: Building True Peace).
Elinor Sisulu, the daughter-in-law of Walter and Albertina Sisulu, wrote the introduction for the 2007 edition. She rightly compares the “enormous and heinous crimes against the people of Zimbabwe” perpetrated by the government of Robert Mugabe in 1983-85 with the genocidal massacre of Tutsis carried out by the Interahamwe in Rwanda in 1994 and the massacres carried out by Hitler’s Nazis.
I wonder if Mngxitama can explain how a Nazi-type massacre just north of Limpopo province permits a description of the man who ordered it as a “hero of African liberation”, and as “the greatest black statesman alive today in Africa” (this written while Nelson Mandela was living).
In the same way, it is strange to find a statement “Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) call on the people of Zimbabwe to vote for Zanu-PF” at the bottom of an article by Munyaridzi Gwisai headed: Mugabe landslide: Rural poor vote against neo-liberal austerity” on the website of the Black Consciousness organisation, September National Imbizo, when Zanu-PF as the party of government in Zimbabwe bears responsibility for this massacre.
There is a strange absence of moral and political integrity here.
Supposing we take a death toll of 20000 people murdered by Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade in gukurahundi (rather than the figure of “at least 30000 people” cited in the preface to the 1997 edition of Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe, p.xix), this was an enormous number of people killed in a small region in less than two years. The number of people killed by the Mugabe government in this massacre is probably more than the total of all the political killings committed in South Africa in the 34 years from the beginning of 1960 (before the massacre at Sharpeville) to the first democratic general election in April 1994.
And this was carried out by a government whose leader was cheered at the memorial tribute for Mandela, and described by Mngxitama as a “hero of African liberation.”
Strange liberation, which liberated so many souls so untimely from their earthly selves.
Strange hero statesman, who gives the order to kill so many of his citizens…
Strange apostle of “freedom”, the one who praises such a statesman, whether we consider freedom as economic, or political, or spiritual, or otherwise.
The fact is, the political tradition of liberation from minority rule in South Africa runs opposite to the tradition in Zimbabwe, not along the same path.
What Gukurahundi showed is that the title of Mugabe’s “Zimbabwe African National Union” (Zanu) is a fraud. The party is not national at all. It is a tribalist party, which carried out a mass tribalist massacre of people from another tribe.
This can never be forgotten.
It is a shame and disgrace to the historic tradition of black liberation in South Africa that this blatant, blood-soaked truth is not shouted from the rooftops by all political parties, and especially by the ANC.
From the time it was formed as the Native National Congress in 1912, the ANC earned its title of “national” – unlike Zanu, and Zapu – by its deeds.
It was formed very consciously and deliberately on the principle of anti-tribalism. The founders of the ANC were clear that tribal politics could only lead black people of the newly-created Union of South Africa to defeat and misery. Despite all kinds of stresses and strains, especially in exile – that principle was upheld successfully throughout the whole of the past century. Whether as the ANC, or as the Pan Africanist Congress, or as the Black Consciousness Movement, no major current in the struggle for liberation from apartheid ever fractured into separate tribalist parties, as happened in Zimbabwe – the great failure of political principle in Zimbabwe, which had its terrible result in Gukurahundi.
This is a warning to South Africa.
There is no more urgent warning from the life and death Nelson Mandela, who maintained the principle of anti-tribalism throughout his life, and extended it to anti-racism.
It is a disgrace that a tribalist mass murderer was cheered at the tribute to the man who epitomised the founding principles of the ANC.
Shame on those who cheer Robert Mugabe, and shame on any South African who calls such a man the “hero of African liberation”.
Paul Trewhela was editor of the Freedom Fighter, MK’s underground newspaper. He was a political prisoner between 1964 and 1967. In exile he was co-editor of the banned journal, Searchlight South Africa.