Zimbabwe and the Politics of Impunity

By Alex LichtensteinNovember 23, 2011

Zimbabwe and the Politics of Impunity
Illustration: Disputed Seats © Misheck Masamvu 2008

INTERVIEWED RATHER GENTLY in October 1984 by Zimbabwe's Moto magazine about the "allegations" of his army's massacres of the Ndebele-speaking inhabitants of Matabeleland in the southwest of a liberated Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe claimed, "We have the army there to try and defend these helpless citizens."

In fact, what at first glance appeared to be an internecine conflict among demobilized former liberation fighters had turned into an all-out assault on Mugabe's political opposition and its civilian Ndebele ethnic base. Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU (Zimbabawe African People's Union), founded in 1961, and Mugabe's ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union), which broke away from ZAPU in 1963, had both fought a successful guerilla war against Ian Smith's Rhodesian government. Mugabe's ZANU won the first post-independence elections in 1980, only to find its political dominance challenged in Matabeleland by Nkomo's Ndebele-based ZAPU. Intense political repression of Nkomo's supporters followed, in a process known as the Gukurahundi, which claimed the lives of an estimated 20,000 civilians until the Unity Accord of 1987 merged the two parties into the current ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front).

At the time, Mugabe's shameful denials of what was really occurring in Matabeleland raised few eyebrows. Back then, Mugabe's status as a heroic anti-colonial liberator, and Zimbabwe's role as the poster child for a prosperous, well-governed, and stable postcolonial African state, went largely unquestioned, especially in the precincts of the international anti-colonial left. Not anymore. Still president 27 years later, Mugabe's denials can and should now be read as a chilling reminder that the depths to which his regime has sunk today had already been charted over a quarter-century ago.

Over the past decade, as the human rights situation in Zimbabwe has deteriorated relentlessly, Mugabe's regime has received much unwanted attention. The crisis began in early 2000 with a referendum on the Zimbabwean constitution designed to entrench the power of Mugabe and his ruling party, ZANU-PF. Soundly defeated in the referendum by a new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Mugabe instituted "fast-track land reform" to shore up his rural political base, reward his cronies, and placate increasingly restive veterans of the Chimurenga, or Liberation War. In practice, much of this land reform consisted of state-sanctioned "farm invasions" of land owned by white commercial farmers, ostensibly led by destitute "war veterans" seeking long-overdue compensation for their service in the Liberation War. Unequal distribution of arable land certainly posed a severe problem in postliberation Zimbabwe, but in the chaos of a politically driven land reform program, many of the country's most productive farms fell into the hands of Mugabe cronies who didn't know a tobacco plant from a common weed. The result was economic catastrophe. In the two years after the invasions began, the number of employed farmworkers dropped from 350,000 to 100,000, the production of corn by 90 percent, and tobacco by over 60 percent.

In response to the land invasions, the subsequent collapse of the country's currency and foreign reserves, hyperinflation, 80 percent unemployment, mass emigration (mostly across the border to South Africa), and the evisceration of the once robust health and education infrastructure, the MDC mounted a serious electoral challenge to Mugabe and ZANU-PF in 2002, 2005, and most recently in 2008. Unfortunately, the emergence of a genuine two-party system in Zimbabwe has been met with unremitting political violence and terror directed at the MDC, its supporters, and its courageous leader, trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai.

The works considered in this essay each offer very different means of understanding the dynamics of Zimbabwe's most recent human rights crisis. Together, however, they add up to an uncompromising indictment of the Mugabe regime and a cry for genuine democracy in a suffering country. Most significantly, all of them point directly to the unacknowledged massacres of the Gukurahundi as having sown the seeds of denial and impunity that make widespread human rights violations a tactic of political terror in Zimbabwe today.

Over the past 15 years, journalist Peter Godwin has produced a personal trilogy about life as a white Zimbabwean that artfully blends his reminiscences of growing up in colonial Rhodesia, witnessing the Liberation War, and then returning to postcolonial Zimbabwe to visit his aging parents. His latest effort, The Fear, like his previous books on Zimbabwe, effectively combines an exile's memoir with first-rate reportage on the spiraling decline of the country he has left but still loves. This time, he returns to Zimbabwe in the interregnum between the first defeat of Mugabe at the polls in a three-way election in March 2008 and the runoff between Mugabe and Tsvangirai three months later. The Fear is part travelogue, as Godwin (accompanied by his sister) revisits the sites of his past even while he "bears witness" to the "torture factory" Zimbabwe has become in its descent into political madness. With the exception of the Gukurahundi, this was perhaps the most violent period in recent Zimbabwean history. Bested by Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC (even with massive manipulation of the vote in ZANU-PF's favor) in the March election, Mugabe, his security apparatus, and thuggish gangs of ZANU-PF youth went on a murderous rampage against MDC activists, politicians, and supporters. This proved an ultimately successful effort to make sure Mugabe would be able to win the runoff election by means of fraud, intimidation, and blunt political terror. Mass beatings and rapes, torture, the burning of homes, the breaking of limbs, disappearances — all of this and more found its way into ZANU-PF's arsenal of political intimidation during the months between the March 2008 election and the mandated runoff at the end of June. After nearly three months of "sustained cruelty" deployed against his supporters, Tsvangirai withdrew, leaving the field to Mugabe. Unopposed, the aging but still wily dictator emerged victorious.

Godwin's book charts ZANU-PF's terror tactics minutely and in graphic detail. The "politicide" he observes in today's Zimbabwe appears to him to be very much a reprise of the Gukurahundi a quarter-century before. Now, however, Zimbabweans call it chidudu, simply "the fear" in Shona. Back in 1984, Godwin was one of the few reporters to expose the murderous activities of the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland, in an article in London's Sunday Times. This legacy, of course, did not make him one of Mugabe's favorite journalists, and he must tread very carefully in Zimbabwe, even today. As Godwin remarks, this kind of political terror does not require exterminating every member of the opposition. Rather, the thousands of tortured and maimed and beaten "act like human billboards, advertising the appalling consequences of opposition to the tyranny" of Mugabe and his supporters. No one is spared: not the elderly, not children, not parents. Any apparent disloyalty to ZANU-PF receives merciless punishment.

As Godwin recognizes, many of the specific forms of political violence deployed by ZANU-PF against MDC partisans are chillingly reminiscent of the atrocities committed in Matabeleland during the 1980s. Gukurahundi means, in the Shona language, "the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains." Sadly, it is hard not to regard the recent deluge of violence as those spring rains, made possible, if not inevitable, by the refusal to reckon with previous atrocities. Still, by now, few should be able to claim ignorance of the horrors of the past. In 1997, the indigenous Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJPZ) released its report detailing extensive human rights abuses carried out by Mugabe's military. Unlike most of today's violence, however, the Gukurahundi had an ethnocidal as well as a political component, directed as it was at both Ndebele-speaking Zimbabwean citizens and supporters of Mugabe's erstwhile political allies in ZAPU. Published during a period of unusual stability and openness in Zimbabwe, and with an eye towards South African-style reconciliation between perpetrators and victims, the initial CCJPZ report, Breaking the Silence, seems to have done little to stem a renewed outbreak of political violence.

Now, however, with the report's recent republication in both South Africa and the United States, there remains little excuse for turning a blind eye to Mugabe's long history of human rights violations. This 10th anniversary edition of the CCJPZ report, now entitled Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands, is prefaced by a mea culpa by Zimbabwe-born feminist and human rights activist Elinor Sisulu, daughter-in-law of African National Congress stalwarts Walter and Albertina Sisulu. As she admits, when she lived in Harare in the 1980s, even if one could not avoid reports of growing brutality in Matabeleland, "many of us were too enamored of our great liberation hero to allow ourselves to confront all the evidence of his direct complicity." As is often the case in these circumstances, a naïve czarism took hold, as ardent supporters of Zimbabwe's revolution told themselves that Mugabe's underlings "cannot be giving a true picture of what is happening otherwise he would not allow it." To her credit, Sisulu now confesses that as she "read this report I felt a deep sense of shame about my own silence" during the 1980s.

Sisulu also notes that "those responsible for the most heinous acts against unarmed civilians were not held accountable for their actions, thus strengthening the culture of impunity that prevails in Zimbabwe" to this day. The confidence that murder, torture, and terror can be carried out without consequences haunts current politics in Zimbabwe. ZANU-PF youth rampages; torture and mass beatings; CIO (Mugabe's dreaded intelligence agency) detentions; food embargoes to use starvation as collective punishment; and pre-electoral violence designed to subdue any political challenge: all of these tactics ZANU-PF deployed in the mid-1980s against the Ndebele and ZAPU. Judging from the disturbing testimony found in the oral histories collected in Hope Deferred, the same methods have been used to suppress the MDC over the past decade. Perhaps the most striking continuity of all are the nightlong "re-education" meetings, or pungwes, during which recalcitrants are repeatedly beaten and forced to sing praise songs to ZANU-PF and to Mugabe. The tactic of the pungwe goes all the way back to ZANU's efforts to "mobilize the masses" during the Liberation War of the 1970s. The Fifth Brigade then used these pungwes in Matabeleland in the 1980s, and they seem a common method used by ZANU-PF youth militias today against suspected MDC supporters. In the words of the CCJPZ report, the message, now as then, is that "it is impossible to have more than one political party in this country, otherwise you will be punished."

The eventual outcome of the Gukurahundi was the 1987 agreement between Nkomo's ZAPU and Mugabe's ZANU, which, for all intents and purposes, allowed ZANU to swallow up and dominate its broken opposition. There is good reason to fear that Tsvangirai and the MDC will meet the same fate under the current coalition government, which leaves an aging Mugabe and desperate ZANU-PF cadre firmly in control of the state security apparatus. As recently reported in The New York Times, under the current power-sharing arrangement, more than a quarter of all MDC parliamentarians have been arrested, including Moses Mzila-Ndlovu, MDC co-minister for "national healing." He was jailed after attending a memorial prayer service for those killed in Matabeleland in the early 1980s. As the CCJPZ report notes, this culture of impunity had deep roots, for even those white Rhodesians who committed human rights abuses during the Liberation War of the 1970s were never brought to book. "The message to armed personnel," the report concludes, "first in Rhodesia and then in Zimbabwe has remained the same for two decades: you will seldom, if ever, be held accountable for your actions." Moreover, the state of emergency suspending civil liberties first instituted by the Rhodesian Front in 1965 persisted into the postliberation era, and was not lifted until 1990. Continuity of personnel as well meant that the security apparatus of the new state could draw on the "expertise" of the torturers from the previous white regime.

At the time, Mugabe and his apologists insisted that the army's actions in Matabaleland sought to suppress armed "dissidents." Undeniably, longstanding antagonism between the armed wings of ZAPU and ZANU stemming from the Liberation War beset portions of southern and western Zimbabwe in the early 1980s. Moreover, apartheid-era South African agents exacerbated these tensions by engaging in actions that were then blamed on ZAPU, and even supporting an armed band of disenchanted former ZAPU guerrillas, who themselves committed atrocities in southern and western Zimbabwe.

Nevertheless, as the report points out, there were really two battles being fought in Matabeleland: one against a small group of armed dissidents and South African-sponsored destabilizers, the other against Ndebele speakers and unarmed civilian partisans of Nkomo's ZAPU, carried out by the notorious Fifth Brigade. This unit, trained in North Korea, and deliberately restricted to Shona-speakers, committed most of the human rights abuses in Matabeleland between 1983 and 1987. In essence, using the genuine existence of small numbers of armed "dissidents" as cover, the government refused to recognize a distinction between political supporters of ZAPU and armed bands of rebels actually bent on disrupting the embryonic Zimbabwean state. The indiscriminate targeting of civilians in Matabeleland soon took on an ethnic, not to say genocidal, character: "With the deployment of 5 Brigade, the trend of failing to distinguish the possibly innocent from the possibly guilty," the CCJPZ bluntly concluded in its report on the ensuing atrocities, "was broadened from a presumption of guilt against ZAPU to a presumption of guilt against all Ndebele speakers."

As Godwin reports after his recent visit to Matabeleland, a quarter-century later, the massacres "still loom large to the people" in this corner of Zimbabwe, "an unrequited tragedy that shattered their society." The Ndebele still hunger for justice, one of the reasons many suspect Mugabe will not relinquish power now, lest he be held accountable these crimes. But without any acknowledgement of the genocidal attack they suffered, Godwin observes, "the Ndebele have been stranded by history." Amidst all the critical attention Zimbabwe has received of late, it is worth asking again why so many were able to turn their heads during the Gukurahundi. In part this can be laid to wishful thinking, as many liberals and leftists proved eager to see liberation succeed in southern Africa as an alternative to the apartheid regime in South Africa. It would be foolish to argue, as some do, that not enough information was available at the time. (Godwin's stunning 1984 exposé in The Sunday Times is a good example). Still, the massacres in Matabeleland took place before the digital age made all news instantly accessible around the globe. Finally, it must be said that many ordinary Zimbabweans living in Harare and Shona-dominated sections of the country never bothered to look too hard at what was being done to their Ndebele compatriots in an ethnically defined section of the country. Not so the suppression of the MDC today, which cuts across ethnic and regional lines in new ways.

Moreover, the nagging question for the left and for erstwhile defenders of Mugabe and the Zimbabwean Revolution is, at what point did one realize that the freedom fighter had become a tyrant? Was the violent suppression of the MDC clearly foreshadowed by the events in Matabeleland during the 1980s, in which upwards of 20,000 people were slaughtered by Mugabe's troops? To ask this uncomfortable question is to invite denunciation from some quarters as a supporter of "British and American imperialism," but in the face of the evidence in The Fear and the gut-wrenching oral histories recently collected in Hope Deferred (not to mention countless news stories and human rights reports), to persist in this alibi is madness. The MDC clearly represents the aspirations of millions of ordinary black Zimbabweans, not just the interests of a handful of wealthy white commercial farmers.

Nevertheless, the land invasions of 2000-2001 that inaugurated the country's downward economic and political spiral were a masterstroke by an aging revolutionary. At once Mugabe could reclaim the mantle of anti-imperialist scourge of the white farmers, liberator of the peasantry, and defender of the legacy of the Chimurenga, the guerrilla war, and distribute valuable goodies to cement the loyalty of his wavering ZANU-PF cronies. Yet, even if one takes the position that the rural events that portended the subsequent political repression of the MDC offered some kind of redistributive justice for Zimbabwe's landless, as Mahmood Mamdani shamelessly did in the pages of the London Review of Books a few years ago, this still begs the question: Why are so many of the victims of Mugabe's thugs ordinary black Zimbabweans, farmers, workers, and peasants, domestic workers, trade unionists, and students? Western leftists who continue to defend this fraud may have a heavy moral bill to pay in the future.



James Kilgore's novel of politics and memory, We Are all Zimbabweans Now, just published in the United States, suggests how that reckoning cannot be divorced from the years of the Gukurahundi, when Zimbabwe was the destination du jour on the radical leftist solidarity itinerary. Kilgore, aka John Pape, wrote the novel while serving six years in federal prison, and the story of how he came to be there offers an intriguing backdrop to the book. A one-time member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, Kilgore fled the United States after a 1975 bank robbery gone bad. Authorities finally caught up with him in postapartheid South Africa in 2002, where he had worked since 1990 hiding in plain sight as a highly respected left-wing educator and activist. In between, during the early 1980s, he had taught high school history in revolutionary Zimbabwe.

No doubt it is this latter experience that lends We Are all Zimbabweans Now, set in postliberation Harare in the mid-1980s, its intense flavor of authenticity. And despite Kilgore's claims that current events in Zimbabwe had little effect on him while he was writing the book, the novel's undoubted power comes precisely from its foreshadowing of the political repression unleashed by Mugabe and ZANU-PF since 2000. Mugabe critics and acolytes alike could do worse than read this novel in order to grasp the deep connections between unacknowledged past and violent present in Zimbabwe.

We Are all Zimbabweans Now certainly reads like it was written longhand in prison. Kilgore relies on short, simple, declarative sentences, as if he were afraid of frequent interruptions. Writing without a computer means not wanting to make corrections, and few words are wasted. Kilgore yokes this economy of style to a tale of political disillusionment, or at least awakening. During the years of the Gukurahundi, most people on the left refused to countenance criticism of Mugabe, preferring to ignore troubling reports, to attribute them to Western propaganda, or to excuse violence as the necessity of counter-revolution against South African-induced destabilization. If the atrocities became undeniable, they were met with a refusal to see Mugabe's complicity. Ben Dabney, the narrator and protagonist of Kilgore's novel, fits this pattern to a tee.

Dabney's original political naïveté, as a Midwestern history PhD student arriving in a newly liberated Zimbabwe in 1981, knows no bounds: he describes Mugabe as "more forgiving than Mother Teresa, as single-minded as Martin Luther King or the Dalai Lama." His aim is to write about the Liberation War and the famed racial reconciliation that followed. And, while he finds easy acceptance among the black Zimbabweans he interviews, socializes with, teaches, flirts with, and sleeps with, Ben discovers that Zimbabwean postliberation politics can be treacherous. As a Zimbabwean historian who recruits him to investigate the mysterious "car accident" death of a liberation hero fallen out of favor warns, "History is not an academic exercise in Zimbabwe."

Kilgore's devastating and quite funny portrait of the radical expatriates gathered in Harare is all the more effective because he was presumably one of them at the time. When an older, more experienced "Africa hand" warns Ben that "Mugabe is an authoritarian wolf in the sheep's clothing of a quasi-democrat" and "reconciliation is a public relations ploy," Ben dismisses him as a neocolonial. "A man [like Mugabe] doesn't sit in prison for ten years, commit himself to peace and reconciliation and then turn around and act like his oppressors," Ben convinces himself. And, like his fellow revolution groupies, Ben is quick to dismiss talk of atrocities filtering back from the Ndebele-dominated southwestern corner of the country, Matabeleland.

Events slowly begin to crack Ben's romantic attachment to the Mugabe cult, however. He soon discovers that despite all the talk of building socialism, the "chefs" — government ministers — are busy lining their pockets and preying on schoolgirls. "Reconciliation" seems to be in short supply — until Ben travels to the countryside, where much to his surprise he finds white commercial farmers helping the administrator of a black rural cooperative.

Matabeleland is a different story; there, rapprochement between Shona and Ndebele seems impossible. As soon as Ben arrives there for a visit he observes the tension created by the relentless search for "dissidents": military roadblocks, a frightened population of Ndebele-speakers, and capricious beatings administered by notorious Shona-speaking Fifth Brigade soldiers to the teachers at the rural school, Vukani, Ben is visiting (cleverly, vukani means "wake up" in both Zulu and Xhosa). When he reports what he has seen to his comrade and Zimbabwean lover back in Harare, Ben discovers to his dismay that even she gives credence to the reports of anti-ZANU dissidents who must be smashed. And even Ben himself continues to insist that Mugabe does not know and would never countenance such behavior from his soldiers. Ben ingenuously cultivates his journalistic contacts in an attempt to call attention to the story, but no one seems interested. His activities do catch the attention of Mugabe's feared CIO however, who open his mail and search his house.

Eventually, with a helpful push from his unsympathetic and reactionary dissertation advisor and his Zimbabwean girlfriend, Ben comes around to seeing the reality of "two Mugabes: the 'liberator' ... and the man in power who needs to be curbed before it is too late." Kilgore's novel closes with Ben witnessing the flawed election of 1985. Even then, violence deployed by ZANU partisans against ZAPU supporters marred Zimbabwe's newborn democracy. As one comrade observes, "ZANU didn't plant the mango tree so others could eat the fruit," an aphorism that appears to govern ZANU-PF's electoral behavior to this day. Without irony, the 1987 election was followed by Mugabe's pronouncement that "we are all Zimbabweans now," which paved the way for the final liquidation of ZAPU as a viable opposition party.

Kilgore left Zimbabwe in the late 1980s, but as he told me in an email exchange, his final political disillusion with Mugabe's regime began with that same 1985 election, when he listened from the grounds of the township school where he taught to the cries of people being beaten up by ZANU gangs in the houses next door. It is hard not to imagine that the bad taste left by the increasingly authoritarian revolutionaries of ZANU-PF helped sour Kilgore on his own disastrous youthful vanguardism; perhaps one can read Kilgore's moving novel as his own attempt at redemption and reconciliation. Tellingly, however, Ben Dabney's disillusionment with the new nation's leadership never dampens his faith in the struggle of ordinary Zimbabweans for freedom and dignity. The discovery Ben makes as a student of history is that he need not focus on Mugabe and his corrupt "chefs" to write the history of liberation in Zimbabwe. Instead, he should interview "quiet heroes" like "Mrs. Taruvinga," a domestic worker whose contribution to the revolution was taking soup to the liberation fighters in the bush and sending her children off to war.

These are the sorts of people who today have joined the MDC. And while we obviously cannot read Ben Dabney's fictional book, The Quiet Heroes of Liberation, a useful analogue is happily available. Peter Orner's and Annie Holmes's Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives collects 24 oral histories from interviews they conducted with victims of Mugabe's political terror, both inside and outside the country. Part of McSweeney's invaluable "Voice of Witness" series designed to expose human rights abuses around the globe, Hope Deferred offers clear testimony that "the Gukurahundi set the stage for future, similar violent actions on the part of the government" of Zimbabwe. The book presents vivid personal accounts of political repression coupled with superb appendices explaining the land invasions, the country's subsequent steep economic decline, the HIV/AIDS crisis, the contested 2008 election, and the desperate plight of the estimated 3 million Zimbabwean exiles residing in South Africa.

One of Hope Deferred's great strengths is its geographic sweep. The interviews are arranged to follow a physical journey — from the difficulties of political exile, to the terrors of crossing the border to South Africa, through Matabeleland, into the rural heartland, the eastern highlands, and finally the capital and urban base of the MDC, Harare. Although the circumstances of Zimbabwe's human rights crisis differ in each of these settings, everywhere the story is the same: Mugabe and ZANU-PF are determined to hold onto power at any cost. Although many of the interviewees are (or were) MDC activists, they nevertheless represent an extraordinary cross-section of Zimbabwean society. Included among them are students, farmworkers, commercial farmers (white and black alike), teachers, former soldiers and policemen, trade unionists, the former director of the CCJPZ, and domestic workers much like Ben Dabney's "Mrs. Taruvinga."

Despite the disturbing catalogue of suffering represented by their collective experience, these men and women are not mere victims. Rather, their immense courage and quiet endurance in the face of unspeakable terror comes through page after page, as it does in the interviews conducted by Godwin for The Fear. The very fact that these men and women are willing to bare their souls to Orner and Holmes, even inside contemporary Zimbabwe, is a potent reminder of how unbowed they remain. Godwin calls them asine mabvi, "men without knees." As one ex-policeman, who experienced both the Gukurahundi and then severe torture two decades later because of his MDC activism, told Orner and Holmes, "The party is not paying me. The taxpayers of Zimbabwe are paying me. I work for the people of Zimbabwe. I don't work for ZANU-PF." This was not a sentiment Mugabe or his political party would tolerate. Yet, as another victim informs Orner and Holmes, "We are pressed, but we are not crushed; we are down, but we are not destroyed." Or, as a former liberation fighter tells Ben Dabney in We Are All Zimbabweans Now, "Freedom is not such an easy thing or permanent. It comes and goes. You have it for a while, and then someone comes and steals it away. And you fight again." Amen to that.


LARB Contributor

Alex Lichtenstein is the author of Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South (Verso, 1996). He teaches U.S. and South African history at Indiana University, in Bloomington, and is a book review editor for the internet discussion group H-SAfrica.


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