Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Silence upon the Southwest: A Historiographical Interrogation of Literature and Discourse on the Gukurahundi Massacres (1982-1987)

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Silence upon the Southwest: A Historiographical Interrogation of Literature and Discourse on the Gukurahundi Massacres (1982-1987)

Article excerpt


On April 18th, 1980, Zimbabwe obtained its independence, marking the end of the brutal guerrilla war for liberation that began in the 1960s. This rebirth of a nation came with proclamations of national reconciliation and unity, famously articulated in new Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's inaugural speech. Given the tumultuous history of the Southern African country, the task of reconciliation was always going to be a challenge. Not only had Blacks fought against White colonial rule, there had been rival factions in the Black community, whether politician, militant, or civilian.

One of the pillars of this reconciliation was the consolidation of Rhodesian Armed Forces (the military of the colonial government) with Zimbawean People' Liberation Army (ZIPRA) and Zimbabwean National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the armed wings of the two main Black nationalist organizations Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) and Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) respectively, into the Zimbabwean National Army (ZNA). Unconvinced by the hasty attempt to unify with parties they had long warred with, several ZIPRA fighters either refused to join or deserted the ZNA, and set out to be heard by launching a dissident reign of terror across the Matabeleland region in the south-western part of the country. In response, and in fear that the hopeful national project of unity was unraveling early, Mugabe unleashed a group of North Korean trained soldiers, the Fifth Brigade, to quell the dissidents. Although the dissidents numbered in the hundreds, what followed was slaughter of thousands of people in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions--dissident and civilian alike. While estimates vary, some sources have suggested that up 30,000 died from the onslaught from 1983 until the Unity Accord was signed in 1987 (Moyo 111).

Despite an unfathomable amount of carnage and destruction, little has been written about the 1980s terror, locally known as Gukurahundi, after the presidentordained nickname of the Fifth Brigade. What has been written varies drastically in detail, begging for further study. For example, Afro-Marxist Regimes estimates the death toll at 3,000 while higher end estimates say 30,000 and other literature is scattered within that range. Most importantly, however, might be the fact that nobody has been brought to book for the atrocities, and there has been little redress for the victims and their families.

This historiographical interrogation aspires to discuss the existent and, crucially, non-existent discourse on the atrocities. How could the massacre of a possible 30,000 people in a country of under nine million people go not only unnoticed, but even coexist with narratives of a "Zimbabwe success story" (Darborn 1) during its first ten years? This study aims to contribute towards national restoration and justice, as well as provide a scholarly framework through which such phenomena can be anticipated and avoided in the future.

Literature Review

"... Ironically, most historians complain that the general public is ignorant about the past--especially Africa's past. How can it be otherwise, when all that intellectual labor ends up under bushels rather than invitations to informed and engaged public discourse?" (Charumbira 17).

Amidst the scarcity for literature on Gukurahundi, the 1997 report by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJPZ) in partnership with the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF) originally titled Breaking the Silence: Building True Peace (republished in 2007 as Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe--the edition that is referenced in this project) is the most comprehensive and widely cited publication currently available. Throughout my research, I found that all publications on Gukurahundi to come out after the report was published cite it. The report makes use of a combination of several sources: data compiled by CCJPZ during 1980s when the atrocities were occurring (they were the first and most vocal voice to confront the government on their misdeeds in this situation) which included 17 sworn statements from victims as well as several other testimonies drawn from a database of 1000 victims; the Chronicle, a provincial Matabeleland newspaper that reported disproportionately more on the attacks by the dissidents than on the retribution by the government sanctioned forces; human rights and legal documents; medical reports; and the few attempts at academic writing on the subject that are in existence. …

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