What Was Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe?

Robert Mugabe and the Attempted Genocide of the Ndebele

Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo
Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images

Gukurahundi refers to the attempted genocide of the Ndebele by Robert Mugabe's Fifth Brigade soon after Zimbabwe gained independence. Beginning in January 1983, Mugabe waged a campaign of terror against the people in Matabeleland in the western part of the country. The Gukurahundi massacres are one of the darkest times in the country’s history since its independence -- between 20,000 and 80,000 civilians were killed by the Fifth Brigade.

History of the Shona and Ndebele

There have long been strong feelings between the majority Shona people of Zimbabwe and the Ndebele people in the south of the country. It dates back to the early 1800s when the Ndebele were pushed from their traditional lands in what is now South Africa by the Zulu and Boer. The Ndebele arrived in what is now known as Matabeleland, and in turn pushed out or required tribute from the Shona living in the region.

Independence Comes to Zimbabwe

Independence came to Zimbabwe under the leadership of two distinct groups: the Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu). Both had emerged from the National Democratic Party in the early 60s. ZAPU was led by Joshua Nkomo, a Ndebelel nationalist. ZANU was led by the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, a Ndau, and Robert Mugabe, a Shona.

Mugabe's Rise

Mugabe quickly rose to prominence and gained the post of prime minister on independence. Joshua Nkomo was given a ministerial post in Mugabe's cabinet, but was removed from office in February 1982 -- he was accused of planning to overthrow Mugabe. At the time of independence, North Korea offered to train Zimbabwe's army and Mugabe agreed. More than 100 military experts arrived and began work with the Fifth Brigade. These troops were then deployed in Matabeleland, ostensibly to crush pro-Nkomo ZANU forces, who were, of course, Ndebele.

Early Rain That Washes Away Chaff

Gukurahundi, which in Shona means "early rain that washes away chaff,' lasted for four years. It was mostly brought to an end when Mugabe and Nkomo reached a conciliation on December 22, 1987, and they signed a unity agreement. Although thousands were killed in Matabeleland and the southeast of Zimbabwe, there was little international recognition of the extensive human rights abuses (called by some an attempted genocide). It was 20 years before a report was undertaken by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and the Legal Resources Foundation of Harare.

The Explicit Orders of Mugabe

Mugabe has revealed little since the 1980s and what he has said was a mixture of denial and obfuscation, as reported in 2015 by TheGuardian.com in the article "New documents claim to prove Mugabe ordered Gukurahundi killings." The closest he came to officially taking responsibility was after Nkomo died in 1999. Mugabe then described the early 1980s as a “moment of madness” – an unclear statement that he has never repeated.

During an interview with a South African talk show host, Mugabe blamed the Gukurahundi murders on armed bandits that were coordinated by Zapu and a few Fifth Brigade soldiers. However, recorded correspondence from his colleagues reveals that in fact “not only was Mugabe fully aware of what was going on” but the Fifth Brigade was acting “under Mugabe’s explicit orders.”

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "What Was Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-gukurahundi-43923. Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2020, August 28). What Was Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-gukurahundi-43923 Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "What Was Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-gukurahundi-43923 (accessed June 2, 2023).