Zanu PF, Gukurahundi and apartheid South Africa

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IN the aftermath of Zanu PF founder and former minister Enos Nkala’s death, debate has been raging about his role in Zimbabwe’s political history, particularly the liberation struggle, as well as his contribution to nation-building, and also repression in the mid-south-western regions immediately after Independence in 1980.
In a bid to shed more light on events during the dark era of state-sponsored killings in the Midlands and the South-West –– the Gukurahundi period, in which Nkala was actively involved despite his denials –– we publish an insightful piece by Kent State University’s Professor Timothy Scarnecchia, an expert on Zimbabwean and African history.
This article examines the role of diplomatic relations during the first stages of the 1983 Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe. Based on a preliminary reading of South African Department of Foreign Affairs files for 1983, the article suggests that Cold War relations between Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom helped to provide cover for the Zimbabwean National Army’s Fifth Brigade’s campaign of terror.
Similarly, American support for President Robert Mugabe’s claims to be a pro-Western leader committed to non-racialism helped provide international cover for the atrocities.
At the same time, evidence shows high-ranking Zanu PF officials negotiated with the South African Defence Forces in 1983 to cooperate in their efforts to keep Zapu from supporting South Africa’s ANC operations in Zimbabwe. The 5th Brigade’s campaign therefore served a purpose for apartheid South Africa, even as Zanu PF officials rationalised the Gukurahundi violence in international and anti-apartheid circles as a campaign against South African destabilisation.
The article suggests that the diplomatic history of the Gukurahundi can provide a useful lens for understanding the tragedy in both regional and international Cold War contexts.
In her popular book Dinner with Mugabe, Heidi Holland includes a quote from Mugabe where he accuses some factions in Zanu PF of “cutting deals with the British and Americans” after the 2005 elections.
Mugabe asks: “Since when have the British, the Americans, been friends with Zanu PF?” Mugabe’s often repeated claim that the United States and the United Kingdom are the enemies of Zanu PF and hence of Zimbabwe does not stand up well to historical scrutiny.Advertisement

A party which is 50 years old has experienced a number of victories, and many of these were partly the result of American and British assistance, both directly and indirectly.
There are at least four periods in the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe during which the US and the UK offered opportunities to Mugabe and his allies to attain power and then consolidate it.
The first was in 1963 in Tanzania after the formation of Zanu.
The second was during Henry Kissinger’s 1976 shuttle diplomacy and the subsequent removal of radical forces from Zipa following the talks. The third period was during the elections after the Lancaster House Agreement when the British, under American pressure, rushed an election and peace settlement in order to pre-empt further Soviet and Cuban involvement in Zimbabwe, which resulted in a victory for Mugabe.
Mugabe received extensive support from the UK and US governments, while simultaneously portraying his government as a leading Frontline state in the anti-apartheid struggle.
However, the anti-apartheid efforts of Zanu PF were constrained by the realities of regional power. Faced with a much more powerful South African military and economy, Mugabe found it more convenient to cooperate with the apartheid South African Defence Forces against Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu given the historic ties between Zapu and South Africa’s ANC.
Cold War realities meant that Mugabe could benefit from his rivals’ longstanding support from the Soviets and the links between Soviet support for Zapu and the ANC. Mugabe and others in Zimbabwe’s new government therefore worked with South Africa to keep Zapu from providing bases for the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe in Zimbabwe.
This article will take a preliminary look at a fourth period, which took place during 1983, and examine how the Cold War offered Mugabe and Zanu PF the international cover to carry out atrocities against Zimbabwean civilians in a campaign known as the Gukurahundi.
This military campaign, which began in January 1983 and then returned before, during, and after the 1985 elections, cost the lives of thousands of Zimbabweans. Those involved as perpetrators of the violence were granted a blanket amnesty after the creation of a new unity government in 1987, and thus far calls for a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address this violence have not been answered.
The archival documents for early 1980s’ diplomatic history with Zimbabwe are just becoming available in the US and the UK, and more documents will be released over the next few years. Some very helpful evidence is now available in the South African Department of Foreign Affairs files for 1983 in Pretoria. Based on the latter, this article outlines some of the difficult issues historians of foreign relations will confront as more diplomatic sources become available.
As there already exists a large amount of writing in the state formation literature on Zimbabwe’s first few years, and the ways in which Zanu PF consolidated power at the expense of Zapu, this article will examine this period through the lens of diplomacy. The Cold War gave extraordinary powers to small states and allowed African nationalist leaders to manipulate their often-precarious ties to a mass base through the rhetoric of anti-imperialism, socialism and the non-aligned movement.
It appears that all sides, while recognising the relative imbalances of power, nevertheless understood there were times when intransigency on international issues gave Mugabe and the Zanu PF elites greater bargaining power than would have been possible without the threat of Cold War co-operation with the Soviets and Cubans.
The violence created by Cold War interventions into decolonisation from 1960 to the early 1990s was tragic and costly to southern Africa’s populations, although one cannot forget that for certain elites this offered room to manoeuvre against their rivals and to benefit directly from attendant foreign aid.
Given this hot Cold War in southern Africa, as Vladimir Shubin has called it, Mugabe, like other Frontline State leaders, was able to have both American and Soviet support for the new nation. The Soviets, who had previously supported Mugabe’s rival Nkomo and Zapu, realised it would be better to try and influence policies in Harare directly through Mugabe and those in Zanu PF who were ostensibly pro-Soviet.
Because of Western pressure on Mugabe to show his anti-communist credentials in exchange for direct financial aid, the Soviet embassy was the last embassy to be opened in Harare after Independence, and despite inroads in terms of technical and some military support, the Soviets were not made to feel welcome in the early 1980s.
Part of the agreement to establish relations with the Soviets included the insistence that the Soviet Union breaks ties with Zapu and deal only with Zanu PF. According to Shubin, the Soviets had already stopped their material support to Zapu “immediately after the political settlement was reached”, but Zanu PF wanted to rule out any future Soviet aid to Zapu.
The Americans viewed Mugabe and Zimbabwe as a non-Soviet southern African state that with sufficient funding and support could help maintain a balance against Soviet and Cuban influence in Angola, Mozambique and to a certain extent in Zambia.
However, Cold War interests were not the only factor influencing American diplomatic views of Mugabe. American opinion favoured seeing Mugabe’s new state as a victim of past racial oppression.
Therefore Mugabe’s strategy to reconcile with white farmers by allowing them to remain on their land and with white owners of businesses was very popular with American diplomats and a non-racial reconciliation made Mugabe popular in Washington.
As Nancy Mitchell argues, the Carter administration had feared direct Cuban and Soviet involvement in Zimbabwe that would likely lead to a war between South Africa and the Frontline states. In order to avoid such a conflict, the Americans pressured the British to work with Mugabe rather than Nkomo and Bishop Abel Muzorewa as the leader of the Patriotic Front preferred by America.
The British and the South Africans were less convinced than the Americans of Mugabe’s non-racialism, given their substantial personal and financial ties to white-controlled interests in Rhodesia, but Mugabe’s peaceful transition to power in 1980 became a major foreign policy success for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during her first term in office.
As Chris Saunders and Sue Onslow suggest, the Americans saw the peaceful transition to Zimbabwe brokered by the British as “the greatest reverse the Russians have suffered in Africa for years”.
Saunders and Onslow point out that “much of this was, in reality, the West being purblind in the context of the Cold War, for Mugabe continued to use violence to achieve political goals in independent Zimbabwe.”
The West responded to the “success” of Zimbabwean Independence with development funds, both as a Cold War strategy and because it served to reward Mugabe for reconciliation and racial tolerance in 1980. There was a hope that Zimbabwe would stand as a model for transition in Namibia and South Africa in order to avoid further Cold War conflicts.
The amount of Cold War funding for Zimbabwe was quite sizeable. In 1981, the Zimcord meeting produced an impressive commitment from numerous donors to assist Zimbabwe.
“At current exchange rates the total aid attracted by Zimbabwe now amounts to US$1,95 billion. This is more than the US$1,5 billion suggested –– over five years –– by Dr Henry Kissinger as part of the 1976 settlement package. Furthermore, the Zimcord aid refers only to a three-year period,” the meeting concluded.
Just prior to the Zimcord conference, which was to include representatives from 40 countries, 16 United Nations organisations, and 10 international agencies, Mugabe linked development funding to the South African threat.
“We call on the international community to show its fullest practical support for our nonracial democratic system and put into practical effect its abhorrence and repugnance of the apartheid system in South Africa,” Mugabe said.
“Failure to give Zimbabwe support for its reconstruction and development plans would bolster the evil designs of the apartheid regime in South Africa to hold our economy to ransom and destabilise our political system.”
This strategy succeeded for the first few years of Zimbabwe’s existence, but the Cold War-funded security state did not in itself sufficiently enrich the Zanu PF elites, as Norma Kriger demonstrates, given the continued domination of white businesses and farms, and white control over key government bureaucracies. Mugabe and his colleagues in Zanu PF decided to take action to gain access to wealth for party elites, but they were constrained by the international perception of non-racial reconciliation, which made it difficult to attack white business and farming interests.
Faced with entrenched opposition, Mugabe and Zanu PF looked to ex-guerrilla war veterans as their main patronage group. At first this included both Zanla and Zipra, but by 1981 the ruling party, Zanu PF, and its Zanla guerrillas could not conceal their preference for building power on an exclusively Zanla guerrilla base and for using only Zanla’s guerrilla struggle for legitimacy. The resulting attacks on Zapu’s political organisation, former Zipra ex-combatants, economic assets, and civilian base became the fundamental basis for Operation Gukurahundi in 1983.
Historian Sue Onslow has investigated South Africa’s role in trying to make sure Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF did not come to power in 1980. Onslow sums up South Africa’s strategy after Mugabe’s electoral victory and its impact on the conflict between Zanu and Zapu.
“Mugabe’s victory shocked Pretoria. This drove South Africa back onto violence and subversion in neighbouring countries, rather than trying to manipulate the political process,” she says.
Onslow argues that the involvement of South Africa in supplying a small amount of weapons to Super-Zapu dissidents “rebounded on Zapu/Zipra forces” in the Gukurahundi “as the Mugabe government … was able to stigmatise the disaffected Zipra combatants as stooges of the apartheid state, manipulated by a malevolent and oppressive foreign power”.
South Africa did more to destabilise Zimbabwe in these years, but the support for Super-Zapu dissidents proved to be the most important factor in helping the Zanu PF government rationalise the Gukurahundi.
South Africa’s apartheid president PW Botha launched his “total strategy” to defend South Africa from communist aggression in 1981.
As Stephan Chan describes it, Zimbabwe was not the main military target. Angola and Mozambique were. The idea was to make Zimbabwe and Zambia feel as if they were caught, west and east, in a pincer — so anxious they dared not look south.
This is an important point to remember, how in a Cold War context, Zimbabwe’s relative insignificance in South Africa’s “total strategy” permitted Zanu PF to take advantage of the South African threat internationally while avoiding a direct conflict through co-operation at the highest levels. The Zimbabwean economy was still almost 75% dependent on South African trade in these first few years, so there was little alternative, but to co-operate with Pretoria.
As Stephen Ellis and Tsepo Sechaba have shown, the South African military attacked ANC targets in Zimbabwe with little opposition. Such attacks included the assassination of the ANC’s Joe Gqabi in Harare in July 1981.
South African agents made a series of bomb attacks against the Zimbabwean government. One of these attacks, in December 1981, was an unsuccessful attempt to kill the Zanu PF central committee members in their Harare headquarters. The bomb was detonated in a room above, but the central committee had postponed the meeting.
Given the ability by South Africa to act with impunity in Harare, there was little chance that Zanu PF would be able to confront South Africa militarily.
The Zimbabwean government responded by using the existence of these attacks to consolidate power internally by arresting those former white officers allegedly serving as South African agents, Zapu leaders and attacking the party’s supporters.
By 1982 South Africa’s strategy to attack Mugabe had begun to create its desired effects. As Jocelyn Alexander, JoAnn McGregor, and Terence Ranger argue in their history of Matabeleland, of all the South African acts of sabotage between 1981 and 1982, the most important for understanding the Gukurahundi was “Operation Drama” of late 1982, an effort which involved recruiting and arming a Zimbabwean insurgent group dubbed Super-Zapu.
Various South African agents, many of them recruited from the Rhodesian intelligence service, also played a key role in fomenting distrust.
Alexander et al describe the conflict between these South African-trained and armed Super-Zapu and the “pure Zapu” dissidents between 1982 and 1983 with the South Africans supported ones “never more than 100 (and probably substantially fewer) inside the country”.
Although outnumbered by the “pure Zapu” who wanted nothing to do with South Africa, these Super-Zapu dissidents had better weapons and more ammunition, which was in short supply by 1983. The former Zipra fighters who became dissidents never totalled more than 400.
Joseph Hanlon suggested that the Super-Zapu developed as a response to the deployment of the Fifth Brigade, as South Africa took advantage of the growing anger of former Zipra fighters and civilians living in refugee camps in Botswana.
While Alexander et al stress the small numbers of South African-trained and supplied Super-Zapu, and the response to them by former Zipra dissidents, the reality was that public knowledge of South African support supplied Mugabe, in the Cold War and regional context, the necessary pretext to rationalise the attack on Zapu and Zipra as primarily a response to an external intervention.
In January 1983, the Fifth Brigade of the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA), consisting of between 2 500 and 3 500 soldiers, was deployed by Mugabe in Matabeleland and the Midlands provinces to “crush” the dissidents.
Made up almost entirely of former Zanla fighters, the Fifth Brigade’s operation was called Gukurahundi, a Shona term that translates as “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”. It proceeded to terrorise the populations of the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces, leaving thousands of dead civilians and many others traumatised by their terror tactics.
Mugabe’s ability to contain information about Gukurahundi was one reason for the lack of international outcry. The Zimbabwean state invoked curfews and denied the media access to those areas witnessing the worst atrocities.
The state also used Rhodesia-era laws to impose a state of emergency, arrest and detain Zapu leaders, and deport international journalists for exposing human rights abuses.
But another reason was the general sympathy most informed Westerners had for Mugabe and Zanu PF given its role as a Frontline State. The Zanu PF official line — that given the South African support for the dissidents, the response of the Fifth Brigade was warranted — fits well with the anti-apartheid movement’s solidarity with the Frontline States.
But stories of the Fifth Brigade’s atrocities did manage to get out to the wider world. One of the most perceptive commentaries came from the Guardian’s Nick Davies: “The slaughter of innocent villages in Matabeleland is only the most bloody symptom of a government clampdown which has seen thousands detained without trial, opponents tortured, the press muzzled, the courts defied and trade unions brought to heel.
“The rebellion of armed ‘dissidents’ in Matabeleland is a direct challenge to the government’s whole posture. The government’s response has been equally direct — a deliberate and determined campaign to wipe out the dissidents, to liquidate Nkomo’s Zapu party accused of directing them, and to cause such terror among ordinary civilians that their popular support will wither.”
Davies’ reporting presented the realpolitik behind the rhetoric. It shows that there were brave reporters willing and quite capable of unmasking the masquerade at work in the rhetoric and propaganda produced in Harare and echoed in London and Washington.
The views expressed in South African Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) files for 1983 pointed out the failure of Western Cold War powers to criticise Mugabe for the Gukurahundi, but there is also a sense that the Gukurahundi was viewed as a “success” from the South African point of view.
It offered a number of “benefits”, first and foremost making it difficult for the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe to use Matabeleland as a base for training and attacks across the border into South Africa. It also worked to discredit Mugabe’s international reputation as a prime minister representing a party committed to national reconciliation.
It also, paradoxically, pushed Zimbabwe to co-operate with South Africa on military and intelligence issues, however tentatively and mistrustingly.
Bi-annual meetings between the intelligence staff of Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and their counterparts in the South African Defence Force (SADF) were held in 1982 and 1983. The SADF notes of a February 7 and 8 1983 meeting in Harare are in the DFA files.
The minutes of this meeting, which took place one month after the Fifth Brigade had been deployed in Matabeleland North, indicate a much less strident tone concerning South Africa’s role in supporting dissidents than that heard in the Zimbabwean media.
The joint intelligence leaders talked about the “role of communist powers in Southern Africa”, “internal terrorism”, and the “security situation in Angola, Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe”. The discussion reportedly noted that “Botswana is falling heavily under the influence of the USSR and accommodating Zipra, ANC and Swapo, which is a cause for common concern” and that “Zimbabwe does not consider political support of the ANC in the same category as military support.
For this reason, they provide office facilities to the ANC in Harare but do not allow them to infiltrate over the RSA/Zimbabwe border”. At the same time, the CIO stated that the so-called dissident problem in Matabeleland was serious and that the rift between Zanu PF and PF Zapu was deep. They conceded that the Lancaster House formula was partly to blame for this situation.
The Zimbabweans repeated the caveat that “although Mr Mugabe was an outspoken Marxist, it did not necessarily mean that he was in the USSR camp”. The South Africans proposed the formation of a “Joint Crisis Committee” to handle “any matter which caused tension to the relations between the two countries and needed prompt rectification to diffuse the situation”.
The Zimbabweans’ reply was that “such a committee is not deemed necessary as no conflict existed between the two countries”. The South Africans suggested the Zimbabweans should accept Prime Minister PW Botha’s “offer to sign a non-aggression pact and the deployment of monitoring teams on either side of the Zimbabwe border”.
Zimbabwe’s Minister of State for Security, Emmerson Mnangagwa, met personally with the SADF team. According to the SADF report, Mnangagwa took personal credit for obtaining “permission from the Prime Minister (Mugabe) for the SADF visit to Harare and for future intelligence meetings of a similar nature.
He claimed that he initiated the RSA/Angola and RSA/Mozambique dialogue”. Mnangagwa also stated that “there were no matters in the Zimbabwe/ RSA relations that were so serious that it required meetings at ministerial level.”
Mnangagwa’s lack of interest in addressing Zimbabwe’s issues with South Africa directly with the SADF demonstrates the inequality of the relationship between South Africa’s military and Zimbabwe’s, as well as the fear that any formal co-operation would be detrimental to Zimbabwe’s image internationally.
In September 1983 American diplomat Robert Cabelly told the South Africans that “Zimbabwe felt that Mozambique and Angola had in fact let them down by having ministerial meetings with South Africa”.
This is an interesting example of how the Americans and South Africans were hearing different things from the Zimbabweans, especially given Mnangagwa’s taking credit for initiating ministerial dialogue between South Africa and the two countries most affected by South African military intervention. Cold War and regional diplomacy were obviously not on the same channel.
Later, in October 1983, Mnangagwa held a press conference reported in Zimbabwe’s state-controlled Herald newspaper and recorded with commentary in the DFA files. Mnangagwa presented two young Zimbabweans, one 16 and the other 18 years old, who were allegedly trained by South Africa to return to Zimbabwe to fight as dissidents.
These two young men were described as having confessed to murdering “a white farmer, his children and the foreman in the Gwanda area”, of ambushes on government vehicles, of “cutting off the hands of two ZNA soldiers and shooting them west of Beitbridge”, and the “destruction of DDF tractors, caterpillars etc near Kezi.”
Mnangagwa reported that these two young men had admitted to being in South Africa for four months, where they were allegedly trained to go to Zimbabwe “to unseat Mugabe’s government as he was not fit to rule”. Their trainers allegedly told them Nkomo was “the right man to govern Zimbabwe” and instructed them to return to “destroy everything and murder farmers as they were the ones who grow food that is eaten by Mugabe’s dogs”.
The DFA commentary pointed out “the fact that Zimbabwe authorities did not raise the matter through the normal channels and instead called an international press conference indicates that this was yet another propaganda exercise to reinforce the destabilisation theme.
The extent of international media coverage will be an indication of the effectiveness of this attempt to prove SA complicity in dissident activities based on dubious circumstantial evidence”.
Scarnecchia is the author of The Urban Roots Democracy and Political Violence in Zimbabwe: Harare and Highfield, 1940-1964 and many other works on the country