HomeEditorial CommentState-organised starvation during Gukurahundi

State-organised starvation during Gukurahundi

This paper explores an episode of state-perpetrated extreme mass violence and atrocities in south-west Zimbabwe in the 1980s, with specific focus on Matabeleland South between February and April 1984, in what can be termed the second phase of a massive security clampdown, commonly referred to as Gukurahundi.


The first phase of Gukurahundi took place in Matabeleland North in 1983 when state security forces put in place a curfew, and massacred, beat, raped, and tortured hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.

Villages were looted and burned, leaving entire communities devastated.

The second phase of the Gukurahundi campaign was marked by the government of Zimbabwe’s launch of a strict curfew in parts of Matabeleland South in 1984, whereby they created a ‘‘ghetto of exclusion’’ within which the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), the Zimbabwean National Army (ZNA), and Fifth Brigade, an all-Shona North Korean-trained military brigade, not attached to the ZNA, enforced a policy of food deprivation against the overwhelmingly Ndebele residents of the rural communal lands.

The government’s policy of food deprivation deliberately targeted a population of around 350 000 Ndebeles and, according to Solidarity Peace Trust, deliberately brought 400 000 people to the extreme edge of starvation.

Many of those targeted died through hunger; the precise numbers may never be known since, as is the case with other examples of mass deaths, no records exist that indicate the number of victims who were killed directly and those who died from the deleterious conditions arising from a campaign of mass atrocities.

Interviews with Gukurahundi survivors and witnesses, including missionaries, staff of NGOs, and foreign diplomatic officials, highlight an extraordinary degree of cruelty and a wide spectrum of gross atrocities during this second phase of Gukurahundi, when the government sought not merely to devastate the Ndebele, but to maximise their suffering, while the then president, Robert Mugabe, strove to attain absolute power and destroy all political dissent.

Forced starvation is a weapon that has been exerted against populations throughout history, in times of peace and conflict.

It represents gross violation of human rights, a form of extreme mass violence, and a contravention of international law.

The human right to freedom from hunger and malnutrition, as well as safe access to adequate food and water, is recognised in several instruments under international law.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights deals most comprehensively with this right.

Food deprivation and starvation as an act of state crime is the focus of this article, but, as is acknowledged herein, it was by no means the only form of food-related violence; during Gukurahundi the state also wielded food as a weapon of coercion, torture, and punishment.

There is a dearth of academic literature on Gukurahundi, and the state-sponsored programme of forced starvation in 1984 has yet to be systematically investigated.

This paper provides several independent sets of data, which are complementary and allow a degree of triangulation, in order to delineate the approximate scope and scale of the state-organised starvation, namely an analysis of: (1) transcripts of interviews with survivors of the mass atrocities, (2) official government
communications, obtained by FOI requests, between the US Department of State and the American embassy in Harare during 1984, as well as (3) documentary material from the British Cabinet Office and Ministry of Defence.

Based on these data, the study identifies key aspects of the policy of starvation and punishment during Gukurahundi, including: (a) the knowledge available to the Western diplomatic community in relation to the ongoing atrocities within the strict curfew areas of Matabeleland South between February and April 1984, (b) the response of the US government to the atrocities, which included admirable humanitarian efforts in challenging the government and heightening public awareness to the ongoing state crimes, (c) the response of the government to the atrocities, and (d) the victim groups’ actual experience of the state’s forced starvation.

The data summarised here establishes that during 1984 the government intentionally starved a specific group of its citizens in parts of Matabeleland South, and used food as a political and military weapon of coercion, torture, punishment and death.

As such, the study permits original insights into, and adds conceptual clarity to, our current understandings of Gukurahundi.

This is both significant and important since, throughout the past three decades, the government has systematically denied and suppressed the narrative of Gukurahundi, an account of mass forced starvation, mass torture, mass rape, mass beatings, and mass extermination of the Ndebele, ensuring these atrocities have remained a hidden episode of Zimbabwean history and for which there remains a need to establish truth, accountability, and justice.

Mugabe’s Zanu PF party won the first election of the newly independent Zimbabwe in 1980.

The election was flawed and the results were never fully accepted by Zanu PF key rivals.

Longstanding tensions between Zanu PF and Zapu, led by Joshua Nkomo, escalated, and the already fragile political relations between the two parties further deteriorated.

The rivalry between Zanu and Zapu expressed itself as a crude binary between the Shona (who formed a decisive majority in Zimbabwe and from whom Mugabe generally drew his support) and the Ndebele speakers (who constituted less than one fifth of the population and upon whom Zapu generally drew its support).
By early 1982, Zimbabwe was experiencing a ‘‘dissident’’ campaign of killings and economic sabotage aimed at destabilising the country’s economy and undermining support for Mugabe’s government.

This dissident activity developed in the western part of the country, namely Matabeleland and parts of Midlands, areas that were overwhelmingly the homeland of the Ndebele. These dissidents had no acknowledged leadership and no avowed political aims.

Mugabe over-politicised the assorted security problems, and ascribed goals to the dissidents that were akin to the government’s own distinctive interests in consolidating state power and entrenching Zanu hegemony in the political system.

Mugabe accused his political rival of sponsoring the nefarious actions of the dissidents, accusations that remain unsubstantiated.

Under the pretext of addressing insurgency and a highly inflated dissident problem, the government launched an operation of mass atrocities in Matabeleland, with the aim of eradicating both the political structures of its main political rival and Zapu’s grassroots level support, who were overwhelmingly of Ndebele ethnicity.

l This is an abridged version of a paper by Gukurahundi researcher Hazel Cameron titled, State-Organised Starvation: A Weapon of Extreme Mass Violence in Matabeleland South, 1984. The paper by the academic based at the University of St Andrews in the United Kingdom was recently published by the Genocide Studies International journal.

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