By Dumisani Muleya.
THE sad death of prominent Zimbabwe political activist Mike Auret in Ireland this morning is a significant event in the history of human rights in the country and its predecessor Rhodesia.
Auret fought tooth and nail during the Rhodesian colonial era and after Zimbabwe’s independence for human rights — he was always on the frontline to defend the masses, the subaltern or marginalised in society, the downtrodden and oppressed when it mattered the most.
But his most significant role on the human rights front was at the height of the Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland, where, together with other bishops in Zimbabwe, churches, civil society activists, diplomats, humanitarian groups and some journalists, he exposed the biggest and most vicious post-colonial killings of black people by a black government in the region led by the late president Robert Mugabe.
Auret was part of a Catholic bishops delegation which met Mugabe, a Catholic himself educated by Jesuits, on March 16, 1983 at State House in Harare to discuss the horror killings, which had taken place when the ethno-political crack military unit formed and trained in Nyanga by North Koreans (later assisted by operators from Tanzania) outside the formal structures of the Zimbabwe National Army, Fifth Brigade, was deployed in Matabeleland North on January 20, 1983, starting in the Lupane area, before spreading to Tsholotsho, Nkayi and other surrounding districts.
Soon after that the army unit, which was purged of all ex-Zipras before deployment, rampaged through the region within three months, aggressively intimidating, beating, attacking, slaughtering, raping, maiming and torturing thousands.
The cruelty was far worse than what even colonial security forces had ever meted out on black people in Rhodesia and many other places.
Alarmed and shocked by the barbarism and cruelty of the Zanu regime, Auret and other priests confronted Mugabe over the wave of killings sweeping across the south-western region like a ferocious tsunami.
Auret, the chairman of the Catholic Commisson for Justice and Peace (CCJP), was accompanied to that meeting by the other outspoken bishops Ersnt Karlen, Patrick Mutume and Helmut Reckter.
It was the second time that the bishops were meeting Mugabe over the massacres after they had delivered a report to him on November 5, 1982.
Mugabe had initially responded, with the paranoia and fear he always exhibited during that time, saying that his government was “new and vulnerable”, and faced an existential threat from Zapu and Zipra, which had been integrated into the army after demobilisation, as well as the aggressive apartheid South African regime, that he ironically later ended up collaborating with. Mugabe adopted brinksmanship with apartheid; he denounced it when it suited him and collaborated with it against the ANC/Zapu alliance when it was also politically expedient. A group of uMkhonto weSizwe guerillas were expelled (first from Zezani Camp in Beitbridge back to Zambia) and hounded in Zimbabwe as Mugabe took a cowardly approach to avoid confrontation with apartheid leaders PW Botha and later FW De Klerk.
And uMkhonto commander in Zimbabwe, Joe Gqabi, was killed by apartheid agents in Avondale in Harare under circumstances of collaboration by Mugabe. Just before that he had been under surveillance by Mugabe’s intelligence services, not for his protection, but to make sure MK did not have bases and fight from Zimbabwe.
According to Auret, Mugabe then perused through the dossier of killings, while current President Emmerson Mnangagwa, then State Security minister, and Sydney Sekeramayi, then assistant Defence minister (Mugabe was in charge of Defence), who were among many other senior Zanu leaders like Enos Nkala, Nathan Shamuyarira, Chris Ushewokunze, Maurice Nyagumbo, and Simbi Mubako spearheading the campaign, sat silent and grim-faced in a tense environment.
After joining Zanu, Callistus Ndlovu and Mark Dube, who was Zanla, and another Zapu defector John Mbedzi became notorious agitators. Nkala and these three, assisted by Nyagumbo, then Zanu commissar, became a menace in Matabeleland.
Karlen was very straight with Mugabe in the meeting saying: “Your security forces are killing people on a massive scale and have committed grisly atrocities.”
Because Mugabe’s pretext for deploying the Fifth Brigade was to fight the “dissidents” (a reference to ex-Zipra fighters, who had deserted infighting in the army), Karlen asked him: “Why is the army killing civilians, not going after the dissidents?”
Mugabe said his government was very committed and would not retreat from hunting down dissidents, a line that was to repeat many times, especially when dissidents killed civilians as well.
Dissidents also committed attacks and killings, although there were isolated cases. Most of their activities were acts of criminality for survival.
The dissidents later became an eclectic mix and motley group of discontented ex-Zipras who had deserted the army fearing for their lives, apartheid surrogate force Super-Zapu (which had nothing to do with Zapu/Zipra —it was led by Tafara Nkomo (Jack Moyo was his nom de guerre) and Kaizer Makhurane) and remnants of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia auxiliaries.
Super-Zapu was the brainchild of apartheid Pretoria’s directorate of special tasks — later under directorate of Covert Collections — run as Operation Mute.
This department handled Renamo affairs in Mozambique and trained Super-Zapu at Entabeni, its headquarters at Southpansberg, 80km outside Musina.
Apartheid South Africa also ran Operation Drama to destabilise Zimbabwe.
Mugabe and his regime claimed these groups wanted to overthrow his government. He had also accused Nkomo, Zapu and ex-Zipra, as well as members of Rhodesian forces and MPs, of plotting a coup against him, a charge to be standardised as a template down in later years to justify crushing the opposition.
Some senior Rhodesian commanders and security officers had remained working under Mugabe.
It is significant that later other key opposition leaders in Zimbabwe under Mugabe were also accused of treason like senior Zapu leaders and other similar charges.
Nkomo and other Zapu leaders such as Welshman Mabhena, Sydney Malunga and Edward Ndlovu were either arrested or hounded, while a number of Zipra commanders, most of whom had so bravely fought the liberation struggle, were also picked up and detained, tortured and brutalised.
These included former Zipra commanders Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Masuku, among others. Masuku died as a result.
Nkomo survived a midnight assassination attack on his Pelandaba home in Bulawayo (he was not there as he had been tipped off by sympathetic security agents, mainly by an ex-Zipra cadre in the army at 1 Brigade Clive Mkandla, that they wanted to kill him that night) before fleeing to Botswana, and later London.
Karlen, sitting next to Auret in the meeting, said to Mugabe:
“If anybody is going to attack, rape, and then kill your mother, sister or your daughter, you would have to be a good Christian not to seek revenge against them in future.”
Basically, Karlen was warning Mugabe of the potential consequences of the killings and the vicious circle it might create.
Bishop Patrick Mutume concluded the meeting, saying the bishops would release a statement making their position on the massacres categorically clear, to which Mugabe reacted: “You can go ahead!”
Shortly afterwards, the bishops released an Easter statement, which took a similar editorial line as the Catholic-run Moto magazine of March 5, condemning “brutality and atrocities” by the army and its “maiming and killing of hundreds and hundreds of innocent people who are neither dissidents nor collaborators”.
Mugabe and his officials had always vowed to deal with “dissidents” and their “collaborators”, which in the fullness of time came to mean every Zapu supporter and Ndebeles in general.
“There is clear, incontrovertible evidence that wanton atrocities and brutalities had been, and are still being, perpetrated by the army,” the bishops told Mugabe.
“The facts clearly show a systematic reign of terror characterised by widespread killings, woundings, beatings, burnings, rapings and brutalisations.
“Many homes and fields have been burnt, people are starving not because of drought, but because food supplies have been deliberately cut off and restricted.”
The bishops demanded a commission of inquiry into the massacres.
Under pressure, Mugabe appointed the Chihambakwe Commisson of Inquiry, but refused to release the final report, as he had done with the Dumbutshena report on the Entumbane clashes between Zipra and Zanla.
The untiring and persistent bishops again wrote to Mugabe and then president Canaan Banana on April 5, 1983 and presented yet another report to him the following day.
Auret later said the dossier had further evidence of detentions, attacks and killings, including a statement by a priest at Minda Mission, who had seen 22 people being killed.
It was similar to another statement where a priest in Lupane saw 52 people being massacred.
Overall, over 20 000 people were killed mostly at the Nazi-style Auschwitz-like concentration camp in Kezi, Bhalagwe, were even serving national army officers like ex-Zipra cadre, Captain Khumalo, from 1 Brigade in Bulawayo was killed.
Bizarrely, Edzai Chanyuka (Chimonyo), one of the commanders in the operation, ended up protesting that his forces had become “tired like zombies” in the Matabeleland killing fields.
One Brigade, then under Constantino Chiwenga, provided logistics for the Fifth Brigade and worked closely with the army under General Solomon Mujuru, CIO and police to implement the massacres.
But it was Chiwenga’s deputy Derick Flint Magama and Armstrong Gunda who were most vicious at One Brigade; Magama hunted down and killed one of the most outspoken Zapu MPs, Njini Ntuta, in Nyamandlovu who had on many occasions told Mugabe that “you are running a murderous regime”.
Ntuta, Malunga, Ruth Chinamano and Edward Ndlovu were the most vocal Zapu MPs who protested about Gukurahundi all the time. Of course, Nkomo led the protests.
Prior to that, the clergymen had also condemned the state media, led by The Herald, The Chronicle and ZBC, of either not reporting, ignoring or campaigning for the killings. Their stories and editorials were shocking.
That’s one of the biggest tragedies of Zimbabwean journalism, as tragic as the Gukurahundi itself. Some journalists did not only ignore, but also beat the war drums for the massacres, Rwanda-style.
Only the Moto magazine and foreign correspondents exposed the massacres, leading to the deportation of some of the journalists.
These events had been preceded by fierce public attacks on the government by Father John Gough, a Catholic priest who had in 1975 assisted Mugabe and Tekere to escape Rhodesia into Mozambique to join the armed struggle outside after their release from jail in 1974.
Mugabe and Nkomo, among other nationalists, were jailed for 10 years by the Ian Smith regime.
In a sermon on April 2, 1983, Gough had accused the government of waging a “campaign of genocide” against the Ndebele people during, which horrible atrocities were being committed “including ripping apart pregnant women’s wombs, killing their foetuses, throwing babies into hot water and shooting adults in the heads after burying them up to their neck levels in the sand”.
The stories were reported in the international media, particularly the Sunday Times and UK Guardian (my favourite Fleet Street newspaper), which was a thorn in the flesh for Mugabe.
Its correspondent in Zimbabwe Nick Worrall was brave and forthright in his reportage of the genocide (like the editor of The Observer Donald Telford — who was later fired by Lonrho mogul Tiny Rowland for exposing the massacres), and, of course, he had to be deported. Peter Godwin and several others also did a great job, but sadly not local black journalists. They failed to cover the biggest story in independent Zimbabwe.
That Mugabe and Zanu leaders had decided to kill and commit ethnic cleansing to impose a one-party state and also build an ethnocentric project was no longer in doubt as it had earlier been secretly revealed to Zapu official Cephas Msipa by Eddison Zvobgo, a senior Zanu leader, after the party’s decisive Central Committee meeting in Harare on December 31, 1982.
Zvobgo secretly told Msipa after the meeting: “The decision was simply that let’s massacre Ndebeles.”
This was just two weeks before Gukurahundi started formally. The trigger was Nkomo’s refusal in a tense meeting with Mugabe in mid-January 1983 to accept a formal one-party state proposal.
Even the discovery of arms cache saga in 1982 which was used as a pretext for the militray lockdown was after a volatile meeting on February 5, 1982 between Nkomo and Mugabe in which the former had rejected the one-party state proposal that his party didn’t want.
Mujuru, Perrance Shiri, Vitalis Zvinavashe, Chiwenga and others had met in Bulawayo on January 19, 1983, to oversee the Gukurahundi deployment, as Mugabe left the country for a foriegn trip to India for a Non-Aligned Movement conference, like he had done before on other critical junctures apparently to create plausible deniability, including on the arm caches and arrests that followed.
Apart from most senior military commanders, brutal former Rhodesian soldiers like Lionel Dyck and Moses Pongweni were also deeply involved as they were shown to be ruthless during the war, which was very ironic, but then the Rhodesians had earlier helped Mugabe to stop Zipra when it tried to invade Bulawayo in 1980.
Prior to that, Matabeleland had been under a military lockdown and curfew since July 1982 after the now mysterious disappearance of six Western tourists, a mystery that was never resolved as to who actually killed them.
Mugabe had accused the dissidents, while Nkomo blamed the government “pseudos”. Zapu insisted that Zanu was framing it to justify the genocide.
Zvobgo’s warning to Msipa was later confirmed by a top Fifth Brigade commander who told his victims in Tsholotsho that: “We’ll kill you — all of you Ndebeles.”
Besides, Mugabe, who had denounced the bishops after their unrelenting pressure as “sanctimonious prelates” and “foreign agents”, had also indicated in one of their meetings that Ndebeles were resisting his rule because they didn’t want to be ruled by a Shona leader; he claimed “they believe Nkomo is ordained to rule” but we will “reorient” them.
Up until his death, Mugabe still believed it was largely because of Zapu, Zipra and Ndebeles’ problems the genocide happened as they refused to submit to his rule. He accused Ndebeles of tribal resistance to his rule, while Nkomo accused Mugabe of a tribal reign.
Mugabe also blamed Mnangagwa and the army for the killings when it suited him
That was clear in an interview we did with him at his Blue Roof mansion on March 15, 2018; in fact, the last interview that he had on the Gukurahundi issue before his death. I had asked him that question, in the presence of fellow journalist and friend Brezhnev Malaba.
But the myth that certain senior Zanu leaders and top army commanders were not involved in Gukurahundi is just ridiculous, they were and the evidence is there in abundance.
Of course, not everyone but nearly all senior officials and commanders were involved. This is a story for another day.
The Gukurahundi campaign was in five phases: first the face-off stage leading to Entumbane battles, the lockdown in 1982, the mass killings in Matabeleland North, murders amid a scorched earth policy down in Matabeleland South, the urban warfare against Zapu, which after the 1985 election eventually forced Nkomo to surrender, saying he wanted to stop the bloodshed, and finally negotiations which culminated in the 1987 Unity Accord.
There is a question why Nkomo struggled to restrain Zipra from launching a full-scale war against the government; that is also a story for another day.
Prior to that, there were clashes between Zanla and Zipra in Entumbane in 1980 and 1981, a continuation of political hostilities from the 1960s and during the struggle; themselves a reincarnation of ancient tribal hatred dating back to when Ndebeles left Zululand under Mzilikazi during the Mfecane (times of trouble) period amid a historic fallout and resultant pressure from Zulu King Shaka and the subsequent long migration, which culminated in the invasion of the south-western part of what is now Zimbabwe, and the establishment of Mthwakazi, the Ndebele State.
This historical event and its implications has remained a moot issue to some in Zimbabwe up to this day.
For instance, only recently Information deputy minister Energy Mutodi said the Ndebeles were not Zimbabweans, but South Africans living in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe referred to this during his meetings with the ecclesiastical envoys, including Auret, who was during Gukurahundi period arrested, together with Nicholas Ndebele, then CCJP director, for their opposition to the massacres.
All these events and issues cystallise the project that Mugabe, who was committed to a one-party state as he also was to violence, and who to a certain extent was a product of his times, tried hard but largely failed to establish.
Mugabe in 1980 sought to establish an authoritarian one-party political state, not a developmental state as some claim, in which politically-motivated violence and repression, which up to this day remain a scourge of Zimbabwean politics, were certainly some of its most radical manifestations.
The Gukurahundi genocide marks the high watermark of that. And this partly explains why Zimbabwe is practically a failed state.
Yet Mugabe had also succeeded in crushing his opponents and ensuring, at least for a while, a de facto one-party state. It didn’t last long though, as Edgar Tekere broke ranks in 1990, formed Zum, and the MDC emerged in 1999, a decade after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of the Soviet bloc.
This is not a matter of public conjecture or crude reductionism, but of compelling evidence.
The plan to eliminate Zapu/Zipra or the opposition and “massacre the Ndebele” as the central committee had decided was there from day one in order to facilitate the one-party and ethnocentric state, using a political force, Gukurahundi, whose name was the same as the military forces that had killed Zipra cadres at Mgagao and killed the Nhari rebellion Zanla militants in 1974. Gukurahundi has always been a code-name for killings in Zanu.
At every juncture Mugabe was clear about all this, his narrative and implementation were unmistakable.
Auret and others warned of this in the 1980s, but then Mugabe and his supporters didn’t listen; and now the results of their barbarism and madness are there for all to see.
At least Auret would rest in peace knowing he tried to stop Zimbabwe from embarking on a self-destruction path from day one.