The man who played God to kill his own

By Jonathan Maphenduka THE late Minister of Agriculture, Lands, Water Resources and Rural Resettlement Perrance Shiri was (according to those who saw him at close quarters) a dreadful megalomaniac who played God and wore a long black robe that went down to his ankles. The robe had the legend “Black Jesus” written across his powerful […]

By Jonathan Maphenduka

THE late Minister of Agriculture, Lands, Water Resources and Rural Resettlement Perrance Shiri was (according to those who saw him at close quarters) a dreadful megalomaniac who played God and wore a long black robe that went down to his ankles. The robe had the legend “Black Jesus” written across his powerful shoulder line.

He hardly smiled. He was a sage of a different kind, the one who traded in fear.

In the Gukurahundi terror campaign those who worked under him looked up to him, driven by fear. A young man who met him at Balagwe in Matobo district had an interesting story to tell. Balagwe became a notorious operational base for the district in April 1984 when units of 5 Brigade arrived in the district. The young man was accused of (like all people of Matabeleland) being a “dissident” who faced death for that reason. There were six pregnant women who faced death for the reason of carrying the blood of “dissident” husbands in their wombs.

One of the women managed to pass her identity card to the young man unseen. She knew her fate had been decided and hoped against hope that the ID would somehow find its way to her relatives and the world would know how her life ended. This was a desperate and hopeless situation but fate has its own ways of revealing secrets. That in the realm of power in which Shiri presided was a mystery.

The women’s arms were tied behind their backs. But there was a problem. An executioner must be found. Shooting them was wasteful and did not provide the pleasure to those who watched the horror of how the foetus of a “dissident” comes rolling out of its mother’s womb, like the entrails of a slaughtered animal in a butcher’s shop. The difference in this case was simply that the objects of this bloody horror were six innocent women.

The mantle to do the job fell on the young “dissident”. Shiri was accompanied by a woman officer and it was decided that she had a role to play in the ritual.

The young man was ordered to lie down on his back with his mouth open. The female officer ambled up, positioned herself above the face of the young man, pulled her pant down and peed into the young man’s open mouth.

With the preliminary ritual done, he was ordered to get up and a razor sharp knife was thrown at him. “Do you want to save your own life? Rip them up”, he was told. Darkness was approaching and the spectators were ordered to throw the bodies, the foetuses and other entrails on to a waiting truck to be carried to a near-by disused mineshaft.

Every night truckloads of bodies of victims of the operation in the district were carried away to nearby mine shaft. Years later when peace had returned to the district, the Balagwe Gukukurahundi base was proposed by local governor Stephen Jeqe Nkomo for a provincial heroes’ acre but the was opposed by local MP for the area Kotsho Dube and some local councillors.

For us in the media reports of massacres were reaching the newsroom from all over Matabeleland and the Midlands. April was a particularly dark month for Matobo District. Some of the incidents touched on me personally. As business reporter it was my job to cover cattle auctions in the province. One day I was on my way to a cattle sale at Sigangatsha sale pen near the Botswana border when I met near Sun Yet Sen a fleet of trucks speeding away from sale pen, with a police truck leading them. One of trucks carried the body of an employee of the Cold Storage Commission. He had been shot dead when the cattle sale was raided and a trunkful of banknotes was carried away. Years later a man came all the way from Chipinge carrying a bag full of banknotes to pay compensation to a bereaved family. He had approached the local chief to mediate on his behalf to cleanse his guilt conscience by making restitution for Nkosi Dub’s disappearance. Dube, a well-known headmaster at Dry Paddock School, was among a number of people who disappeared without trace during the month of April 1984.

Businesses were ordered closed and villagers were starving. Local councillor, Smart Malaba was abducted from his home in the Malaba area of the district and never seen alive again. A bus driver, one Mpofu was visiting his wife and two-year-old son when they were snatched from their Tshelanyemba Business Centre home.

Perhaps the epic of the week’s events came that when the manager of nearby Legion Mine was ambushed as he approached the mine and a new-born child took a fatal shot. The shooting forced the sudden closure of the mine. This is an event that forced Lonrho Zimbabwe to close down its operations at Legion Mine and no justice can be done to it by clattering the story in the Gukurahundi story. Lonrho Zimbabwe’s pull out from Matabeleland left a devastating vacuum in a region which is crying to high heaven for employment opportunities.

Dube’s abduction had a come-back years later. A man who told the local chief that he was leader of a group of 5 Brigade operatives who abducted Dube from his school and threw him alive into a shaft at Legion Mine. He was now retired and had come all the way from Chipinge to ask the chief to mediate. He was remorseful and wanted to clear his conscience by paying compensation to Nkosi’s family.

That same month 5 Brigade operatives moved about holding rallies during which villagers were forced to sing songs denouncing Zapu and its leader Joshua Nkomo.

Nkomo had fled the country and now lived in London. Outside Donkwedonkwe High School Kezi Police Station, a huge crowd of villagers sat in the blazing April sun, denouncing Zapu dissidents and Joshua Nkomo. The rally was called to demonstrate that the operatives we were wilful killers. “Siyaburara” (we kill), they said as if the villagers didn’t know the fact.

Perrance Shiri was there, watching the proceedings in silence. Then 10 men were ordered out of the gathering and stood waiting for the order to shoot. Among the 10 villagers was the local chief Pilisi Sithole of the Bakwayi clan, and a man I grew up with as a schoolmate and we spent time together as herd boys. When all was done he was among three men who miraculously escaped with their life in the melee that followed the massacre.

From Siphoso School in Tsholotsho reports said six teachers had been forced to jump into a latrine full of human excreta and stood there for hours before they were shot dead. The female teachers had been gang-raped, Perrance Shiri taking the choicest among the victims. Male teachers had been flogged until they became a pulpy mess before they were dragged and pushed into the latrine and shot to make sure they did not crawl of the latrine. Villagers were then ordered to fill the latrine up.

From other parts of Tsholotsho killings included Professor Jonathan Moyo’s father. From the Midlands where local governor Ndemera was in charge my neighbour Morris Khumalo and his deputy at Sikongombingo School in the Lower Gwelo area were frog-marched away from the school, watched by a colleague who had escaped unnoticed.

The Olds family had been farming in the Nyamandlovu District for many years. Now the farm was being managed by the family’s two sons, with old Mrs Old looking after the family’s roadside trading store and other light household chores. One day armed men arrived and killed Mrs Olds and one of her sons. Fear reigned everywhere in the affected areas.

A number of high profile individuals were reported killed. Chief Mabhikwa Khumalo and a group elders were intercepted on the Bulawayo-Victoria Falls Road. They were frog-marched into the bush and killed. They were on their way to Bulawayo from Jotsholo to bring home the body of Chief Menyezwa Gumude for burial when they met their death.

Reports said six teachers were buried alive in a school latrine at Siphoso School in Tsholotsho West. Three female teachers had been gang-raped while their male colleagues were beaten with sticks until their bodies became a bloody mess with broken limbs.

l Jonathan Maphenduka 263 772 332 404