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Burris Devanney

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African Chronicles - a memoir

40. Pax Mugabe: The Gukurahundi Campaign

Hitler the brain-mole looks out of my eyes. Leonard Cohen 70

O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife! Shakespeare, Macbeth71

Mugabe had come to power on a wave of great expectations at home and abroad. During his first decade in office the country realized a number of significant social and economic achievements. Agricultural production expanded; school enrollment for African children increased substantially; infant mortality and child malnutrition decreased by about 40 percent and life expectancy increased from 56 to 64 years. For this progress, how much do we credit Mugabe; how much do we credit the fundamentally sound economy that he had inherited?

But from the beginning of Mugabe’s ascension to power, there was something raw and malignant, like an open wound, festering in his imagination. How else can you describe his gratuitous cruelty in those early days of power except as a sickness of the mind? In the 1980 election, although he had the support of nearly two-thirds of the African electorate across the whole country, the residents of Matabeleland – especially the Ndebele tribe – had rebuffed him en masse and voted along tribal lines for the “home boy” Joshua Nkomo. But Matabeleland held only 20 percent of the black electorate. This voting bloc was not a threat to Mugabe’s hold on power, so long as he maintained the support of the majority Shona tribe – which he had no reason for doubting. Yet it seemed to rankle him deeply that there was any opposition from a segment of the black population, or that he might be called to account by a rival African party in the Parliament. The need to explain his policies and be accountable to any segment of the black population was not for him. Nor was the give and take of parliamentary democracy.He set out to crush all opposition – for all time. The first to feel his wrath were Nkomo’s people in Matabeleland - most of them peasant farmers, primarily livestock herders.

Within six months of taking power, Mugabe signed a deal with President Kim Il-sung to have more than 100 North Korean military officers train a special force of 5,000 Zimbabwean troops, to be known as 5 Brigade. “It seems quite possible,” wrote Judith Todd, “that 5 Brigade was planned even before independence.”72 This unit would report personally to Mugabe himself, not to the official line commanders of the Zimbabwean armed forces (who commanded the other four brigades) and certainly not to Parliament. They were called an elite force, but “elite” suggests a standard of professionalism that they never exhibited. Call them instead “privileged” and “licensed”. Privileged, as in better paid, better armed and better uniformed than their peers; pampered and protected from on high; accountable to no one but Mugabe himself. Licensed, as in licensed to kill.

In 1983 Mugabe began deploying 5 Brigade with murderous effect in Matabeleland.

Mugabe’s Matabeleland campaign was a brutal occupation of a part of Zimbabwe that did not support his goal of establishing a one party state – perhaps the only feature of communism that Comrade Mugabe seriously tried to implement. The campaign had the code name Gukurahundi, a Shona agricultural term that in this context meant “washing away the garbage.” The people of Matabeleland, by and large, were not armed. The few armed “dissidents” among them were mainly a rag-tag lot of former ZAPU fighters, war veterans, numbering perhaps two or three hundred, who had retained their weapons for self-defense – or, as many of them had little education and few employable skills, for conducting armed robberies in their own region. They were no threat to the central government, but their existence provided Mugabe with whatever excuse he needed to have his way with Matabeleland. And so he did.

Estimates vary widely from 7,000 to 20,000, depending on the source, but the consensus is that 5 Brigade murdered thousands of Africans in Matabeleland during the 1980s. Tens of thousands of other residents of the region suffered from hunger and unknown numbers died of starvation as a consequence of the government’s systematic use of food as an instrument of repression during these years. Maize was the staple diet of almost all black Zimbabweans, especially in rural areas, but maize and other food crops did not grow well in the dry infertile soil of Matabeleland. The region was better suited for raising livestock. When Mugabe imposed an embargo on the export of food into Matabeleland (as if it were a foreign country), hunger spread quickly. According to published reports of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, “The embargo on food was total: stores were closed, drought relief food deliveries were stopped, houses were searched and any food found was destroyed. The missions kept records of this deplorable situation and tried to feed people when they could, but this was difficult for them”73 – and dangerous, lethally dangerous.

41. Tegwani Mission: “Purgation” and Heartbreak

We cannot blame colonialism and imperialism for this tragedy. We who fought against these things now practice them. Why? Why? Why? Joshua Nkomo74

It was the Big Man’s way. He chose his time. V. S. Naipaul75

Once again, ever so briefly, Tegwani Mission was in the world news. The Times of London reported that on November 25, 1985 at about 9:00 PM a band of armed men “believed to be guerrillas” descended upon Tegwani Secondary School from the surrounding bush and shot dead “at point blank range” the headmaster and his wife. The Chicago Tribune referred to the killers in a tiny article as “unidentified gunmen”. A police spokesman in Plumtree identified the invaders only as “armed men”, but implied that they may have come across the border from Botswana. A staff member at the school referred to them as “trigger happy bandits”, but it wasn’t clear that they had stolen anything – except human lives. Whoever they were, the Plumtree police detachment was not keen to confront them. They found reasons to hang around the station for several hours before finally driving to the school to investigate.

Amnesty International, which conducted its own investigation, eventually reported that the killers wore the uniform of the Zimbabwean army. This led initially to speculation in some quarters that the gunmen were subversives sent by South Africa’s apartheid regime and disguised as Zimbabwean soldiers as part of an ongoing strategy to discredit the Mugabe government and destabilize the country – for, it was argued (naively) that, if Mugabe wanted someone killed, he would not have had it done by uniformed men of the national military.

In fact, the killers were members of 5 Brigade. They did not walk out of the bush and then disappear into it afterwards. They arrived at the school and left – after forty-five minutes of terror – in the easily recognized Chinese-made military vehicles that had been assigned to them alone. They wore their uniforms, including their red berets, to the slaughter; they shot their guns in the air and screamed with terrifying impact, as they had been trained to do by their North Korean mentors. They wanted everyone to know that they had come to wash away the garbage, that the Gukurahundi campaign was now purging Tegwani Secondary School. Staff and students of Tegwani and (from a safe distance) the Plumtree policemen recognized immediately the perpetrators of this night of terror. No one dared say it publicly at the time. For 5 Brigade were experts in shock and awe; they operated with impunity; they had license to kill; and they could return anytime.

The invaders were about twenty-five in number. They spread across the whole campus, incessantly screaming and firing their weapons in the air. An 18 year-old Irish volunteer teacher, Joss Douthwaite, was supervising lights-out in the boys’ dormitory when the gunmen burst in. He was hit with a round of fire, stumbled outside and fell to the ground, where he was shot twice more and left for dead. He had bullet wounds to the chest and legs. The students were too terrified to venture out to assist him. Douthwaite dragged himself to the school chaplain’s home where colleagues managed to staunch the bleeding. His colleagues waited until well after the invaders had departed and drove him to the small hospital in Plumtree, where medical staff confirmed that his vital organs had not been hit.

The primary targets of the assassins’ dreadful mission were not so fortunate.

Luke Khumalo’s commitment to humanist values – and to his job and his students – overpowered discretion and personal safety at several critical moments in his life. As the headmaster of a large secondary school in a remote and vulnerable corner of the Rhodesian landscape during the protracted civil war, his courage had been read around the world more than once in the 1970s, as was his death that November evening in 1985, by which he paid the ultimate price for all that he stood for – dragged from his house and executed on the spot by uniformed assassins on the grounds of the school to which he had dedicated his life.

Why Luke? Why Tegwani? Surely these questions were on everyone’s lips. Almost everyone’s. Not everyone needed to ask. If we look for motives, any combination of the following would have been sufficient for Mugabe’s 5 Brigade: Luke was Ndebele; he refused to allow ZANU, or indeed any other party, to hold political rallies on school grounds; he was well known in the region as a man of courage and integrity, and thus to destroy him was to frighten many; he was known or thought to be a supporter of ZAPU; and, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth said of Banquo, he was “assailable”.

The most credible motive for this atrocity was that Luke was maintaining a supply of food in the school. Of course, it was a boarding school and as headmaster he had to provide for the students’ daily meals, but despite the prohibition and despite the risk, it was in Luke’s character to assist, as best he could, hungry families from the nearby communities.

Luke did not die alone. His wife Jean was at his side. Surely this gave him no comfort, for the men in uniform shot her dead too. She died quickly. He remained conscious for some time. The assassins left Luke groaning in pain and bleeding to death, while they forced some residents who came upon the scene to step over the Khumalos’ bodies and into a storage room, which they shut and locked.

Luke was 58; Jean was 54. They were buried side-by-side on the school compound. Marking the site are two identical tombstones with the inscription – “always remembered [by their] heartbroken son David.”

Methodist mission headquarters in Zimbabwe instructed Tegwani’s remaining expatriate teachers and their families, all Britons, to return to Bulawayo for repatriation. “The government made it crystal clear that they were glad to see us go,” wrote one of those deported. The indigenous staff members, frightened, traumatized and demoralized, were somehow able to keep the school going. It continues to this day, but it has never been the same.

Perhaps an institution too can have its heart broken.


Many years later I made contact with a former teacher who had helped save the life of Joss Douthwaite that terrible night. He wrote that the year he and his wife and their three children spent at Tegwani was “firmly imprinted” on their minds:

With hindsight it seems remarkable that [Luke and Jean] were not killed earlier. It was the year after the first election after independence, and we were made constantly aware of the presence of the 5th Brigade stationed at Nata . . . We believe that Luke and Jean should be celebrated as martyrs who died because of their insistence on the principles of Christian education and charity. This was their faith expressed in real life. Without parading themselves or speaking much about it, it was abundantly clear that they stood firm against all political intimidation, and that they would not stand back from doing the right thing for the education of the children and young people in their care, and for the local community. They would have no truck with the emerging politics of institutional terror, and Mugabe’s political elite simply could not tolerate having people of such standing holding their heads high in Matabeleland, let alone educating young people.76


As with virtually all of the killings in Matabeleland during the Mugabe era, the national media in Zimbabwe were not allowed to investigate or report properly on the Tegwani incident and the international media were not really interested. Even Judy Todd, who kept herself well informed on events within the country, knew little of the Tegwani killings. In her memoir of the Mugabe years, aptly entitled Through the Darkness, she observed that the official government announcement stated that the Khumalos had been “killed by dissidents”. There was no follow up on this story in any media. It was a 24-hour sensation. Had one of the Tegwani victims not been a British woman, the attack might not have made the news anywhere. Even the British government showed little interest in taking up the murder of one of its own citizens and the near murder of a second.

Until Mugabe’s war veterans began invading white-owned farms several years later, foreign governments and the international media had little interest in the internal affairs of Zimbabwe, however horrendous.

42. How Mugabe Came to Be

In moments of crisis, people are willing to hand over a great deal of power to anyone who claims to have a magic cure. Naomi Klein, 200777

In retrospect, one can see that Mugabe’s personal leadership qualities were minimal, and his qualifications for heading a government and managing an economy were almost non-existent. As a secondary school student he had been a loner, had few friends and spent most of his time in the school library. He did not participate in sports, never learned teamwork, nor experienced the give and take of discussion and debate with his peers in which ideas are challenged and either proven or revised. Throughout his school years, he was mentored and financially sponsored by one man about whom we know little – a Jesuit priest who was the school principal.

Mugabe accumulated seven university degrees, six of them through correspondence courses during his eleven years in prison. These studies in prison did not relieve, but rather accentuated his isolation and left his reputed intellectualism untested.

Apart from being secretary and eventually leader of ZANU, Mugabe’s only paid employment had been as a teacher. He taught in Ghana, where he met his first wife Sally, a Ghanaian – and at two schools in Rhodesia, the Empandeni Mission School near Plumtree and Garfield Todd’s Dadaya Mission School in Shabani. There is no evidence that he was a popular or respected teacher with a good rapport with his students. Unlike other revolutionary African leaders, like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kwame Nkumah of Ghana, who had also been teachers, when he came to power he showed no enthusiasm or skill for educating his people about governance and development. He displayed a penchant for repetitive rhetoric and bravado, delivering words and phrases like hammer-blows. He cultivated his own reputation as a charismatic leader. Yet his credentials as a revolutionary wartime leader (a bush warrior) are unproven. He never risked his life in battle, like the genuinely charismatic Fidel Castro or Che Guevara, or like other magnetic African leaders of independence movements, such as Samora Machel, Augustino Neto or Amil Cabral.

With few leadership qualities and being almost completely lacking in ordinary “people skills,” how then did Robert Mugabe rise to power in Zimbabwe? And where had the brutality come from – the need within for wanton violence when he already had the country in his hands, when his power had no credible challengers? “Let me be a Hitler tenfold,” he once boasted in the parliament – incredible words to come from the mouth of an intelligent, articulate, educated man, a student of history and philosophy, whose life in so many fundamental ways parallels that of the great South African statesman Nelson Mandela. This story has not been told. So we are left to speculate. One wonders whether the roots of his perversity, which have grown monstrous, not mellow, with age, are to be found in the hidden recesses of his lonely, fatherless – vulnerable – childhood.

Whatever the case, it seems that in the 1970s Mugabe found a route to the top that did not require great leadership ability or physical courage, but writing – and rhetorical – skills and the pretense of loyalty to whoever was his current leader, first to Joshua Nkomo of ZAPU, then to Reverend Sithole of ZANU. At opportune moments, he betrayed each of them. He quit ZAPU and Nkomo to join ZANU and Sithole; then he blind-sided Sithole and took control of ZANU. In the eventual showdown for national leadership, Mugabe, a Shona, played the tribal card ruthlessly against his erstwhile colleague and leader Joshua Nkomo, an Ndebele. The Shona outnumbered the Ndebele by four to one. It was almost too easy.


Some sectors of the white population, as well as Africans living in eastern and central Zimbabwe, could afford to retain a positive opinion of Robert Mugabe because the repression of human rights and the murder of thousands of Africans in Matabeleland throughout the 1980s did not directly impact on them. They did not feel the force of Mugabe’s wrath and tyranny until a decade later. Some lines of Martin Niemoller’s famous poem about the Nazi era come to mind: They came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. . . .78

Even as late as 1992 the writer Doris Lessing – a former Rhodesian and an acute observer of human behaviour – recorded that many whites were holding to a romanticized view of Robert Mugabe, blaming the problems of the economy and years of civil strife and bloodshed, not on Mugabe himself, but on outside interference (e.g. South African sabotage) or on bad advisors and corrupt underlings: “Mugabe, they say, will resign . . . ‘Poor Robert’s heart has been broken. . .’”79

On one occasion in 1992, while “playing a game of Epitaphs” with some well-to-do white farmers, Lessing noted their consensus that Robert Mugabe’s epitaph should read: “A good man fallen among thieves.” Among the other epitaphs they considered were: “God will reward him for trying” and “Here lies a tragic hero . . .”80

However, by 1990 the country was troubled with increasing unemployment, rising inflation and a balance of payments crisis. Men in suits duly arrived from the World Bank and persuaded Mugabe to initiate a dreaded structural adjustment program involving cuts to government spending on education, health care, infrastructure and the civil service – with devastating results on the quality of life of ordinary people. Mugabe, his cabinet ministers and top party officials continued their high-spending lifestyles, but most Zimbabweans became poorer as unemployment worsened and education and health care diminished.

Looking for a scapegoat or a political distraction, Mugabe pounced on the white farmers – the backbone of the country’s mainly agricultural economy – and announced an ill-considered and confusing land reform scheme by which white-owned farmland would be confiscated without compensation and given to needy black farmers. The program was rampant with violence, corruption and scandal: cabinet ministers and top party officials suddenly qualified as needy black farmers and grabbed most of the best land for themselves. Middle and low level party hacks seized much of the rest, often killing or driving off resistant white farmers. Together the World Bank’s failed structural adjustment strategy and Mugabe’s chaotic land reform program destroyed the country’s increasingly fragile economy. Farm production plummeted, the country became a net importer of food, and hunger became a way of life in the countryside – and, when it seemed that things could not get worse, the HIV/AIDS pandemic began its macabre sweep across all of southern Africa, including Zimbabwe. All of the remarkable gains of the 1980s were lost within a few years, and the whole economy went into a downward spiral that continued unabated – or with acceleration – almost to the present day. By 2008 life expectancy in Zimbabwe had decreased to 37 years for men and 34 for women; morbidity, as well as hunger, had become a way of life; inflation had risen to 100,000 percent by April of that year, and to a percentage so high by December as to be incomprehensible.

And still Mugabe could not be dislodged, supported as he was by brutal national security forces that he had personally developed and corrupted.


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