A Surprising Move

President Robert Mugabe has unexpectedly offered to compensate the victims of the so-called Gukurahundi massacres, which took place between 1982 and 1987 when Mugabe “pacified” the followers of his main rival in the black independence movement. But the sincerity of his seemingly reconciliatory act toward the country’s Ndebele minority in the western Matabeleland province was immediately suspect.

Writing in the opposition weekly Zimbabwe Independent of Harare on Oct. 29, WPR correspondent Busani Bafana said the president’s statement raised “the question of whether this [was] a genuine offer or a maneuver aimed at damage control in the run-up to the 2000 elections.…Individuals and civic organizations in Bulawayo [the principal city of Matabeleland] have received the offer with mixed feelings.”

The government has never officially acknowledged the events of the 1980s as it struggled to establish majority rule with opposition from wealthy white racists and competing black rebels. As often is the case in Africa, internal tribal affiliations and colonialism exacerbated matters: Mugabe is from the Shona-speaking majority, while the late Joshua Nkomo, the leader of ZAPU, the primary black opposition party, was from the Ndebele minority, which received favorable treatment by colonists.

Under the guise of combating banditry, Mugabe sent his army’s Fifth Brigade and  loyalists of the ruling party, ZANU, to Matabeleland, where they ruthlessly attacked the civilian population. By conservative estimates, some 3,750 people were killed, 7,000 tortured, and 10,000 detained. Before the end of the 1980s, Mugabe made a peace of sorts with Nkomo, who became the country’s vice president.

Bafana quoted views regarding Mugabe’s about-face. A local columnist said that he wants “to believe there is an element of being genuine, [but at] the end of the day he [Mugabe] will not be judged by the pronouncements but by action.”

A church leader whose parish was a target of the Fifth Brigade atrocities said, “The fact that the president said he regretted what happened is an apology.…We must be accommodating and allow time to heal past wounds, because if we look in the past all the time, we will never move ahead.”