Gukurahundi is a term used to refer to disturbances in Matabeleland and Midlands in the 1980s which resulted in the death of an estimated 20 000 Ndebele people. It was carried out by the North Korean trained 5th Brigade which was an elite regiment of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces. Gukurahundi is derived from a Shona language term which loosely translates to "the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains". For Gukurahundi timeline click here.

In 1999, Robert Mugabe described the 1980s Gukurahundi massacres which resulted in 20 000 civilians being killed by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces as “a moment of madness”. However, no notable action was taken. [1]

In January 2018, Bulawayo pressure groups sued Robert Mugabe, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Vice-President Kembo Mohadi and British Premier Theresa May demanding release of the findings of the Chihambakwe Commission report.

The Zimbabwe government in its General Notice 2 of 2018 announced the that the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission Act was presented to President Emmerson Mnangagwa for his signature and he signed it. [2]


In 1980, at independence, Zimbabwe was a seriously divided country. Ten years of war had not only served to liberate Zimbabwe but had created divisions within it. South Africa as a neighbor was hostile and wanted to weaken Zimbabwe. There were problems between Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) and Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) which saw outbreaks of violence in areas surrounding the guerrilla holding camps all over the country. At times this spilled over into serious violence, such as at Entumbane in 1981. By early 1982 there were groups of bandits in Matabeleland, armed men were killing, robbing, and damaging property.[3]

It was obvious that integrating a community that had serious divisions within itself would be no easy task. Mugabe himself had long been an assassination target, and attempts on his life continued. He escaped an attempt on his life near Masvingo during the election campaign. He and others escaped a "Rhodesian" assassination attempt planned to coincide with Independence Day in 1980. In December 1981 South African agents attempted to kill him by blowing up the new ZANU-PF headquarters, and in July 1982 there was yet another abortive attempt on his life, involving ex ZIPRA combatants when shots were fired at his residence in Harare. In addition, there were sporadic outbreaks of violence emanating from the guerrilla assembly points (APs) countrywide. Such outbreaks began before Independence and continued throughout the early 1980s. This violence was committed by both ZANLA and ZIPRA ex-combatants, sometimes against civilians and quite often against each other: the causes of this were complex. The net result of the unstable situation was that by early 1982, Zimbabwe had serious security problems in various parts of the country, particularly in the western half. Bands of "dissidents" were killing civilians and destroying property.

The Government responded with a massive security clampdown on Matabeleland and parts of the Midlands. What is apparent, in retrospect, is that there were two overlapping "conflicts" going on in Matabeleland. The first conflict was between the dissidents and Government military units, which included 4 Brigade, 6 Brigade, the Paratroopers, the CIO and the Police Support Unit. The second conflict involved Government agencies and all those who were thought to support ZAPU. This was carried out mainly against unarmed civilians in those rural areas which traditionally supported ZAPU; it was also at times carried out against ZAPU supporters in urban areas. The Government agencies which were engaged in this second conflict were primarily 5 Brigade, the CIO, PISI and the ZANU-PF Youth Brigades, as shown in this report. These units committed many human rights violations, which compounded the plight of civilians who were once more caught in the middle of a problem not of their own making.

The Government's attitude was that the two conflicts were one and the same, and that to support ZAPU meant to support dissidents. ZAPU denied it was supporting dissidents. Whatever the truth of this, it is clear that thousands of innocent civilians in Matabeleland were gruesomely killed, maimed or beaten and had their houses burnt during these years, mostly at the hands of Government forces. [4]

Causes of Gukurahundi

From the 1960s onwards, the people of Zimbabwe were involved in a civil war Second Chimurenga to get rid of the colonial Government of Ian Smith. This civil war became even more violent during the 1970s. There was the Rhodesian army on one side, and the two armies of ZANLA and ZIPRA on the other side. ZANLA was the armed wing of ZANU, the Zimbabwe African National Union, and ZIPRA was the armed wing of PF-ZAPU, the Zimbabwe African People's Union. Ordinary people living in rural areas of Zimbabwe were the worst affected during the liberation war. They were caught in the middle of the conflict and suffered in many ways. They were punished by the Rhodesians if they helped the freedom fighters, and punished by the freedom fighters if they would not help them. Many of those who went to training camps or refugee camps in Mozambique and Zambia were bombed by the Rhodesians. In addition, ZIPRA and ZANLA competed with each other for territory and support, and frequently fought and killed each other before Independence. This meant that they were suspicious of each other even after Independence. [5]

At independence in 1980, the new Prime Minister, Mr R. G. Mugabe, was highly acclaimed for his magnanimous speech at Independence, in which he agreed to "draw a line through the past", in order to achieve reconciliation of all parties involved. This speech did much to build up confidence in all those who were outside ZANU-PF. It also enabled the new nation to maintain economic stability and attract investment and aid from abroad. It was perceived as an important and laudable gesture.

This speech had been preceded by the Amnesty Ordinance 3 of 1979 and the Amnesty (General Pardon) Ordinance 12 of 1980, both of which had been passed during the interregnum of Lord Soames. These ensured that no prosecution could lawfully take place for any acts done either by members of the former Government or security forces or persons or forces acting in opposition to that Government.

However, the policy of forgetting the past, as well as the general amnesties granted by the Governor during the interregnum before Independence, meant that those who had committed crimes and human rights abuses in the 1970s, were not made answerable for their actions. Many of the old Rhodesian guard resigned and emigrated after Independence. Others remained, and in many instances became key personnel within the ranks of the Zimbabwean forces and secret services. Here some personnel continued to commit human rights violations on behalf of the new government in the 1980s, before once more being granted immunity. The message to armed personnel first in Rhodesia and then in Zimbabwe has remained the same for two decades: you will seldom, if ever, be held accountable for your actions.

The legacy of colonial rule

The Legacy of Colonial Rule also contributed greatly to the outbreak of Gukurahundi. Repressive legislation can be dated back to the beginnings of colonialism, with various pass laws, tax laws, land laws and a myriad of other racially biased laws, all of which served to ensure the economic and educational supremacy of a small white elite, which was never more than 6.2% of the population, at the expense of the black majority. These laws, their purposes and consequences have been dealt with at length by others. One of the main results of 90 years of colonial laws was that ordinary blacks came to see the law as their enemy: After independence some sections of the black community did not feel that the new black Government was just which also triggered dissident activity.

The Legacy of ZANLA-ZIPRA Antagonism

In 1963 there was a political rift within Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU party, which until then had been the main liberation movement. This led to a split and the setting up of ZANU, under the leadership of Ndabaningi Sithole. The causes were multiple, and involved not only policy, but personal differences between members, such as Enos Nkala and Nkomo.

During the 1970s, there were outbreaks of fierce fighting between ZIPRA and ZANLA, both in training camps in Tanzania, and within Zimbabwean borders. These incidents were frequent, resulted in many casualties and left a legacy of distrust between the two guerrilla armies.

South African Destabilization Policy

South African Destabilization Policy of Zimbabwe contributed to the outbreak of Gukurahundi. As countries in southern Africa began to gain their independence from 1975 onwards, white-ruled South Africa began an increasingly coherent policy of destabilising these nations, in order to prolong its own power. Independent nations most notably affected by South African destabilisation in the early 1980s were Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Lesotho. This policy and some of its ramifications for Africa were documented in Joseph Hanlon's Beggar your Neighbours: Apartheid Power in Southern Africa. During South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission progresses in the democratic South Africa, further details of these events are come to light.

The dissidents' persepective

One contributing factor to escalating dissident numbers, according to the dissidents themselves, was the ZNA's initial failure to successfully integrate ZANLA and ZIPRA into one army. The task facing the ZNA at Independence was unprecedented: its role was to integrate three armies, all of which had long-standing animosities towards each other, and form one army with a conventional military background.

From the time of the negotiated ceasefire in Zimbabwe, ex-guerrillas were held in Assembly Points (APs) throughout the country, from where they were gradually integrated with the RDF, or demobilised. Many ex-guerrillas from both sides resisted entering the APs, fearing the consequences, or rejecting the negotiated outcome to the war. In the APs, after Independence, there were several minor skirmishes between ZANLA and ZIPRA forces in different parts of the country, and also outbreaks of bad behavior in the vicinity of the APs, as ex-combatants spent long months waiting for integration to take its course.

In February 1980, The Chronicle reported approximately 200 guerrillas roaming the north west, campaigning for ZAPU and committing crimes. In Nkayi and Gokwe, in northern Matabeleland, there was a group of ZIPRAs operating under a man called "Tommy", who had been renowned for refusing to obey the ZIPRA High Command structure in the 1970s. In addition, there was a group of ZIPRAs in Tsholotsho who refused to enter the APs, as they rejected the ceasefire. In May and June 1980, 400 ZIPRA guerrillas were rounded up in Northern Matabeleland and taken to Khami Prison near Bulawayo. ZANLA was considered as much of a problem as ZIPRA, if not a worse one, in these early months. ZANLA was involved in armed attacks in Mutoko, Mount Darwin and Gutu. Both sides were involved in the concealing of weapons outside the APs.

Britain's Passive Stance

It has been alleged that the overarching motivation to maintain a British Military Advisory and Training Team in Zimbabwe at the behest of Mugabe, and safeguarding positive relationships with his government, was for London’s own political, economic and strategic interests. Harare was pivotal to Britain’s regional strategy; British overarching concern was the political risk that negative public and parliamentary opinion might cause to their vested interests, and not the THE INTERNATIONAL HISTORY REVIEW 15 security and protection of the victims of Gukurahundi. This policy was upheld throughout the British establishment. Thus, despite visiting Zimbabwe in November 1983 when Gukurahundi was still on-going, Malcolm Rifkind, then Minister of State for Europe, when presenting his report on his visit to the House of Commons, made no mention whatsoever of the atrocities. Later, in March 1984, Prince Charles embarked on an official visit to Zimbabwe. On his return to Britain, the Prince lunched with Peter Preston, editor of The Guardian and Donald Trelford, editor of The Observer (who had himself published his own eye witness account of the atrocities in Matabeleland). As Trelford relates, ‘In general conversation over lunch, because it was soon after I’d been to Matabeleland and obviously it was a subject to talk about, the subject came up. He Prince Charles said “Ah yes, those massacres in Matabeleland, the Foreign Office told me that it was all exaggerated”’. 100 It is in fact emblematic that so indifferent were the British to the state-sponsored atrocities of Gukurahundi that Robert Mugabe was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Edinburgh in 1984 for his services to education after much lobbying by Lord Carrington, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 1979–1982. Incredibly, Colonel Perrance Shiri, the commander of the Fifth Brigade throughout the period of Gukurahundi, was invited to take a place at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London in 1986.[4]

Britain’s vested interests in the newly independent Zimbabwe

A key British figure throughout this period was Robin Byatt, the British High Commissioner to Zimbabwe (appointed in April 1980). Byatt was to find himself overseeing British diplomatic responsibility in a country that, as noted, very quickly became embroiled in mass state-sponsored political violence. The British High Commissioner was proud that he enjoyed ‘a good relationship really’ with Mugabe during his posting as High Commissioner in Harare. Byatt’s wife Jilly ‘was on very good terms with Sally Mugabe Mugabe’s then-wife, who was a charming person’. Indeed Byatt noted that ‘Jilly’s relationship with her Sally Mugabe could be useful in a practical way, trying to get round the Prime Minister’s office'[6].

On 14 January 1983 the FCO in London were made aware by British diplomatic cable from Harare that, as a result of increased dissident activity in Matabeleland in the period leading up to and covering Christmas and the New Year, the Government of Zimbabwe had ‘deployed some extra security forces to Matabeleland to little avail’. David McMillan of the British High Commission noted that ‘[t]he Government’s attitude is not encouraging… A further deployment of troops and more toughness will not help if they simply mean more brutality towards the Ndebele peasant. ‘Blind swipes’ by large numbers of troops are almost bound to be counter productive’. 32 On the same date, during a visit to Zimbabwe, Cranley Onslow, British Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, met with the Zimbabwean Deputy Prime Minister Simon Muzenda and Joshua Nkomo, at which time Nkomo ‘pointed out to Onslow that the problem in Matabeleland is essentially a political one which needs a political solution.

The following week Fifth brigade, clearly identifiable by their red berets, were deployed to Matabeleland North. Units were assigned particular areas covering the entire district and once deployed they went village to village conducting their shocking spectacle of violence against civilians, civil servants, ZAPU party chairmen, and only very occasionally, dissidents. Within one week, ZAPU parliamentarians had lodged a complaint in parliament that widespread and indiscriminate atrocities were being committed. On the same day, Byatt reported to the FCO that 'at a press conference in Harare…Nkomo claimed that the security forces had killed many innocent civilians (95 murders reported: by yesterday: 47confirmed; the figure might now be higher)…in Matabeleland since 22 January. Nkomo said at least some of the murders had been carried out by members of ‘support unit’ 5 Brigade, who had told the people they were being punished for supporting dissidents and that the Ndebele would be taught a lesson.

By the last few days of January 1983, violence by Fifth Brigade was raging. Yet despite being in possession of intelligence that ‘5 Brigade … have beaten up Ndebele workers at a Shangani mine and arbitrarily executed 3 Tsholotsho villagers’ Byatt informed London on 28 January 1983 that ‘information reaching us up to a few days ago suggested that army brutality in Matabeleland had considerably lessened’[7] Byatt continued to say

at a press conference in Harare today 28 January 1983 Nkomo claimed that security forces had killed many innocent civilians (95 murders reported: by yesterday: 47 confirmed: the figure might now be much higher) in anti-dissident operations in Matabeleland since 22 January. Nkomo said at least some of the murders had been carried out by members of ‘support unit’ 5 Brigade who had told the people they were being punished for supporting dissidents and that the Ndebele would be taught a lesson.

Further credible intelligence of ongoing atrocities was available to the British government,including in the form of a letter written by the Catholic Bishop of Bulawayo, Henry Karlen to Mugabe, detailing atrocities witnessed by priests and a German Catholic Missionary doctor in Lupane. The Catholic Missionary recorded incidents she had witnessed in the first few days of February, noting that ‘in the village of Isilwane in Jibajiba ward … 52 people were killed as the soldiers moved from home to home on February 6 1983.

Course of Gukurahundi

For a detailed Gukurahundi Timeline click here.

Chihambakwe commission

The Chihambakwe Report was to investigate the killing of 1,500 political dissidents and other civilians in the Matabeleland region in 1983 and to gather testimony from villagers about what occurred.

Unity Accord

Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo Image via: NewsDay Zimbabwe

The Gukurahundi massacres ended in 1987 when Joshua Nkomo agreed to dissolve his political structures PF-ZAPU and join ZANU-PF, creating a virtual one-party state. This is when Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo reached a conciliation on 22 December 1987, and signed a Unity Accord. The Unity Accord meant Robert Mugabe was to be leader of the party as well as of state and government as the new President of Zimbabwe since 31 December 1987. This effectively dissolved PF-ZAPU into ZANU-PF, renamed Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). On 18 April 1988, Mugabe announced an amnesty for all dissidents, and Nkomo called on them to lay down their arms. A general ordinance was issued saying all those who surrendered before 31 May would get a full pardon. This was extended not just to dissidents but to criminals of various types serving jail terms. In June the amnesty was extended to include all members of the security forces who had committed human rights violations.[8]

Genocide Petition

Although thousands were killed in Matabeleland and the south-east of Zimbabwe there was little international recognition of the extensive human rights abuses (called by some an attempted genocide). It was twenty years before a report was undertaken by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) and the Legal Resources Foundation of Harare. Estimates for the number of dead vary from 20,000 to 80,000.[9] A coalition of Matabeleland activists, uMthwakazi Review, has come up with a petition to push for the recognition of Gukurahundi as genocide by countries such as the United Kingdom, United States and South Africa.[10] Robert Mugabe told Dali Tambo in an exclusive interview on his People of the South TV programme beamed on SABC 3 on Sunday night, that the five-year genocide in Zimbabwe from 1982 to 1987 was “outrageous” and fuelled by a “personal element.” [11]

Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace Report (PDF Download)

Download the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace Report




After Gukurahundi

A year after the period of Gukurahundi, the army brigade associated with the killings in Matabeleland was assigned to a different area of Matabeleland.

In 1988, Mugabe extended a general amnesty to members of the security forces and members of the ruling party imprisoned for human rights abuses related to the killings in Matabeleland.

On 22 December 1987, Zanu and Zapu signed an agreement called the Unity Accord to form one united political party. The 22nd of December is now a holiday known as Unity Day.

Robert Mugabe blaming ZAPU

In an exclusive interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, the former president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe blamed ZAPU for the outbreak of Gukurahundi. Mugabe claimed that ZAPU received weapons from Russia which were meant to be used by ZAPU to destabilize the new Zimbabwe.Mugabe claimed that he got a call from the then President of Tanzania Julius Nyerere and was told that ZAPU was shipping in weapons from Russia, Robert also claimed that the then president of Zambia Keneth Kaunda confirmed ZAPU's intentions.Based on that information Mugabe said that he had to act to suppress any elements of dissent within the country hence the culmination of Gurkurahundi.

Sophie Mokoena in conversation with Robert Mugabe


  1. [1], Mugabe: Long reign of brutality and violence, Published:June 2016, Retrieved: 8 February 2018
  2. [2], ED signs National Peace & Reconciliation Commission Act , Published: 6 Jan 2018 , Retrieved: 8 February 2018
  3. Background
  4. Background
  6. [3], 'Recollections of Mr Ronald (Robin) A C Byatt CMG recorded and transcribed by Alasdair MacDermott', Published: no date , Retrieved: 26 January 2018
  7. High commissioner's cable to London , Cable British High Commission, Harare to FCO London, , 28 Jan. 1983
  8. Zimbabwe National Unity Day & Unity Accord of 1987- explained in brief
  9. Compiled by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, March 1997
  10. Push to declare Gukurahundi a genocide