The Gukurahundi "genocide": memory and justice in independent Zimbabwe

Doctoral Thesis


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Operation Gukurahundi (1982-1987) commenced and endured within the Midlands and two Matabeleland Provinces of Zimbabwe through a Fifth Brigade army – trained by the North Koreans, and which was accountable to former President Robert Mugabe. This army sought to find 400 armed dissidents, but their excessively violent actions ultimately resulted in 20 000 civilians being killed, thousands being tortured and/or disappearing as well as 400 000 persons brought to the brink of starvation due to targeted food limitations within these regions. The story of Gukurahundi is complex and multifaceted, but significantly it was about the political annihilation of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), as an opposition party, as well as their supporters - predominantly from these targeted provinces. Essentially, the key aspect that this study speaks to is: How has state denial and produced silences of Gukurahundi shaped survivor memories across generations; and contributed to justice in independent Zimbabwe? Amidst produced silences, Gukurahundi memory remains existent over 30 years after the occurrence and is nuanced in various ways. The study therefore looks into the memory traces of the post-Gukurahundi period through select reminiscences as shared by 30 survivors of Gukurahundi who offer a telling around what happened during Gukurahundi, and in the aftermath as key informants to the research. This study thus draws attention to ‘ordinary’ people’s stories, as narrated by them, and discusses them against oral history theory. In this regard, the research objectives are to analyse various memory debates associated with this occurrence, such as the nexus between memory and silence; gender and memory; spatialities of memory; as well as intergenerational memory. Another important gleaning which becomes a thread throughout the research is the connection between memory and language(s). Linkages between memory and justice are made, with reference to select initiatives across a variety of actors which are relied upon on as a means to address, memorialise as well as to survive Gukurahundi. Oftentimes these actors – including survivors themselves – address Gukurahundi outside of the Government of Zimbabwe’s arrangements. Finally, this research aims or hopes to contribute to post-conflict commendations.