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Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa looks on as he gives a media conference at the State House in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo


What are the opportunities available for addressing Gukurahundi?



RECENT overtures and statements by President Emmerson Mnangagwa on Gukurahundi have invited scorn, owing to the manner in which the state has handled the atrocities in the last 33 years. 

There are political, legal, humanitarian, economic, as well as truth and reconciliation processes that need addressing when it comes to Gukurahundi.

The main exigent concern is the role of the perpetrators in trying to solve the issue. The current President and other senior members of the government, security services and Zanu PF politburo feature heavily in the offender matrix. A sizeable number of these individuals were directing operations in Matabeleland during the atrocities. This is through being members of the 5th Brigade, Zimbabwe National Army, Police Support Unit or Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). 

This is well-documented in the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) Report of 1997, various journal articles, books, documentaries and news reports. In addition, the state has over the years refused to release the two reports pertaining to Gukurahundi: the Chihambakwe and Dumbutshena reports. 

There also periods over the years when the state denied the killings. Former vice-president Phelekezela Mphoko at one time called Gukurahundi a Portuguese conspiracy. The late president Robert Mugabe called Gukurahundi a closed chapter. President Mnangagwa and Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga have not apologised for their roles in the mass killings. These political contexts therefore make their participation suspicious and their recent proposals insincere.

 It is therefore pertinent that there be an independent commission for Gukurahundi as advocated by Heal Zimbabwe and the National Transitional Justice Working Group (NTJWG). At the core of such a commission will be what victim groups want. There are over half a dozen victim groups linked to Gukurahundi. These include Ibhetshu Likazulu, Gukurahundi Genocide Survivors for Justice (GGS4J), Zimbabwe Victims of Organized Violence Trust (ZIVOVT), Post-Independence Survivors’ Trust, Zimbabwe Victims of Political Violence, Save Matabeleland Coalition, Matabeleland Gukurahundi Victims, Matabeleland Collective, Heal Zimbabwe Trust, and Mahlabezulu Residents’ Association, among others. It will be useful to have one group that can then liaise with the State or other civil society groups.

The Matabeleland Collective, which President Mnangagwa seems to be cosying up to, is not in my view representative of victim groups. What Mnangagwa has basically done is to reduce this to the equivalent of the Political Actors Dialogue (Polad).

It is also useful to have an organisation that is not regionally based; victims of Gukurahundi are not buried in Matabeleland only but can also be found in Mashonaland provinces as well—the Zpra  court case against the Fallen Heroes Trust on the exhumation in Chibondo being one such example. 

As the human rights lawyer Siphosami Malunga  and traditional leader Chief Ndiweni said recently, Gukurahundi is a national issue.

There is also a need to involve organisations that have carried out research and exhumations in Zimbabwe such as Amani Trust, Ukuthula Trust, Fallen Heroes Trust and the National Transitional Working Group.
On a broader scale, the International Commission for Missing Persons, ICMP, the global agency with mandate on the missing, mass graves, as well as truth and reconciliation can be an asset to those processes as well.

A combination of these groups and other interested parties in law and sociology will contribute towards a more holistic approach to the process of truth telling, history, accountability and closure for some victims.

The new statement issued with regards the push to put traditional chiefs in charge of overseeing exhumation and other peace processes is also problematic. While chiefs play an important role in Zimbabwean culture, they do not have experience with regards the exhumation of human remains. The chiefs can be useful at community level and can work alongside the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) in an advisory role.

A significant issue with regards Gukurahundi is the issue of human remains. There are human remains around the country found at mission schools, hospitals, mineshafts and other government institutions.

There have been sporadic exhumations since 1999 and the government often halts or intimidates individuals involved in those exercises. However, the State has turned a blind eye to bohemian exhumations by the Fallen Heroes Trust.

Exhumations in my view should be at national level, with consideration to forensic evidence, history, culture and law. As it stands, Zimbabwe does not have a missing person database, or collected ante-mortem data. There is a need for training around forensic anthropology and archaeology to facilitate holistic exhumation processes.

As matters stand, surviving Gukurahundi victims are facing cultural, economic, and legal problems. In local cultures, both Shona and Ndebele, there are ceremonies such as umbuyiso/kurova guva or appeasing the spirits. These have not been performed on certain deceased individuals who were killed. This has a negative effect on the well-being of survivors. 

Studies by Shari Eppel have demonstrated that. There are mass graves in certain locations which need attention such as Cowdray Park, at schools which children still attend and in mineshafts which might be of immense interest.

Therefore, some exhumations are of humanitarian interest in addition to some which are of forensic interest. And, lastly, the previous programme of issuing death certificates without investigation is suspicious and creates another layer designed to obfuscate Gukurahundi.

In legal contexts, the National Peace and Reconciliation Act (NPRA) of 2018 is inadequate in terms of reference and scope. The Act gives too much power to the President and Home Affairs minister with regards calling witnesses, for example. This makes it even more relevant as the current President is an interested party in the atrocities.

The NPRA does not cater for issues around what various victim groups have been campaigning for when the NPRC conducted its consultations. The Act also has limited investigative powers, has restricted power for the commission and section 8 (13) gives protection to all individuals called and those under investigation. Considering the weakness of this legislation, there is a need for either amendments or new legislation altogether. There is a white paper available by this author with regards that.

The sum total of the issues raised above is brought into sharper perspective when assessing how dismally the NPRC has fared. What is therefore required is national dialogue that can give birth to an independent commission which will address these issues and formulate a plan that will meet the needs of victims. We can always have a look at how Zimbabwe’s neighbour, South Africa, has managed its truth and reconciliation processes.

There must be transparency, accountability and professionalism.  I hope also that this opinion piece also serves as a clarion call to the vast number of Zimbabwean academics both within the country and outside to converge and contribute meaningfully towards Gukurahundi using their various fields of expertise.

To this end, President Mnangagwa should release the Chihambakwe and Dumbutshena commission reports and consider amendments to the NPRC of 2018. He can facilitate the formation of an independent body to look forensically into the killings, not to interfere with the processes, and halt the politicalisation of Gukurahundi.

Consideration should also be given to decentralising the process and putting a distance between the NPRC and government. The NPRC should be given power to investigate issues independently and the scope of the investigation should be expanded. It will be useful to include the social, economic and community impact of Gukurahundi over the years.

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