The Politics of Reconciliation in Zimbabwe: Three Times Failure—Will the Fourth Time Count?

The Politics of Reconciliation in Zimbabwe: Three Times Failure—Will the Fourth Time Count?

The government of Zimbabwe has undermined reconciliation processes in the country, with political leadership failing on several occasions to implement measures to address and prevent the occurrence of social injustices. The government repeatedly ignored, for example, the demands of victims of the Gukurahundi massacres in 1980–87,1 the land invasions of 2000–1,2 and Operation Murambatsvina in 2005,3 with the perpetrators protected from accountability by amnesty provisions, the Clemency Orders of 1980, 1988, and 2000, and government security agents.4 In the process, the government developed the modus operandi to override any further calls to prosecute offenders and uphold respect for human rights.

Indeed, the government may have intentionally paid little attention to reconciliation efforts to address the social injustices at the grassroots level to avoid implicating itself in the violation of human rights.5 The leadership has mostly attempted to reconcile the population at a political level by signing agreements with its rival parties.6 Other reconciliation efforts arguably have become ceremonial projects that serve to silence any claims that the government is unable or unwilling to account for past injustices.7 Four of these projects—three of which failed and the fourth of which is in progress—are discussed below.

The First Reconciliation Project: “Let Bygones Be Bygones”

In 1979, fourteen years of war in Zimbabwe were brought to an end with the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement, which led to the formation of a government of national unity (GNU) made up of the minority Rhodesian Front (RF) Party, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), but the commitment of the new government to building a reconciled population was not a major part of its purpose. The GNU made no effort to set up a framework for reconciliation that allowed for the more than 30,000 war victims to solicit justice or compensation, or the necessary institutions to offer psychosocial support to the communities subjected to violence.8 Reconciliation efforts were reduced to the prescription of amnesia9 by then prime minister Robert Mugabe through his 1980 inaugural speech, in which he proclaimed that all parties should “let bygones be bygones.”10 This expectation that the violence-stricken communities would forget the past without recourse was dispelled in 1982 with the outbreak of a conflict between ZANU and ZAPU officials that led to the Matabeleland massacres, or Gukurahundi.

The Second Reconciliation Project: “Moment of Madness”

The Unity Accord, signed between ZANU (represented by Robert Mugabe) and ZAPU (represented by Joshua Nkomo) on December 22, 1987, halted the Gukurahundi massacres and merged ZANU and ZAPU into one party called the ZANU-Patriotic Front (ZANU PF), under the leadership of Robert Mugabe. That day is now commemorated as a national public holiday. No further efforts were made by the government to address the social injustices that occurred during the Gukurahundi era; instead, it issued an amnesty proclamation pardoning all crimes committed and forcing the population to move on. The implication was that the more than 20,000 victims of the massacres were part of collateral damage that occurs in any conflict situation, which is why, in a public speech in 1999, President Mugabe referred to the Gukurahundi massacres as a “moment of madness.”

Such utterances by President Mugabe have triggered many debates in the country, with many scholars and victims of violence challenging the government to explain who was mad at the time of the massacres and whether the madness had been treated.11 These concerns arise from the view that subsequent actions of the government—such as land invasions in 2001–2, Operation Murambatsvina in 2005, and post-electoral violence in 2008—seem to indicate that its own “madness” has continued.12 Many scholars now question the commemoration of the December 22nd Unity Day and maintain that it symbolizes the suppression of the Zimbabwean people’s right to truth and justice because the government has not made any tangible efforts to address the effects of the violence that occurred.13

Other government efforts at formal reconciliation processes in the same era were similarly unsuccessful—the Dumbutshena and Chihambakwe commissions of inquiry in 1981 and 1983, respectively, are examples. According to the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJPZ), the Dumbutshena Commission of Inquiry was set up to investigate the violence that occurred at Entumbane in Bulawayo and other demobilization camps across the country following the 1981 clashes between Zimbabwe National African Liberation Army (ZANLA) and Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) ex-combatants. The Chihambakwe Commission of Inquiry was established to investigate the Gukurahundi massacres. Findings of the investigations of both commissions were submitted to the government, but the reports were never made public. Many human rights activists in the country—for example, the Zimbabwe Victims of Organized Violence Trust (ZIVOVT) and Ibhetshu LikaZulu—have been pushing the government to release the findings on the grounds that knowing the truth about the past will pave the way for national healing and reconciliation.14

The Third Reconciliation Project: ONHRI

A third attempt at reconciliation emerged in 2008 from a mediated transitional inclusive government (IG), comprising ZANU PF, led by Mugabe, and two Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) formations, namely, MDC-T, led by then prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, and MDC-N, led by Welshman Ncube. The inclusive government resulted from a global political agreement (GPA) signed in September of that year, following a mediation process initiated by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU), led by former president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki, to resolve the polarized June 2008 elections. Article VII of the GPA stipulated that the IG create a framework for the country to recognize formally the social injustices of the past and promote respect for human rights, which led to the establishment of the Organ for National Healing and Reconciliation (ONHRI) in 2009.15

Many scholars have condemned ONHRI, mainly because its top-down approach failed to cater to the demands of the grassroots. Moreover, ONHRI was poorly structured, and its confused mandate made it difficult for the parties involved to set up guidelines for addressing past injustices.16 In part, the confusion was caused by the unwillingness of some members of the government, in particular ZANU PF representatives, to acknowledge responsibility for incidents such as the Matabeleland massacres, which impeded the process to determine the parties to be reconciled.

ONHRI also might have failed because, although it was expected to run as an independent body, the authority to exercise its mandate remained in the hands of the government. The conflict of interests among parties could not be resolved because the ruling party, ZANU PF, had been implicated in many of the violent incidents whose perpetrators ONHRI was supposed to bring to account. Deliberations concerning reconciliation processes that might expose the actions of the ruling party pushed the organ to a deadlock.17

Thus, in the interest of preserving the power-sharing agreement, opposition parties apparently calculated that the coalition would most likely collapse if the demand for truth and reconciliation remained a top priority on the unity government’s agenda. ONHRI’s mandate ended in 2013 when the IG was dissolved, having made little progress in addressing the social injustices of the past and promoting social cohesion, integration, and reconciliation in Zimbabwe.

The Fourth Reconciliation Project: Chapter 12 Commissions

Reconciliation remains a work in progress for the government of Zimbabwe. Chapter 12 of the country’s 2012 amended constitution prescribes that the government set up independent commissions to promote democracy, harmony, and social cohesion in the country. They are the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC), the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC), the Zimbabwe Gender Commission, the Zimbabwe Media Commission, and the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC).18 The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO (nongovernmental organization) Forum argues that the effectiveness of these commissions and their ability to work independently remains questionable.19 It points out that, given the monolithic political architecture of the government of Zimbabwe, it is unlikely the provisions in Section 235 of the new constitution (which postulates the commissions’ independence) can be satisfied by the current ruling government.

This argument feeds into the question raised by many human rights activists in the country as to whether Zimbabwe presents an enabling environment in which to engage in reconciliation processes. The reality is that the ZANU PF party, which has previously shown an aversion to reconciliation processes, dominates the current Parliament. The government’s persistent inaction since independence concerning perpetrators of social injustices suggests a lack of political will. Another explanation for Zimbabwe’s failure in terms of reconciliation is that the country has not yet undergone a full transition. ZANU PF has been in power since independence. It has been using its dominance to ensure the political and personal interests of individuals in the party are not threatened by calls to address the past. Consequently, when representatives of the ruling party engage in deliberations about reconciliation, they tend to focus on the party’s familiar redistributive demands (for example, for land reform and compensation for war veterans) and economic justice (through indigenization) and to ascribe the blame for recurring violence to all parties.

When the appropriate time would be to address past social injustices and how they should be addressed remains unclear, but ignoring the past will arguably only perpetuate the cycle of violence that remains prevalent in Zimbabwe, particularly during election periods. Violence in Zimbabwe over the past three decades has dehumanized the victims, perpetrators, families, and communities and even outsiders who have heard narrations of the incidents. Both the attitudes and behavior of the people have been affected by the past social injustices in various ways. For any person to witness such atrocities and remain the same is impossible. Reconciliation cannot occur in Zimbabwe without legal tender and a proactive commitment to bind the voices and intentions of the government. A holistic approach is, therefore, needed to resolve the politics of reconciliation in Zimbabwe and address past social injustices.

  1. Gukurahundi is a Shona term that refers to “the first rain that washes away chaff before the spring rains.” It has been used to refer to the killings and torture of over 20,000 people by government security forces (the Fifth Brigade and Police Intelligence) in the Midlands and Matabeleland regions of Zimbabwe between 1981 and 1987, during a government campaign to eradicate the stronghold of the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) ex-combatants in these regions. See Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe and the Legal Resources Foundation, Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands, 1980 to 1988 (Harare, Zimbabwe: Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, 1997).
  2. The Economist, “Out With Those White Farmers,” September 17, 2009, http://www.economist.com/node/14465671, accessed December 17, 2014.
  3. Operation Murambatsvina refers to the militarized uprooting of informal settlements in urban areas across the country that resulted in the displacement of over 600,000 people and a direct loss of sources of income for 1.7 million people. Sokwanele Civic Action Support Group, “Zimbabwe: ‘Operation Murambatsvina’—An Overview and Summary,” ReliefWeb, June 18, 2005, http://reliefweb.int/report/zimbabwe/zimbabwe-operation-murambatsvina-overview-and-summary, accessed December 17, 2014.
  4. Clemency orders are presidential pardons offered to suspected or convicted perpetrators of violence. Human Rights Watch, Perpetual Fear: Impunity and Cycles of Violence in Zimbabwe, March 2011, www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/zimbabwe0311NoPage8Full.pdf, accessed December 17, 2014.
  5. W. Mbofana, “Incising an Unripe Abscess: The Challenges of Community Healing in Zimbabwe,” in Zimbabwe in Transition: A View from Within, ed. T. Murithi and A. Mawadza (Auckland Park: Jacana Media, 2011).
  6. L. Sachikonye, When a State Turns on Its Citizens: Institutionalised Violence and Political Culture (Auckland Park: Jacana Media, 2011).
  7. A. S. Mlambo, “Becoming Zimbabwe or Becoming Zimbabwean: Identity, Nationalism and State-building,” Africa Spectrum 48, no. 1 (2013): 49–70.
  8. Sachikonye, When a State Turns on Its Citizens.
  9. Amnesia is a voluntary or induced act by which a society moves on by letting go of the past without addressing it. In Graybill, L. & Kimberly L., “Truth, justice, and reconciliation in Africa: Issues and cases.” African Studies Quarterly 8.1 (2004): 1-18.
  10. Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, 1997.
  11. I. Ndlovu and B. Dube, “Responses to Maurice T. Vambe’s ‘Zimbabwe Genocide: Voices and Perceptions from Ordinary People in Matabeleland and the Midlands Provinces, 30 Years On’,” African Identities 11, no. 4 (2013): 353–66.
  12. J. Muzondidya and S. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, “Echoing Silences: Ethnicity in Post-colonial Zimbabwe, 1980–2007,” African Journal on Conflict Resolution 7, no. 2 (2007): 275–97.
  13. T. M. Mashingaidze, “Zimbabwe’s Illusive National Healing and Reconciliation Processes: From Independence to the Inclusive Government, 1980–2009,” Conflict Trends, issue 1 (2010): 19–27.
  14. The Standard, “Group Demands Gukurahundi Report,” January 28, 2012, http://www.thestandard.co.zw/2012/01/28/by-nqobani-ndlovu-bulawayo-human-rights-lawyers-have-urged-the-zimbabwe-human-rights-commission-zhrc-and-legislators-to-push-government-to-ratify-the-united-nations-convention-against-torture-which-ba/, accessed November 3, 2014.
  15. P. Machakanja, National Healing and Reconciliation in Zimbabwe: Challenges and Opportunities, Zimbabwe Monograph Series No. 1, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Africa Programme, 2010, file:///C:/Users/Lisa/AppData/Local/Temp/IJR%20AP%20Monograph%201%20Zimbabwe.pdf.
  16. M. Mbire, “Seeking Reconciliation and Healing in Zimbabwe: Case of the Organ on National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration (ONHRI),” master’s thesis, International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands, 2011, file:///C:/Users/Lisa/AppData/Local/Temp/MOREBLESSING_MBIRE_RP_16NOV_2011.pdf.
  17. Mashingaidze, “Zimbabwe’s Illusive National Healing and Reconciliation Processes.”
  18. Sokwanele, No.6 Independent Commissions of Supporting Democracy, 2013, http://www.sokwanele.com/system/files/lrf_ind_commissions_series_6_130222_0.pdf.
  19. Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, The Transitional Justice Second International Conference Report, 2013, http://www.hrforumzim.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/ICTJ-II-Conference-Report.pdf.
About the Author

Ruth Murambadoro is an emerging scholar at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn), a research center affiliated with the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria. She is registered with the University of Pretoria for her PhD in political sciences. Ruth is a board member of the African Studies Association (ASA) as a representative of emerging scholars. She received the ASA Presidential Fellowship award in 2015, and her MA thesis was shortlisted for the Africa Thesis Award. She is a recipient of the SSRC Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Fellowship (2015–18). Her scholarly work has been published in the Strategic Review for Southern Africa and the African Journal on Conflict Resolution and by the Organisation for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa (OSSREA), among others. Her research focuses on democracy, transitional justice, reconciliation, and decolonial perspectives on peacebuilding in postcolonial Africa.

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