Silence and Denial as Impediments to Peace in Post-Colonial Zimbabwe, 1980-2016
This appraisal is an interlocution of the twin cultures of silence and denial inherent in Zimbabwe’s post-colonial peacebuilding praxis. It evokes the exigency of placing victimhood, rather than political expediency, at the center of the country’s post-conflict architecture. Zimbabwe’s episodic cycles of violence are customarily resolved through state-mediated reconciliation pronouncements (1980), amnesty ordinances (1979, 1980, and 1988), and clemency orders (2000 and 2001), which unconditionally benefit the perpetrators at the expense of the victims. The recently formed, amnesia-riven Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission only investigates cases of violence and crimes against humanity that have occurred since 2009. The forgive-and-forget ethic central to these measures burdens victims by forcing them to overlook their injuries and move on under the nation-in-recuperation banner of “unity, progress and development.”
Stemming from elite bargains, the foregoing measures also constitute denialism: they simultaneously neuter perpetrator culpability, immobilize potential litigants against violent political practices, and largely negate claims to the status of victimhood by those who have been harmed. This disregard of survivors’ injuries and loss pushes them into ever-diminishing cycles of existence. Victims ought to be assured that perpetrators will acknowledge their suffering and that their safety is guaranteed through the enactment of measures to prevent the recurrence of violence.
Victims’ feelings and expectations must be central to any conflict resolution dispensation, because for survivor communities, especially those whose harm is disregarded, the past is never past. Without acknowledgment and restitution, survivors may remain ensnared in an anguished life distorted by loss, powerlessness, poverty, and destruction, even after the cessation of hostilities. Thus, if possible, a sense of tragedy should be allowed to linger within survivor communities through commemorations and re-narrations of mass harm. This particularly allows harmed communities to embolden themselves and coalesce their fractured senses of self by memorializing their collective suffering through commemorations, songs, dramas, paintings, and monuments in the aftermath of massacres.
In Zimbabwe, the conversations on violence and impunity that have taken place have largely been eclectic victims’ monologues. Artists that attempted to paint or stage plays relating to the government-instigated Gukurahundi massacres of 1983-1987, which are emblematic of post-colonial state impunity, were either obstructed or arrested for allegedly trying to disturb public peace and morality.
Gukurahundi Silences and Denials
High-ranking officials in the state security establishment at the time of Gukurahundi have either downplayed the massacres by claiming the killings were an inevitable outcome of conflict, or denied culpability entirely. No accessible official documents exist regarding what transpired during Gukurahundi. The findings of the government-instituted Dumbutshena Commission of Inquiry into the Entumbane skirmishes of 1980-1981, which pitted former ZANLA forces against their ZIPRA colleagues, and the Chihambakwe Commission of Inquiry into the Gukurahundi-related violence remain sealed in state vaults. This lacuna of state-generated evidence about the Gukurahundi massacres thus yields only a partial understanding of the atrocities.
A number of ZANU-PF leaders have revealed a pathological reluctance to show remorse for the massacres by simply arguing “it was war” or, as President Mugabe noted, “an act of madness.” Framing the massacres in this nonchalant way is a lexical deflection that implies that the atrocities were not the outcome of conscious political planning and execution, but rather merely unintentional and illogical acts. This framing simultaneously immobilizes potential litigants against state-sanctioned mass violence and neuters perpetrator culpability; it rekindles Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s claim that “terminologies demarcate a field, politically and epistemologically.” Other state functionaries perceive any talk about Gukurahundi—especially by survivors, political parties, and civil society—as crass opportunism designed to shore up grievances, rather than as part of ideologically driven national political agendas.
The Paradoxical Inconvenience of Victimhood
The response of some senior ZAPU members has been a bit intriguing, as they have decided to remain silent about the massacres or simply have harped on the import of unity and development at the expense of organizing or supporting Gukurahundi-related commemorations. Alexander et al. note that this was mainly because “the violence of the 1980s had become embarrassing, troublesome, an obstacle to the consolidation of a new myth of unity.” This reluctance to confront the menacing Gukurahundi legacies reveals how leaders of groups victimized by state repression and exponents of “rebellious political positions” may recant their positions and loyalties when they are co-opted into the portals of power by their former adversaries. It also demonstrates that clear articulation of and support for victims’ interests can be difficult in post-conflict situations when the perpetrators are the victors. Only in post-conflict situations when victimized groups simultaneously acquire state power—and by association, legislative traction—that they are able to use the moral high ground and their position of government authority to condemn perpetrators and litigate against an egregious past.
The Zimbabwean government’s concerted effort to silence memorials for Gukurahundi re-traumatizes survivors by forcing them to sublimate their pain and anger instead of allowing them to be released and processed through artistic renditions and re-narrations. Victims deserve access to empathetic and non-judgmental platforms to retell their experiences, because a key condition of truth—and by extension, healing—is to allow suffering and pain to be re-narrated. Essentially, the silencing and denials of atrocities in Zimbabwe are time-buying strategies by state-aligned perpetrators, to make survivor claims lose affirmative potency. They also serve as a technique of erasure by the violence’s perpetrators, now ensconced in the portals of power.
1. Laurel E. Fletcher and Harvey M. Weinstein, “Violence and Social Repair: Rethinking the Contribution of Justice to Reconciliation,” Human Right Quarterly 24, no. 3 (2002), 589.
2. The term Gukurahundi means “the first summer rains that wash away the chaff” in Shona. The Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led government-instigated massacres, which resulted in the death of around 20,000 people between 1983 and 1987 in the Matabeleland and Midlands Provinces. Most of the Gukurahundi victims were perceived to be supporters of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), a rival political party. For more details, see Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980–1989 (Harare: Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, 1997); and Diana Auret, Reaching for Justice: The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, 1972-1992 (Gweru: Mambo Press, 1992), 147-165.
3. Zimbabwe obtained its independence through the efforts of two liberation armies, the ZAPU-affiliated Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) and the ZANU-aligned Zimbabwe National Liberation Army (ZANLA).
4. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 115.
5. Jocelyn Alexander, JoAnn McGregor, and Terence Ranger, Violence and Memory: One Hundred Years in the ‘Dark Forests’ of Matabeleland (Harare: Weaver Press, 2000), 257.
6. Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 414.