Zimbabwe Massacre Is ‘Unresolved National Question,’ Biti Says

Tendai Biti

Zimbabwe needs to establish a system of national reconciliation to heal the wounds left by the 1980s massacre that killed 20,000 people and other violent incidents since independence if it’s to unify the southern African nation, prominent opposition leader Tendai Biti said.

No one has been held to account for the massacre of members of the Ndebele minority by a North Korean-trained Zimbabwean military unit in a program known in the language of the Shona majority as “gukurahundi,” or the rain that sweeps away the chaff. In addition, there have been no prosecutions for the killing of as many as 300 opposition supporters during a violent election in 2008 or for the deaths of farmers and their workers in a program of violent seizures of white-owned land that began in 2000.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg


“We have to put closure to gukurahundi,” Biti, the 51-year-old former finance minister and constitutional lawyer, said in an interview in Bloomberg’s Johannesburg office last week. “We have to put closure to the events of 2008 — we have to put closure to the violence associated with the land-reform program.”

The military action that resulted in the gukurahundi massacres, while ordered by former President Robert Mugabe, is seen as an Achilles’ heel for new Zimbabwean leader Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was minister of state security at the time. Since he replaced Mugabe, after the military briefly took control of the country in November, there have been renewed calls from the opposition and civil society groups to probe the events.

Military ‘Excesses’

Mnangagwa, who must face an election by Aug. 22, said in a January interview with Bloomberg that while the military may have been guilty of “excesses,” Zimbabweans should put the events behind them. Biti’s People’s Democratic Party is one of six parties allied with the Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition party since 2000, that is challenging the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front.

Zimbabwe remains deeply divided over the violence that began in 1983 to punish so-called dissidents linked to an opposition party. There’s also been uneven development in the country, with little money going to the Ndebele-dominated south since independence in 1980 from the U.K., Biti said.

“Gukurahundi made a huge chunk of Zimbabweans feel like they did not belong,” he said. It’s a “challenge of the unresolved national question: What does it mean to be Ndebele and Zimbabwean.”

Truth Commission

Zimbabwe could have a “lukewarm South African model” where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave amnesty to atrocities during the apartheid era, Biti said. Alternatively, it could have what he described as a “truth and justice model” where people confess to their crimes and the state makes reparations to the worst affected communities, or a Rwandan-style system of “gacaca,’’ or community courts, where offenders are tried by their peers.

“We have to put closure to the iniquities, the omissions, the commissions of that sad period — those sad periods of our time,” he said.

Zimbabwe hasn’t learned from its experiences, he said, citing the example of the eastern diamond-rich area of Marange where an estimated $15 billion of gems have been extracted, while the community remains one of the nation’s poorest.

Ultimately Zimbabwe needs to consider devolution through the creation of provincial governments, he said.

“Devolution is so key because you allow communities to be masters of their own processes, not objects,” he said.

Bloomberg — With assistance by Gordon Bell, and Pauline Bax