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Boeke | Books > Resensies | Reviews > English

When a State turns on its Citizens: Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: A history written in blood


Rob Gaylard - 2011-08-25

Untitled Document

When a State turns on its Citizens: 60 years of Institutionalised Violence in Zimbabwe
Author: Lloyd Sachikonye
Publisher: Jacana
ISBN: 9781431401116

This book should be required reading for anyone seriously interested in the post-independence history of Zimbabwe, and in particular for those who have helped to shape South Africa’s often shameful policy towards our neighbouring state. The author of this valuable and conscientious study, Lloyd Sachikonye, is an academic based at UZ, and he is able to draw on a range of academic studies, as well as NGO reports, personal contacts, interviews and fieldwork. The result is a dispassionate but damning report on the use of state-sanctioned violence by ZANU-PF in the years since independence, but particularly in the period 2000 to 2008. It largely confirms the impression communicated by the independent media that the ruling clique in Zimbabwe will stop at nothing to retain its grip on power.


The study is useful in tracing the prevailing culture of violence back to its roots in the repressive policies of the Rhodesian state and the often violent contestation between ZANU and ZAPU in the early 1960s. The author contests the Fanonian notion that violence on the part of the colonised is somehow redeeming: it has led (in the case of Zimbabwe) to the institutionalisation of violence by the regime, and to its deliberate use against its political opponents and the general population.

The book is comprehensive, but of course not exhaustive. In looking at the violence perpetrated by both sides in the liberation war it summarises the findings of other more detailed studies. It is even-handed in its treatment: “The violence [on the part of the guerrillas] was as gruesome and brutal as that used by regime forces” (9). The author argues that “the legacy of violence in the liberation movement was pervasive” (11) – as exemplified in the song “ZANU ndeyeropa” (“ZANU has a history of blood”). He deals briefly but concisely with the Gukuruhundiof 1983, in which an estimated 10 000 to 20 000 people died at the hands of the Korean-trained Fifth Brigade. These atrocities have never been formally acknowledged by the Zimbabwean government, and the victims have to this day had no access to justice or restitution.

It should therefore come as no surprise, the author concludes, that violence has accompanied most elections in post-1980 Zimbabwe. He details the way in which this violence (including the use of torture) became a built-in feature of ZANU-PF rule, with the systematic use of state institutions (such as the police and the CIO) to repress dissent and weaken the opposition. In particular, a youthful militia (drawn from national service training camps) as well as war veterans were used to intimidate (and sometimes kill) opponents.

The author glances briefly at particular episodes of repression, in particular Operation Murambatsvina (“restore order”), launched in 2005. This was an instance of post-election retribution by the regime aimed at supporters of the MDC. It directly affected some 700 000 people living in urban areas, and indirectly affected a further 2,5 million people.

The “land reform” process was sparked by the defeat of ZANU-PF in the February 2000 referendum, and by fears that they might lose the election in June of the same year. Some 2 400 white farmers and an estimated two million farmworkers were targeted, many of them MDC supporters. This was also an instance of what the author calls “coercive accumulation” on the part of the ruling elite.

What made all this possible was the formal or informal impunity which the perpetrators of violence enjoyed – amounting to the virtual suspension of the rule of law. The violence was also underpinned by an exclusive nationalism that continued to rely on the rhetoric of the anti-colonial struggle and sought to give some legitimacy to the actions of a rapacious elite.

The main focus of this short (121-page) book is “the wholesale resort to systemic violence” in the period 2000 to 2008. This had the obvious aim of ensuring that ZANU-PF could not be voted out of power. The author identifies the factors that facilitated this: these include the fusion of party with state and a struggle history which legitimised political violence.

The violence reached its height in the presidential run-off campaign of 2008. “Operation Makavhotera Papi was based on a strategy code-named CIBD (Coercion, Intimidation, Beating, Displacement). It sought to identify and punish those who had voted against Mugabe in the first Presidential election. In overall charge was the JOC under Emmerson Mnangagwa.” Several reports have documented how this “ruthlessly brutal campaign of violence and terror” was executed, and the author fleshes out his narrative with a number of eye-witness accounts or personal testimonies, some gathered by the author himself.

The author is scrupulous in noting that opposition groupings (such as the MDC) were not entirely exempt from this violence – but such counter-violence was limited, sporadic and usually defensive or retaliatory in nature.

In his final chapter the author discusses the profound impact of all of this on Zimbabwean society. Trauma and fear are widespread in Zimbabwe – and as we know, many Zimbabweans have “voted with their feet” and left the country. The effect of this endemic violence is heightened by the absence in Zimbabwe of any post-1980 truth and reconciliation process. The perpetrators of violence have never been held to account, even when their identities have been known and are documented. The author points in particular to the impact of this culture of violence on the youth of the country, many of whom were recruited and trained in the so-called Border Gezi national service camps to be the “foot soldiers” of the regime. (Many consented to this recruitment for economic reasons.) In a future democratic Zimbabwe the rehabilitation and reintegration of this “lost generation” will be a priority.

How this future Zimbabwe will be arrived at remains unclear. What is clear is that there is a history of silence or denialism on the part of our government towards Zimbabwe. The South African government has often given comfort and protection to Mugabe and his regime – or simply turned a blind eye to the obvious abuses and the rigging of elections. We (or our elected representatives) are therefore to some extent complicit in the sad history of violence and the abuse of power which this book painstakingly narrates. We cannot say we did not know.