Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa . Picture: REUTERS
Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa . Picture: REUTERS

Johannesburg — Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa is urging the country to put behind it one of its most painful episodes: the army’s massacre of as many as 20,000 people from the minority Ndebele ethnic group in the 1980s.

Mnangagwa, who replaced Robert Mugabe as president in November, was minister of state security at the time of the killings that started in 1983, three years after independence from the UK. Opposition leaders, former ruling party members and civil-rights groups say he and other members of his new administration bear some responsibility for the atrocities. Mugabe has previously described the episode as a "moment of madness."

"We should look into the future," Mnangagwa said in an interview in his office in the capital, Harare, last week. "The thrust should not be for us, in this new dispensation, to go and engage in the past."

Mugabe ordered the military action after sporadic attacks on civilians by so-called dissidents said to be linked to the Ndebele-dominated Zimbabwe African People’s Union, the main rival to his ruling Zanu-PF party. His deployment of the North Korean-trained fifth brigade resulted in the intimidation and deaths of thousands of people in the south of the country, according to the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.

No one has been held accountable for the alleged crimes and no reparations have been paid.

This month, Mnangagwa, who served as Mugabe’s right-hand man for 54 years, signed into law the National Reconciliation Bill, which he said will create a platform where past grievances can be aired. He also admits that the government, led then and now by the Zanu-PF, is partly responsible.

"There is no decision by cabinet which can be attributed to one individual. If there should be responsibility, there should be responsibility of the government of the day," he said. "It was necessary to bring law and order in the country. I believe that during the process of that in some areas there could have been excesses by the implementing authorities of the time."

Critics say this acknowledgment doesn’t go far enough.

"These were not ‘excesses’ but crimes against humanity in which Mnangagwa played a critical role. Thirty-four years on, Mnangagwa has a crucial role to heal this festering wound," said David Coltart, an opposition senator whose law firm has investigated the massacres. "He must acknowledge the atrocities, give an unequivocal apology and re-order the budget to arrange for communal reparation to be made to the affected parties. Any attempt by him to divert responsibility will simply anger victims more."

Mnangagwa’s challenge

Demands that he address the massacres, known as Gukurahundi — an expression in the language of the majority Shona ethnic group that means the rain that sweeps away the chaff — are an early challenge for Mnangagwa, who’s trying to revive his nation’s decimated economy and end its political isolation. He’ll also face elections within four to five months.

The president, who served in several roles in Mugabe’s cabinet before becoming deputy president, is trying to distance himself from his predecessor by re-engaging with the West and international capital markets.

Mnangagwa fell out with Mugabe’s wife, Grace, and was fired on her urging in early November. He then fled the country after learning that his life was in danger and returned as leader after the military briefly took control a week later.

With a new government, Zimbabwe needs to start afresh, Mnangagwa has said, and move on from the abuses of the past. "We must persuade our communities to work together, to unite and look forward."