The Gukurahundi (Shona: "the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains") refers to an armed conflict between the Zimbabwe Government and rebels led by Joshua Nkomo. The Zimbabwean Fifth Brigade, led by Perence Shiri, killed suspected members and supporters of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) in the Ndebele provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands from 1982 to 1987. Most reliable accounts believe that at least 10,000 Ndebele were killed in the conflict by the Fifth Brigade.


During the war for Zimbabwe's independence, the main liberation party, the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), split into two groups in 1963 - the split-away group being named Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). Though these groups had a common origin they gradually grew apart, with the split away group, ZANU, recruiting mainly from the Shona regions, while ZAPU recruited mainly from Ndebele-speaking regions in the west.

The armies of these two groups, ZAPU's Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), and ZANU's Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), developed rivalries for the support of the people and would fight each other. When Zimbabwe won independence, the two armies so distrusted each other that it was difficult to integrate them both into the National Army. These problems were not only in Matabeleland, but throughout the country. For example: former ZANLA elements attacked civilian areas in Mutoko, Mount Darwin and Gutu. It seemed both sides had hidden weapons.

First Entumbane uprising

In November 1980 Enos Nkala made remarks at a rally in Bulawayo, in which he warned ZAPU that ZANU would deliver a few blows against them. This started the first Entumbane uprising, in which ZIPRA and ZANLA fought a pitched battle for two days.

In February 1981 there was a second uprising, which spread to Glenville and also to Connemara in the Midlands. ZIPRA troops in other parts of Matabeleland headed for Bulawayo to join the battle, and ex-Rhodesian units had to come in to stop the fighting. Over 300 people were killed.

The government asked Justice Enoch Dumbutshena, the former Chief Justice of Zimbabwe, to hold an inquiry into the uprising - to date the findings and report have never been released.

Many ZIPRA cadres defected after Entumbane, mainly because they were afraid of staying in the army, as they felt some of their colleagues were disappearing mysteriously. They were also annoyed because they felt ZANLA cadres were being favoured for promotion. It was these issues rather than any clear political policy, which caused them to leave the army, taking their guns with them.


This situation became worse after the finding of arms caches in February 1982. ZANU now openly accused ZAPU of plotting another war and ZAPU leaders were arrested or removed from cabinet. However, the treason trial in 1982 involving Dumiso Dabengwa, Lookout Masuku and four others failed to prove a case against them. All were released although Dabengwa and Masuku were redetained without trial for four years. Possibly thousands of ex-ZIPRA cadres deserted the army after this. Most of them now claim that they saw this as necessary to stay alive. With their leaders all locked up or in exile, they felt there was nobody to protect them within the army. "We were threatened, that was why I decided to desert," said one dissident.

Fifth Brigade

Robert Mugabe, then Prime Minister, had signed an agreement with North Korean President Kim Il Sung in October 1980 to have the North Korean military train a brigade for the Zimbabwean army. This was soon after Mugabe had announced the need for a militia to "combat malcontents." Mugabe replied by saying dissidents should "watch out," announcing the brigade would be called "Gukurahundi." This brigade was named the Fifth Brigade. The members of the Fifth Brigade were drawn from 3500 ex-ZANLA troops at Tongogara Assembly Point, named after Josiah Tongogara, the ZANLA general. There were a few ZIPRA (ZAPU) troops in the unit for a start, but they were withdrawn before the end of the training. The training of 5 Brigade lasted until September 1982, when Minister Sekeramayi announced training was complete.

The first Commander of the Fifth Brigade was Colonel Perence Shiri. The Fifth Brigade was different from all other Zimbabwean army units in that it was directly subordinated to the Prime Minister office, and not integrated to the normal army command structures. Their codes, uniforms, radios and equipment were not compatible with other army units. Their most distinguishing feature in the field was their red berets.


Most of the dead were shot in public executions, often after being forced to dig their own graves in front of family and fellow villagers. The largest number of dead in a single killing was on 5 March 1983, when 62 young men and women were shot on the banks of the Cewale River, Lupane. Seven survived with gunshot wounds, the other 55 died. Another way 5 Brigade killed large groups of people was to burn them alive in huts. They did this in Tsholotsho and also in Lupane. They would routinely round up dozens, or even hundreds, of civilians and march them at gun point to a central place, like a school or bore-hole. There they would be forced to sing Shona songs praising ZANU, at the same time being beaten with sticks. These gatherings usually ended with public executions. Those killed could be ex-ZIPRAs, ZAPU officials, or anybody chosen at random. When Prime Minister Robert Mugabe was directly asked if he knew what was going on in Matebeleland by British journalist Jeremy Paxman, he vehemently denied it, and called it antique western sabotage tactics.

Unity Accord of 1987

Mugabe and ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo signed the Unity Accord on December 22, 1987. This effectively dissolved ZAPU into ZANU, renamed ZANU-PF. On 18 April 1988, Mugabe announced an amnesty for all dissidents, and Nkomo called on them to lay down their arms. A general ordinance was issued saying all those who surrendered before 31 May would get a full pardon. This was extended not just to dissidents but to criminals of various types serving jail terms. Over the next few weeks, 122 dissidents surrendered.

In June the amnesty was extended to include all members of the security forces who had committed human rights violations.

The 1980s disturbances were finally at an end. This brought relief nation-wide, but in parts of the country it has left behind many problems that remain unsolved to this day. These include poor health, poverty, practical and legal problems and a deep-rooted suspicion of Government officials.


NB: Some of the material here is drawn from a report compiled by the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF) and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) entitled "Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace. A report on the disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980 – 1989".



  • Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa, Part Three, Peter Godwin, Picador, ISBN 0330450107

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