Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

Levi Kabwato interviews Professor Lloyd Sachikonye, the author of a recently launched book, ‘When A State Turns on its People: Violence in Zimbabwe’.

Zimbabweans ought to take time to understand the country’s tortured history of violence in order to make sense of the present. This is the message from the University of Zimbabwe’s Professor Lloyd Sachikonye who is in South Africa to launch his new book, ‘When A State Turns on its People: Violence in Zimbabwe’.

The book itself is the end product of research into political violence in Zimbabwe, especially during the 2008 election campaign. Hence, it is primarily an analysis of records of violence documented in the past 10 years. ‘What sparked my concern,’ Sachikonye says, ‘is that in 2008, Zimbabwe was on the verge of political change with [Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change] having won the first round of the [March 2008] presidential election and the indicators were there to suggest a similar result in the run-off. But then you had a process whereby state agents intervened and stopped that process.’

The professor said other concerns which led him to write the book were borne out of a need to analyse the ramifications of 2008 political violence on the wider Zimbabwe society. He noted acts of revenge perpetrated against those who were deemed to have voted for the ‘wrong party’. These victims reportedly suffered livestock theft, arson attacks and displacement.

But there seems to be growing yet mistaken thinking that political violence in Zimbabwe had its genesis moment in 2000 and only reared its ugly head 2008. An obvious elimination of a key fact by that thinking becomes the Gukurahandu massacres of the 1980s, reflective discussion of which has been consistently repressed by the state. So, where exactly do the roots of political violence lie in Zimbabwe’s history?

‘Roots of political violence in Zimbabwe go deep,’ says Sachikonye. He adds: ‘They go back to the 1960s. When ZANU PF and ZAPU were rivals in this period, they used violence as a tool for mobilisation, especially in the townships. These groups used petrol bombs, stones and other tools which enabled them to gain the upper political ground. That tradition continued during the liberation struggle, particularly within the liberation parties themselves; there was use of violence against dissidents and those who questioned the leadership both in ZANU PF and ZAPU.’

Unfortunately, there would be a hangover of this culture in the postcolonial state. ‘After independence, the state began to use the very same structures of violence it had inherited from its colonial past to put down those it deemed its opponents,’ says Sachikonye. He does not absolve colonialism of any responsibility. ‘But one cannot runaway from colonial violence because then you even had the use of dogs, detention and torture and those techniques were carried over into the new state,’ he adds.

The professor describes as a ‘missed opportunity’, the failure of a newly independent Zimbabwe to seek a different political path from what colonialism had chartered for it. ‘In 1980 we missed an opportunity to pause and reflect on political violence and maybe even probe deeper and find out who had participated in political violence and address the issue of impunity,’ he says.

Although Zimbabwe is not an exception on the continent with regards to inheriting, in their entirety, colonial structures of violence, could not its comparatively late independence in 1980 have served as a lesson on what needed to be done soon after winning freedom in dismantling the shackles of oppression?

‘A reason for this could be that the liberation war was a distraction for this kind of consideration. The majority of countries, especially our neighbours in the [SADC] region except for Mozambique did not pursue the option of liberation war. But there still was a need to take a serious review of that,’ says Sachikonye.

He adds: ‘There was a policy of reconciliation but this was from the top, it wasn’t a collective response by society to what had happened. Every family in Zimbabwe had been touched, one way or another, by the liberation war. I think 1980 would have been the vantage point to look into the excesses that had happened during the war both within the liberation movements and also those committed by the colonial state against the citizens. That golden opportunity was missed.’

Be that as it may, Zimbabwe is at a point where the country desperately needs to go through national healing processes, which can enable issues of transitional justice to be addressed in a sensitive but comprehensive way. But what shape can - and should - the organ for national healing? What should it look like? And how could it be informed by, for example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post-apartheid South Africa?

‘South Africa managed to grapple with the issue of political violence and healing in a different but comprehensive way through the TRC…In the book, I make reference to what civil society organisations in Zimbabwe have been proposing for some time now - the need for a comprehensive transitional justice approach. Those in government can do well to look closely at those proposals,’ says Sachikonye.

But what about the role of the state through the organ for national healing? What interventions can be made taking this avenue? ‘[The organ] has not been very active, has had very little credibility within Zimbabwean society and I don’t think it has accomplished what it set out to do. I think that partly is a result of the restricted terms of reference it received from the onset,’ Sachikonye says. He adds: ‘I also think here again was an opportunity that was missed under the GPA (Global Political Agreement) for a forum or institution to take a much more comprehensive but also participatory approach to transitional justice. This organ was imposed from the top but what is needed is broad representation from civil society and other layers of society.’

He also makes the point that this organ will have to look to international practices and experiences such as those from countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia to discover the strengths and weaknesses of their approaches to transitional justice. This is not rocket science. So, why does there seem to be a great reluctance to pursue such avenues? Or does Zimbabwe have a government in place that has got its priorities in the wrong place?

‘It seems as if the priorities in Zimbabwe at the moment are constitutional reform and the next election. There is very little talk about serious institutional and collective approaches to transitional justice so the chances of having this organ functioning as it should are limited until there is a new democratic government is set up,’ says Sachikonye.

Concern is growing around Zimbabwe’s next election. Recent reports indicate a rise in cases of political violence and analysts are warning against regression into the 2008 atmosphere. How damaging can such a regression be?

‘2008 was symbolic in that for the first time in Zimbabwe’s history, the [ZANU-PF regime] lost a crucial election but sought to maintain power through the use of widespread, systematic and targeted violence,’ says Sachikonye. He adds: ‘As I mentioned earlier, violence in Zimbabwe is deep-rooted. [ZANU-PF] has leaders who boast of having degrees in violence. These ‘degrees’ were obtained from experiences accumulated in the 1960s and 1970s and that culture is part of the fabric of how they look at political processes. They don’t see a peaceful election as a normal election anymore.’

But at the heart of this culture of violence are young people, most of whom still had not been born in the 1960s or indeed the 1970s when political parties such as ZANU-PF were ‘accumulating experience’ in the use of violence. How come youths buy into this culture and become feared agents of terror in Zimbabwe?

‘Unfortunately we have not been able to address the issue of violence seriously. As a result, we have thousands of youths who have been indoctrinated into this whole strategy of political violence. Unemployment and promises of jobs, cash and other opportunities are partly the motivators of youth going this way. But then these youths are usually discarded after the elections. This is very unhealthy for our society,’ says Sachikonye.

It is quite clear that ZANU-PF has successfully hijacked the discourse on Zimbabwe and is looking set to claiming the agenda-setting role. Already, it would appear that in the fragile government of national unity (GNU), the party is dictating what issues should be tackled. What weaknesses in Zimbabwean society could have possibly delivered this outcome to the erstwhile ruling party?

‘There is little analytical discussion of violence itself in the media, particularly the state-controlled media. What you tend to find is underreporting of incidents political violence, misreporting of that violence in that the perpetrators of such are not named and sometimes you have disinformation regarding political violence. All these do not contribute to an analytical discussion on violence, we need to go beyond this,’ says Sachikonye.

But how can Zimbabweans go beyond that, arguably, shallow understanding of the role of violence in their history?

‘I think they need to be honest with themselves, they need to be honest with their history. Since the 1960s, political violence has been used as a tool of obtaining political power. We need to grow out of that, we need to grow out of state impunity but also party impunity. We need to break the cycle of violence and the only way to break it is to break the cycle of impunity. This means that those who were involved in violence during the time of the Gukurahundi and in later years such as 2000 and 2008 need to be brought before the courts. But they know that this won’t happen. So there is cynicism towards the system that lets people get away with murder in the name of a particular party,’ Sachikonye says.

He adds: ‘The rule of law needs to be implemented rigorously and independently. This means that there is need for strong, non-partisan institutions.’ But then, Zimbabwe’s institutions are pathetically weak, a result of a decade of unashamed manipulation and deliberate disabling of the capacity for them to deliver as they are mandated. What then becomes the role of African institutions such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU)?

‘SADC has guidelines and principles on the conduct of democratic elections. That body can play the role of a moral force and can encourage adherence to those principles. The AU also has a charter on good governance and elections and its incumbent upon them to enforce such charters. Moving towards the next election, SADC and AU must dispatch teams to Zimbabwe quite early, not a week before the election but perhaps two months before the election and a month after that,’ says the professor.

He continues: ‘I’m not naïve. I know that in these institutions there are countries that are not fully democratic like Swaziland. You’re probably expecting too much if you think that those countries can play a crucial role in the democratisation of other countries. But all the same, they have agreed to abide by certain guidelines and they must do that.’

So, faced with all of the above, how can civil society best engage in the region with success? ‘Solidarity, Solidarity, Solidarity. There is a lot regional civics have learnt from each other and they must continue to do so. Beyond that, there is an opportunity for collective approaches on particular campaigns such as those on violence and elections,’ says Sachikonye.

The book is a deeply provocative intervention that will take the reader through half-a-century of political violence in Zimbabwe. It will direct the reader to intra-party violence motivated by the scramble for positions. Even civil society organisations and the church will discover that this very same violence has seeped into their structures and has begun to affect the entire political culture of Zimbabwe.


* Levi Kabwato is editor of Zimbabwe in Pictures.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.