The Matebeleland Conflict

Sarah Helen Chiumbu

At independence, the government had decided to integrate the three armies, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), Zimbabwe People's Revolution Army (ZIPRA) and the Rhodesian Forces into one single national army. In November 1981 fighting started between the ZANLA and ZIPRA guerrillas who were encamped at Entumbane in Bulawayo. The fight ended after a few days. However, another fight erupted again in February 1982 and this one spread to other groups awaiting integration and this only ended when the new government deployed ex-Rhodesian units to deal with the fighting. Close to 300 people died. These clashes provoked the first large-scale defection from the army. However, what gave more strength to the dissident problem was the sacking of opposition PF-ZAPU's leader, Joshua Nkomo, from the cabinet by President Mugabe in 1982 following the discovery of arms caches on land belonging to Nkomo's party, PF-ZAPU. After this, many ex-ZIPRA soldiers deserted from the newly-integrated national army and went back to the bush.

Unity between the two parties effectively broke down with the sacking of Nkomo. War-time ZIPRA army leaders, Dumiso Dabengwa, former Chiefof Intelligence and the Deputy Commander of the newly established Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA), Lieutenant-General Lookout Masuku, were arrested and charged with treason. They were later acquitted, but rearrested and detained without charge until 1986. This was Zimbabwe's first treason trial.

In January 1983 the government sent the Fifth Brigade, a unit of the national army, to Matabeleland to deal with what had become to be known as 'the Matebeleland Conflict'. The Fifth Brigade inflicted pain and terror on the Matebeleland people almost akin to that inflicted on the people of Zimbabwe by the Rhodesian state. Instead of engaging in dissident hunting, the Fifth Brigade carried out massive killings of innocent people, in Matebeleland and Midlands, as indicated below:

Reports indicated that often they visited villages with lists of PF-ZAPU officials and sympathisers, who were singled out and killed. They made little attempt to engage the "dissident" militarily. There was an ugly strand of tribalism in the behaviour of the Fifth Brigade: the Ndebele were being punished for crimes their ancestors were supposed to have committed against the Shona (Africa Watch Report 1989: 12).

President Mugabe, reacting to international pressure, withdrew the unit in mid-1983 and a Commission of Inquiry was set up to investigate the abuses carried out. Although the Commission submitted a report to the government its findings were never made public. The Fifth Brigade was redeployed to Matebeleland South at the beginning of 1984 and the pattern of abuse continued. Killings, rape, torture, mass arrests, mass detentions and other atrocities were committed against innocent people. The government even went ahead and introduced a 24-hour curfew covering most of Matebeleland South:

Stores and shops were closed, traffic was stopped from entering the curfew areas, villagers were restricted to within 150 feet of their own homes and drought relief food supplied to the people in the affected areas was stopped. A news blackout was imposed on the operations of the army in the curfew areas. It appears that the local population was systematically starved ... (Ncube 1991: 162).

Although the Fifth Brigade was once again withdrawn at the end of 1984, the damage had already been done. Hundreds of people had been killed.

In early 1985, as a result of the pre-election and post-election tensions between the two parties, a new pattern of human rights abuse emerged. Hundreds of people throughout Matebeleland and Midlands "disappeared" and up to this day they remain "missing". Evidence points to the probability that they were kidnapped by the government. All those who disappeared were Ndebele and PF-ZAPU supporters.


Ncube, W. "Constitutionalism, Democracy, and Political Practice in Zimbabwe," in The One-Part State and Democracy: The Zimbabwe Debate. Eds. I. Mandaza and L. Sachikonye. Harere: Sapes Trust, 1991.

[from Sarah Helen Chiumbu, Democracy, Human Rights, and the Media: A Case Study of Two Human Rights Organizations and the Media in Zimbabwe. Oslo: University of Oslo, 1997, pages 87-88. Available from Department of Media and Communications [].

Postcolonial Web Africa OV Zimbabwe OV [Politics]