Latest News Editor's Choice

Opinion / Columnist

Excited by the killings: How The Chronicle covered the Gukurahundi genocide

12 Feb 2024 at 13:51hrs | Views
THIS paper examines and interrogates the role of the state-controlled media during the Gukurahundi genocide in Zimbabwe.

Gukurahundi is a genocide that took place in Zimbabwe between1983 and 1987 resulting in the death of thousands of innocentcivilians, mostly Zimbabwe African People's Union Patriotic Front (PFZapu) opposition supporters to the then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu-PF)'s ruling party. This paper is against the realisation that there is an intrinsic relationship between the media, in the form of hate speech, propaganda, violence and ethnicity. Hate speech has been the soundtrack of the genocide in Zimbabwe in particular and in Africa in general. Research on the role of the media in state-sponsored violence in Zimbabwe has tended to focus more on the post-2000 land invasions and political violence. Similarly, most of the writings on the role of media during genocides in Africa have justifiably tended to focus on the role of the RTLM radio in the Rwandan genocide where close to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days.

This paper deploys textual analysis to analyse articles by a state-controlled Chronicle newspaper. Using the propaganda model and political economy theoretical frameworks, and The Chronicle newspaper as a case study, this paper therefore seeks to show that as opposed to Rwanda where the media openly urged the killers on, in Zimbabwe the media was used to mask and justify the genocide of over 20 000 innocent civilians.


This article seeks to interrogate the role of government-controlled press in genocides. It explores how government's control of the news affects the core reality of most modern media organisations, which is the day-to-day relative autonomy of the journalist and news producers, the reporters, photographers and editors' perception of reality and their objectivity. The modest aim here is also to trace the contours of social, economic and political power in the production of news and how this relates to the role of the press in crisis situations such as genocides and how this perpetrates anti-pluralistic tendencies in a country. The article is designed as a case study of how government-controlled news, using the Chronicle news as a case study, reported on the Gukurahundi genocide in Zimbabwe.

Gukurahundi genocide here refers to the systematic massacre of mostly Ndebele speaking PF-Zapu supporters in Matebeleland and some parts of the Midlands province shortly after Zimbabwe attained its independence in 1980. Over 20 000, innocent civilians including women and children, were wantonly killed by the North Korean-trained army, the Five Brigade. The paper therefore is against the background of the post-Mugabe government overtures to open up debate on the emotive

Gukurahundi genocide in Zimbabwe and the continued salience of ethnicity. It is crucial in that as people deliberate on this genocide, the role played by the media and its effects on ethnic tensions in Zimbabwe must be investigated.

A perusal of the Chronicle pages during this time — published and circulated at the centre of the region where the killings were happening — makes interesting reading insofar as state propaganda during crisis situations is concerned. Attention therefore is given to the role played by the Chronicle news in creating ethnic identity and in the coercive nation building process. The Chronicle newspaper is owned by Zimbabwe Newspapers Group (Pvt) Ltd, a company controlled by the government through the appointment of the board of directors and editors.

Ethnicity and violence in colonial and post-colonial Zimbabwe

To fully understand the role of the Chronicle news during the Gukurahundi genocide, it is important that a background of the genocide is given here. Closely tied to the genocide are the issues of ethnicity, violence, political power and political identity in Zimbabwe. For the Chronicle news does not operate in a vacuum but it mirrors the power struggles and relations that are inherent in a society. It is imperative to focus on the currencies of ethnicity and violence by looking at ethnicity and violence in colonial Zimbabwe since it later informed violence in post-colonial Zimbabwe, that is, the Gukurahundi genocide.

State-engineered and state-sponsored violence has been a recurring feature of Zimbabwean political life and it was bequeathed to political nationalist discourses by the colonial settlers. There is serious ethnic polarisation in Zimbabwe and it has its roots in the pre-colonial and nationalist socio-political engineering processes as well as in the post-colonial coercive nation building project of the 1990s.

According to Mamdani (2002: 21), ethnicity as a phenomenon manifests and articulates many concealed socioeconomic and political issues ranging from contested histories and memories, political power dynamics, politics of belonging to hegemonic struggles. Though there was certainly violence in the pre-colonial era, this was primarily between rival political entities such as the Shona and the Ndebele, and therefore of a different nature to the violence of a state against its own people.

This war of liberation pitted the nationalist liberation movements, PF-Zapu and Zanu-PF on one side and the settlers on the other. Zanu-PF split from PF-Zapu in 1963 mostly on ethnical differences with Zanu-PF consisting of mostly the majority Shona speaking people and PF-Zapu identified with Ndebele supporters. Writing about this split, Sithole (1985: 122) observes that:

Once ethnicity became a salient issue in the nationalist movement in the 1970s, PF-Zapu became a minority party, a position that was likely to be maintained in the foreseeable future. Ever since the 1970s, PF-Zapu retained loyalty mainly in Matebeleland North, Matebeleland South and the Midlands where Ndebele presence was significant. As such election manifestos meant little compared to the traditional loyalties.

Moreover the fact that the areas of dominance fell among ethnic lines was not an accident and certainly not a matter to be ambivalent about.

During the war, the rural populace suffered violence from both the freedom fighters and the colonial government soldiers. There was also violence between the liberation movements themselves and it is this violence that took an ethnic turn as the split of PF-Zapu in 1963 was more ethnical than anything else with PF-Zapu being branded a party for the Ndebeles and Zanu-PF a party for the Shonas. The sporadic fights among the liberation movements, one might argue were a result of the currencies of ethnicity created over time by the settlers and were later to inform the Gukurahundi killings.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2007:14) comments that "the seeds of ethnic factor were derived from the pre-colonial past, [but] the colonial era provided fertile soil in which the ideology of tribalism (ethnicity) germinated, blossomed and was further propagated."

Post-colonial ethnic currencies and violence in Zimbabwe – the Gukurahundi genocide Gukurahundi genocide began two years after Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980. The new government was faced with a task of uniting the three armies that had fought in the war – PF-Zapu's army Zipra, Zanla for Zanu-PF and the Rhodesian Front.

Tensions between Zipra and Zanla had their background in the split of the political parties. Although both parties had members of different tribes in their central committees, their supporters were mainly Ndebele for Zipra and Shona for Zanla. This was later to be the basis of Gukurahundi killings. Nyoni (2008:9) comments that:

While PF-ZAPU and Zanu-PF and their military wings Zipra and Zanla were not tribalist by policy and both Shona speakers and Ndebele speakers could be found in both groups, the increasingly regional recruitment, together with mutual antagonism, led to growing association between PF-Zapu with Ndebele speakers and Zanu-PF with Shona speakers.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2007:15) argues that there is indeed connection between the Gukurahundi and ethnicity in light of the fact that the perpetrators of this violence did not hide their ethnic intentions as they told their victims that they were sent out to wipe out the Ndebeles as an ethic group.

One cannot explain the concept of the Gukurahundi without mentioning that Zanu-PF wanted a one-party state in keeping with their Chinese communist tendencies and this meant that the one party that was to be kept alive was Zanu-PF.

Incidents like the treatment of Nkomo and his Zipra cadres at independence exacerbated ethnic tensions. Clashes between Zipra and Zanla at assembly points, the demotion of Nkomo in January 1981 from being a Home Affairs minister to Minister without Portfolio, and the embarrassing demobilisation of over 5 000 Zipra forces in Gwayi in 1981 left Zipra forces angry and disillusioned.

A few Zipra soldiers disserted and dissident activity began in 1982.

Consequently, the Zanu-PF government responded by unleashing the Fifth Brigade, an army that was placed outside army structures and directly under the control of Mugabe.

Shops were closed and all forms of transportation were banned and drought relief supplies were suspended.

The critical political economy and the hegemonic role of the media The role of the Chronicle newspaper in the Gukurahundi genocide and violence can be located within the critical political economy theory of the media. This is in order to reveal how much ownership, among other things, can affect the information the public receives from public media outlets. The critical political economy of communications describes all forms of enquiry into the political and economic dimensions of communication. This theory according to Graham and Murdock (1997) holds that the structure of the industry influences content and that there is an intrinsic relationship between ownership and content of the media production. According to Hardy (2014: 7), different ways of organising and financing communications have implications for the range and nature of media content, and the ways in which this is consumed and used.

It is crucial that the role played by the press in crisis situations is analysed within the system of production and distribution. This necessitates the analysis of the production and political economy of the news and information as well as the actual text of the Gukurahundi reporting. This also helps in exploring how communication and information are dialectical instances of the same social activity, the social construction of meaning.

Similarly, the ownership of the Chronicle by the government helps explain its unequivocal support for the genocide. Since government control can also shape the norms and values of news organisations principally through control of senior editorial appointments, this skews the organisational routines and values towards the interest of the elite – in this case government interests.

This amount to what Herman and Chomsky (1988) call the concept of manufacturing consent and it explains how the media function to serve the large propaganda requirements of the elite or the state.

Herman and Chomsky (1988) provide a systematic model to account for the behaviour of the media and it is their fundamental belief that the mass media serve to mobilise support for the special interests that dominate the state.

According to Graber (2005: 17), as part of the efforts by authoritarian governments to tighten grip and control the press, news stories begin to have pre-selected meanings. Precisely because of the desire to maintain the social and political milieu, governments insist the media take positions which further its goals. Instead of viewing the government as fallible servants of the people, with the potential to be corrupt, or abusive of citizens, news stories under authoritarian regimes usually accord with the prevailing ideology and confirm its accuracy.9 The idealrole of the media, which is being a conduit for rational critical debate, being a watchdog, championing for human rights, becomes a fallacy in such situations. Graber (2005:17) observes:
In communist societies, the role of the media is more stringently defined. The likely political and social effects of a story, rather than its newsworthiness, determine what will be published and what will be buried in silence. For instance, there are comparatively few stories about accidents, disasters, and crime because these matters are believed to be devoid of value in teaching people proper conduct.

It is against this scenario that one sees newspapers under authoritarian regimes publishing social propaganda that seeks to persuade people to remain loyal to the system. The aim is to make the population internalize and rationalise its oppression. This ideological or hegemonic role of the media has to be taken into account within the context of the theory of hegemony and the political economy of the media.

According to Curran and Gurevitch (1977: 4) media professionals enjoy an illusion of autonomy but in truth they are socialised into and then internalise the values of the dominant culture. The media was therefore seen as having an ideological effect.


This article uses a case study method which is an empirical enquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real context. For this paper, 145 articles from front and editorial (comment) pages of the Chronicle news were purposively selected.

Stories selected were published in the between 1982 up to 1987 when PF-Zapu and Zanu-PF signed a unity accord to end atrocities. This is because the front page carries what the news considers important issues while the editorial is the voice of the news. The editorial page sets the news's tone and attitude towards a certain issue. Textual analysis was then used to analyse these stories to unpack the meanings of texts or to explicate how texts function to produce meaning. Textual analysis was deployed in the analysis of the Gukurahundi text, that is, the Chronicle news front page and editorial articles.


The ways the Chronicle stories about the Gukurahundi genocide are packaged reveal that the production of texts is a result of a selection process from the paradigmatic choices at the disposal of the editors.

In all the stories analysed, the source is an unnamed police spokesman, a government spokesman, or a minister of home affairs and the then minister of national supplies, Enos Nkala dominates.

These sources are quoted when the reporting on the activities of dissidents otherwise most of the stories are mere reports of what the Prime Minister Mugabe, ministers of state security, home affairs and defence say about those who support PF-Zapu and dissidents.

According to CCJP report (1997), in less than a month after Five Brigade deployment, over 1 000 innocent civilians had been killed but nothing of that nature is found in the pages of the Chronicle newspaper. Instead of focusing for example on the killings and hunger that struck Zimbabwe especially drought-prone Matebeleland between 1982 and 1983, the Chronicle's page one was decorated with such headlines like Five Brigade is here to stay (12 February 1983) Army must be sharper – PM (22 March 1983), The Five Brigade (3 April 1983), Excited by the Five (30 October 1983) reveal a newspaper that was actually celebrating the genocide. The CCJP report, presents gruesome accounts of the events surrounding the Gukurahundi genocide but reading the Chronicle of the time, there is no single mention of the genocide except denials and encouragement to re-deploy the Five Brigade and that dissidents are killing Zanu-PF supporters and farmers. For example, the Chronicle of 12 February 1983 under the headline, "Five Brigade is here to stay", writes:

The Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office (Defence) Sydney Sekeramayi said it was up to PF-Zapu to stop their members and supporters from sustaining dissidents. ‘PF-Zapu have nothing to offer these people. They cannot protect them when the security forces have to deal with them for harbouring dissidents.

For the ministers to defend the Five Brigade barely a month after its deployment is a clear indication that it was indeed doing something wrong. Again, in an article written under the pseudonym Muchandida Madoda ("you will just have to like me") the paper writes:

There are reports that the Five Brigade has killed 1 000 ‘innocent' civilians in Matebeleland. Such statistics are of course hard to swallow. Also people sheltering, feeding and at times ‘entertaining' dissidents can hardly be called innocent... The Five Brigade was never going to be popular but if it gets the job done, the country is the better for it (Chronicle 3 April 1983).

Connotations in the above quotes can be understood in relation to the social myth that prevailed at the time that PF-Zapu was supported by Ndebeles, it was sponsoring and supporting dissidents and therefore Ndebeles were dissidents. The headlines and quotes above connotes that the Five Brigade is there to protect people against PF-Zapu and dissidents and therefore it must stay.

That people are being killed becomes secondary as long as Zanu-PF's attempts to violently crush PFZapu, its supporters and achieve a one-party state. That is why even the pseudonym is suggestive.

In the above quotes, PF-Zapu supporters are connoted as dissidents and therefore deserve to be killed no wonder they are accused of ‘sheltering and sometimes ‘entertaining' dissidents.' The suggestive use of the word 'entertaining' gives a picture of PF-Zapu supporters who are part and parcel of dissidents and must also be eliminated.

In another article under the headline Minister defends Five Brigade, Minister of State (Security) Emmerson Mnangagwa, ‘likening the dissidents to cockroaches and bugs said the bandit menace had reached such epidemic proportion that the government had to bring in ‘DDT' (Five Brigade) to get rid of the bandits.' This can be juxtaposed with the editorial comment that the newspaper ran on the 28th of November 1985 which reads:

But they (dissidents) cannot operate without the help of the locals, that much is obvious. Whether through fear or support they swim together like fish in familiar waters. Thereby lies their weakness. The dissidents must be deprived of the water that they swim in (Chronicle 28 November 1985).

Another comment exactly two years later on the 28th of November 1987 headlined, The locals are helping reads:

There is one simple reason for this: they are receiving much support from the locals... This in effect makes them accessories to the crime; and in this case it is particularly heinous crime. They then should be treated to the same fate as the perpetrators when facing the wrath of the law.

Thus a justification to kill the people of Matebeleland is made through such statements. The imagery of cockroaches and bugs betrays the desire by the government to kill PF-Zapu supporters who coincidentally are Ndebele. The newspaper does not openly declare war against the Ndebeles but ‘DDT,' a chemical used in the fight against bugs and cockroaches does not chose to kill a cockroach but even flies or any other insects within the vicinity can be killed. Equally the water that the dissidents have to be deprived of was the innocent Ndebeles that had to be killed. For nowhere in the history of fishing have fisherman scooped out water to get fish.

This view of seeing PF-Zapu supporters and therefore Ndebeles as dissidents was amplified by the Prime Minister Mugabe himself on the 6th of April 1983 when he said:

Where men and women provide food for dissidents, when we get there, we eradicate them. We don't differentiate when we fight because we can't tell who is a dissident and who is not. Dissidents have no distinguishing marks (Chronicle 6, April 1983).
What emerges here is the complimentary role of the media and that of the repressive state apparatus in the genocide and violence. The media here is used to justify the excesses of state violence on citizens. This was repeated until it was an acceptable myth and Barthes cited in Fiske (1987: 135) argues that ‘myths work to naturalise history... it (myth) always promotes the interests of the dominant classes by making the meanings that serve these interests appear natural and universal.'

In an apparent disregard of one of the tenets of good journalism which is to champion for the human rights of members of the society, on the 4th of February the Chronicle led with a banner headline Curfew imposed in Mat South: Move aimed at flushing out bandits, with all the details of the restrictions and a map showing the affected areas. That these were drought years and the closure of stores and banning of all traffic (including donkey-driven scotchcarts) in and out of the region meant that villagers were going to starve never mattered to the newspaper because ‘it was necessary to destroy the infrastructure that nurtured the bandits.'

Just nine days after curfew was imposed the Chronicle newspaper boldly declared: Dissident activity on the decline (13 February 1984) and claimed that a considerable number of dissidents had been captured due to the effects of curfew. No figures or names were given and surprisingly in the same issue there is a story headlined: Militias to fight banditry. One therefore wonders why if there was a decline in the number of dissidents was there a need to form militias to fight the declining number of dissidents.

The newspaper also betrays its apparent bias towards the ruling party's genocide project with stories headlined: Keep to facts, bishops told (15 April 1984), Leaders probe alleged killings (29 April 1984).

The newspaper announces that two Zanu-PF ministers are to probe the genocide following an exposé from the London Observer. On 30 April 1984 the Chronicle wrote that ‘it is heartening news that Zimbabwe government ministers Cde Enos Nkala and Cde Maurice Nyagumbo have begun investigations into the so-called atrocities.' It was the same Nkala whom the Chronicle had reported a day ago as saying:

I am Ndebele and a member of the ruling party. I am obviously concerned over the allegations that security forces want to wipe out the Ndebeles. If that was the truth how could I be a member of that party, he asked.

... Cde Callistus Ndlovu was named as one of those ex-PF-Zapu members who had answered Cde Nkala's "call in the wilderness" urging Ndebeles to join the ruling party (29 April, 1984).

It was the first time that the newspaper let the cat out of the bag. The issue here was not the dissident menace but the Ndebeles needed to abandon PF-Zapu and join Zanu-PF if killings were to stop. According to the Zanu-PF, PF-Zapu was behind the dissidents' activities and the Chronicle was the vehicle through which this was to be proved. This is where the binary oppositions between structure and superstructure, coercion and consent, state and civil society come to the fore. Against this background, the argument here is that the Chronicle legitimised killings by masking state violence perpetrated during the genocide. The newspaper's participation becomes apparent in its previously alluded to story headlined: Atrocities:

Reporters find no evidence. The story just like almost all stories on the genocide does not carry a byline. It dismisses witnesses to atrocities who gave evidence about the killings and quotes the Director of Information Dr John Tsimba as saying:

There certainly was no evidence of genocide. The two graves in which six people are allegedly buried according to evidence of a half-serious man purporting to be a father of one of the dead, certainly cannot be equated to genocide of 30000 people (11 May, 1984).

It must also be borne in mind that elections were to be held a year later and therefore all efforts were directed at discrediting PF-Zapu and at the same time dealing with its supporters through the Five Brigade. The newspaper further quotes Mugabe openly calling for violence against citizens when he says:

PF-Zapu had started something and I want to assure you we are going to see this thing through to the bitter end. I shall give power to the police and the security forces to mount a manhunt not only in houses but also in bushes, anthills and trees. Anybody here who belongs to PF-Zapu will have to answer for it (Chronicle 19, May 1984).

In apparent reference to the ethnic tensions existing between the Ndebeles and Shonas as propagated by the colonialists, the Chronicle newspaper quotes Mugabe referring to the Ndebeleness of PF-Zapu;

They started to murder people and brought spears in Zimbabwe. There is no one we fear. From today the direction we will take will bear heavily on PF-Zapu.

PF-Zapu has opened a new paper. There is going to be a new road that we are going to walk and PFZapu must be prepared for a very tough exceedingly tough road (19 May, 1984).

Reminiscent of the Rwandan media during the genocide of 1994 that encouraged Hutus to slaughter the minority Tutsi, the Chronicle of 24 June 1984 quoted the Midlands Governor Benson Ndemera inciting Zanu-PF supporters to fight. He said:

...If you are provoked you have the right to defend yourself. And should this happen you must sting like a black mamba which once it has struck there is no cure for the bite.

The result of such reckless statements was massive demonstrations against PF-Zapu where their supporters were killed. One sees here the Chronicle justifying the brutality meted on fellow citizens and also failing to condemn these riots. On the 19th of June 1984, the had unashamedly written:

Thousands of Zimbabweans yesterday demonstrated calling for the immediate arrest of PF-Zapu leader Dr Joshua Nkomo and the closure of all PF-Zapu offices in the Midlands province. Police watched as people were beaten and cars set on fire.

"The mob was too big, I'm sure they (police) could not stop it," said another witness who asked not to be named (Chronicle 19, June 1984).

What is striking from the above quote is the reference to the unnamed source vehemently defending the law enforcements agents' failure to control a mob. What this story therefore does is to scare any PF-Zapu supporter into submission so that tyranny and dictatorship can thrive. There is no PF-Zapu supporter who can openly declare his/ her allegiance to the party because they will be beaten, their cars and houses will be set on fire and the police will watch because the mob will be ‘too big.' Also to be noted is the use of the word ‘Zimbabweans' instead of Kwekwe residents or Midlands's residents. The impression created here is that Zimbabweans are against Nkomo, PF-Zapu and dissidents and therefore it is any action against these three is justifies.

Another genocidal statement was published by the Chronicle on 19 September 1985 quoting Minister of State Supplies, Enos Nkala who boldly declared that:

Nkomo should take note – in the next few days you will be seeing fire... we want to wipe put the PF-Zapu leadership. You have only seen the warning lights as we haven't yet reached full blast. The next few months will see us in top gear and PF-Zapu must be warned... I do not want to hear pleas of mercy. I only want encouragement to deal with this dissident organisation.

The murderous organisation and its murderous leadership must be hit so hard that it doesn't feel obliged to do things it has been doing (Chronicle 19, September 1985).

It is very clear that an organization is made up of members both ordinary and senior members and to say an organisation is murderous amounts to saying that its membership consists of murderers and this incites violence. Publication of such a story amounts to inciting violence and in this milieu, ethnic violence.

Therefore the central contention here is that the Chronicle newspaper facilitated and fomented the atrocities and that the international media essentially helped the Chronicle by ignoring the story. The Chronicle's hegemonic role is very clear here as it tried to naturalize the beatings and killings of the Ndebele people. This is also evident in headlines like Demo fever in reference to the anti-PF-Zapu riots as if celebrating. The headline itself is in a celebratory mood and does not fit in a situation where these demos end in deaths of people.

Publishing statements like the one by a Zanu-PF Callistus Ndlovu is akin to praising and supporting the genocide. Ndlovu is quoted saying;

The government sent the army to this place (Plumtree) to try and salvage you people from dissident slavery. It is now up to you to completely free yourselves from this slavery by joining the party that has a future for everybody in Zimbabwe (22 June, 1984).

Thus the Chronicle here was attempting to create a collective identity that is forcing everyone to belong to Zanu-PF. Schlesinger (1993) observes that the media can also have the power to help preserve a cultural space or collective identity. Headlines such as Excited by the 5 (in reference to the Five Brigade soldiers that committed the genocide) reveal that the media can play a critical role in creating and sustaining a common culture, which in this case was a culture of violence.


Against this background it is suffice to say that news discourses (text, pictures, and cartoons) do no offer neutral descriptions of the world but they actively shape the world in favour of certain viewpoints and texts always strive to hide basic contradictions andtherefore teasing out the discourses of the Gukurahundi text, one finds out that the text take the position of the Zanu-PF government against the people of Matebeleland who happened to be Ndebele and supported PF-Zapu. What is also apparent is that such coverage of the genocide by the Chronicle newspaper has inflamed ethnic tensions which are still unresolved up to this day.

Source - newshawks
All articles and letters published on Bulawayo24 have been independently written by members of Bulawayo24's community. The views of users published on Bulawayo24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Bulawayo24. Bulawayo24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.