Opinion / Columnist
How the people of Mat'land survived four armed groups
11 Sep 2014 at 13:18hrs | Views
JOHANNESBURG - After independence the people of Matabeleland found themselves at the mercy of three hostile armed groups-government sponsored dissidents, Super-Zapu dissidents trained and armed by South African Defence Force (SADF) special forces and genuine former Zipra cadres who deserted the national army with their weapons.
The fourth armed group was the Fifth Brigade, the ZANU-PF killing machine assembled by North Koreans in 1981.The purpose of this article is to explain the different roles played by the four armed groups and the impact of their operations on the traumatised population.
According to the 2002 so-called secret Shona document titled " Progress review on the 1979 Grand Plan, it was the government which created the original dissidents.The first group of dissidents,according to the authors of the document,was compossed of few former Zipra cadres and outsiders.
The government sponsored dissidents operated in southern Matabeleland with specific instructions to avoid contact with the national army.According to the 14- page document, the pseudo dissidents were used as a pretext to invade Matabeleland and conduct ethnic cleansing of minority groups in the province which was the political powerbase of Joshua Nkomo's Zapu.
The pseudo dissidents, who employed Selous Scouts tactics of the Rhodesian military, were also used by the government to deceive the international community which eventually blamed Zapu for the disturbances in Matabeleland.
Abandoned by the international community and with no access to the Russians,their liberation war backers, the Ndebele and other ethnic groups in Matabeleland were left at the mercy of three armed groups, state sponsored dissidents, South African backed insurgents and Gukurahundi.
The less than 200 former Zipra who had deserted the army were not in a position to protect the population as they too were fighting for their own survival following a purge in army barracks.
The purge of Zipra cadres had the backing of former Rhodesian officers in the new national army who had a score to settle with Zipra following the shooting down of two Viscount planes, Hunyani and Munyati at the height of the bush war.
The state sponsored dissidents had orders to sabotage government projects and attack ZANU-PF officials in the province.The government would then blame dissidents said to have been backed by Nkomo's party.
Enter Super-Zapu insurgents.The Super-Zapu insurgents were a mixture of ex-combatants, ordinary people and refugees recruited by South African agents from Dukwe Refugee Camp in Botswana after being told they were going to work in the mines in Johannesburg.
The refugees who managed to escape told me that on arrival in South Africa, they were surprised when they were taken to an army base outside Pretoria instead of going to work in the mines as told by their recruiters in Botswana.
The rest is history.The recruits who did not manage to escape were later transported to Phalaborwa,the home of the special forces of the SADF.Thats when they discovered the real mission of the men who had brought them into the country.
Intelligence information gathered from ex-Rhodesians in South Africa revealed that the super-Zapu dissidents were trained under the "A" Division of the SADF which was under a former Rhodesian Special Branch officer by the name Branfield.
Some of the new recruits were among the 17 SADF soldiers deployed into Zimbabwe's Sengwe communal lands in the south-east of the country.The group which included four white officers and 13 blacks was ambushed by ZNA units.
Three of the four white officers were killed and the black members of the unit fled.Military intelligence identified two of the dead white SADF soldiers as John Wessels and Robert Beech who had served in the Rhodesian Light Infantry while the other, David Berry had been a member of the Special Air Services.
Enter Fifth Brigade.This is the name some soldiers serving in the army don't want to associate themselves with.But what many writers have failed to mention is that among the first Fifth Brigade recruits were a few Zipra cadres.
But the Zipra group drafted into the unit had no idea what was in store for them or the real intentions of the formation of the brigade.Their inclusion was for cosmetic purposes and to deceive the public and the instructors from the British Military Advisory Team-known as B-MAT who were co-ordinating and training the intergrated national army.
I know some people will dispute this information and attack me because of their ignorance of events that took place in the country in the 80s leading to the massacres.However when it came to the deployment, the former Zipra in the unit were left behind in the barracks.
Among the Zipra drafted into the brigade was a senior officer I will not name for his own safety.According to the secret 14 -page document, the Fifth Brigade was formed specifically to destroy Zapu and its Ndebele support base.
It says after independence,Zapu and its armed wing possed a serious threat to the new ZANU-PF government.Zipra had been moulded into a powerful military machine with sophisticated weaponry,complete with air support of the Russian manufactured MIG-23 fighter planes, T-55 tanks and a strong conventional force that was being prepared for the invasion of Rhodesia in 1979 in what Zapu commanders called "The Final Hour."
The Fifth Brigade commander Perrence Shiri, a former Zanla cadre addressed the recruits before being deployed into Matabeleland in 1983.He was quoted as saying: " Now that you have completed your training.You must defend the threat from our enemies.Go out there and destroy dissidents and their supporters.Some of them are here among us.You know them."
That was in apparent reference to the Zipra recruits inside the unit.The job of ethnic cleansing was then left to the young brigade recruits the majority of whom had come from the Zanla's Tongogara camp.
The young soldiers,fresh from training, were itching for a fight and on arrival in the villages of Matabeleland,they executed their orders with ruthless efficiency.The savagery and brutal killing methods displayed by the Fifth Brigade's youthful soldiers almost overshadowed that of Pol Pot's Kahmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 70s.
When their operations were over in Matabeleland in 1984, more than 20 000 civillians were reported dead, thousands had disappeared while others had been forced to flee across the border into Dukwe Refugee Camp in Botswana.
Hundreds of other Zapu and Zipra officials died in detention.A report by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) contained horror stories gathered from those who survived the massacres.The human rights body also distributed some of its copies to government ministers.
One of the ministers who received a copy of the report titled " Breaking the Silence-Building true peace" was the late Eddison Zvobgo.Those who were with Zvobgo said he cried after reading the report and appeared to have been shocked by testimonies of the survivors.
Before he died in 2004, Zvogbo apologised to the people of Matabeleland about the massacres saying he could not live with his conscience after reading the report.
But when Nkomo's black Mercedes Benz was shot at by ZANU-PF supporters in Masvingo in the early 80s, Zvobgo said the Zapu leader had no other option but to join ZANU-PF.Coming back to the brigade.Who was behind the Fifth Brigade?
At its formation in 1981, Nkomo protested describing it as a tribal army whose mission was to exterminate his supporters in Matabeleland and the Midlands.But the Zapu leader was powerless to stop the deployment of the killer brigade into his political stronghold.
On 26 February 1998,the late Enos Nkala who held Home Affairs and Defence ministries in the 80s was put under pressure to disclose those behind the massacres and formation of the brigade at a public meeting in Bulawayo organised by Imbovane Yamahlabezulu pressure group.
Nkala was a guest together with the late vice-president Joseph Msika.At the emotionally charged meeting, Nkala revealed that the brigade was the brain child of the state security committee chaired by the president.
He asked the international community to help set up a South Africa style Truth Commission where he would tell all about the massacres.But he denied his own involvement despite being accused of starting the Zipra-Zanla faction fighting at Entumbane in 1980.
In 2002 I asked for an interview with former president Canaan Banana who met villagers who had survived the killings by the Fifth Brigade.
Banana had met the victims at state house in Harare after they had been smuggled into Harare by Zapu officials.I interviewed the former president at his hotel room in Bulawayo where he admitted meeting with the survivors.He too told me he was shocked by the horror stories told by the witnesses from Matabeleland.
After all that happened it was clear that ZANU-PF leaders,unlike their liberation war comrades in Zapu, went to war with a clear strategy and a plan.Their plan was to fight the war and win, then deal with their enemies who were clearly defined as Ndebeles and whites.
Zapu never had a plan of action or any strategy at all.The leaders' lack of vision and war strategy cost the people of Matabeleland and the Midlands their lives.Their well trained army went to waste.Even today Matabeleland leaders still don't have a plan or strategy.They are deeply divided and fighting among themselves while the region burns.
Source - Thabo Kunene
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