HARARE (Reuters) – A play that was banned by Robert Mugabe about a 1980s government crackdown in which rights groups say 20,000 civilians were killed has been performed in Zimbabwe for the first time.
The play, “1983, The Dark Years”, was stopped by the censors in 2012 but following November’s de facto army coup against Mugabe, its director feels political freedoms are improving.
The now president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was Mugabe’s security minister at the time and many say he played a big role during the Gukurahundi massacres – making the play’s airing, just months after he took power, even more significant.
“We, as a theatre group thought it is the right time to try and trigger this kind of debate whereby we need the nation to actually know what happened because as we speak the nation is divided by this term (Gukurahundi),” director and actor Adrian Musa, told Reuters after the show.
The massacres began after Mugabe said his government had discovered weapons hidden by former liberation fighters belonging to PF-ZAPU led by his rival Joshua Nkomo, whom he accused of plotting an insurgency.
In the local Shona language, Gukurahundi means “the early rain that washes away the chaff”.
“This is a very sensitive issue and where we come from in Matabeleland if you term the word Gukurahundi people will start raising their eyebrows to see who is talking,” Musa said.
During Mugabe’s near 40-year rule, few families and victims, mostly minority Ndebeles, spoke openly about the Gukurahundi offensive carried out by a North Korean-trained brigade. Mugabe has called the period a “moment of madness”.
Mnangagwa has never publicly addressed in Zimbabwe any role he played, but when asked about it at the Davos meeting of world leaders in January, he said: “The most important thing is that what has happened has happened, what can we do about the past?
“We would like to say wherever wrong was committed, the government of the day must apologise. Wherever any community has suffered any injury, if it is that injury that has to be repaired, we do it.”
The play is set in Gwanda, southwest Zimbabwe, which experienced some of the worst atrocities.
In the play, soldiers in red berets chase after an elderly woman and hang her on a tree and in other scene, soldiers high on dagga amputate a man’s leg with a bayonet and chop off a high school boy’s genitals.
When a Reuters reporter in February visited Sawudeni, a village west of Harare where some of the killings took place, villagers said they wanted Mnangagwa and Mugabe to apologise publicly and compensate the families of victims.
“In my opinion we have been parking the issue of Gukurahundi for a very long time,” said Davis Guzha, executive director at the theatre company that brought the show to Harare.
“If anything, because the president keeps talking about ‘Zimbabwe is open for business,’ let’s discuss everything.”
Editing by James Macharia and Alison Williams