The Matabeleland massacres: Britain's wilful blindness

Hazel Cameron

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20 Citations (Scopus)
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This article explores an episode of post-colonial state violence in the newly independent Zimbabwe, namely state-sanctioned atrocities by the army unit known as Fifth Brigade, perpetrated against the Ndebele of Matabeleland and Midlands region. This episode of political and ethnic violence that occurred between 1983 and 1987 is referred to as both the Matabeleland Massacres and Gukurahundi. Members of the British government in Zimbabwe, which included a British Military Advisory Training Team (BMATT) on the ground, were intimately aware of the violence that resulted in the death of between 10,000 and 20,000 people. This article analyses official British and US government communications between the British High Commission, Harare, and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Cabinet Office, the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of Defence, London, as well as between the US Department of State and the US Embassy in Harare. Analysis of the documents dated between January and March 1983 sheds a critical new lens on Gukurahundi, establishing what knowledge was available to the British and US governments about the persistent and relentless atrocities taking place; the diplomatic approaches pursued by both governments in response; and their rationale for same. The hitherto unavailable material presented here was obtained by Freedom of Information requests to various British Government offices and to the US Department of State. Analysis establishes that the British High Commission, Harare, had detailed knowledge of events unfolding in Matabeleland from an early stage of Gukurahundi, yet senior members of BMATT and the British diplomatic team in Harare, in contrast to their US counterparts, were consistent in their efforts to minimise the magnitude of Fifth Brigade atrocities. That the British government chose to adopt a policy of wilful blindness towards the atrocities undoubtedly constituted naked realpolitik.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
JournalThe International History Review
Issue number1
Early online date10 Apr 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Zimbabwe
  • Mugabe
  • Post-colonial violence
  • Ethnic violence
  • Political violence
  • Gukurahundi
  • Matabeleland
  • Ndebele
  • Foreign policy


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