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Wilful blindness


Britain was “wilfully blind” to atrocities committed by Robert Mugabe’s army in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s, according to research by the University of St Andrews.

In a paper published this month (April 2017) by The International History Review, Dr Hazel Cameron has revealed how Britain stood by and engaged in a “conspiracy of silence” while thousands of innocent civilians were massacred in Matabeleland.

Dr Cameron’s study provides a critical new lens into the 1983 massacres – known as ‘Gukurahundi’ – by revealing for the first time how British officials were “intimately aware” of atrocities as they unfolded.

According to newly-released documents obtained by Dr Cameron, British officials on the ground in Zimbabwe were “consistent in their efforts to minimise the magnitude” of the state-sanctioned murders.

The previously unseen material implicates Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government and Robin Byatt, the British High Commissioner in Harare, for their “wilful blindness” during the period of violence.

Dr Cameron’s research – which was self-funded – investigated the episode of post-colonial state violence in the newly independent Zimbabwe committed by an army unit known as Fifth Brigade. The unit was a division of the Zimbabwean National Army and some of its soldiers were trained by the British Ministry of Defence.

The episode followed Zimbabwe’s first Prime Minister Robert Mugabe’s launch of a “massive security clampdown”, which started with a strict curfew, arbitrary arrests and detentions without charge, in Matabeleland North in January 1983.

For the following nine months, the Fifth Brigade killed, mass tortured, raped and burned alive thousands of the Ndeble people claimed to be dissidents or affiliates of the opposition party ZAPU (Zimbabwean African People’s Union). In the first six weeks alone, between three and five thousand unarmed civilians of North Matabeleland were killed by the Fifth Brigade, who told their victims they had been ordered to “kill anything that was human”. It is estimated that the total number of murders during the Gukurahundi period were “no fewer than 10,000 and no more than 20,000”.


Dr Cameron, a lecturer in International Relations at St Andrews, said: “There can be no doubt that Gukurahundi was Zimbabwean government policy. It is quite clear from these documents that one of the major concerns for the British at the time was the reputation of their own army and British public opinion as opposed to the ongoing atrocities and human violations in Matabeleland.

“Instead, the Zimbabweans who were of concern to the British government, and influenced their diplomatic approach, were the many white Zimbabweans living in the affected regions, and who were unaffected by the extreme violence of Fifth Brigade.

“That the British government chose to adopt a policy of wilful blindness towards the atrocities undoubtedly constituted naked realpolitik. Mugabe himself was said to view the British response favourably, saying ‘you have to hand it to the British, they know how to behave in this kind of situation’.”

For the study, Dr Cameron scoured 2600 pages of documents, focusing on sources dating from January to April 1983 to establish what knowledge was available to the British and US governments about the “persistent and relentless” atrocities taking place at the time, as well as the diplomatic approaches pursued by both governments in response to events.

Commenting on her success in obtaining a “treasure trove” of both US- and UK-government correspondence through Freedom of Information requests, she said: “I was astounded when a large, unmarked box of so much uncensored material arrived at my office.”

The unique dataset provides minutes of meetings and other relevant communications between the British High Commission (Harare), the Prime Minister’s Office, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence in London, as well as the US Department of State and the US Embassy in Harare.


Importantly, Dr Cameron analysed declassified documents from the US – which “demonstrated concern” and a more victim-centred approach during the same period – to highlight the UK Government’s approach was to turn a “blind eye” to the victims of gross abuse.

In a cable seen by Dr Cameron from Robin Byatt to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Geoffrey Howe, Byatt refers to Britain’s “important” interests in investment and trade (worth £800m and £120m in 1982), despite the “occasional Zimbabwean perversity”.

Byatt was unsettled by the arrival of Jeremy Paxman in March 1983 with a small Panorama documentary crew, with the British High Commission claiming that Paxman was taking an “unreservedly gloomy and sensational view of recent events”.

Dr Cameron continued: “The rationale for Britain’s inertia in Zimbabwe when faced with grave violations of human rights is expressed clearly in numerous communications between Harare and London. This includes Britain’s determination to maintain good diplomatic relations with Mugabe so to protect their significant British economic and strategic interests in southern Africa.

“The dataset also identifies that it was of great importance to Mugabe that the economically viable whites stay in Zimbabwe, whilst it was equally important to the Thatcher government to take measures to prevent the possibility of ‘a major exodus’ of Zimbabweans to the UK.”

Gukurahundi only came to an end seven years later with the signing of the Zimbabwean Unity Accord of 1987, which made no recognition whatsoever of the victims of the violence. There was no public admission of guilt for the atrocities or measures proffered for reparations. Instead, a blanket amnesty was offered to all those involved in the Matabeleland Massacres.

Dr Cameron’s research is ongoing, with the current findings representing an analysis of only a small number of the documents from a brief window of time. She is currently writing a book based on her research, which will be published by Hurst & Co in 2018.

She concluded: “It is quite clear from the material I have uncovered that, apart from the immediate perpetrators, external bystanders have to be held accountable to some extent for the unbridled human rights abuses that took place in Zimbabwe in early 1983.

“One child survivor of Gukurahundi succinctly summarises the unethical role played by Britain in Zimbabwe through its consistent lack of intervention: ‘there was this conspiracy of silence that took place in the 1980s’.”


Gukurahundi survivor and Human Rights Activist Thembani Dube has commended Dr Cameron’s research. He said: “Dr Cameron unravels the complicit role of the British government of Margaret Thatcher very well in this commendable paper. The hard evidence presented of the official British and US government communications regarding this atrocity are revealing.

“The Matebele lives, including those of children and pregnant women, were sacrificed at the altar of British economic interests in Zimbabwe, domestic political interests in the UK, and cold war politics.

“The most important issue at hand today for the people of Matebeleland regarding the important revelations in this paper is their call for ‘Truth, Justice and Reparations’ for their suffering.

“Dr Cameron’s sterling work is welcomed by the people of Matebeleland and contributes significantly to the full understanding of the key players in the Gukurahundi atrocities. It also adds to the strong calls for an international investigation.”

Read more detailed information, including images and video…

Photo captions

Top: Gukurahundi – Fifth Brigade

Middle: BMATT (British Military Advisory Training Team) supervise a Zimbabwean National Army shooting practice, 1980s

Bottom: Memorial wall from a village in Matabeleland where 19 women and one man who were burned alive in a hut are being memorialised

Background information

From 1987 to 2017: This year marks the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Unity Accord on 22 December 1987, an accord between the country’s two political parties: the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), which brought an end to Gukurahundi. A blanket amnesty was offered to all who were involved, including all members of the security forces who had committed human rights violations. National Unity Day is now a public holiday in Zimbabwe, celebrated on 22 December. However, the government has prevented any public ceremonies remembering the victims of Gukurahundi.

Dr Cameron’s research interest is in crimes of the powerful and the role of external institutional bystanders. She has written the monograph Britain’s Hidden Role in the Rwandan Genocide, a systematic and detailed socio-legal analysis of the policies of the British Government towards civil unrest in Rwanda throughout the 1990s, culminating in genocide in 1994.

The paper ‘The Matabeleland Massacres: Britain’s Wilful Blindness’ is published in The International History Review [DOI:10.1080/07075332.2017.1309561].

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office, contactable on 01334 467310/2530 or


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