After years of British colonialism and later white minority rule, the liberation movements in Rhodesia achieved black majority rule with the signing of the Lancaster House Settlement in 1979. In March 1980, the country held its first democratic elections, resulting in Robert Mugabe, of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) political party, becoming the first prime minister of Zimbabwe. Mugabe proceeded to establish an authoritarian regime characterised by one-party control and state-sanctioned violence and intimidation.

In the years that followed, ethnic tensions would arise between ZANU-PF under Mugabe, popularly supported by Shona people, and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), a Ndebele opposition party led by Joshua Nkomo. This tension stemmed from ZANU-PF’s efforts to establish a ‘party-nation,’ which marginalised other political entities and their contributions to national discourse. Shona historical narratives and symbols became central to state ideologies, exacerbating the divide between the Shona and the Ndebele.[1]

The political fragmentation in Zimbabwe intensified in February 1981, following an attempt by the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), the former military wing of ZAPU, to take control of the ‘second capital,’ Bulawayo. Clashes between ZIPRA and the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the former military wing of ZANU-PF, followed.[2] In 1982, tensions became openly violent, resulting in a five-year conflict between the new government and opposition forces.

In 1983, Mugabe deployed the Fifth Brigade, largely composed of former ZANLA members, to crush dissidents in northern Matabeleland, largely inhabited by the Ndebele and known as a ZIPRA stronghold. Called the Gukurahundi, the operation resulted in gross human rights violations, including mass murder, rape, torture in internment camps, and the destruction of property.[3] Civilian deaths in the region reached 20,000 and many sustained physical injuries and were disabled.[4] The Unity Accord in 1987 saw the amalgamation of ZANU-PF and ZAPU into ZANU-PF. Mugabe continued his reign as leader of ZANU-PF and became president of Zimbabwe.

In 1999, Mugabe created an official commission to redraft the Constitution, planning to extend the powers of the government to acquire land compulsorily without compensation. In February 2000, the draft Constitution was rejected in a referendum. Despite this defeat, Mugabe proceeded to amend the constitution in April 2000.[5] After ZANU-PF won the subsequent elections, the government implemented its land acquisition plans. In this period, there were reports of widespread violence. ZANU-PF supporters were described as the main perpetrators of politically motivated violence, which included murder, torture and land invasions against those perceived as supporters of opposition parties.[6] In subsequent years, ZANU-PF retained power, often through state repression and violence, corruption and electoral fraud.

Leading up to the 2008 elections, Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the new Movement for Democracy (MDC) political party, accused the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) of intimidation and harassment.[7] In 2008, Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe, but withdrew in the face of killings and other repression of MDC supporters.[8] Following international pressure, the government organised a second round of elections, which concluded with the power-sharing Global Political Agreement (GPA). Brokered between ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T) led by Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change-Mutambara (MDC-M) led by Arthur Mutambara, the agreement established a Government of National Unity.[9]

In 2017, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, under the leadership of General Constantino Chiwenga, launched a coup d’état against Mugabe.[10] This unconstitutional change of government forced Mugabe to resign, ending his 37-year rule. Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, of ZANU-PF, was subsequently elected president in the 2018 elections.

Although Mnangagwa adopted a reformist attitude after the ousting of Mugabe, the government has demonstrated a continuation of the predecessor’s strategies. The 2018 elections, for example, sparked unrest in the country due to accusations of election rigging by ZANU-PF. The government invoked the Public Order and Security Act, banning public demonstrations. Additionally, it deployed state security forces to put down protests and enabled the use of excessive force, contributing to the deaths of six people, though this number is estimated to be higher.[11] During the 2023 elections, there were reports of arbitrary arrests of civil society organisation members and voter intimidation.[12]

In this context, Zimbabwe’s attempts at transitional justice have included amnesties, commissions of inquiry, land reform and a truth commission.


The 1979 Lancaster House Settlement included measures that ensured the warring parties – the Rhodesian government and the main liberation movements – would not be held accountable for human rights violations they committed during the liberation struggle. Those responsible for atrocities including torture, mass rape and other crimes against humanity were granted amnesty by the new government.[13]

Subsequent presidential amnesties also prevented prosecutions of perpetrators of human rights violations, including ZANU-PF members, CIO agents, the army and the police. The attorney general declined to prosecute ZANU-PF members accused of committing acts of murder, rape and vandalism during the run-up to the 1985 general elections, despite sufficient evidence. Perpetrators of violence around the 2000 elections were also granted presidential amnesties before their cases were concluded.[14]

Dumbutshena Commission of Inquiry

In 1981, Mugabe established the Dumbutshena Commission of Inquiry to investigate the violence that occurred between ZANLA and ZIPRA ex-combatants at Entumbane in Bulawayo and other demobilisation camps across the country between November 1980 and March 1981.[15] The commission was responsible for conducting hearings, gathering evidence and producing a report detailing its findings and recommendations. The commission presented its report to Mugabe in 1981 but, according to the Commissions of Inquiry Act, Mugabe was not obligated to publish it. In November 1983, the president announced that the report would not be released.[16]

Commission of Inquiry into the Matabeleland Disturbances

The Commission of Inquiry into the Matabeleland Disturbances, also known as the Chihambakwe Commission of Inquiry after its chairperson, was established in 1983. Running from 1983 to 1984, this four-person commission investigated the gross human rights violations committed in Matabeleland in 1983, taking statements in Bulawayo and Tsholotsho. The government did not make the Chihambakwe Commission’s findings and recommendations public, stating that the report would spark violence.[17]

The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and the Legal Resources Foundation independently produced a report in 1997 entitled Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace.[18] According to the report, the Fifth Brigade and ZANU-PF supporters were responsible for human rights violations that included the destruction of homesteads and villages, arbitrary detentions of civilians, torture and sexual violations such as rape in Matabeleland.[19] The report further stated that most victims/survivors experienced more than one human rights violation, often resulting in permanent injuries.

Land Reform

The Zimbabwean government attempted to redistribute land from the white minority to the black majority. This land reform was an attempt to rectify the imbalances caused by settler colonialism, where white settlers owned high-quality arable land while black people were evicted to remote, less arable areas.

According to the Lancaster House Agreement, the government could action land redistribution on a ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ basis, provided it paid for the land at market price.[20] The clause read as follows: “When property is wanted for one of these purposes, its acquisition will be lawful only on condition that the law provides for the prompt payment of adequate compensation and, where the acquisition is contested, that a court order is obtained. A person whose property is so acquired will be guaranteed the right of access to the High Court to determine the amount of compensation.”[21] Due to financial constraints, the government could not fast-track the process.

In 1998, controversial land seizures occurred, resulting in forcible evictions of white farmers.[22] War veterans carried out the evictions, referring to them as the Third Chimurenga to suggest that they were in line with earlier insurrections, the First Chimurenga in the 1860s and the Second Chimurenga in the 1960s/70s.

After its electoral victory in 2000, the ZANU-PF government implemented a fast-track land redistribution scheme that legalised land evictions. Between June 2000 and February 2001, the government listed over 2,706 farms for compulsory acquisition.[23]

Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum v. Zimbabwe

In 2006, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, in the case of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum v. Zimbabwe, held the Zimbabwean government responsible for the harassment, torture and murder of civilians who were viewed as political dissidents by ZANU-PF. The ruling was based on investigations into human rights violations committed from the constitutional referendum of 2000 until the elections in June 2002. The commission ordered the Zimbabwean government to investigate the reported crimes and compensate victims, with little effect.[24]

Organ on National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration

In line with the provisions of the 2008 Global Political Agreement, the government established the Organ on National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration (ONHRI). Operating from 2009 until 2013, ONHRI was tasked with establishing mechanisms to provide redress for the political abuses committed by political parties and their supporters during the 2008 election. Its structure reflected the signatories of the GPA, including representatives of ZANU-PF, MDC-T and MDC-M.

ONHRI organised outreach activities and consultations with various stakeholders in Zimbabwean society, including traditional leaders, civil society organisations, faith-based organisations, and members of academia. These actors advocated for a national peace and reconciliation architecture.[25]

National Peace and Reconciliation Commission

In 2018, the government passed the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission Act establishing the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, which was tasked with ensuring post-conflict justice, healing and reconciliation in Zimbabwe. ONHRI coordinated the drafting of the law, which included the development of guidelines, objectives and operations for the new commission. The commission included nine commissioners, a secretariat, external committees for victim support and ensuring gender and diversity, and an internal committee responsible for resource mobilisation and partnerships.

According to the law, the commission is to submit reports that detail the nature, extent and consequences of past violations. Furthermore, it is tasked with providing appropriate recommendations for peacebuilding and reconciliation. The law does not specify the period to be investigated by the commission.[26] The National Peace and Reconciliation Commission process is still ongoing.


The prevalence of ideologies justifying women’s subordination has resulted in unequal gender dynamics in Zimbabwe. During its first decade, the Zimbabwean government made numerous legal reforms to improve women’s lives. According to Ranchod-Nilsson, these included the “Legal Age of Majority Act (1982), which conferred majority status on women at the age of 18; the Matrimonial Causes Act (1985), which gave women rights to property in marriage; and, the Customary Law and Primary Courts Act (1981), which repealed the judicial authority of chiefs and ensured financial support for deserted and divorced wives and their children under customary law.”[27] Nonetheless, the government has promoted a national discourse that reproduces a patriarchal African culture, which has contributed to women being placed in a subordinate position and men assuming the dominant position in society.

Equally, these legal reforms, which aimed to change the social status of women, have not been reflected in most Zimbabwean men’s attitudes towards exercising control over women and their labour and sexuality.[28] This is visible in women’s limited public participation beyond the household, as they are designated roles that speak to feminine ideals. It is also evident in the high levels of gender-based violence in the country, in the form of physical, sexual and psychological harms from male members of women’s families and communities.[29]

Despite their many contributions to the liberation struggle in the country, women ex-combatants were often rejected by their communities and families upon their return because they were seen as having stepped outside of socially acceptable women’s roles.[30]

In addition, gender within the country has demonstrated an overlap with ethnicity, with state violence increasing the likelihood of Ndebele women experiencing more gross human rights violations than their Shona counterparts. This was evident during the Gukurahundi and during times of political and electoral violence. According to Mashiri, “it is clear that women activists are very likely to suffer violence at the hands of the state, but it is not only activists that are targeted as women are equal targets to men, both because of their political affiliation, but also because of the affiliation of their male partners or their family members.”[31] Targeting of women is thus linked with their ethnic identity and affiliation with individuals viewed as dissidents by the state.

Representation of women in leadership positions in the country remains low. In the 2018 elections, out of 81 women who ran as parliamentary candidates in Harare, only five made it into parliament.[32] Despite the government being a signatory to several declarations and conventions on gender – such as the 1965 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women – it has not made tangible efforts to institutionalise them.

Lastly, the Zimbabwean government does not recognise the rights of sexual and gender minority individuals in the country. In the Criminal Law Act of 2006, same-sex activities were made illegal, with an emphasis on the direct criminalisation of acts of ‘sodomy.’[33]

International Actors

Various international actors have been involved in Zimbabwe’s political affairs. This includes South Africa, which has conducted mediation and soft diplomacy in times of crisis. An example is the ‘quiet diplomacy’ practiced by former South African President Thabo Mbeki following the land evictions sanctioned by the state in Zimbabwe.[34]

The Southern African Development Community sent a delegation to Harare to quell the political violence following the 2008 election. The delegation made way for the Government of National Unity in 2009.[35]

In September 2020, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, at its 66th Ordinary Session, issued a Resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in Zimbabwe, due to its concern over the deteriorating human rights situation in the country.[36]

Although Zimbabwe has been a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court since 1998, it has yet to ratify the statute.[37]


[1] Norma J. Kriger, Guerrilla Veterans in Post-War Zimbabwe: Symbolic and Violent Politics 1980-1987 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 74.

[2] Louise White, ‘“Whoever Saw a Country with Four Armies?”: The Battle of Bulawayo Revisited,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3 (2007), 620.

[3] Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe and Legal Resources Foundation (CCJPZ and LRF), Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and Midlands 1980 to 1988 (1997), 60.

[4] Raymond Motsi, ‘The Trauma Caused by the Matabeleland Massacre of 1982-1987 in Tsholotsho Zimbabwe and How the Church Can Bring Transformation Using Pastoral Care’ (PhD diss., University of Pretoria, 2010), 87.

[5] Neil H. Thomas, ‘Land Reform in Zimbabwe,’ Third World Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4, (2003), 700.

[6] Kriger, 28.

[7] Human Rights Watch, ‘Bullets for Each of You’: State-Sponsored Violence since Zimbabwe’s March 29 Elections (2008).

[8] Zein Kebonang, ‘Of Politics and Anarchy: Zimbabwe’s 2008 Run-off Presidential Elections in Context,’ Open Political Science Journal, Vol. 5 (2012), 29.

[9] Michael Bratton, Zimbabwe: Power-Sharing Deal under Stress (New York: United State Institute of Peace, 2010), 2.

[10] Nicole Beardsworth, Nic Cheeseman and Simukai Tinhu, ‘Zimbabwe: The Coup that Never Was, and the Election that Could Have Been,’ African Affairs (2019), 2.

[11] Thulani Tshabangu and Abiodun Salawu, ‘Alternative Media, Repression and the Crisis State: Towards a Political Economy of Alternative Media in Post-Mugabe Zimbabwe,’ Journal of Asian and African Studies, Vol. 59, No. 1 (2024), 173.

[12] Amnesty International, ‘Zimbabwe: Elections Marred by Arbitrary Arrests and Fears of Internet Shutdown,’ https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2023/08/zimbabwe-elections-marred-by-arbitrary-arrests-internet-blockade

[13] Kudakwashe Chitsike, Transitional Justice Options for Zimbabwe: A Guide to Key Concepts (Cape Town: Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, 2012), 3.

[14] Kriger, 30.

[15] Ruth Murambadoro, ‘“We Cannot Reconcile until the Past Has Been Acknowledged”: Perspectives on Gukurahundi from Matabeleland, Zimbabwe,’ African Journal on Conflict Resolution, Vol. 15, No. 1 (2015), 46.

[16] Namatirai Chiphere, ‘A Transitional Justice Model for Zimbabwe’ (University of Johannesburg, 2010), 87.

[17] United States Institute of Peace, ‘Commission of Inquiry: Zimbabwe,’ https://www.usip.org/publications/1983/09/commission-inquiry-zimbabwe

[18] Tony Reeler, Subliminal Terror? Human Rights Violations and Torture in Zimbabwe during 2008 (Johannesburg: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 2009), 3.

[19] CCJPZ and LRF, 60.

[20] Alois S. Mlambo, ‘“Land Grab” or “Taking Back Stolen Land”: The Fast Track Land Reform Process in Zimbabwe in Historical Perspective,’ History Compass, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2005), 62.

[21] Lancaster House Agreement (21 December 1979), https://sasspace.sas.ac.uk/5847/5/1979_Lancaster_House_Agreement.pdf

[22] Mlambo, 57.

[23] Ibid., 57.

[24] Global Freedom of Expression, ‘Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum v. Zimbabwe’ (2024), https://globalfreedomofexpression.columbia.edu/cases/zimbabwe-human-rights-ngo-forum-v-zimbabwe/

[25] United Nations Development Fund, ‘Strengthening the National Peace and Reconciliation Infrastructure in Zimbabwe’ (2014).

[26] National Peace and Reconciliation Commission Act (2018), 184.

[27] Sita Ranchod-Nilsson, ‘Gender Politics and Gender Backlash in Zimbabwe,’ Politics and Gender, Vol. 4, No. 4 (2008), 647.

[28] Pascah Mungwini, ‘“Forward to the Past”: Dilemmas of Rural Women’s Empowerment in Zimbabwe,’ African Sociological Review (2007), 129.

[29] Luckson Mashiri, ‘Conceptualisation of Gender Based Violence in Zimbabwe,’ International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Vol. 3, No. 1 (2013), 97.

[30] Ranchod-Nilsson, 646.

[31] Mashiri, 95.

[32] Kuziwakwashe Zigomo, ‘Virtue, Motherhood and Femininity: Women’s Political Legitimacy in Zimbabwe,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 48, No. 3 (2022), 528.

[33] Human Dignity Trust, ‘Zimbabwe,’ https://www.humandignitytrust.org/country-profile/zimbabwe/

[34] Martin Adelmann, ‘Quiet Diplomacy: The Reasons behind Mbeki’s Zimbabwe Policy,’ Africa Spectrum, Vol. 39, No. 2 (2004), 251.

[35] Lucky E. Asuelime, ‘A Coup or Not a Coup: That is the Question in Zimbabwe,’ Journal of African Foreign Affairs, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2018), 14.

[36] African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, ‘Resolution on the Situation of Human Rights in Zimbabwe’ (2020), https://achpr.au.int/en/adopted-resolutions/443-resolution-human-rights-situation-republic-zimbabwe-achprres

[37] International Criminal Court Project, ‘Zimbabwe,’ https://www.aba-icc.org/country/zimbabwe/

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