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Theatre as grieving: a theatrical response to the Matabeleland and Midlands disturbances of the 1980s (A.K.A. Gukurahundi) in Zimbabwe.

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This research explores devised theatre, in the form of Popular Participatory Theatre (PPT) as a way of encouraging the victims and survivors of the Gukurahundi and their community members to speak out on this issue to create what I term a langalezo experience, which is a grieving experience as envisioned in the Ndebele culture. As a strategy to dismantle the Patriotic Front – Zimbabwe African People’s Union (PF ZAPU) and to address the dissident problem, the newly elected Zimbabwe African National Union– Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) government deployed the 5 Brigade in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces, resulting in the massacre of about 20,000 unarmed civilians in what has become known as the Gukurahundi. The atrocities started in 1983 and ended with the signing of the Unity Accord in 1987. Following this violence, the government muted dialogue around the issue. The silencing of public discussions on the Gukurahundi by the government has blocked the grieving process of the victims and their children. To explore ways of speaking about this issue and of aiding the grieving process for the second-generation sufferers (and by extension the first-generation sufferers), I worked with a group of young people from Bulawayo to collectively devise and stage theatre on this emotive subject. Speak Out! Phase one and two plays were created and performed in Bulawayo, followed by post-performance discussions. Decolonial theory (Mignolo and Vazquez 2013; Mignolo 2018; Gaztambide-Fernández 2014; Quijano 2000, 2007; Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2013a, 2013b), Postcolonial Feminist theories (Mohanty 1988; 2003; hooks 1989; Spivak 1988), Popular Memory (Dawson 2015) and the concept of the Generation of Postmemory (Hirsch 2008) were used to frame the research as part of a body of artistic research that engages the African context in the era of so-called ‘liberation’. This qualitative research deployed Participatory Action Research (PAR) as a methodology within the emancipatory paradigm because of its emphasis on doing research with the people and not simply for the people. Since the study was participatory and carried out with participants from my cultural and linguistic community, I also used autoethnography (Cresswell 2013) and community autoethnography (Toyosaki et al. 2009) as part of the methodology within the interpretive paradigm. Findings of the research show that while the Gukurahundi ended in 1987, its effects have continued to exist in the form of difficulties for victims to obtain identity documents, economic problems, fractured families and trauma for the victims, and unhealed psychological wounds, among others. The study reveals that victims of the atrocities are frustrated that their pain and suffering are not publicly acknowledged and public discussions of the issue are being silenced. For closure and healing of emotional and psychological wounds of the Gukurahundi to take place, people should be free to talk about this issue and to grieve the way they want. I argue that PPT is rich with the potential to create democratic spaces that can give a platform for telling stories of pain and suffering that have been marginalised. I observe that techniques such as improvisation, storytelling, and the use of songs, when deployed during the devising process, assisted in creating a social and aesthetic space to speak about the Gukurahundi issues, creating a potential for helping those who are grieving. I conclude that participating in the processes of this research (interviews, focus group discussions, devising and staging theatre and post-performance discussions) encouraged the participants and audience members to speak out on the Gukurahundi, a move that presents a potential for aiding grieving and also documenting and archiving stories of the atrocities. The research shows that though fear is still present, survivors are willing to speak up and desire to see the Gukurahundi issue being addressed. Closure is necessary for the sake of the victims and the sake of unity, peace, and progress in Zimbabwe as a country.


Doctoral Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.