I am sorry! Thoughts on the Zimbabwean apology

When should nations apologize?

In the weeks since President Emmerson Mnangwaga took over power from Robert Mugabe there have been calls for the President to apologize for the Gukurahundi atrocities. Gukurahundi is a very sensitive matter and should be handled with great care and respect. It is not the goal of this essay  to engage the debate on the facts of Gukurahundi. Others who are more qualified have written extensively on the matter

It is my hope to create a focused dialogue on the importance of national apologies and to offer historical precedence. While I will focus on Gukurahundi I also acknowledge that there have been other deeply hurtful moments of violence and abuse in Zimbabwe’s pre- and post-colonial history.

A very Limited Background on Gukurahundi (which does not do the issue enough justice)

There is general agreement that Gukurahundi atrocities occurred between 1983-1987 (roughly). There is also very little disagreement that excessive violence was used by a state sponsored military brigade against an unarmed civilian population. There is general agreement that this excessive violence led to multiple deaths of citizens in the Matabeleland region. There is also general agreement that prior to the fifth brigade intervention there had been targeted killings in Matabeleland by a politically motivated individuals.

I am sorry!

I am sorry. There are times when all we want from the person who has wronged us is an apology. Those three words are powerful and can have deep healing effects. I am sorry is more than an apology it is an admission of guilt that validates the concerns of the wronged persons.

What is a national apology for historical wrongs?


A national apology is usually in the form of a speech given by the government of the day -oftentimes a head of state- acknowledging a historical injustice and promoting healing, and reconciliation in the country.


In interpersonal relationships,  we sometimes do not need spell out  exactly what we did wrong for an apology to have impact, but,  generally one must show remorse, admission of guilt, a promise not to repeat the offending behavior and sometimes offer to repay the damage.


A national apology, especially one for historical injustices that may have taken place a long time ago tends to be more comprehensive. The actual words “I am sorry” are often accompanied by a clear lay out of the injustices being apologized for. The government, must show remorse and it is usually standard that these apologies are public. Scholars of apologies also note that since apologies tend to be controversial and might result in more conflict it is important that the government phrase apologies in “ways that minimize resistance from the non-victimized majority of the population. Opinion polls also indicate  that majorities sometimes strongly oppose government apologies for historical  injustices (Viles, 2002)” (Blatz, Schumann, & Ross, 2009).

In the Zimbabwean case, an apology on Gukurahundi should take into account that the majority possibly within the Shona group might oppose a public apology that they feel incriminates them for a crime that they did not personally commit. In recent discussions on Gukurahundi on social media platforms the feelings of public prosecution among Shona’s have been quite evident as citizens often innocently ask why they must be punished when their families have also suffered various injustices. Blatz at al, also write that, a good national apology must include praise for the current government, and the systems and laws that made such an apology possible. People are motivated to do good when they feel that their side of the story has been given due diligence. .  I would add that it is important for all Zimbabwean citizens to feel that they have a stake in a national apology and that the apology serves a greater purpose. In most cases, victims have accepted the good will gesture of an apology allowing nations to move forward amicably in a direction geared for economic prosperity for all. In short, one might say apologies are good for the economy.

Many of us are used to thinking of apologies in the context of our personal lives and not necessarily on political or national issues. Indeed, there is a lot of debate on the utility of national apologies for historical crimes. These are not easy decisions for governments to make as admission of guilt which comes with an apology can carry grave political and sometimes financial implications for a country.

Throughout human history, governments, leaders, chiefs, kings etc have committed deliberate acts of crimes ranging from slavery, rape, land grabbing to mass murders. These government actions were oftentimes sanctioned and legal (Blatz et al., 2009). That is to say that those who physically carried out these acts, be it soldiers or the police had the legal authority to do so. Governments, respond to these historical actions in a range of ways, sometimes they  might flat out deny that the events in question ever happened. For example,  the Turkish government denies that the 1915 Armenian genocide ever took place. Sometimes governments will acknowledge that an injustice took place but deny to apologize. This was the United States position until very recently in  2008 when Congress offered a formal apology to African Americans for slavery. It is important to note that there is still a debate on reparations.


In recent history political apologies have increased. Scholars say that we are in the age of apology, the official “term referring to the increase of reparations in (global) politics, as a way of overcoming injustices from the past”. Perhaps, this represents a slight shift from past generations of deep violence and brutality towards a global society that is more interested in healing, justice and helping victims find closure. Between 1077 when “Roman Emperor Henry IV apologized to Pope Gregory VII for church state conflicts by standing in snow barefoot for three days, and, 1980 when former U.S. President Carter apologized to Iran to secure the release of American hostages” there had been only 24 recorded apologies. After 1980, we see quite a significant jump in national apologies


A few historical examples of national apologies

  1. The Holocaust

How does a country apologize for one of the worst crimes in human history?

The truthful answer is that nothing that can be said or done will ever make the hurt from the holocaust any less painful. And yet, an apology is still an important part of the national healing process.

One of the earliest acts of a humble public apology was shown by German Chancellor Willy Brandt in Warsaw, 1970. The chancellor, who was not a man of a small stature, fell on his knees in front of the Holocaust memorial during a state visit to Poland. We should all pause for a second and allow his actions to sink in.

Willy Brandt’s Kniefall. © ullstein bild/ Sven Simon

Brandt described his historical actions in very few words

‘Unter der Last der jungsten Geschichte tat ich, was Menschen tun, wenn die Worte versagen. So gedachte ich Millionen Ermordete.’ (Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fall short. This is how I remembered the millions of victims.)

It had been a few decades since the end of the Holocaust but Brandt would later write in his memoirs that the he had carried a huge burden. He was not a part of the Nazi government. In fact, he had been forced to flee his home country when the Nazi’s began targeting leaders of the political opposition.

He wrote: An unusual burden accompanied me on my way to Warsaw. Nowhere else had a people suffered as in Poland. The machine-like annihilation of Polish Jewry represented a heightening of bloodthirstiness that no one had held possible. On my way to Warsaw [I carried with me] the memory of the fight to the death of the Warsaw ghetto.

Although more than seven decades have passed since the holocaust the German government is still in negotiations with survivors and families of victims over compensation.

  1. Bill Clinton’s apology to Rwanda on behalf of the United States

In 1994, the world watched as people in Rwanda- men, women and children- were killed mercilessly like animals over a ninety-day period. Big and small nations alike, Western and African, did not stand up to help. The United States’ refusal to help was particularly notable.

In 1998, Former President, Bill Clinton formally apologized for the United States’ inaction during the Rwanda genocide that resulted in the deaths of one million Rwandans. Mr. Clinton said, “It may seem strange to you here, especially many of you who lost members of your family, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.” You can read the full speech here

  1. Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Apology to the Maoris

In 1995, the Queen apologized to the New Zealand Maoris a tribe, for the unjust seizure of their land and murders that occurred under Queen Victoria. This was the first time that the Royal Monarchy offered an apology for misdeed resulting from British Colonial rule. The apology in the form of a Bill signed publicly by the Queen stated that the Crown had acted unjustly and offered , “profound regret and apologies for the loss of lives because of the hostilities arising from its Invasion and at the devastation of property and social life which resulted.” As part of the apology the Australian government returned  39,000 acres of Crown-owned land, valued at $NZ100m (pounds 43m) to the Tainui people.

  1. David Cameron’s Bloody Sunday Apology

In 2010, 38 years after the Bloody Sunday massacres in Northern Ireland then Prime Minister David Cameron offered an apology on behalf of the British government for massacres that took place when he was just six years old. On 30 January 1972, British soldiers opened fire and shot 28 unarmed civilians in a small Irish town were over ten thousand people had gathered for civil rights. A total of fourteen  people died from the shootings. The bloody Sunday inquiry took 12 years.

In his apology, Mr. Cameron said, “Mr Speaker, I am deeply patriotic. I never want to believe anything bad about our country. I never want to call into question the behavior of our soldiers and our army, who I believe to be the finest in the world…I know that some people wonder whether, nearly 40 years on from an event, [if] a prime minister needs to issue an apology”. Mr. Cameron also said, “For someone of my generation, Bloody Sunday and the early 1970s are something we feel we have learnt about rather than lived through. But what happened should never, ever have happened. The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and the hurt of that day and with a lifetime of loss. Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces and for that, on behalf of the government, indeed, on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.”

Three years after the massacres the British government had initially offered a financial compensation of £42,000  to relatives of victims but the relatives did not accept the compensation choosing instead to continue their fight for justice and a formal inquiry. Following the completion of the inquiry and the apology by Mr. Cameron the British government signaled a financial compensation of at least  £10million.

Closing thoughts

It is difficult to achieve the kind of national healing that Zimbabwe needs without a national apology. A national apology delivered with sincerity in combination with other political and non-political gestures will do Zimbabwe a lot of good. The transition from Robert Mugabe to Emmerson Mnangagwa has put Zimbabwe on a course for national healing and economic recovery. The new government faces many difficult decision ahead but there is enough good will among Zimbabweans.


On a personal note:

When I first arrived in the United States, my host mom introduced me to a fellow young Zimbabwean woman. All through college she was my closet diaspora family. She is Ndebele and I am Shona.
In 2006, I was a young very green second year university student when I went to visit family in England. I was at a party with about 40 Zimbabweans and I was the only Shona person. The conversation found itself to tribal injustices in Zimbabwe. I was the youngest person in the room. The adults charged their anger about school conditions in Matabeleland and the lack of representation on TV. I wanted to shout and scream that while many of them had come from great wealth affording them opportunities at private schools like Girls college and Plumtree high school, I was the child of a single mother- a cross border trader. Everything I had was the result of my mother’s tenacity and relentless courage. But I did not. I just sat there and listened. I was also quite intrigued to learn about this part of my history.
In 2014, a friend and I were invited to a party by some Swazi friends of ours in Atlanta. At that time, I had already begun by PhD on migration issues. Our friend expressed his worry that the majority of Zimbabweans at the party would be Ndebele and he had heard about the animosity between Shona’s and Ndebele’s. We shrugged and went ahead. I told him that some of my family were Ndebele as my father and siblings married into Ndebele families. At the party, a young woman- also name Chipo, spent at least 20 minutes expressing her anger because her father, a Shona man, impregnated her mother and left them in Bulawayo with no support. Again, my friend and I unsure of what to do stood there and listened.
In 2014, I was doing research in Capetown when I interviewed a white Zimbabwean woman. Before she shook my hand, she spat at me. She was upset. Her family lost everything. She nearly lost an eye during the invasions.
I do not know a lot of white Zimbabweans but as my circle of Zimbabwean friends expands I am in awe of the kindness that is at the core of the Zimbabwean diaspora community.
I share these stories because they are part of what has motivated me to write this essay on apologies. Over the years, I have become more aware of the privilege that my very Shona name – Chipo- gives me in Zimbabwe. It is not material wealth privilege, but, I have never had to question if I belong in my home. Zimbabwe has always been mine as I have been hers.
I do not speak on behalf of anyone other than myself when I say that I am really deeply sorry that our country has been so violent. I am sorry that there are Zimbabwean children of any tribe or race who have been denied their parents, their heritage and their happiness because of sanctioned violence. I am sorry.