Matabeleland is a historical area now making up the western part of Zimbabwe. It is home to the Ndebele people, an ethnic minority in Zimbabwe, who number about two million people – making up about 1/8th of the total population of Zimbabwe.
The majority of people in Zimbabwe live in the rest of the country and are of the Shona ethnic group.
The Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) is a black nationalist organisation, founded in the 1960s by Joshua Nkomo, an Ndebele man. In 1975, a splinter faction split away from ZAPU – the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), led by Robert Mugabe. ZAPU drew its support from the western Matabeleland, whereas ZANU drew its support from the Shona majority.
Although initially the two factions worked together with the aim of ousting the British colonial regime, Nkomo and Mugabe struggled to reconcile their differences once they had succeeded and Zimbabwe became independent in 1980. Mugabe became the first prime minister of the newly independent country, and initially refused to offer Nkomo a ministerial role – perceived by many in Matabeleland as a Shona takeover. Mugabe mistrusted the historically turbulent Ndebele people and Nkomo’s ethnicity furthered his distrust. Eventually Mugabe relented and offered Nkomo a role as minister for home affairs.
This lasted until 1982, when South African agents hoping to sew distrust between ZAPU and ZANU planted arms in farms in Matabeleland and tipped off Mugabe to their existence. Mugabe accused Nkomo’s ZAPU of plotting another war, and marched the Fifth Brigade into Matabeleland. The Fifth Brigade were an elite unit, trained in North Korea after an agreement between Mugabe and then North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.
Their mandate was to track down and arrest officials and veterans of the armed ZAPU military wing, to stop the dissent. In reality, all men of fighting age were perceived as potential dissidents, arrested and then executed or sent to re-education camps. Large groups of Ndebele people were often rounded up and forced to sing songs praising Mugabe’s ZAPU party, followed by public executions. In at least one incident, a group of Ndebele people was massacred seemingly at random when 62 people were shot on the banks of the Cewale River. 55 of them died.
The most widely spoken accepted figure puts the death toll at around 20,000 people, 700 – 800 of them Shona killed by Ndebele dissidents in rural areas. The massacres have been dubbed the ‘Gukurahundi’ – derived from a Shona word meaning “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”.
In 1987, Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe signed an agreement to end the violence. Mugabe offered an amnesty to all dissidents and Nkomo called on them to lay down their arms. Joshua Nkomo was made the vice-president of Zimbabwe, until his death in 1999. At his funeral, Robert Mugabe admitted “thousands” had been killed in the violence and described the Gukurahundi as a “moment of madness”.
The Matabeleland National football team was set up in 2016 as a response to the oppression and to give identity to the Ndebele people.
The team is managed by Englishman Justin Walley, who described the ConIFA World Cup as “everything the FIFA World Cup isn’t,” and tells stories of 17 of his Ndebele players cramming themselves into the back of a Toyota to get to an away game. He also tells of kids in Matabeleland and Zimbabwe in general cramming plastic bags inside each other to make makeshift footballs, and staying out until the wee hours playing for the love of the game.
Matabeleland have not played an officially sanctioned game yet, so it’s hard to predict how they’ll fare.