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The Politics of Apology: Zimbabwe After the 2018 Elections

Date:10 September 2018
Author:Joram Tarusarira
statue forgiveness
statue forgiveness

Dr Joram Tarusarira, Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and Globalisation and Assistant Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding, reflects on politics in  Zimbabwe after the 2018 elections, cautioning against simplistic calls for apologies and forgiveness. 

On 30th July, 2018, Zimbabwe held historic – and disputed – elections, ultimately leading to the inauguration of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. In his inauguration speech on the 26th August, President Mnangagwa concentrated on building the economy and increasing international reengagement. He did not touch on emotional and attitudinal issues, despite the fact that the elections left Zimbabweans polarized and wounded. The closest he came to emotional and attitudinal wounds was the announcement that he will appoint a commission to investigate post-election violence that resulted in the death of six people.

The legacy of the election is one more addition to the list of outstanding conflict and violence points that dog Zimbabwe’s politics. Among these are the Gukurahundi massacres (1983-7), a series of attacks carried out by the ZANU PF regime against the second largest ethnic group in Zimbabwe, the Ndebele. An estimated 20,000 were massacred. Commentators and critics have called on the Zimbabwean government to apologize for this atrocity, but no apology has been forthcoming.

In reflecting on reconciliation after violence in Zimbabwe, the questions of ‘apology’ and ‘forgiveness’ are often raised. In this contribution, I take a critical look at apology and forgiveness, their susceptibility to abuse as well as their transformative potential. I hope to warn against the naïveté of hastily and uncritically forgiving when apology is offered. This is especially relevant in the Zimbabwean context, where forgiveness is often presented as a measure of one’s faith or religiosity, and where failure to forgive when an apology is offered is seen in a bad light.

The Bible is awash with verses on forgiveness, with encouragement to forgive once apology is given. Examples include Luke 17: 3, ‘If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them,’ and Acts 2: 38, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ Religious systems differ in their prescriptions about when to forgive. For example, many Jews view repentance and atonement as prerequisites for forgiveness (Dorff, 1998; Levine, 2000; Prager essay in Wiesenthal, 1998; Schimmel, 2002), whereas Christians commonly believe that forgiveness should be unconditional (Jeffress, 2000; Rye et al., 2000; Smedes, 1996). Healing and forgiveness are often coupled at the center of Jesus’ ministry.[1] Despite the immense research on the concept of forgiveness in religion, theology, and philosophy, very little explicit attention has been paid to forgiveness by discourse scholars. This piece argues that what we lack from the discussions on apology and forgiveness to date are their transformative and programmatic dimensions, which I seek to argue for using the case of the Gukurahundi massacres (one of many similar atrocities committed in the country).

When President Mnangagwa appeared at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he took the opportunity to announce a new political dispensation, a post-Mugabe political order, to the economic world. In a widely broadcasted media appearance, Mnangagwa was faced with a thorny question from journalist Mishal Husain, who asked whether, as the leader of a new dispensation, he would apologize for Gukurahundiatrocities. The words ‘We are/I am sorry’ did not leave his lips. Instead he said:

‘In my view there is nothing more than me putting legislation where (there is) a commission headed by the Vice President and most eminent persons in Zimbabwe to deal with that issue and make recommendations.’

This response caused a stir in the media and among human rights activists, who argued that the president missed an opportunity to pronounce the so much-needed apology for Gukurahundi.

Yet, when located within the broader process of reconciliation, demanding that the president apologize in front of the cameras in Davos is problematic. Firstly, it is a simplistic, elitist and unsophisticated handling of Gukurahundi atrocities, whose magnitude requires a deeper engagement rather than an in-front-of-cameras apology, which can be manipulated for political expediency. Further, it risks a second victimization of those who suffered, as – in the wake of an apology – victims might be pressured to forgive. Thirdly, it risks reducing an apology to an event rather than a process, one which leads to moral and practical amends and a transformation that addresses the systems, structures, ideas and ideologies that justified the wrongdoing in the first place. Lastly, it assumes that all is now known about Gukurahundi and what remains is an apology. Yet much remains unknown, with that which is recorded is still disputed. I do not seek to cast aspersions on those who call for apologies and forgiveness, but want to highlight that this apology must be critical rather than simplistic. It must encompass vital elements such as truth-telling, reparations, restorative and retributive justice, which are at the centre of reconciliation and dealing with the past.

Towards a transformative and programmatic apology

An apology implies not only knowledge of, but also acknowledgementof past atrocities. What exactly happened during Gukurahundi, including how many people were killed, remains contested. For instance, President Mnangagwa in the interview in question disputed that an estimated 20,000 people were massacred during Gukurahundi. Such disputations render the apology process more difficult. These issues must be clarified and settled in advance of simplistically demanding or offering an apology (as well as offering forgiveness).

Public apologies can only be effective if certain conditions are met, otherwise they can be self-serving, insincere and counterproductive. Apologies must be carefully crafted and thoroughly implemented. They offer moral recognition and acknowledgement of the human worth and dignity of victims. They can be empowering by retracting messages of degradation and worthlessness. But their potential does not lie in simple pronouncements. They must be accompanied by a commitment to make practical amends in light of the knowledge and acknowledgement of past atrocities. Even more importantly, they must address the systems, structures, ideas and ideologies that justified the wrongdoing to begin with. Otherwise, the same wrongdoing can be repeated to the same victim(s), or to others. An apology is thus not an event, but a process. The issuance of it might be a short event, but it should initiate a process showing commitment to reform and transformation. Apologies are not necessarily about the past, because they cannot undo past wrongs. Rather, they must be more about a sustainable future. A process of reflection to reach a consensus on what was wrong, what justified it ideologically, and what specific commitments must be taken in response, must accompany a statement of apology.

Official acknowledgements may help restore the dignity and self-esteem of the victims, by reversing the message that they are really worthless, which was imparted by the violent actions. But victims must be actively involved. The lack of involvement of victims reared its ugly head at meetings organized by the constitutionally sanctioned National Peace and Reconciliation Commission in early 2018. The separatist group Mthwakazi Republic Party disrupted the meetings,alleging that the composition of the Commission was not representative of Zimbabweans, especially those who suffered most in Matabeleland (where the massacres took place).

Gukurahundi victims and survivors deserve more than a simple apology made in front of the cameras in a foreign jurisdiction. An official apology at the elite World Economic Forum in Davos does not transform the lives of poverty-stricken, marginalized survivors, those who are the poorest of the poor, whose families and friends were brutally killed during Gukurahundi. These people cannot even afford a radio to listen to. For the few who can, the transmission is unbearably poor. How are they expected to be consoled and/or healed by an apology issued in Davos?

Apologies must be accompanied by repentance, where the offender expresses contrition and sorrow and assumes responsibility for his or her violence. Repentance is more than an apology, remorse or regret. It includes a deliberate turning away from the patterns of behavior and thinking that led to those past wrongs, and often involves attempts to make appropriate reparation or restitution for the past. An apology in Davos would only be meaningful if subsequently a detailed programme of action and commitment to rectify would be outlined. This kind of apology is deeper and transformative. What Davos critics could press for is what I call a programmatic and transformative apology, defined as an apology with a commitment to a programme of practical amends such democratization, justice and a peaceful environment, which demonstrates a turning away from the culture and ideas and ideologies of violence.

Apology and forgiveness

The demonstration of forgiveness, defined as overcoming negative emotions such as anger, hatred and resentment, which are naturalresponses to wrongdoing,[2] has been highlighted as an indicator of reconciliation, prompting some commentators to equate reconciliation with forgiveness. However, forgiveness only makes sense in a situation where wrongdoing is an exception, as opposed to systematic and ongoing. This brings us back to the point that creating a democratic and just environment, an environment free from violence, is a better demand than a simple apology.

Clamoring for an apology as an end in itself, without demanding concrete measures such as a peaceful political environment and a change in ideas and ideologies, can involve complicity in the maintenance and perpetuation of oppression and injustice. Victims might find themselves in a situation where they are pressured to forgive. In the wake of an apology, they are pressured to rid themselves of all natural feelings of resentment, as if an apology is a button which, once pressed, shakes off feelings of resentment. To pressure victims to forgive or overcome resentment (internal changes) may overlook the external changes that are needed in the aftermath of war or conflict. To ask victims to forgive without demanding or ensuring the transformation of ideas, ideologies, systems and structures that perpetuate injustice is tantamount to asking victims to induce injustice unto themselves.

Forgiveness may produce injustice, maintain inequality, or weaken moral commitments[3], thereby creating or maintaining the conditions that occasioned it in the first place. In so doing a vicious circle is created. If the conditions that facilitate wrongdoing are not addressed or transformed, they become fertile ground on which wrongdoing can breed. Thus, victims’ anger and resentment against these conditions indicate self-respect, a recognition that the harm done to them should not have occurred. This is what transformative forgiveness means.


[1] Templeton, Mark. 2002. Wisdom from world religions: Pathways toward heaven on earth. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press.

[2] Murphy, Colleen. 2010. A Moral Theory of Political Reconciliation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., p.9

[3] Saunders, Rebecca. 2011. Questionable Associations: The Role of Forgiveness in Transitional Justice, The International Journal of Transitional Justice, Vol. 5, 2011, 119–141


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