Soon after arriving in Zimbabwe, in September of last year, I had to visit a friend in Bindura, whom I needed to extend -- as part of my enduring gratitude for his assistance during a research project that I had undertaken a couple of years earlier -- two bottles of Scottish whisky that I had brought with me from abroad.
I suggested meeting at one of the many social places that are scattered all over Bindura, Aerodrome, Chipadze or Picky. It was getting dark and my friend, Munya, warned against the idea of hanging out at any of these places.
I insisted, but he strongly objected, stating that there was a new menace in town, in the form of maShurugwi, who, after dark, would lurk around shops, armed with machetes.
My favourite place, Aerodrome, was one of the areas they had marked. I was told that drinking beer or barbecuing meat there was now an extremely fraught activity. So we settled for the indoors.
As Munya and his friends explained that, a week earlier, maShurugwi had turned up the heat on Bindura residents by imposing a curfew at all shopping centres. Everyone had to be indoors by 6pm, otherwise they risked the wrath of the machetes gangs.
Indeed, as I was to find out, his fear was not misplaced. Munya narrated that his cousin had been hacked to near death when he attempted to protect his daughter from one of the maShurugwi. With broken legs and arms, the gang spared his life, and let him crawl away with life-threatening injuries, sending a clear message to others that it could happen to them if they resisted the demands of the maShurugwi.
Though men such as Munya's cousin survived, they still had to contend with acts from the gangs causing relentless terror.The charge sheet against maShurugwi, which is well documented in the memories of Bindura residents, include sexual assaults and rape of locals' wives and daughters, indiscrimatory beatings, often for no apparent reason.
Indeed, as one of Munya's friends narrated, one could be attacked by a gang member for simply making eye contact, averting contact, walking away from the maShurugwi, or even apologising.
I went back to Bindura two weeks later and met up with Ranga, who is much more familiar with the mining town's Zanu PF politics.He excitedly told me that it was now safe to grab a beer at Aerodrome.
This was because, a week earlier, with a motley group of party youths, they had taken matters into their own hands and "did what the police were unable or unwilling to do," he said.
Indeed, in a country where the police commit more crimes than the citizens, or where people have been left bereft of reliable structures and recourse due to corruption, and breakdown of law and order, it is not surprising that the youths in Bindura, had chosen to take matters into their own hands.
Thus, young men were patrolling the streets of Bindura in self-styled citizens defence units. They took on the maShurugwi in July, August, and early September 2019, and finally "drove" them out.
None of them put up resistance.My research instincts sensed that the maShurugwi had not been defeated or driven out. As I was to figure out later, they had retreated to various rallying areas.
Residents said they moved to Mukaradzi in Mt Darwin, Kitsi Yatota in Bindura and Msasa in Mazowe, informal mining sites which also act as havens for criminals from all across the country.
It looked like maShurugwi were operating with a clear chain of command that was coming from somewhere."We could have done a better job if we had our own machetes," was Ranga's strong and unwavering conviction that the community should be armed, even with guns, in order to stop maShurugwi invasion. This sounded extreme to me, and I questioned the wisdom of residents taking up arms.
But Ranga was shocked at my views. He said: "You surely don't understand what the community went through in the past few months!" These words humbled my opinion.
Indeed, I had never lived under maShurugwi terror, hence it was no surprise and in some way offending that I had challenged his views on arming the residents of the mining town.
Unlike the Bindura residents who have lived through the terror from maShurugwi, I was only there for a few of hours.In any case I was flying back to England days later.
Having tasted "victory", there was no doubt in my mind that Bindura residents were determined to keep their machetes, knives and knobkerries, which they were convinced, had been instrumental in driving out maShurugwi.
As a researcher, I also understand, from other contexts, that unregulated vigilante enforcement usually renders porous the border seperating what is legal and illegal, a development that has been a prercusor to, and created dynamics that led to the filling of mass graves in countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s, and DRC since 1998.
A few days later, I met up with a senior Zanu PF official at Gava restaurant in Avondale suburb in Harare.I initiated discussion about the death squads that were menacing the nation. But, to such party elites, who are far removed from the happenings in mining towns, talk of violence seemed so farfetched.
In fact, he laughed at my worries, and decided to settle for a discussion on the struggles of Arsenal in the English Premiership.But I was not going to be easily fobbed off like that, so I persisted and in response he said "Zimbabweans are too timid, and educated so the talk of war is shit". I was not talking about war, but anyway, that is how the man shut down discussion on the topic of maShurugwi.
However, his understanding not only reflected hubris on the part of the official, but also a tendency to conveniently forgeting that violence has been an important part of post-colonial life in the Southern African nation; from Gukurahundi, Murambatsvina, 2008 violence that saw more than 200 opposition supporters killed, and the most recent shootings by the state, of unarmed civilians, in August 2018 and January 2019.
Thus, what is happening with the maShurugwi should be understood as simply a logical sequel to where we have come from rather than an inexplicable break from apparently a system that has been working so well.
The government's position is even more puzzling, as it wants us to believe that maShurugwi are simply trigger-happy criminals whom they can control at any time.
"We can simply kick them out of towns anytime that we want," a senior government official who has strong links with the security sector told me.This simplistic understanding, or rather nonchalant attitude by the state, has also fuelled the perception that maShurugwi are controlled by black-and-gray activities of powerful men in politics, bringing us to the question: Who exactly are these gangs working for in the alleged criminal activity-political nexus?
Some observers allege that they have strong links with individual political leaders in Zanu PF who are allegedly involved or have been involved in the shady industry of gold mining, or the buying of the mineral from artisanal miners, and illegal gold trade locally or in South Africa.
These men are said to have recruited, nurtured and deployed the maShurugwi for violence to protect artisanal mines, and sometimes during election periods.
I am more inclined to agree with the argument that the recent acts of the maShurugwi, which have become bolder and widespread, constitute a serious language of political power.
Observers, such as senior opposition party official Lloyd Msipa, and a former cabinet minister Professor Jonathan Moyo, claim that maShurugwi have the power of the executive of the state behind them.
Indeed, as tales from the likes of "Giant", one of maShurugwi interviewed confirm they see senior Zanu PF leaders as part of maShurugwi. Indeed, Giant boasted that they now have their own president in government, or "Chief Mukorokoza."
"It is our time!" In an apocalyptic tone, he explained their criminal behaviour as part of a broader political strategy."They are taking as much as they can from the country, so as maShurugwi we are doing the same by grabbing whatever we can at our level... . and I promise you, there is nothing that he (President Emmerson Mnangagwa) will do to us."
Indeed, apart from a luke-warm statement in November last year, Mnangagwa has been quiet, and many people have criticised him for not intervening.
As they say in English, Harry does what is best for Harry. Mnangagwa has adopted a position of complete protection by not uttering a single word against maShurugwi.
And, second, by re-ordering the government through the inclusion, at the heart of the state's security apparatus, his proxies and men who have direct access to, and control of maShurugwi.
Out of all the violent projects designed for Zanu PF's self-preservation alluded to above, maShurugwi is turning out to be the most successful as it is being slowly and carefully executed right under our noses. But how, one may ask? With the economy collapsed, and a non-existent social base, maShurugwi should be seen as an important element of a double-pronged strategy to deal with growing resistance to Mnangagwa's rule and internal party opposition.
First, as part of ongoing militarisation and securitisation of the state, impunity suggests that the maraunding behaviour of maShurugwi is an attempt to bring into being and normalise a distinct and disturbing political culture as an integral part of Mnangagwa's newly reconstructed state and Zimbabwean society.
In as much as we have become used to police corruption, electricity outages and fuel queues, we are supposed to get used to increasingly widespread hacking of men, women and children.
As Mounir Chamoun, a Lebanese psychoanalyst, warns us, everything, including what we call unusual, becomes normalised through repetition.Second, with serious divisions in the national army, the gangs can easily be turned into a militia that can protect the interests of those politicians who will inevitably fall out with the main faction of the military which is led by Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga.
With Mnangagwa and his vice-president tussling for power as we hurtle towards 2023, the maShurugwi, who are directly controlled by Zanu PF networks, could be the first seeds for a "paramilitary" army have been sown. Those in the security sector calculate that the paramilitary gangs will act as the vanguard against inevitable attempts, by Chiwenga, to wrest the presidency from Mnangagwa.
In other words, there is a nexus between Mnangagwa's presidency and maShurugwi.Who then will help Zimbabweans from the seemingly inevitable violence? Outside help is unlikely. Reading Samantha Power's depressing A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide teaches us that the West only intervenes where it has strategic interests.
On the other hand, the opposition lacks organisational and intellectual skills, but most importantly, it is too risk-averse to take on the Midlands Godfather.
And, my take on citizen protest is that it is unlikely that Zimbabweans have reached that level of political consciousness to realise that they need to do something about the violence which is on their doorstep. Like it or not, realistic rescue will have to come from an improbable saviour: General Constantino Chiwenga is the only person capable of taking on Mnangagwa.
Tinhu is a Zimbabwean political scientist