The Struggle for Zimbabwe
On April 18, 2013, Zimbabwe marked the 33rd anniversary of its hard-won Independence.
Lest we forget, the Independence that the country celebrated did not come on a silver platter. It came out of self-sacrifice of countless men, women and children who placed love for the country above all other things.
Here I chronicle some of the most exhilarating and daring experiences of that long, rocky road towards the attainment of our Independence.
The earliest confrontations against the colonial regime were through “Protests Movements”. These were non-violent movements such as the Rhodesian Bantu Voters Association, led by Benjamin Burombo, in the mid-1940s; the Rhodesian National Assembly; the Industrial and Commercial Union; and the City Youth League formed in 1955 in what was then called Salisbury.
In the late 1950s, we witnessed the emergence of mass nationalist parties such as the Southern Rhodesian African National Congress (formed on September 12, 1957 under the leadership of Joshua Nkomo). This ANC was borne of the City Youth League.
In 1960, the nationalists formed the National Democratic Party, briefly led by Michael Mawema until Joshua Nkomo’s return from exile. Amongst its executive members were Robert Mugabe, Edgar Tekere, Nathan Shamuyarira and other comrades.
The NDP was banned on December 10, 1961 but about a week later – on December 17, 1961 – Joshua Nkomo spearheaded formation of the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU), with Ndabaningi Sithole as the Chairman.
ZAPU was in turn banned on September 20, 1962 but re-instituted itself as the People’s Caretaker Council (PCC).
On August 8, 1963 the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) was formed at Enos Nkala’s house in Salisbury. Ndabaningi Sithole was the President while Robert Mugabe was the Secretary-General.
But for a year, a power struggle premised on how best to execute the struggle against settler colonialism, but with ethnic undertones, stalled progress among the nationalist movements. In 1964, Ian Smith’s racist government banned the nationalist parties and arrested the leaders for periods of up to 12 years. Those incarcerated included Robert Mugabe, Edgar Tekere, Maurice Nyagumbo, Enos Nkala, Morton Malianga and Leopold Takawira.
On November 11, 1965 Ian Smith announced the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain. The declaration, amongst some of its worst implications, meant more oppression of the majority black population.
Smith declared that “there will not be black majority rule in Rhodesia … not in a thousand years”.
** Heading to War
Though the real war started in 1966, there was a confrontation of note in 1964 when William Ndangana, a member of the ZANLA High Command, and the Crocodile Commando group put up a crude roadblock in Manicaland Province.
Armed with machetes, axes, sticks and stones, they waylaid a Rhodesian Front branch chairman, Petrus Oberholtzer, and killed him.
The outbreak of war in 1966 was the culmination of heavy oppression dating back to the 1890 when the settlers arrived to set up their colony.
The most outstanding grievance against the colonial administration was economic deprivation through land appropriations on colour lines.
About five percent of the population, numbering 217 000 people, in December 1964 were whites and yet they owned and/or controlled 80 percent of the most arable land. This meant 95 percent of the population was crammed on 20 percent of the land, most of which was stony, mountainous or generally unproductive.
Discriminatory legislation such as the Land Apportionment Act of 1930 and the Native Land Husbandry Act of 1951 pushed the indigenes onto these poor soils, rendering them economically stagnant.
All the vast mineral resources of the country were mined using the cheap labour that could not sustain itself on the unproductive lands, while many other blacks were forced to go and work in essentially slave-like conditions in factories or as domestic workers.
The second major grievance was political marginalisation. From 1923 when Rhodesians voted for “responsible government” rather than being absorbed into the Union of South Africa, the country was ruled by whites only.
These included Charles Coghlan, HU Moffat, Godfrey Huggins, Edgar Whitehead, Garfield Todd (whom Robert Mugabe once threatened to box after he had deducted 60 pence from his monthly salary of three pounds to cover the school fees of a student whose parents could not pay), Winston Field and Ian Smith.
In attempt to provide a veneer of legitimacy to such blatant racism, the settler regime at one point said blacks could vote if they passed an English language test and earned a certain amount of money. Naturally, this just about excluded all blacks from voting.
On the cultural front, indigenous belief systems and ways of life were denigrated and labeled uncivilised.
The traditional leadership system was destroyed and reconstituted as a proxy for colonial administration.
People were humiliated and called “kaffirs” and were excluded from most social activities.
All these factors drove the nationalists to take up arms.
The first phase of war was from 1966 to 1968. This followed the dissolution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Malawi) in 1963 and Zambia’s Independence in 1964, which allowed establishment of guerilla rear bases outside Rhodesia.
The first major military event was the Chinhoyi Battle on April 28, 1966 when seven young men – Christopher Chatambudza, Nathan Charamuka, Simon Chimbodza, David Guzuzu, Godwin Manyerenyere, Arther Maramba and Ephraim Shenjere – entered from Zambia and engaged Rhodesian security forces (who outnumbered them massively) for a good eight hours.
The battle only ended when the ZANLA guerrillas ran out of ammunition, but not before they took down five helicopters and killed tens of Smith’s soldiers.
The Hwange battle of August-September 1967 was the second major military operation.
ZIPRA fighters had entered an alliance with South Africa’s Umkhontho weSizwe guerrillas to provide transit facilities for exiled ANC cadres to pass through Rhodesia en-route to their home country. It was their combined forces who had a battle with Rhodesian and apartheid soldiers in 1967. As with the Chinhoyi Battle, the racist forces prevailed but not after suffering huge losses.
From 1968 to 1972, the nationalists concentrated on mass mobilisation, recruitment and training.
This was a tactic adopted from Mao Tse-Tung’s advice to Robert Mugabe in 1968 that “the masses are the water and the guerillas are the fishes swimming in the water”.
The third and final stage of the war was the decisive one and it started with the December 21, 1972 attack on Altena Farm owned by white farmer Mark de Borchgrave de Altena.
Rex Nhongo (Solomon Mujuru), who was to become commander of the army at Independence, led the raid on Altena Farm.
** In the Bush
Guerilla warfare was mainly employed by ZANLA forces who believed that a highly equipped army, such as Ian Smith’s, could not be confronted with conventional tactics.
Guerilla tactics, amongst other things, emphasised surprise attacks and hitting the enemy where it hurts most, such as destroying fuel storages, bridges, roads, railway lines. There were also attacks on military bases.
The guerilla understood that this would frustrate the better equipped enemy.
Administering lightning speed strikes and then retreating induced confusion in the enemy camp.
Several socialist and progressive countries and organisations gave military, financial, material and moral support towards the two main liberation movements who executed the war through their armed units, ZANLA and ZIPRA.
As such, this sucked the country into Cold War politics.
The progressive forces supported ZANLA and ZPRA while capitalist forces backed the Smith regime.
China, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Angola, Libya and Ghana mainly directed their support towards ZANLA. ZPRA received much of its support from Zambia, Russia, Cuba, Romania, Yugoslavia and Poland.
These countries also provided land for establishing military and refugee camps.
The OAU’s Liberation Committee played a pivotal role by sourcing funds and providing technical and moral support.
Zimbabwe’s liberation history cannot be fully told without mentioning the contribution to the struggle by members of the minority Asian community.
Having also been discriminated against on the grounds of race, the Asians saw it fit to join forces with their black brothers against Rhodesian imperialism and racism.
The likes of the late Sumantrai Nagarji Mehta and University of Zimbabwe lecturer Professor Hasu Patel were detained together with the likes of Joshua Nkomo, George Nyandoro and Ruth Chinamano for opposing the Smith regime.
National hero KG Patel and the late Hassam Kassam (whose eldest son, Shiraaz Hassam Kassam, is now ZANU-PF Harare Central 1 District secretary for finance) are amongst those whose contributions were valuable to Zimbabwe’s Independence.
When General Rex Nhongo and his group attacked Altena Farm in December 1972, it was time for real battle.
The Rhodesians were taken by surprise. A totally new kind of war had started, guerilla war.
In this famous battle General Nhongo and his group left their base in the Chiweshe Tribal Trust Land with eight other men and headed for De Borchgrave’s farm. They targeted this particular farm as an example and as a statement because the white farm was notorious for his mistreatment of blacks.
They fired shots into the house but De Borchgrave escaped unhurt. After they cut the telephone lines and mined the road to the farm they retreated.
The following day 15 truckloads of Rhodesian troops backed by armoured cars, helicopters and spotter planes moved into the area.
While ZANLA’s forces concentration was in northeast and eastern Zimbabwe, ZIPRA operated mainly from in the west half where they caused sleepless nights for the Rhodesians.
By 1974, war activity had spread to most parts of the Mashonaland and Matebeleland provinces.
Rhodesia’s response was brutal and callous.
According to David Martin and Phyllis Johnson in their book “The Struggle For Zimbabwe”: “Schools, churches and clinics in the Chiweshe Tribal Trust Lands (TTL) were closed, thousands of Africans in Chiweshe and Chesa TTL were interrogated, tortured, detained and harassed on allegations of supporting the guerillas.
“Punishment for training as a guerilla was 25 years imprisonment or death. Thousands of villagers were forced into ‘protected villages’ or ‘keeps’ as a way of isolating the guerillas from the population which fed and protected them.
“Crops such as maize, rapoko, mhunga, millet and livestock such as cattle sheep and goats or any property deemed by the cruel regime as being used to support the guerillas was either confiscated or destroyed by the security forces. Entire villages were bombed into ashes and thousands died in these indiscriminate attacks.”
But no amount of intimidation could force the sons and daughters of the soil to surrender.
Instead these brutalities resulted in thousands of young people going surreptitiously – at great risk to their own lives as well as those of the relatives they left behind – to join the liberation struggle.
In 1974, the détente exercise initiated by Zambia and South Africa was rejected by nationalists such as Robert Mugabe, Herbert Chitepo and Josiah Tongogara on the grounds that the peace terms did not guarantee majority rule and one man one vote.
On March 18, 1975 Herbert Chitepo – the iconic ZANU chairman – was assassinated by Rhodesian intelligence operatives in Zambia.
At the same time, Ndabaningi Sithole who was the ZANU President, was expelled from the leadership after the others felt he was becoming more of a stumbling block to the attainment of Independence.
The Mgagao Declaration was subsequently signed by 43 officers at Mgagao military base in Tanzania to elevate Robert Mugabe from Secretary-General to President.
On March 25, 1975 an emergency meeting at Mushandirapamwe Hotel in Salisbury’s Highfield suburb concluded that Mugabe and Edgar Tekere leave Rhodesia for Mozambique to take leadership of the armed struggle.
In Mozambique, Mugabe exhibited inspired and charismatic leadership, with many people still in awe of his intelligence and empathy as he provided ideological and strategic direction to the liberation struggle.
The war escalated with renewed vigour.
Towards the end of 1976, a respected ZANLA commander called Thomas Nhari, whose real name was Raphael Chinyanganya, defected.
Together with Dakarai Badza, another commander, they collaborated with Rhodesian forces and laid a deadly siege on Nyadzonia, a refugee camp in Mozambique, on August 9.
The notorious Selous Scouts, dressed and equipped as FRELIMO soldiers, drove into Nyadzonia. On Nhari’s instructions, the refugees were paraded and then mowed down by machine gun fire. Nearly 2000 died.
A mortally wounded girl, with her heart showing through a big hole in her chest, asked Alexander Kanengoni (who has written several well-received war novels), “Comrade, do you think l will survive?”
This attack only served to invigorate the liberation struggle.
** Aluta Continua!
On October 28, 1976 Ivor Richard opened the Geneva Conference as chairman in a bid to end the war.
Present were Mugabe and Nkomo, who attended as the unified Patriotic Front. Others present were Abel Muzorewa and Ndabaningi Sithole (representing the ANC), and Ian Smith.
The talks collapsed because the parties could not agree on an Independence date. Further, the nationalists turned down an “interim” arrangement in which a “Council of State” under a white chair would rule the country. They also argued that the ministries of defence and law and order could not be left in the hands of Rhodesians.
So the fighting continued.
On November 23, 1977 ZANLA’s headquarters in Chimoio, Mozambique were attacked by the Rhodesian Air Force. For three days the enemy forces – backed by paratroopers – bombarded Chimoio.
Their main target was the armory, which they failed to locate and destroy. Frustrated by this failure, they proceeded to vent their anger on the sick, elderly and the young.
About 785 people died in the attack, which the nationalist forces valiantly held off with bazookas, RPGs and AK-47 rifles.
On March 3, 1978 Bishop Abel Muzorewa entered into an unholy alliance with Ian Smith.
This March 3 Agreement, or Internal Settlement, placed Muzorewa in a puppet position as a ceremonial Head of State while Smith maintained the real power.
A heavily flawed election was conducted and produced Muzorewa as the Prime Minister. The nationalists did not buy into the arrangement and refused to end the war.
In December 1978, ZANLA forces made a huge step by taking their guerilla campaign to the heart of Salisbury when they blew up the BP fuel storage tanks in the capital.
The attack, led by guerillas Member Kuvhiringidza and Taketime, severely crippled the country’s fuel supply. The regime’s motorised battalions could not successfully carry out their daily raids on the civilian population.
** At Lancaster House
The Lancaster House Conference, which would provide the decisive settlement, started on September 10, 1979 in London.
British Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, chaired on behalf of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
In attendance were Mugabe and Nkomo (Patriotic Front), Smith (Rhodesian Front), and Muzorewa (ANC). The military leaders present were Gen Tongogara and Lookout Masuku among others.
Though the conference finally agreed on a ceasefire and one man one vote, it did not offer an immediate solution to what the liberation movements had spent a decade and half in the trenches for; the redistribution of resources, particularly land.
The British successfully pressed for an arrangement that they would provide funds for land reform but that redistribution could only start after ten years (in 1990).
However, the British Labour Party government under Tony Blair reneged on this agreement in 1997 and three years later, Zimbabwe embarked on its Fast-Track Land Reform Programme.
On the sidelines of the Lancaster talks, hostilities did not cease between the warring factions back in Rhodesia.
In October 1979 the huge ZANLA base at Mavhonde (Monte Casino) was attacked.
Mavhonde accommodated mostly newly-trained cadres who were yet to be deployed to the front, though there were many who had fighting experience already.
The Rhodesians thought it would be an easy battle, and they raided the base with their Special Forces, and Canberra, Hawk Hunter, Spitfire, Vampire and Alloute3 helicopters. They also had Mirage fighters from Israel.
But they underestimated ZANLA and after a three-day battle, the Rhodesians were repelled under heavy fire from Stalin Organ bombing.
The Rhodesians bade farewell to arms after that on December 28, 1979 signed a ceasefire agreement.
But tragedy surrounded that agreement.
On December 26, ZANLA commander, General Josiah Magama Tongogara, died in a road accident in Mozambique as he rushed to Chimoio to inform his colleagues of the impending ceasefire arrangements.
It was to be one of the saddest losses for Zimbabwe.
At the March 1980 polls, ZANU-PF led by Robert Mugabe coasted to victory with 57 Parliamentary seats; followed by Joshua Nkomo’s PF-ZAPU with 20 seats and Bishop Muzorewa’s three seats (some joked that he got a seat for every one of the helicopters the Rhodesians provided for him to campaign against Mugabe).
Independence was set for April 18 and Mugabe was duly installed as Prime Minister of an Independent Zimbabwe.
He quickly pronounced the policy of National Reconciliation, which implied – amongst other things – that even serious war criminals like Ian Smith were free men.
Surprisingly today the West wants Robert Mugabe at The Hague but no mention is made of the tens of thousands that Smith butchered with British and American complicity and, in some cases, direct support.
Under Mugabe’s leadership, Zimbabwe first embarked on a social revolution that brought healthcare and education to just about everyone in the country.
He subsequently delivered on the liberation war promise of land to the majority and has now set in motion an economic indigenisation policy that will empower local Zimbabweans.
It has been a long walk for Zimbabwe, but one that has been well worth it!