Robert Mugabe at war

The leaders of the Patriotic Front during the Liberation War: Cde Robert Mugabe of Zanu and Cde Joshua Nkomo of Zapu

In Part 3 of the life of Robert Mugabe, we follow his career to the eve of the Lancaster House negotiations.

Remind us of previous events.

Cde Mugabe was arrested and imprisoned for making subversive statements and involvement with the struggle.

While in Harare, he shared a prison cell with nationalists like Revered Ndabaningi Sithole, Enos Nkala and Edgar Tekere.

While in prison, Cde Mugabe’s son Nhamodzenyika, who had been taken to Ghana by his mother, died, and Cde Mugabe was refused permission to go and mourn with his family, even with solid promises to return.

Although in prison, Mugabe continued with his education through correspondence and attained a further three degrees.

Inspired by Cde Mugabe’s example, all the detainees continued to improve their education, holding regular classes and helping each other with a variety of subjects.

In an interview with Heidi Holland in 2008, Father Emmanuel Ribeiro, who was Cde Mugabe’s priest during his imprisonment, Cde Mugabe “was positive and practical, wanting life in prison to be interesting and fruitful…” and got through the experience “partly through the strength of his spirituality” but also because his “real strength was study and helping others to learn.”

What is the beginning of the war?

It is difficult to choose a single event as the spark that became the all-out war for democracy in the then-Southern Rhodesia.

Some prefer to speak of 1964 when Ndabaningi Sithole issued the clarion for war where the party issued its five-point plan (which remains a secret to this day).

Others mark the attacks in and around Mutare by the Crocodile Gang in 1964.

Still more see the 28th of April 1966, when a group of seven Zanla fighters who had infiltrated the country from Zambia where they had received their military training, fought for hours against Rhodesian forces near Chinhoyi.

The combined force of Zipra and the African National Congress of South Africa launched the ill-considered “Wankie-Spolilo Campaign” of 1967-68.

Most of the nationalist leaders were convinced that isolated acts of sabotage and military action would be enough to bring the Rhodesian government to the negotiating table and usher in a new democratic order.

The uncomfortable truth is that the liberation war, as is it commemorated today, did not truly get underway until 1972, by which time many of the nationalist leaders had been in prison for more than six years.

The nationalist leaders realised the weaknesses in their strategy and began to take steps to correct their path.

The greatest change was in developing the “hearts and minds” approach, with both Zanu and Zapu deciding to spend more time educating and mobilising the people before mounting attacks on the Rhodesian forces.

Anything significant happen in prison?

Thanks to visitors who smuggled in news and took messages out, the various political leaders were able to keep in touch with and guide their growing support bases.

Perhaps the most significant event was the replacement of Zanu founder and President Ndabaningi Sithole with Zanu Secretary-General Robert Mugabe.

While in prison Sithole had specifically authorised Chitepo to continue the struggle from abroad as a representative of Zanu.

Sithole was convicted on a charge of plotting to assassinate Ian Smith and at the end of his trial in February 1969, he disassociated himself “in word, thought or deed from any subversive activities, from any terrorist activities, and from any form of violence.” In A Lifetime of Struggle, Edgar Tekere wrote, “we were terribly disappointed in Sithole… he had commanded Chitepo and others to proceed to war.” Cde Mugabe, told in his cell of Sithole’s statements, expressed dismay at this “treachery,” believing Sithole had been compromised by the Rhodesian authorities.

Within a few days of Sithole’s sentencing the party executive in prison organised a secret ballot to choose the new President; even after abstaining his vote, Cde Mugabe won three to one.

In November 1974, the ZANU executive voted to suspend Sithole’s membership.

Edgar Tekere stated in his 2007 book that it was “not true, as many have said, that Mugabe actively campaigned for the sacking of Sithole.”

Why were the political leadership released from prison?

Fearing that the guerrilla war would spread to their country, the South African government pressured Rhodesia to begin the process of détente with the politically moderate black governments of Zambia and Tanzania.

South African Prime Minister B. J. Vorster negotiated a deal: Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda would prevent infiltrations into Southern Rhodesia from his country, and in return Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith would agree to a ceasefire and release all political detainees, who would then attend a conference in Rhodesia, united under a single banner and led by Bishop Abel Muzorewa and his African National Council (UANC).

Vorster gambled that, if this were successful, the Frontline States might enter full diplomatic relations with South Africa and allow it to retain apartheid.

Thus, after almost eleven years of imprisonment, Cde Mugabe was released in November 1974.

He moved in with his sister Sabina at her home in Highfield.

“We had decided to accept detente purely as a tactic to buy the time we needed to organise and intensify the armed struggle,” Cde Mugabe said in an interview in 1980.

How did he come to leave the country?

The assassination of Hebert Chitepo in March 18, 1975, followed closely by the trial of Ndabaningi Sithole on charges of leading an unlawful organisation (i.e.

Zanu), convinced Cde Mugabe that it was time to leave the country.

The arrest and imprisonment of Maurice Nyagumbo was also a factor.

Cde Mugabe was intent on joining the Zanu forces and taking part in the liberation war, recognising that to secure dominance of Zanu, he would have to take command of Zanla.

Father Emmanuel Ribeiro, came to the rescue, organising a vehicle to take Cdes Mugabe and Tekere to the border, using nuns as cover for the fiction that the men were church workers.

Taking German-born nun and sociologist Sister Mary Aquina’s yellow Volkswagen, Cdes Mugabe and Tekere drove from Ruwa to Nyafaru, an agricultural collective in the eastern highlands.

Here they met the legendary Chief Rekayi Tangwena who was to continue his own fight against the appropriation of his lands by the Rhodesian authorities.

At Nyafaru, a quick escape had to be made through a bedroom window as security forces approached and on April 5, 1975 they crossed the mountains into Mozambique.

Tekere wrote that while crossing the near-flooded Kaerezi River into Mozambique, he himself carried a radio and some matches, while Cde Mugabe carried a portable typewriter in a steel case and a set of rosary beads.

Did he automatically assume control?

Many leaders like Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Mozambique’s Samora Machel and leaders like Josiah Tongogara did not immediately accept Cde Mugabe’s ascension to the head of the party.

Ndabaningi Sithole, continued to be recognised as such by the Frontline States until late 1975.

Partly this was because of the chaos and disunity in the leadership experienced after the assassination of Herbert Chitepo.

Cde Mugabe’s arrival in Mozambique created serious conflict between liberation army soldiers who had been fighting and those who had been recently released from prison.

In Dzino, Memories of a Freedom Fighter, Wilfred Mhanda says at the time Mugabe and Tekere were banished to the coastal town of Quelimane by Machel, who “did not trust Mugabe.” Machel wanted proof that Cde Mugabe was the leader of the party, and more importantly the Zanla army.

What were the attempts to unify the parties before 1976?

The rift between Zanu and Zapu was not to ever heal completely.

Several attempts were, however, made to unite the two liberation movements with no success.

In 1971, both announced that they had agreed to unite under the banner of the Front for the Liberation of Zimbabwe (Frolizi), led by Shleton Siwela.

In 1972, another attempt was made to unite the military wings of the two parties through the creation of the Joint Military Command (JMC), led by Herbert Chitepo from Zanu with Jason Moyo from Zapu as secretary.

The JMC collapsed in 1974 due to core differences between the army commanders and strategy.

With the support of the OAU Liberation Committee, the Frontline States – then Zambia, Botswana and Tanzania – tried to unite the two parties by creating a “third force,” or the Zimbabwe Independence People’s Army in 1975.

ZIPA’s nominal head was Solomon Mujuru, but arguably the real leadership duties came to reside in his young deputy, Wilfred Mhanda.

The deputy commissar of Zipa, Dzinashe Machingura, was interviewed by the Mozambique Information Agency and said: “The Zimbabwe Peoples’ Army is a product of the voluntary merger of the military of former Zanu (Zanla) and the former Zapu (Zipra)… It was formed for the purpose of rescuing the Zimbabwe liberation struggle from a chaotic situation.”

The Mgagao Declaration, October 3, 1975.

As Nkomo, Sithole and Muzorewa met with Smith as part of the detente talks, Cde Mugabe, receiving the permission of the Mozambican authorities each time, travelled to meet the soldiers and inspect the training camps.

The Mgagao Declaration (the text of which is easily found online), drafted by the ZIPA leadership, stated they would restart the war with a unified army, that Zanu’s president Ndabaningi Sithole had discredited himself, and that the “next in line,” Robert Mugabe, while unknown to most soldiers but just below Sithole in the party’s hierarchy would step in.

The choice of Cde Mugabe was made because of the desire of all to avoid a potentially damaging leadership struggle.

As secretary general, Cde Mugabe was the next person in the leadership hierarchy (Leopold Takawira was in prison in Rhodesia), and he was unanimously accepted as the replacement for Sithole.

The Mgagao Declaration was confirmed by a meeting of the Zanu Central Committee held in Mozambique in 1976, just before the Geneva conference with Robert Mugabe emerging as the new leader of ZANU.

How was the Patriotic Front Formed?

With the efforts of US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, several talks were held between the antagonists of the liberation war.

This attempt at a ‘shuttle diplomatic’ effort by Kissinger’s to solve the Rhodesian crisis as part of one of his many attempts to become directly involved in key Cold War conflicts.

In hindsight, the key outcome of these talks was that they allowed the US publicly to change its support from Ian Smith’s government to that of black majority rule in Southern Rhodesia.

In the war, the main product of Geneva was the Patriotic Front.

Formally announced on October 9, 1976, just prior to the talks, the alliance between Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe was forced on these two leaders by the Frontline States as a condition of any negotiations.

Trying to avoid a situation similar to Angola where three different liberation movements fought with each other to take power, the US and the Frontline States hoped that by forcing this alliance, the risk of a civil war, or of Communist exploitation of factionalism, would be avoided.

What did happen at Geneva, however, was the appearance of Cde Mugabe as the most viable leader of Zanu, and the Frontline States’ commitment to him as the legitimate political leader who could best represent Zanu’s military factions.

The consolidation of power.

When the Geneva talks broke down in December 1976, the ZANU leadership reconvened in Maputo but could not access training camps inside Mozambique that were still controlled by ZIPA.

It became important to remove the ZIPA elements and, with the assistance of the Mozambican government, the ZIPA leadership was arrested in January 1977.

Wilfred Mhanda wrote about this in his 2011 book, stating that his last day of freedom was January 21, 1977 until January 1980 when he was released.

In total, the crackdown on Zipa netted 50 officials.

Six hundred fighters were also arrested, leaving the politicians without any challenge to their leadership.

As Gerald Mazarire, has eloquently argued, with ZIPA out of the way, the greater task was re-aligning the party, bringing together its four key elements.

First, the leadership drawn from the original Zanu Central Committee elected in 1964; second, the military, divided between the Zanla high command detained in Zambia after the Chitepo assassination and the ZIPA executive; third, members of the Dare who had conducted party business in Lusaka and Dar es Salaam; fourth, party representatives responsible for international networks that fundraised for Zanu abroad.

Victory at the Chimoio Congress, 1977.

In August 1977, Cde Mugabe felt strong enough to call a special Zanu congress and be appointed party president and commander-in-chief of Zanla.

In his congress speech, later published as “Defining the Line,” Cde Mugabe made it clear that henceforth the “given leadership” was in control.

The Zanu Central Committee and Zanla high command held a two-day emergency meeting in Maputo from March 31 to April 1, 1977, where they decided to broaden the central committee and replace several members thought to not be in line with the new direction of the new leadership.

This new order reflected the underlying tensions that were to erupt in March 1978 in the so-called Hamadziripi rebellion.

The congress also promoted several cadres to the Zanla general staff to replace the ZIPA leadership (following a campaign disguised as a Commission of Inquiry investigating the Chitepo College).

Nothing came out of this Inquiry, but the Congress resolved to redeploy all the College instructors, replacing them with a new group with no connections to ZIPA rebels – the “VaShandi.” (It is believed that Josiah Tongogara would have had these Vashandi executed if Cde Mugabe and Simon Muzenda hadn’t intervened quickly to have them handed over to the Mozambican government instead).

Fay Chung believes that Cde Mugabe had the good fortune not to have been involved in the internecine conflict of the early 1970s that had brought the political and military leadership of external ZANU into irreconcilable opposition with each other.

After his time in jail, he could now serve as an objective arbitrator in the bitter dispute, a task in which he was ably assisted by his deputy, Simon Muzenda.

What became Cde Mugabe’s role?

Leaving day-to-day control of the military operations to Josiah Tongogara, Cde Mugabe focused on the propaganda war, making regular speeches and radio broadcasts and fundraising.

Despite his open Marxist views, Cde Mugabe’s meetings with Soviet representatives were unproductive, for they continually insisted on Nkomo’s leadership of the revolutionary struggle.

His relationship with the People’s Republic of China were better, as the Chinese supplied Zanla with weapons of war without any pre-conditions.

He also sought support from Western nations, visiting Western embassies in Mozambique, and travelled to Western states including Italy and Switzerland and Marxist states such the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba.

In contrast to other nationalist leaders like Nkomo, Cde Mugabe opposed a negotiated settlement with the Rhodesian government.

In September 1978 Cde Mugabe met with Nkomo in Lusaka.

He was angry with the latter’s secret attempts to negotiate with Smith but would himself agree to travel to London the following year to negotiate the end to the war which had become increasingly brutal and uncompromising.

Why was he an effective leader for the last phase of the war?

Seen as honest and trustworthy by his political allies, Cde Mugabe was also known to have the interests of the army at heart, but not to directly interfere in the daily operations, allowing the commanders to develop the tactics under a united front.

The support of loyal friends and allies, especially Edgar Tekere, Simon Muzenda and Mayor Urimbo was crucial.

Additionally, his wife Sally Mugabe was seen as a continually caring and concerned person who was doing her best to alleviate the suffering of the freedom fighters and refugees despite her own difficulties.

This was an important contribution to her husband’s political popularity.

Fay Chung argues that Cde Mugabe’s tendency to consult and to listen to his followers made him a highly democratic leader.

His strength was that he would always listen to the interest groups who formed his political base.


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