Robert Mugabe joins the nationalist struggle

Sally Francesca Hayfron marries Robert Mugabe at St Peter’s Catholic Church in Harare on 21 February 1961

This week, in commemoration of the first Public Holiday on 21 February, we continue our overview of the life of former President Robert Mugabe, starting in 1960 when he decided to stay and fight for the cause.

Did 1960 change everything?

Racial inequity triggered strikes by black workers in the 1940s, bus boycotts in the 1950s, and major anti-colonial uprisings in the 1960s. On July 20, 1960, barely a month home from his teaching job in Ghana, at a protest called “The March of The 7,000,” a young Robert Mugabe addressed a 40,000-strong crowd gathered at Stoddart Hall, about Black Nationalism and the future of politics in the country.

With that address and his later imprisonment by colonial authorities, he emerged as one of the leaders of the anti-colonial movement. Southern Rhodesia, the place of his birth, would now become his battleground.

Why did Robert Mugabe decide to stay?

As revealed in a previous briefing (01/12/2017), Robert Mugabe had returned to the country to present Sally to his family, to reconnect with his mother and then to return to teaching and learning. Three young active nationalists – Michael Mawema, Leopold Takawira and Edgar Tekere – urged him to stay and to devote his considerable intellect and education to the struggle for democracy.

By all accounts, Cde Mugabe was initially reluctant to stay but agreed to stay for at least one meeting. The nationalists were buoyed by the British government’s acceptance of the Monckton report, signalling a withdrawal of support for the Federation and the acceptance of early majority rule for Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia.

The release of Malawian leader, Hastings Banda in April 1960 gave further confidence to the freedom fighters in Southern Rhodesia. On 19 July 1960, police raided the homes of Takawira and Mawema, while a crackdown in the urban areas began that day.

What did Robert Mugabe say in his inaugural address?

He had to be convinced to take the makeshift podium outside Stoddart Hall to address the assembled multitudes, introduced as “a distinguished ‘Zimbabwean’ who had travelled in Africa” and had three university degrees, but did not aspire to the trappings of a European life.

He started by talking about Ghana and what he had seen and experienced there, but the audience responded better when he began to talk of a vision for the nationalist movement in “Zimbabwe.” “The nationalist movement will only succeed if it is based on a blending of all classes of men… It will be necessary for graduates, lawyers, doctors and others to accept the chosen leadership even if they (the leaders) are not university men.”

The crowd roared their approval and the speeches continued. The good vibes were not to last and the police were deployed in force to disperse the crowd.

The government of Edgar Whitehead was so spooked by the scenes of support for the nationalists and calls for full democracy witnessed on that day, they they introduced one of the most hated pieces of legislation in Zimbabwe’s history: the Law and Order (Maintenance) Act.

The formation of the NDP.

The National Democratic Party (NDP) replaced the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress on January 1, 1960 although it only had its first Party Congress in October 1960 where Robert Mugabe, fresh from months of speech-making and political activism, was elected publicity secretary.

Joshua Nkomo was elected president on November 28, 1960.

Writing for the 1982 Britannica Book of the Year, Cde Mugabe stated: “It must, however, be stated on behalf of the National Democratic Party that it was the first nationalist organisation to distinguish clearly between the remedial approach to grievances and a basic approach that attacked the main cause of grievances against an unjust system.

The NDP agitated for political change leading to majority rule based on one man, one vote.” For the two years the NDP existed, Cde Mugabe helped to create an effective and committed Youth Wing who would mobilise people to attend meetings, run events and communicate the message about the need for democracy in Southern Rhodesia.

By this time Cde Mugabe had attracted the attention of the police special branch.

How did one speech lead to the formation of ZAPU?

On December 3, 1961, amidst increasing tension between the government and the leadership of the NDP, Cde Mugabe told a peaceful crowd at a rally in the then-Salisbury that the system of boycotts of industry was working but, “if European industries are used to buy guns which are aimed against us, we must withdraw our labour and our custom and destroy those industries.”

Such inflammatory language was allegedly enough to convince the government to act and the NDP was banned on December 9, 1961, the same day Tanzania became independent.

The NDP was banned ostensibly because of its refusal to accept the new constitution.

The Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) was formed on December 17, 1961 with the same leadership and structures as the NDP.

Enter the Rhodesian Front.

The Rhodesian Front (RF), a political party of white conservatives, was formed on March 1, 1962, and like the NDP did not like the new constitution proposed by Whitehead’s government but for different reasons.

They believed in, inter alia, the separation of the races and upholding so-called “proper standards.”

The party gained support among the electorate and surprisingly defeated the incumbent United Federal Party in the December elections starting 16 years of uninterrupted RF rule.

The ascendance of the RF and their implacable stance on the maintenance of minority rule, convinced many nationalists that the only path open to them was to start an armed struggle for freedom.

Before it too was banned on September 20, 1962, ZAPU’s leadership had reached two important decisions: to start bringing arms and ammunition into the country and to send young men out to train in sabotage and guerrilla warfare.

The party executive decided that if banned, they would operate in secret rather than trying to reconstitute again.

When the ban came, Nkomo was in Zambia, (to reluctantly return) and the rest of the leadership were placed under restriction until December 1962.

The ‘Mother of all Splits:’ ZANU’s beginnings

To summarise a well-known story, Nkomo favoured leaving the country and establishing a government in exile in a friendly country such as Tanzania.

Much of the party leadership did not favour such a move and indeed, faced serious jail time if they left the country while still out on bail.

Nkomo won the day by promising that Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere and the OAU would provide funds and moral support, and several leaders, including Robert and Sally Mugabe, left for Dar es Salaam in mid-1963.

On arrival they found that Nyerere was unsupportive and that the promised funds were unavailable.

The OAU made it clear that the leadership should return to Southern Rhodesia and continue the struggle.

Sithole, Cde Mugabe and others became convinced that Nkomo had to be replaced due to his vacillation. Nkomo getting wind of the plot, called a press conference and announced that four members of the executive were suspended: party chairman Washington Malianga, Sithole, Mugabe and Takawira.

In Dar es Salaam, the seven members of the executive replied by voting four to three to replace Nkomo with Sithole; the breach was now complete but ZANU was not yet fully formed.

What about the private life of the Mugabes at this time?

Initially because Cde Mugabe had only intended to pay a temporary visit to Southern Rhodesia, Sally had returned Ghana.

Robert wrote to her, asking that she join him and become his wife.

On February 21, 1961, they were married in St Peter’s Catholic Church in Harari.

Sally later said, “When I went to Zimbabwe, I didn’t think I was just going to sit on the fence. I knew when I went that I would be involved.”

She, like him, was to be imprisoned for her political activities and for years was to know her husband only through his letters to her from jail.

Their first child, a son, was born in August 1963. They named him Nhamodzenyika, meaning “suffering country.”

Years later, Robert Mugabe said, “The baby was a sign of hope in the centre of a storm.”

Cde Mugabe was able to spend less than four months with his son and wife, before making the fateful decision to return to Southern Rhodesia in December 1963.

Jail beckoned, but more importantly so did committing fully to the struggle.

What was prison life like?

For nearly 11 years, from his arrest on return in December 1963 to the detente talks in December 1974, Robert Mugabe spent almost every moment in Southern Rhodesia’s jails and detention centres.

It was frightening and nomadic. The government would constantly move prisoners about to prevent any sort of organisation being formed; Cde Mugabe started at Salisbury prison, moved to Wha Wha near Gweru, before going to Sikombela in KweKwe, before going back to the remand section of Salisbury prison in 1966, where he remained for eight years.

Prison life was made deliberately difficult for the inmates, with poor food, bad living conditions and sometimes harsh treatment.

It was rare for family members to be able to visit, either due to the cost of travel but also the erratic permission of the government to meet political prisoners.

It is perhaps fair to say that it was in jail that Cde Mugabe cemented his position as a true leader in the struggle.

He organised classes for the inmates to study various subjects, with all expected to help each other regardless of their own level of education. (Cde Mugabe himself started studying for a law degree through a correspondence course from the University of London and earned this and two other degrees).

It was in jail that Cde Mugabe started his famous routine, rising at 0500 and doing a combination of yoga and exercise before eating a frugal breakfast, and starting the business of the day, only retiring late at night, after reading a novel (Graham Greene was a reported favourite at one time) or in later life, the last of any government papers.

It was in prison that Cde Mugabe grew his moustache, allegedly because a hated warder ordered him to shave it off and to Cde Mugabe, keeping it became a symbol of resistance to such petty, tyrannical authority.

How did the decade of

imprisonment affect him?

In Dinner with Mugabe, Heidi Holland asked specifically: “When you came out of prison, were you the same person who went in?”

Cde Mugabe answered: “No, you came back with the sense that you had been punished for nothing, and that you must fight for that for which you have been punished – which has not come.

“We were released in 1974 but [Ian] Smith was still stubborn and we needed to intensify our fighting.”

Cde Mugabe said he was not vengeful and claimed to be “an ordinary person.” One sad event must be mentioned: the death of Nhamodzenyika in December 1966 from encephalitis and the refusal of the Rhodesian authorities – mainly Prime Minister Ian Smith – to release Cde Mugabe to attend his son’s funeral.

Even the Special Branch policeman in charge of the prison, Tony Bradshaw, with whom Cde Mugabe had had bitter fights, supported his release, and firmly believed Cde Mugabe would return to prison.

Edgar Tekere supported this view, stating it was a mark of honour among struggle credentials to be imprisoned. But to no avail. Cde Mugabe was inconsolable, and after mourning openly and deeply for several weeks, returned his focus to the struggle and the development of the armed phase of the war.


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