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His Excellency Comrade Robert: How Mugabe's ZANU clique rose to power
By Stephen O’Brien
Towards the end of 1975 a movement of young radicals
organised in the Zimbabwe People’s Army (ZIPA) took charge of
The fact that
Mugabe, a former rural school teacher, and his cronies would become the ruling capitalist
The ZIPA cadre emerged from the wave of young people
who, experiencing oppression
and discrimination in
In 1975, key nationalist leaders -- such as Robert Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo, Ndabiginini Sithole, Jason Moyo, Herbert Chitepo, Abel Muzorewa, James Chikerema and Josiah Tongogara -- had become entangled in factional rivalry and long-running and fruitless peace talks with the Smith regime. The young recruits who would shortly form ZIPA sought to reinvigorate the struggle as the war stalled and as the old leaders became marginalised.
A group of
ZANU officers based at training camps in
The ZANU officers also sought unity with ZAPU, the long-standing rival organisation from which ZANU had split in 1963. ZAPU agreed and in November 1975 ZIPA was formed with a combined High Command composed of equal numbers from both ZAPU and ZANU. The alliance with ZAPU disintegrated after a few months partly because ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo had continued to negotiate with Smith. Nevertheless, it was an important attempt at unity which defied the prevailing trend of division.
ZIPA’s nominal head was Rex Nhongo (later known as Solomon Mujuru he would become head of the Zimbabwe Army under Mugabe), but strategic and tactical leadership came to be held by his young deputy, Wilfred Mhanda.
been a typical recruit to ZANU and its military wing, the Zimbabwe National
Liberation Army (ZANLA). He had been involved in school protests and on leaving
his studies helped form a ZANU support group. Like many who were to become part
of ZIPA, Mhanda had been influenced by the youth radicalisation of the 1960s.
In 1971, with the special branch in pursuit, Mhanda’s group skipped the border
ZIPA theory, tactics
influenced ZIPA’s tactics. Its fighters were not regarded as cannon fodder,
lines of retreat and supply were secured, counter-offensives anticipated and
strategic reserves made ready. Senior ZIPA commanders visited the front. ZIPA’s
aims went beyond winning democracy, to the revolutionary transformation of
People’s Army relocated its troops from
Historian David Moore’s study of ZIPA notes: ``The students made their political education directly relevant to the struggle, so that Marxism could better direct the war of liberation.’’[iii] ZIPA’s political approach lead to it becoming known as the Vashandi, a word which means worker in the Shona language, but which, according to Mhanda, took on a broader meaning as the revolutionary front of workers, students and peasants.
regime reeled under the offensive. Repression was intensified, ``psychopathic’’
counter-insurgency units such as the Selous Scouts were deployed, so called ``protected
villages’’ intensified control over the population and raids were launched against
refugee camps in neighbouring countries.
about the growing influence of the young Marxists in
basis for the talks centred around
Kissinger’s proposals centered around a supposed timetable for a transition to black majority rule (these days they say ``road map’’) with the intention that the talks would provide an opportunity to sideline or eliminate the radicals.
opposed to negotiations. On numerous occasions, especially after Portuguese
colonialism collapsed in 1974 and Frelimo started to take control of
ZIPA leaders were also wary of the old leadership. When Samora Machel pressed them to nominate the political leader with whom they most closely identified, in a decision which was to have fateful consequences, they nominated Robert Mugabe. In his struggle to depose the ZANU president Ndanbiginini Sithole, Mugabe was careful to identify with the guerillas, unlike Sithole who unsuccessfully attempted to place them under his control. This influenced the ZIPA leaders and they thought that, although they did not support Mugabe, they could work with him.
Disunity had long plagued the nationalist movement. When ZANU had split from ZAPU in 1963 the acrimony turned violent in the townships at a certain point and Smith’s police stood by while it took its course. Since then, guerilla revolts against what were perceived to be incompetent leaders, such as ZAPU’s March 11 Movement (1971) and ZANU’s Nhari Rebellion (1974-1975), had been brutally suppressed.
during the fallout from the Nhari rebellion that Herbert Chitepo, the ZANU
chair, was assassinated in
that they could attend the
nationalist delegates to
Mhanda, who was in effect the central ZIPA figure, explains that ZIPA members regarded many of the old leaders as being out of touch. They thought that leaders such as Mugabe and Nkomo, having been in jail for many years, did not fully understand changes brought about by the youth radicalisation and the Vietnam War. Where the older generation was motivated by a desire to force negotiations that would usher in ``one man one vote’’, the ZIPA comrades were ``fighting for the total transformation of the Zimbabwean society’’.[vi]
Some of the
young radicals had experienced and even sought out Marxist ideas during their
training. Mhanda describes the delight he and a group of comrades felt when
they discovered Marxist classics in the library at their training camp in
dependent on the support of Machel for access to the supply lines and infiltration
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Mugabe, for his part, allied with the recently released military chief Tongogara, and Solomon Mujuru. The nominal head of ZIPA, Mujuru had never really shared the strategic vision of his deputy political commissar Mhanda. He also blocked with ZAPU’s Joshua Nkomo and his deputy Jason Moyo to create the Patriotic Front. This helped strengthen Mugabe against the right (Abel Muzorewa and Ndanbiginini Sithole) and against the left, the increasingly politically independent ZIPA.
Moore has suggested that Mugabe was not really committed to the talks at
collapse of the talks, the ZIPA leaders were sidelined into undertaking
solidarity duties in
Prosecution of the war took second place while Mugabe continued to impose control. Pawns, a novel about the war by Charles Samupindi, describes the new atmosphere:
The Vashandi, the young kids as …[Tongogara] …calls them,
are now all safely behind bars in Frelimo prisons in
Until at least August 1977, there were mass denunciations, torture and beatings. Three-hundred junior Vashandi were executed.[xii]
When Machel enquired what had happened to the prosecution of the war, Mugabe was evasive and avoided Machel’s suggestion that the jailed leaders be allowed to fight.
most experienced commanders out of action, ZANLA failed to learn from previous
lessons and Smith launched another devastating attack on the camps in
After the suppression of the radicals, the old leaders maintained, and even stepped up, the left discourse popularised by ZIPA.
Mugabe `lays the line’
In August 1977, Mugabe felt strong enough to call a special ZANU congress and have himself appointed party president. In his congress speech, later published as ``Comrade Mugabe Lays the Line’’, Mugabe made it clear that henceforth the ``given leadership’’ was in control.[xiii]
trappings of a personality cult started to emerge. One of his biographers
writes that in his
Undisciplined habits among ZANU apparatchiks, which had been a factor in the Nhari rebellion, re-emerged. Machel had to complain to Mugabe about the ``heavy drinking and the womanising that some senior ZANU men indulged in at the capital’s nightspots, like the Polana Hotel’’.[xvi]
Discipline weakened as the preoccupation with ``dissidents’’ meant that there was inadequate ideological and military training. Sexual abuse became common and even pro-ZANU historians mention the ``rampant raping’’ carried out by senior commanders.[xvii] During 1977 to 1979 some observers even expressed concerns that the deterioration of the guerillas’ behaviour in certain areas could cause a ``collapse of rural support’’.[xviii]
Astute leadership was especially needed when the political situation became confused. Smith took advantage of the disunity of the nationalists. He cut a deal with the conservative wing of the nationalists, represented by Ndabiginini Sithole, James Chikerema and Bishop Abel Muzorewa, to establish the puppet state of Rhodesia-Zimbabwe under nominal black majority rule.
Known as the ``internal settlement’’, the pact prolonged white domination by two more bloody years. During this time both Sithole and Muzorewa set up their own armies and fought ZANU and ZAPU, while white Rhodesians and mercenaries, especially in the Selous Scouts, massacred at will while masquerading as guerillas.
However, the weight of popular discontent, international presssure and ZANU and ZAPU’s military pressure eventually forced Smith, on behalf of the tiny white minority, to return to the negotiating table.
1979, at the Lancaster House talks in
Origins of ZANU elitism
While ZANU formally adopted ``Marxism-Leninism-Mao TseTung thought’’ at its 1977 Chimoio Congress, this left talk ``was ultimately a disguise for classically authoritarian nationalism’’.[xix]
This orientation can be traced back to the intellectual formation of many members of the 1950s and 1960s generation of nationalists. At this time the vast mass of the people was restricted to the rural areas and had little access to education. A significant number of the first nationalists were educated at church and colonial schools which had been designed to create a tiny educated layer who would ``lead’’ the black masses on behalf of the white minority. They later found work in intellectual occupations such as teachers (Mugabe), preachers (Sithole and Muzorewa), journalists, clerks, social workers and trade union officials (Nkomo).
Many of them adopted the view that their role, and that of the black middle class, ``was to aid the government in its `civilizing’ programmes of development and industrialisation’’.[xx] This was reflected in the fact that trade union officials and the educated elite played an ambivalent role in such popular struggles as the general strike in 1948, the bus boycotts of 1956 and the mass protests which thwarted the undemocratic Anglo-Rhodesian settlement proposals of 1971.
had been involved in the liberal multi-class and multi-race organisation, the
He only joined a nationalist party in 1960 when he was 36 years old, after
having worked and studied abroad. Mugabe maintained his liberal contacts and
could call on them to support his wife while in exile in
Despite its numerical strength, at least half a million by 1948, the organised working class did not play a central role in the later stages of the liberation struggle.[xxii] As a result, there was no significant social counterweight to the educated intellectuals who came to dominate the leadership of the struggle.
Disunity and rivalry was common among the middle-class nationalists. By the time the young ZIPA radicals arrived on the scene the divisions in the nationalist ranks were deep. Divisions existed between those who had been in jail, those who had fled into neighbouring countries to direct the guerilla war, such as Chitepo and Moyo, younger party members who had studied abroad and the generally more conservative Rhodesia-based nationalists, such as Muzorewa, who had remained ``legal’’ and largely out of jail.
Differences were reflected in questions of tactics, such as when and how to apply military pressure and to what extent outside powers be allowed to broker talks. Opposition to white rule was one of the few things that they had in common, and even that was negotiable for some.
ZANU in power
complete military victory, and subject to pressure from their war-weary allies,
in particular Mozambique and Zambia, the nationalists made significant and arguably
generous concessions during the Lancaster House negotiations. Responsibility
was accepted for paying the foreign debt the Smith regime had accumulated buying
arms and mercenaries in contravention of UN sanctions. Even today
After independence, rather than being dismantled and transformed, the white state was merely taken over as it was. The first government included former supporters of Smith who were willing to help apply many of the same economic policies.
One of their first acts was to demobilise the ZANU committees and support groups, which had helped the party organise the rural population. The new government suppressed a spontaneous strike wave unleashed by an increasingly confident working class.
Mugabe broke the Patriotic Front, his nominal alliance with Nkomo, shortly before the 1980 election and both ZANU and ZAPU went to the vote separately. The split with ZAPU was to have dire consequences.
Ex-ZAPU members were increasingly purged from senior positions in the army and from government ministries. The army, having been retrained by British military officers, ``embraced the ideas, training, organisation and forms of force of the Rhodesian settler army’’.[xxiii] It had absolute loyalty to Mugabe above all and regardless of any constitutional and democratic considerations.
brigade, the Fifth, composed exclusively of Shona speakers and ZANU veterans,
was established and trained by
A paternalistic and authoritarian state kept the popular classes in their place. Significant spending on education and health in the early years of the government was matched by corporatist trade union structures. The cities were also kept under control and thousands of urban dwellers and squatters were regularly evicted from black townships. In the rural areas land reform was forever promised but not delivered, while rural wages were kept low to subsidise cheap food, and therefore lower wages, for the cities. As one commentator observed ``poverty was structural; all the post-independence state did was ‘humanise’ it’’.[xxiv]
By 1987, with the popular classes under control, ZAPU severely weakened, the old-time allies conveniently dead or purged (Tongogara had died in an accident on the eve of independence)[xxv] and with the armed forces and police under his control, Mugabe changed the constitution and appointed himself executive president.
increasing orientation to international capital, the country slipped further
into corruption and debt. Nonetheless, ZANU continued to pretend that it sought
``to establish a socialist society in
People started to realise that the fruits of the liberation struggle had been appropriated. In Echoing Silences, by Alexander Kanengoni, a war veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder has a dream in which Chitepo and Jason Moyo are discussing how the struggle has lost its way and wondering ``how the politics, wealth and the economy of the entire country was slowly becoming synonymous with the names of less than a dozen people’’.[xxvii]
detained ZIPA members were only released from detention in
Mhanda was warned
that his presence in
proven to be apt in suppressing the threat from the left and employing the language
of people such as Mhanda's ``to practice the worst of
However, even before the end of the first decade of independence, it was clear that Mugabe’s version of patriarchal nationalism had exhausted any progressive content and the first steps towards a political break between the people and the ZANU elite were developing.
again it was young people, university students who had grown up under
independence, supported by a new general secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of
Trade Unions, Morgan Tsvangirai, who began to challenge the dominant system of
inequality and repression and open up a new phase in
[i] Up until the early 1970s nationalists had
to forcibly conscript Zimbabwean youth to fight against Smith. See Chung, F. (2006) Re-living the second Chirumenga.
[ii] Mhanda, W. (2007) Interview with Wilfred Mhanda by Stephen O’Brien August 2007.
[iii] Moore, D. (1990) The Contradictory construction
of hegemony in
[iv] Flower, K. (1987) Serving secretly. An
intelligence chief on record:
[vii] Julius Nyerere, the then leader of
[viii] For example See Nyagumbo, M. (1980) With the
[x] Moore (1990) p. 361 suggests that Mugabe deliberately stalled as Geneva as he needed to deal with ZIPA and gain control the army before he entered serious negotiations with Smith.
[xi] Samupindi, C. (1992) Pawns.
[xii] The figure of 300 executions is cited by Astrow, A.
[xiv] Smith, D., Simpson, C., & Davies,
[xv] Nhongo-Simbanegavi, J. (2000) p. 202
[xvi] Smith, D., Simpson, C., & Davies,
[xvii] See Bhebe, N. (2004) p. 224, Chung, (2006) p.
125-128. For women’s testimonies see Musengezi, C. (Ed.) (2000) Women of
resilience. The voices of women ex-combatants.
[xviii] Kriger, N. J. (2002)
[xix] Bond, P. (1998) Uneven
[xxi] Smith, D., Simpson, C., & Davies,
[xxii] Low wages, import substitution industries and sanctions busting during UDI helped further develop railways, mines, light manufacturing and agricultural processing and contribute to the growth of the working class.
[xxiv] Tandon, Y. (2001) Trade unions and labour in the
agricultural sector in
Nyagumbo, Enos Nkala and Edgar Tekere, who had supported Mugabe in deposing
Sithole, all fell out with Mugabe. Tekere (2007) p. 84, a key Mugabe henchman,
was to later admit that ZIPA was ``absolutely correct’’. In 1978 a group of
ZANU ``radicals’’, lead by Henry Hamadziripi and Rugare Gumbo, appearing to
have had second thoughts about ZIPA, unsuccessfully tried to challenge the ZANU
leadership. After being sentenced to death by ZANU they were detained by
[xxvi] The ZANU (PF) and PF ZAPU Agreement. Appendix 1.
Cited in Sibanda, E. M. (2005) The
[xxvii] Kanengoni, A. (2001) Echoing silences.