The death of Dumiso Dabengwa (DD), the military commander of Zimbabwean People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) and the most effective fighting force in the country’s liberation struggle, should be a call for the country to confront its history with a new honesty.
That should include saluting all the heroes of the liberation war and condemning the brutality meted out to some of them in the wake of Zimbabwe’s Independence.
My father Sydney Malunga and DD were inseparable. They were both persecuted by Robert Mugabe, when he became prime minister then president in newly Independent Zimbabwe.
Tried for treason, accused of being on Zimbabwe African People’s Union War Council (an entity invented by the prosecutors and state security), they were detained illegally for almost four years, then acquitted and released within weeks of each other, standing shoulder to shoulder to bury their comrade Lookout Masuku who had died in prison just before they got out.
They bought houses next to each other. They were always right next to the big man, Joshua Nkomo. Now they are all reunited. I was 12 when they were bundled off to Chikurubi maximum security prison in Harare.
I recall many meetings at home where we served as waiters and waitresses as they argued loudly over strategy to the onslaught from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union in the early 1980s. I wondered later when they were all accused of treason, how odd it was that they had “plotted” so loudly.
They were all quirky. Edward Ndlovu was quite aristocratic with a literary turn of phrase in English. Once I was asked to bring them cheese as they huddled and argued in my father’s tiny bar. When I delivered it and ran off, Ndlovu called me back and said “….bafuna ukulincitsha icheese”, and promptly gave me a huge portion of it back.
DD was the quietest of these many fathers. The rest were loud, boisterous, unafraid, never leaving anything unsaid, yet respectful of each other. DD spoke only when he needed to. He never elaborated, never raised his voice but his points would always land, securing grunts and nods.
When they were released from Chikurubi after ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo had cut a deal – the Unity Accord between ZANU and ZAPU – there were many tensions. Nkomo had done what he believed was for the best. Too many people had died and his party could not protect them. Mugabe seemed ready to kill more. There was nothing to stop him.
A lone figure, his movement decimated, his lieutenants in jail, and with continued attempts on his life, Nkomo had decided to cut a deal. It was was capitulation. As the prisoners were released, they were tasked with selling the deal to the traumatized and brutalized population. None believed in the deal and its sincerity.
I recall fierce arguments between these comrades over going to rural areas to explain the Unity Accord. Their own safety and security was also a factor. Njini Ntuta had been murdered in cold-blood by people masquerading as dissidents, but in fact known to have been security operatives. My father had been warned against going to bury his father as there was an ambush set up to kill him.
After the Unity Accord, DD had been offered the post of Deputy Minister of Home Affairs which ZAPU had complained was too junior. He later became the Minister. His role as Minister of Home Affairs also caused disagreement.
Every year, the Ministry of Home Affairs oversees the Heroes Day celebrations. In the run up to this event, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and Television subjects people to a barrage of programmes about the liberation war – but it covers only the contribution of Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the military wing of ZANU.
The role of the ZIPRA, the more effective military force, was being obliterated from history. When DD became Minister of Home Affairs, his comrades expected to see more about ZIPRA and ZAPU’s role. They were disappointed. In fact, ZANU had erased reports of ZIPRA’s contribution when it confiscated its records and property.
There were other points of divergence between the comrades – such as the marginalisation of Matabeleland. The Gukurahundi campaign, launched by Mugabe’s government and its notorious Fifth Brigade which killed over 20,000 people in the early 1980s, had decimated the region. There had been zero development in Matabeleland.
After the Unity Accord, little was done to compensate Matabeleland for the devastation wrought by Gukurahundi.
It is unclear whether Nkomo was in a position to demand anything other than stopping the killings.
When peace returned, Matabeleland politicians faced tough questions from their constituents. Why was nothing being done about the region’s water crisis. Why were factories moving to Harare? Why were university and college intakes skewed against locals? Why were there less schools especially given the targeting of schools by Gukurahundi?
These questions, aimed at the broader government, landed at the doorstep former ZAPU comrades in government.
DD took such complaints with quiet dignity. He always listened, never gave excuses. It became clear that the ZAPU comrades in government controlled nothing. In destroying ZAPU, Mugabe had built an impenetrable dictatorship in which he allowed Nkomo some leeway but kept hold of everything else.
The ZAPU comrades inside government never explained such constraints to their constituents. Alienation grew as did tensions between comrades in and outside government.
Meanwhile, Mugabe maintained a tight grip on power. I recall uncomfortable conversations with Vice President Joseph Msika, Welshman Mabhena, Vice President John Nkomo, and DD about their legacy.
They humoured me, saying “Your father understood this better. We are alone in there. The system is not in our control.” I asked, “So why are you staying in it? Why not leave?” “You don’t understand Sipho my son, we are working to change it from inside. We need you, young people to come and help us.”
But DD eventually left the “system” and never went back and with that my respect for him multiplied. Other comrades drifted in and out of the system showing a lack of backbone.
My first concern for DD’s health came after a late night call a couple of years ago. We had talked about him writing a book about the war and politics. He said this was now urgent. He was feeling easily tired when he went for his daily walk with mama MaKhumalo in Fourwinds. We spent a good four hours talking after which he handed me the outline of what would be two books.
I promised to read and get back to him but urged him to start documenting. I told him that I had a title: The Black Russian: Memoirs of A Freedom Fighter. He smiled, waving away my suggestion.
In January last year, Dr Ibbo Mandaza called me to speak at a meeting he was organising on Gukurahundi at SAPES Trust in Harare. DD had agreed to speak along with Eleanor Sisulu and Martin Rupiya. It would be a way of testing the new regime: public discussions about Gukurahundi had been banned under Mugabe’s rule.
ZANU-PF had sent some youths to disrupt it. We had expected worse: that the police would stop it, maybe barricade the road. DD rebuked the ZANU-PF youths. I pushed back against them, refusing to be silenced but became exasperated, turning to him, saying “Baba, this is nonsense.” He calmly responded and said, “Don’t let yourself be distracted, do what you came here to do.”
It was an important discussion and shows ZANU-PF’s continuing fears about having public discussions about Gukurahundi. The next day we flew to Bulawayo for another debate on Gukurahundi. DD made clear that Gukurahundi was a planned massacre, rejecting Mugabe’s claims that it had been a “…moment of madness”. He also blamed British officials whom he said had advised Mugabe at Independence that the greatest threat to his rule would be ZAPU and ZIPRA.
They are so many more stories about the heroes of the liberation struggle and the sacrifices their families made.
They are unspoken heroes like Mam’ Zodwa Dabengwa and my mother who kept the families together, inspiring the men to keep fighting, then to keep their sanity in detention facing such heavy pressure.
There was the cold blooded murder of DD’s mother, Ugogo, by Rhodesian soldiers – to punish DD and also to force him to return home for her funeral so that they could capture him.
But he did not go back. Ugogo was living with her grandchildren. Two men had knocked at the door at night. To lure her outside, they had told Ugogo that her son DD had arrived to see her.
Two shots had rung in the dark night. Terrified, the young children, Smanga, Bongani and Xolani, had stayed inside the house all night. The following morning, they found their grandmother in a pool of blood in the garden. Their terror and trauma were beyond imagination.
DD had to bear his own heart-wrenching pain, the anguish of not being able to protect and bury his mother. Later he would have to work with the same Rhodesians who killed his mother, when they were integrating the new national army after independence. Then again, after Gukurahundi, he would have to work with those in ZANU PF who had tortured and jailed him and his comrades.
DD carried it all, with a quiet dignity that only true heroes possess. Without DD and many of his comrades in ZAPU and ZIPRA, righting the wrongs of the past, especially Gukurahundi, becomes harder.
Those of us who remain behind should continue the fight DD started. Only that way can we ensure that DD and his comrades did not struggle in vain. DD taught us that the fight for freedom cannot be outsourced.
*Siphosami Malunga writes in his personal capacity
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