A foul-mouthed, embittered man, much given to swearing in public and delivering foam-flecked speeches, Msika was perhaps the only Zimbabwean who could outdo President Robert Mugabe when it came to verbal vitriol. The targets of his bile included journalists, farmers, all young Zimbabweans who had allegedly failed to match his standards of patriotism and devotion and white people in general.
During a rally in Bulawayo in August 2001, Msika took racist rhetoric to a new level. Mugabe would routinely refer to white Zimbabweans as “greedy exploiters”. But Msika bluntly declared: “Whites are not human beings.” Even his audience from the hardened rank-and-file of Mugabe’s Zanu(PF) party was taken aback.
Msika’s outpourings sometimes amounted to straightforward incitement. In November 2001 he encouraged a Zanu(PF) mob to burn down the Bulawayo headquarters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), supposedly in retaliation for the murder of a member of the ruling party.
In this speech, Msika called the opposition “terrorists”, compared the regime’s brutal repression of the MDC to America’s “war on terrorism”, and declared that if Mugabe’s critics “wanted a bloodbath, they would certainly get one”.
Earlier Msika had helped intimidate the journalists of the Daily News, then Zimbabwe’s only independent daily newspaper, which was later forced to close by a draconian press law. A Zanu(PF) mob massed outside the News‘s office in Harare, shouting abuse and beating up its news editor, Julius Zava, in the street.
Afterwards the gang marched to Msika’s office, where the vice-president appeared on the steps and thanked them for their efforts. He then promised “action” against the paper. Just what Msika may have had in mind became clear a few months later when a bomb destroyed the newspaper’s printing press.
In February 2000, shortly after Mugabe had lost a referendum on a new constitution, Msika became so abusive during a meeting with Peter Longworth, then Britain’s high commissioner in Harare, that the shocked diplomat concluded that London’s relations with Zimbabwe had entered a new era of acrimony.
Msika, an ardent conspiracy theorist, bluntly accused Longworth of organising the referendum defeat. The vice-president claimed that an unholy alliance of British agents and white farmers had brainwashed hundreds of thousands of hapless people into voting against the constitution.
Joseph Wilfred Msika was born on December 6 1923 in the Chiweshe area of what was then Britain’s Crown Colony of Southern Rhodesia. After attending a mission school he moved to Bulawayo, where he worked as a carpenter and ran a fish-and-chip shop.
He joined a tightly-knit circle which established the first organised opposition to white rule. In 1957 Msika helped found the Rhodesian wing of the African National Congress. When the colonial government banned this party, Msika joined Joshua Nkomo, the nationalist leader, to found the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu).
This movement split along ethnic lines in 1963, with Mugabe and other figures from the majority Shona tribe leaving to found the rival Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu), which later became today’s ruling party, Zanu(PF). Meanwhile, Zapu was dominated by Nkomo’s minority Ndebele tribe.
Msika stayed with Zapu, but not for reasons of tribalism: he was neither Shona nor Ndebele, but of mixed background. Instead, his decision arose from fierce personal loyalty to Nkomo.
This became stronger when Ian Smith’s government banned Zapu and jailed its leaders. Msika and Nkomo were dispatched to a remote camp at Gonakudzingwa in a wild area of southern Zimbabwe. Here they spent 10 years imprisoned together, without charge or trial, before being released in 1974.
Afterwards they went into exile in neighbouring Zambia, where Zapu re-formed and launched guerrilla attacks into Rhodesia.
Smith sued for peace in 1979, and the Lancaster House conference led to independence for the new nation of Zimbabwe in 1980. Msika joined the cabinet as minister for water development.
Mugabe had formed a coalition with Zapu, putting aside his rivalry with Nkomo, who became home affairs minister. But this alliance lasted only two years before Mugabe accused Zapu of planning a coup, and sacked Nkomo and Msika.
Mugabe used this alleged plot almost certainly an invention as an excuse to crush Zapu and impose a de facto one-party state. A special army unit, the Fifth Brigade, was deployed to terrorise Zapu’s supporters among the Ndebele people. Having been jailed by the white regime, Msika found himself detained for several months by Mugabe’s black government.
This brutal repression, which claimed thousands of lives, had the desired effect. Nkomo surrendered in 1987, agreeing to abolish Zapu and join Zanu(PF). In return, he became a powerless vice-president, while Msika returned to the cabinet as minister without portfolio.
Having paid a bitter price for crossing Mugabe, Msika was anxious to prove his loyalty. For the rest of his career he did so by attacking all Mugabe’s opponents with special vehemence.
When Nkomo died in 1999, Msika replaced him as vice-president. After suffering a stroke in 2005, he tried to retire, but Mugabe insisted on keeping him in office. The ageing and sick Msika then lapsed into almost total inactivity.
Joseph Msika is survived by his wife, Maria, and six children.Post published in: News