Let’s not forget father Zimbabwe

Joshua Nkomo, who died on 1 July 1999 aged 82, was the first modern nationalist leader in white-ruled Rhodesia. He was a giant, both politically and physically, who dominated the stage for half a century.

Joshua nkomo
Joshua nkomo

Known affectionately as UmdalaWethu – our old man – or Father Zimbabwe, his life was marked by the struggle for independence and majority rule.

He was born in what is now called Semokwe communal area, Matabeleland South in 1917, one of eight children of Thomas NyongoloLetswanstoNkomo, a preacher for the London Missionary Society and a cattle rancher. After his primary education Joshua took a carpentry course for a year at the Tsholotsho Government Industrial School before becoming a driver. He later became a schoolteacher specialising in carpentry at Manyame School in Kezi. He saved up to pursue his education in South Africa, where he met Nelson Mandela and other regional nationalist leaders.

He returned to Bulawayo in 1948 and became a trade unionist campaigning for better pay and conditions for black railway workers. He led the Railway Workers’ Union and then the African National Congress, and its successor, the National Democratic Party during the 1950s and 1960s, which were both banned by the colonial authorities. He eventually founded ZAPU, which became most associated with his name, in 1962. But ZAPU was also banned immediately.

A year after ZAPU’s foundation NdabaningiSithole led a split and formed ZANU. This led to violent conflict between the two parties, giving Ian Smith’s government an excuse to detain the leaders of both parties in 1964 before declaring independence unilaterally from Britain in 1965. Although some saw the split as an ethnic Shona/Ndebele conflict, Nkomo was Kalanga and Sithole was not Shona, but Ndau. Although most ZAPU members were Ndebele, it was never a tribal or racist party. Its military wing, ZIPRA, even included a white combatant.

The nationalist leaders remained indetention until 1974 when they were released due to pressure from South African prime minister B.J. Vorster. On his release, Nkomo went to Zambia, from where he fought for Zimbabwean independence at the head of ZAPU and ZIPRA, backed by the Soviet Union and allied with the South African ANC. Meanwhile Sithole was deposed and expelled from ZANU and Robert Mugabe emerged as its new leader. ZANU and its military wing, ZANLA, received help from China.

Although the leaders of the Frontline States persuaded the two parties to form the Patriotic Front, there was little military cooperation between ZIPRA, based in Zambia, and ZANLA, based in Mozambique.

After the collapse of the short-lived Zimbabwe-Rhodesia under a Muzorewa-Smith-Sithole-Chirau coalition, came the Lancaster House conference, where ZANU and ZAPU formed one Patriotic Font delegation. However, they competed against each other in the elections in 1980.

PF-ZAPU trailed Zanu (PF) by 57-20 seats in the new 100-seat Parliament.

Nkomo joined the first Mugabe coalition in the powerful Home Affairs ministry, but he was demoted twice in two years.

In 1982 the CIO “discovered” arms planted on ZAPU farms apparently by South African double agents within CIO. ZAPU was accused of plotting a coup and Nkomo was fired. His passport was taken away, but he escaped to Botswana. (He scornfully denied the unlikely story that he went disguised as a woman).

The North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, accountable only to Mugabe, launched Gukurahundi against “armed dissidents”, who proved never to have numbered more than 100, though 20,000 civilians were killed before the campaign ended with the 1987 Unity Accord by which Zanu (PF) swallowed ZAPU. Nkomo accepted this “to stop the killing” and became one of two vice-presidents.

He is remembered for his “common touch” and for inspiring “love and respect from his people.” He liked to achieve consensus and consulted widely. His vision for Zimbabwe was as a common home for all citizens, not as a place where some enjoyed privileges over others.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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