OUTSIDE the Blue Lagoon restaurant within the historic Renkini Bus Terminus outside Bulawayo’s Central Business District life is different.
Loud and alive with a motley of voices; hungry patrons coming and leaving the food court. Bored and likely unemployed young men showing prowess at a game of snooker under a see-through tent as one enters the restaurant.
Ramshackle, heavily-loaded buses zoom past spewing fumes of smoke and raising dust into the building.
A few people cough, choking. Inhalation of smoke can reduce the amount of oxygen getting to the lungs, causing swelling and burning of the airway.
It is part of the environs when you are seated in the Blue Lagoon, a political, if not cultural, address in Bulawayo. Sibangilizwe Michael Nkomo stands up from a well-worn black leather chair to usher me into his office tucked at a quiet corner of the Blue Lagoon restaurant, so named after a rendezvous, Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo – Sibangilizwe’s iconic father – patronised in South Africa in the 1945. Affable.
Sibangilizwe exudes a grandfatherly warmth, a wide smile and assuring handshake. He dominates the tiny white-walled office at the back of the famed maritime-theme restaurant like a colossus. Sibangilizwe is resplendent in a bright yellow shirt – the regalia of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (PF-Zapu), the political party his father founded in December 1961.
Sibangilizwe was just three when Nkomo senior – revered political founding father of Zimbabwe – midwifed Zapu from the ashes of the banned National Democratic Party.
It was to be a formidable political player in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, along with Zanu whose members left Zapu when Enos Nkala led the formation of Zanu at his house in 1963 in Harare. Zapu and Zanu constituted the liberation struggle movement, but parties fell out after independence in 1980s, leading to Gukurahundi and the Unity Accord after the massacres.
More than two decades since the death of Nkomo, his third born son is at the helm of Zapu’s remnant.
The party is seeking a seat at Zimbabwe’s political table steeled by disillusionment over the country’s current political and economic failure.
Elected Zapu President at a congress in October 2021, Sibangilizwe is donning his father’s leadership mantle, but does he have the political mettle that he seeks to be “Son Zimbabwe”? Nkomo was affectionately known as “Father Zimbabwe”? “My father’s shoes are too big to fill,” he chuckles, brandishing a shiny stick of office (sceptre) well-worn by constant clutching.
“I have to wear my own political shoes because I cannot be my father or emulate him”.
Born in St. Joseph Mission in Kezi in 1958 at the height of the liberation struggle when Nkomo had pronounced that they were “fighting for the country”, hence his name “Sibangilizwe”.
He was baptised with the English name of Michael in the Roman Church. St. Joseph is a small village, 28km southwest of Maphisa, one of the many sites where the 5th Brigade killed and dumped victims into old disused Antelope Mine shafts. Nkomo’s other children were: Thandiwe, Thuthani and Sehlule.
Nkomo was detained at Gonakudzingwa notorious prison in 1964 for political activism. “I grew up in an environment where politics was part of life,” Sibangilizwe remembers.
“Everyone at home was politically conscious because of the company my father kept,” says Sibangilizwe, who did his early education at eNduba Primary in Bulawayo and went to eMpandeni Secondary School.
Thereafter Sibangilizwe left the country for the United States enrolling for an Agriculture degree he never got to finish. He was to return home at independence in 1980, still hoping he would com plete studies at the University of Zimbabwe.
He never did. Political upheavals of the early 1980s saw Nkomo persecuted and prosecuted as an enemy of the state.
His father’s trials and tribulations impacted on him negatively. Sibangilizwe says he was exposed to politics at a young age, about seven years, but did not understand what politics was all about.
He recalls a song whose words were about how the youth were a singeing fire, hence the Zapu slogan “zhii umlilo”.
“Connecting the songs, we were taught and the slogan of Zapu, I came to realise that there is prosecution in politics after my father was arrested. I was not sure why he was arrested, but I experienced the violence between Zapu and Zanu. My father prepared me for politics,” Sibangilizwe says.
He recalls living in Pelandaba suburb in Bulawayo where his parent’s home was opposite a house of Zanu supporters, and now and then there was an exchange of missiles, citing that inter-party violence which has its roots before independence.
That Pelandaba home which belonged to Nkomo today belongs to the late Makhathini Guduza’s family. “There is something very spiritual about Nkomo’s politics. He knew something about this country and the politics going forward that is why he was able to predict a lot of things that have happened that we see happening now,” says Sibangilizwe.
He narrates part of his experiences in the 1980s, which form part and parcel his life story and informs his current views about Zimbabwe and where it needs to go.
“One year in the 1980s as we fled the 5th Brigade, I ended up in Vancouver, Canada in 1985. In 1991 my father phoned me and in our conversation I told him I was reluctant to come back home because ‘his friends’ were killers. I had on many occasions been harassed by the 5th Brigade and Central Intelligence Organisation.” It took Nkomo a year to convince Sibangilizwe to leave Vancouver after sending a one-way ticket from Vancouver to Harare. On his return, his father gave him advice on how to integrate back to communities and society.
“Uhlale ebantwini, ungasuki ebantwini bazafuna impendulo kuwe kusasa (Always stay and lie with the people. They will look up to you for answers). Hence, I never joined Zanu or any other political party. I have always been Zapu from 1961 to date.”
A connection with the people was deepened when Sibangilizwe joined a cultural organisation, Matojeni Cultural Society.
This was an outfit that promoted cultural revival and engaged the public in conversations about culture, history and identity. Sibangilizwe transformed the Matojeni Cultural Society into the Joshua Nkomo Cultural Movement in a bid to broaden its scope and attract more people to join.
The movement was steaming ahead when Zapu was revived in 2008. Sibangilizwe rejoined the revived Zapu which he believes can be a formidable opposition party to pull Zimbabwe from a political and economic abyss.
“The irony of this country is that we have vast resources, never seen anywhere in many countries; we have gas, more than 60 types of minerals, coal, gold, diamonds and who knows even oil, but all these resources are exploited and looted by foreigners,” Sibangilizwe charged.
“My vision is to build a better Zapu, a stronger Zapu. Zapu truly belongs to the people at the grassroots level. We are building a Zapu that belongs to everyone in the country regardless of their tribe, their race, their religion and so on. But we have to be honest about it, we have to modernise this party for the 21st century.”
At 65 years, does he have the energy and capacity to lead Zapu and transform Zimbabwe if elected President of the country, for instance? Sibangilizwe says he had offered himself as Zapu’s candidate for the presidential election, but could not file nomination owing to the exorbitant registration fees for presidential candidates.
“Being a president of Zimbabwe has become elitist, the tenets of the constitution of Zimbabwe have been thrown out the window along with the opportunity for anyone in Zimbabwe to contest for the top job in the country,” he explains.
“I am going around promising is the vision of Zapu. It might not mean anything now, but the vision of Zapu once properly followed will rebuild this country. We need sober minds; we need honesty, corrupt–free people, to turn around this country.”
Sibangilizwe is convinced Zimbabweans are hungry for change, saying they are tired of Zanu PF’s false promises.
“Zimbabweans are tired of the cabal of people at the top looting right before their eyes when they are wallowing in poverty. Zapu is ready to bring change to the people of Zimbabwe,” he says adding: “We need to be work together as country. Tribalism and racism divide the country and should be eliminated in our midst. Tribalism as a political resource is destructive.”
Zanu has not won a single seat since contesting past national elections, can it spring a surprise now?
“We did very badly in past elections, but we are working towards doing much better than that. We have learnt a lot from that. We are determined to contribute in whatever way we can to make Zimbabwe a better country for us all to live in.”