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Nkomo: A philosopher of liberation in word, in deed



Dr William Jethro Mpofu

IN this article I reflect on Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle luminary Joshua Nkomo as a philosopher of liberation with all the exalted and great qualities of such political leaders despite his flaws and soft underbelly as an idealist nationalist giant in the rough and tumble of Zimbabwean politics.

But for immediate purposes, I dwell mainly on the limitations of the philosophers of liberation and not their strengths that are common cause to be written home about.

If Nkomo was indeed Father Zimbabwe, or nationalist icon, what is happening in the nation now is a sacrifice of every ideal he stood for and a crucifixion of himself, betrayal of his dreams by a corrupt regime of native colonialists that has turned Zimbabwe’s dream of liberation into a nightmare.

Whatever utopia was there that was envisioned by Nkomo, and others, has now turned into dystopia. Nkomo’s philosophy of liberation can be crystalised, assessed and evaluated from his words first, deeds and then his experiences, and how he reacted to historical and political events and developments around him.

I turn to Nkomo’s words that I have selected from his book: The Story of My Life (1984) and a few other significant texts. Like all other philosophers, Nkomo was wordy in speech and in text. He poured his heart and mind out and his passion for liberation oozed from his communication.

Nkomo spoke as if he was performing an incantation and his words, like those of the prophets, were frozen into aphorisms and quotable quotes. There are so many political wise words that we circulate today that are part of the furniture of Nkomo’s mind. The sort of vision and democratic values Zimbabweans wax lyrically about are the sort of things Nkomo spoke frequently about in the 1980s. 

In the narrative of the story of his life Nkomo tells us that: “From my earliest youth I thirsted for freedom. When I became a man, I understood that I could not be free, while my country and its people were subject to a government in which they had no say.”

This statement is thebaptismal standpoint of a philosopher of liberation who hungered for the freedom of others first and his own next. Nobody, I observe, can deny the sacrifices that Nkomo made for the liberation of Zimbabwe. Not even those he was sworn enemies with.

Or can anyone deny that if Nkomo prevailed to lead Zimbabwe after Independence we would not have suffered the damaging ethnocentrism and ethnicisation of politics and the state, as well as the industrial-scale corruption and looting as we witness today.

While as writers we are not fortune-tellers as Julius Malema recently reminded BBC HARDtalk presenter Stephen Suckur, under Nkomo, and the values he represented, Zimbabwe would not have been a paradise, but it would not have been the hell that it now is either.

This is not a romanticisation of Nkomo, but an attempt to bring to life what he stood for and represented. While power corrupts, Nkomo, judging by his ideas and dreams that he repeatedly articulated in public, would have been more amenable to engagement, persuasion and restraint to accept alternative paradigms and development models than his rigid frenemy Robert Mugabe.

With the pragmatic ideas and vision that he had, Nkomo would have put Zimbabwe on a better nation-building process and economic growth trajectory.

Although he was at the helm of Zapu for decades, with some saying he was effectively president for life, Nkomo and his party were not rooted in a one-party state political model and violent authoritarianism. They did not have a state to run, but their approach and methods were not entrenched in brutal despotism.

Nkomo worried about how he was seen by Zimbabweans and how his role was appreciated. He asks the question: “I have been called ‘Father Zimbabwe’. Whether I deserve that title is not for me to say. But by a dozen years in prison and half as many in exile, I believe I have earned the right to speak for freedom while it is still endangered.” 

When Nkomo wrote this, his freedom and that of Zimbabwewas now endangered not by native colonialists, he says, but his “former colleagues in the liberation struggle”.

I have noted it before that the title of Father Zimbabwe is the product of cruel political mockery on Nkomo by his political enemies. While Nkomo held onto the ceremonial title, his “former colleagues” got busy politically mobilising on ethnic grounds and ensured he became Father Matabeleland, not a national leader.

It is documented Mugabe in 1980 said that “Nkomo should campaign in his own country (Matabeleland) because he was “not wanted” in “my country”, Mashonaland; meaning Mugabe would also do the same – campaign in his own country (Mashonaland) and leave Matabeleland alone– where he was not wanted.

This characterisation of the 1980 general elections explains how the campaigns and voting patterns unfolded. That was repeated in the 1985 elections, and with different nuances in future polls.

Politicisation and weaponisation of ethnicity against his leadership hit Nkomo in the face in a much more humiliating manner one day at an Organisation of African Unity (OAU) conference.

In May 1963, the OAU offered Zapu a platform to make a Press statement before international journalists so that their message could reach the world. As publicity secretary, Mugabe was responsible for drafting the statement that Nkomo was to read before the conference and hard copies were circulated to diplomats and some African heads of state.

When the Press event started “neither Mugabe nor the copies of the statement were available”, and there was Nkomo alone and humiliated. He had to improvise an impromptu statement. That was at the height of the breakaway Zanu formation plot.

Later the same day Joseph Msika, a Nkomo loyalist, snatched a suspicious document from Washington Malianga, brother to Morton. The document turned out to be a tribal political manifesto which stated in no uncertain terms that leadership of the party should be taken from “Zimundevere” and given to “majority tribes”.

The template of Zanu’s formation, which was already in motion, had been crafted.

Nkomo later came to know that Leopold Takawira and Mugabe led the tribal mobilisation against him that ended with the split of the party in the same year. So, the title of Father Zimbabwe is a political jacket that Nkomo was given to wear for symbolic reasons, while his enemies got into business reducing and isolating him to a regional leader, and they succeeded.

Nkomo was busy building an imaginary inclusive utopian nation, while his enemies were busy building a party, an ethnic nation and ethnocracy in their own image. That way elections in Zimbabwe were to be reduced to an ethnic census, and Nkomo had no chance.

Nkomo’s enemies had become native colonialists. While setter colonialists used racism to discriminate, Zanu PF used tribalism, and still does. The evidence to this is public knowledge. It is there for all to see.

What came to light before Nkomo and dawned on him in Addis Ababa was ethnonationalism and a political grand plan that has divided Zimbabwe almost beyond repair.

One gets shocked when President Emmerson Mnangagwa frequently rides on a political and moral high horse to accuse and threaten people he says want to divide the country – centrifugal forces in Matabeleland – when his party has already divided the country before it was even born.

Zanu PF has divided Zimbabwe on political and ethnic grounds more than any other individuals or groups combined. This is not hard to see primarily because the reality and evidence to that are to be found in lived experiences and political praxis.

The Gukurahundi genocide was merely the explosive, dangerous and bloody manifestation of Zanu PF’s ethnic nationalism. While Nkomo had many weaknesses, it is a fair assessment to say that he became a victim of Zimbabwe’s identity politics and Mugabe’s Machiavellianism.

It is a tragedy that the ethnonationalism that Zanu PF generated, deployed and used to divide the country is almost always blamed on victims, not perpetrators.

That is why counter-hegemony narratives like these are crucial.

Even after the Zapu split of 1963 and his realisation that there was ethnic mobilisation that extended beyond political parties to the country, Nkomo continued to trust his “colleagues,” and to entertain the dream of being Father Zimbabwe. 

What Nkomo tells us himself is: “In all my dealings with people I have acted trustingly and have found out too late when I have been betrayed. My comfort has been to trust in and to be trusted by the masses.”

Indeed, Nkomo trusted more than he should have, especially looking at the political sorcerers that surrounded him. Trusting in the masses and being trusted by them is not enough if the leader does not protect the people from power-hungry opportunists and dictators they later become.

Because he was idealistic to a point of naivety, Nkomo imagined that those around him were principled and loyal, including those who were ethnocentric in broad daylight as he saw at the 1963 OAU meeting in Addis Ababa.

One of the most quoted political and philosophical aphorisms of Nkomo is that: “The hardest lesson of my life came to me late. It is that a nation can win freedom without its people becoming free.”

This says a lot about him than about those opportunists whose pursuit was largely power and replacing settler colonialists. Nkomo made this aphorism in 1984, but as early as 1963 he had already witnessed that his colleagues were ethnonationalists. He however pretended that was not an issue.

The 1963 split in Zapu that gave birth to Zanu in those circumstances remains one critical juncture that indicated how ethnicity and tribalism were deeply embedded within nationalism and Zimbabwean politics.

Numerous events within both Zapu and Zanu also undeniably and clearly showed that.

However hard those who were involved in this split deny the motivation of tribalism as a factor behind the split, the subsequent events spoke loudly about the role of ethnicity in spoiling the birth of a nation. Of course, we cannot forget the role of the Rhodesians in the split, as Ken Flower later revealed.

The subsequent Zanu PF ethnocracy, which has its own internal dynamics as shown by the Mugabe and now the Mnangagwa reigns, did not only prove that, but sealed the fate of a young nation which had so much promise, yet ending up as an empty shell and a travesty of what could have been.

The subsequent post-split Zapu-Zanu factional fights in Harare, Gweru, Bulawayo, for instance, and other sites of political contestation took clear tribal and ethnic dimensions.

Nkomo tried to remain above the fray, but he was entangled in the mess.

Later splits, including the one that resulted in the formation of the Front for the Liberation of Zimbabwe (Frolizi) and others, also indicated how ethnicity was wreaking havoc within nationalist politics.

The late Professor Masipula Sithole explains this, using internal dynamics in Zanu during the liberation struggle as reference point, very well in his book Struggles Within a Struggle.

Evidence of destructive ethnicity within, between and among parties in Zimbabwe during the struggle and even now is overwhelming.

The slaughter of unarmed Zipra cadres in Morogoro and Mgagao, Tanzania, was another tragedy which should have awakened Nkomo to the lesson that he was only going to learn too late when a genocide of his supporters broke out. 

In the middle of all these experiences and lessons, the idealism in Nkomo trumped realism, costing him his dream for power to rule the country, and build it the way he had envisaged.

Nkomo saw all the signs of genocide coming from a distance, including during the first Gukurahundi killings as the campaign was called in Tanzanian military camps in the 1970s, decades earlier than the post-independence massacres, but remained an idealist, a denialist even, blinded by his utopianism, which many now think was misguided.

He remained guided more by ideals of an inclusive, united, diverse and democratic Zimbabwe than by practical considerations of what was obtaining on the ground. Him and his ilk were idealists and visionaries in love with the work they had undertaken and were doing.

The reality that his colleagues in Zanu PF were not nation-builders, but native colonialists in black skins really took time to sink into Nkomo over many years.

At the graveside of Zipra commander Lookout Masuku in 1986, Nkomo asked a terse question and made a telling observation: “Why should men like Lookout and Dumiso (Dabengwa), after being found innocent of any wrongdoing by the highest court in this land remain detained? When we ask, we get the same answer from the minister as we used to get from the Smith regime.

That Zanu PF had become a parasitic native colonialist party is another lesson that Nkomo, because of his trust in the goodness and sincerity of others, learnt too late and to a tragic end.

That Zanu PF was planning an ethnocentric one-party state as a post-colonial model and a bloody campaign of coercion after Independence was clear throughout the liberation struggle. Mugabe resisted all sorts of cooperation processes, even under pressure from Zanla commander Josiah Magama Tongogara who together with Dabengwa had a patriotic front vision for independence.

Nkomo ignored all the signs, which his young lieutenants, including the likes of Churchill Mpiyesizwe Guduza, author of the Trials and Tribulations of a Zipra Soldier, saw and always complained about.

Clearer too was that for Zanu PF, Nkomo and Zapu had become more the enemy than the Rhodesian regime. The Gukurahundi genocide killed 10 times more people inside Zimbabwe than the liberation war itself, showing the intensity of rivalry and hate Mugabe had for Nkomo, his party and supporters.

That Nkomo meant well for Zimbabwe and that his leadership philosophy was a radical alternative to what Zimbabweans have witnessed cannot be doubted. At the same funeral event of Masuku, Nkomo briefly ventilated his idealism and profound leadership vision for Zimbabwe negating Zanu PF’s political culture of violence and murder:

No country can live by slogans, pasi (down with) this pasi that. When you are ruling you should never say pasi to anyone.”

As I write, Zimbabwe has become a shell of a country partly because of the hegemonic “pasi” political philosophy and practice. Many Zimbabweans do not know that “pasi” actually means, not just down with a political rival, but most terrifying that the opponent should be killed and buried six feet under.

Only recently in June, a Zanu PF member Abton ‘Bhito’ Mashayanyika, who recently called for the killing of Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) leader Nelson Chamisa, explained very well what the infamous “pasi” slogan means. Mashayanyika demanded implementation of the “pasi” philosophy in its most radical form and manifestation, baying for Chamisa and his children’s blood at a Zanu PF’s rally in Mberengwa North.

While CCC senior leader Job Sikhala and over a dozen colleagues asre languishing in jail for aggressively protesting the murder of their party activist Moreblessing Ali, Mashayanyika is walking in the streets. Even legal tigress Beatrice Mtetwa’s intervention to hold Mashayanyika to account through the law on behalf of Chamisa is likely to be frustrated.

Mashayanyika spoke like an average Zanu PF leader of the 1970s and 1980s – a Mugabelite. What Mashayanyika did in his dramatic, chilling and bloodthirsty performance was standard behaviour of Zanu PF leaders during Gukurahundi.

A perusal of warlike remarks by Enos Nkala, Nathan Shamuyarira, Sydney Sekeramayi, Frederick Shava, Mark Dube, Emmerson Mnangagwa and Mugabe, among others, still makes nerve-wracking reading.

Nkomo had to deal with that madness throughout his political career, but only learnt the pernicious ramifications and consequences of that when it was already too late for him and his allies to do anything meaningful. Had he been a realist, he would have interpreted and dealt with the situation differently.

If Nkomo’s philosophy had prevailed, there would not be so many mass graves, missing persons and wounded people in Zimbabwe. The “pasi” philosophy has become a pervasive political culture that even the opposition reproduces and rehearses in their own activities and fights.

Nkomo lacked the political gravitas and influence to entrench his leadership philosophy into the Zimbabwean political culture because he lost politically. He did not even have the political power to protect former Zipra cadres from killings by Zanu security agents after the war. 

The letter that Nkomo wrote to Mugabe from exile in the United Kingdom is a letter written in blood and tears:

Meanwhile, former Zipra Commanders were summoned by the Army Command, at your instruction, for questioning and investigation. This was done, it is said, by the military police and/or the CIO. Later, ordinary former Zipra men, irrespective of rank were also taken for investigation. Information has it that during these investigations there was a lot of beatings and torture of all types, that a number of these young people were killed, and others maimed. These actions were followed by desertions and defections from the National Army not only by former Zipra combatants, but also by former Zanla.”

Most Zimbabweans also do not know that most Zipra cadres that eventually became dissidents deserted from army barracks of the Zimbabwe National Army fleeing torture, abductions and killings from which Nkomo could not protect them.

In reality they were not dissidents, but army deserters. A dissident is someone who opposes official policy, especially that of an authoritarian state, but those were Zipra cadres who left not because they were opposed to Mugabe’s rule, but to save their lives.

So it is inappropriate to call them dissidents, yet that it what Mugabe’s regime chose to describe them as in order to consolidate and reinforce the narrative of a coup plot and revolt against his government, allegations dismissed in the courts in the Dabengwa et al treason trials.

Politically, Nkomo did not get the power to give life and force to his leadership and liberation philosophy.

Writing from exile, Nkomo had been reduced to a pathetic victim and moral preacher who cautioned Mugabe that “you do not teach young people to be contemptuous of human life and expect them to respect yours.”

Nkomo also warned that once it starts, political violence becomes a vicious cycle.

In that way Nkomo portended the 2017 coup in which Mugabe was hounded dethroned at gunpoint by the young turks that he had taught to disrespect human life. That culture of killings and assassinations was even used by Zanu PF during the Covid-19 era to eliminate rivals.

This all runs against the ideals and vision of the nation and society that Nkomo wanted to build in Zimbabwe – an inclusive, democratic, prosperous, diverse and multicultural state – not this Mugabe dystopia which Mnangagwa helped to build, and now presides over.

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