Black Political Awakening in Rhodesia

This entry is part 17 of 20 in the series History of the amaNdebele

In the short history of Zimbabwe ZAPU, or the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union, has tended to be regarded as a predominantly amaNdebele party, which latterly has certainly been the case, but at its founding it was a continuation of the determinedly multi-racial and multi-ethnic nationalist credo that defined the formation of the revived African National Congress. This was reflected in the leadership, with Nkomo representing the amaNdebele and his deputy James Chikerema representing the Mashona element. Lower down the strata this continued with a mix of ethnicity that helped to define the common enemy that confronted all black people of the colony.

Meanwhile the membership of the ANC ballooned within the first two years of its existence, with Nkomo responding immediately to his mandate by using his organisational skills to construct a political party with a wide and comprehensive base of membership. The success of this was remarkable, not all of which can be attributed to the abilities of the executive, but also in large measure to time and place. The accumulated frustration of the black population across the national spectrum made an immediate and enthusiastic response possible to any promise made for change. To this was added competent organisation on a national level which resulted in an immediate filling of the political vacuum, and the rapid emergence of an authentic national organisation.

Simple organisation strategies were applied. House-to-house and village-to-village canvassing was used to raise general awareness, as well as the politicisation of existing organisations and association such as churches, social clubs and burial societies, all of which helped rapidly to spread the word. The monopoly of leadership by the urban bourgeoisie elite was broken primarily by the proliferation of branches and sub-branches that were populated and led by rural and working urban adherents. This again spread the ideology more evenly, making the organisation more forcefully attractive to a wider spectrum of people, including at that time a membership of some 100 whites.

The backdrop against which all this was happening was a similarly intensive process of white political entrenchment. The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was formally established on August 1, 1953, with Sir Godfrey Huggins as first Federal Prime Minister.

Structural limitations in the final formula of federation in Central Africa, limitations which had largely been forced upon the local white political community by the British, amounted to a failure in the final analysis to address the original objectives and concerns that had underwritten the enterprise. Central African whites had sought nothing less than a full amalgamation of the three territories in the hope of achieving a complete and secure political co-existence. The wider purpose of this obviously had been to secure by dint of sheer size and weight of numbers the future of white government in the region. The Federation ultimately amounted to less than this, and was in fact a flawed compromise between the settler populations and the Imperial Government, the latter being extremely reluctant against a more general tide of global emancipation to effect or sanction a continuation of white rule. Britain did, however, retain a responsibility towards British/African settlers that in generations past had responded to the imperial call to populate the colonies, and so it was prepared, very reluctantly it must be said, to explore an agenda of ‘Partnership’ between blacks and white to underscore any wider union within the territory.

This concept of racial partnership was agreed to by the main constituent partner of the Federation, Southern Rhodesia, with arguably very little if any appetite for implementation. Both Godfrey Huggins and Roy Welensky espoused a clear vision of partnership that echoed, as Huggins specifically stated it, the partnership of a horse and its rider, with blacks obviously representing the horse. Welensky, in fact, went further, and stated for the record:

We believe the African should be given more say in the running of the country, as and when he shows his ability to contribute more to the general good, but we must make it clear that even when that day comes, in a hundred or two hundred years time, he can never hope to dominate the partnership. He can achieve equal standing but not go beyond it.[i]

Federation therefore quickly superseded the issues of the land Apportionment Act and the Land Husbandry Act as the focus of black grievance. Also the approach to the question of black grievance transitioned from a fight for fair treatment at the hands of whites to a thinly disguised, and often not disguised at all, call for an end to white minority rule altogether. Universal adult suffrage became the wider clarion call, articulated by Nkomo himself who stated from the onset: ‘What we are asking for immediately is a direct participation in the…government. And we ask…as people who know [that] their rights cannot indefinitely be withheld from them.[ii]

In the meanwhile, despite its weak constitution, a glimmer of hope had nonetheless been born at the heart of white politics with the birth of the Federation. The structure of the union was such that each individual territory maintained its existing constitutional structure, which in the case of Southern Rhodesia was that of a self governing colony under a Prime Minister, and in the case of the two northern territories a gubernatorial system under a direct line of governance to the Crown. Godfrey Huggins resigned as Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia and fought a successful ballot for the role of Federal Prime Minister. This left the position of Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia open, a position which was filled by a missionary originally from New Zealand by the name of Garfield Todd. In keeping with his vocation Todd was a liberal, which seemed at the time to signal a willingness on the part of the white Southern Rhodesian electorate to consider some measure of political reform, and upon this implicit fact many in the black political establishment nurtured hope.

The election of Garfield Todd to the position of Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia was a brief oddity in an otherwise unbroken progression of right wing and hard line Rhodesian prime ministers. Todd was a missionary, a humanist and a non-racist, and as a consequence he was the odd man out. With the best intentions the opportunity that he presented to reverse 63-years of increasingly polarized politics could not be utilized. He found himself stranded between the expectations of his white electorate and the hopes of his black constituency. He was forced to overcompensate for white perceptions of a dangerous liberalism within his government, ultimately which served to undermine any intention he might have had to soften the weight of black political disenfranchisement. The result of this was the unhappy term of a well intentioned but weak link in the chain of white political dominance. Todd served a single term and was ousted by the enigmatic, ostensibly hard-line British intellectual Edgar Whitehead.

In the meanwhile the fortunes of the Federation had begun to stumble. Godfrey Huggins retired as the longest serving British Prime minister in imperial history, handing the reigns of Federal power over to his long time ally Sir Roy Welensky. Welensky was a bombastic man of firm opinions and of the paternalist school of racial entente. His vision was black political growth under white tutelage to last at least into the next generation. He was, however, swimming against the tide, and against a backdrop of Ghanaian independence under the hugely popular Kwame Nkrumah, and clear cut comments from the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that Wind of Change were sweeping through Africa, he was seeming to be increasing a man out of time.

Of greater evidential value than this even was the independence from Belgium of the Congo, which within months was pitched into a mayhem of violence and bloodshed that boded extremely ill for the white dominions of the south. The murder campaign of the Mau Mau in Kenya added grist to the mill of many southern whites determined that black rule in the face of such obvious ruin must never befall their colonies. Even more disturbing where the activities of a belligerent Nyasa doctor by the name of Hastings Banda who was busy stirring up a ferment of nationalism in Nyasaland in a bid to wrench the protectorate free of the Federation and replace the Governor with himself as independent ruler. And worse still, evidence seemed overwhelming that the British Imperial Government was willing to accede.

As the smoke began to rise for the northeast corner of the Federation a buzz of excitement swept through the other two territories. Hastings Banda was arrested in a clampdown on political violence in Nyasaland and flown to Rhodesia where he was detained. When the British start arresting, the popular wisdom among curious nationalists followed, then independence was just around the corner.

There certainly was some logic in this. At that point in history the British Government had lost all appetite for the retention of trenchant foreign possessions. India was gone, the Gold Coast was gone, Kenya and Nigeria were going and Suez Crisis had been a last painful knee in the groin from a restive empire. The rest would be history, and if the blacks of the wider empire of British Africa felt that the time had come, for most of them it had. Independence was clearly just a matter of time for Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, and by extension, many supposed, Southern Rhodesia too.

However Southern Rhodesia quickly became the bolt-hole for beleaguered whites from across the Federation. The Zambezi River became the line in the sand, and as the Federation began to crumble this became the point beyond which the howling mobs of blood-soaked blacks would not be allowed to cross. If Joshua Nkomo and his peers hoped that the Winds of Change would blow a fresh breeze over Southern Rhodesia they were wrong. Garfield Todd was tossed into the dustbin of history and his successor declared a pre-emptive state of emergency in February 1959 as a consequence of wider disturbances in the Federation, and all the substantive leaders of the ANC were rounded up and detained, the party proscribed and black political activity within the colony effectively brought to a standstill.

At the time of the banning Joshua Nkomo was himself out of the country attending the All Africa Peoples Conference in Accra that took place at the end of 1958, and which featured members of free governments and delegates of independence movements from all over the world, but particularly Africa, and it was here that both Nkomo and Hastings Banda were welcomed into the club of African liberation leaders. From Accra Nkomo traveled north to Egypt to cement relations between he and the Egyptian Revolutionary Command Council of Gamal Nasser, energized by the success of his recent showdown with the British over the Suez Canal and inclined to assume a leadership role in the nascent revolutions forming across the colonial spectrum of Africa.

With the bridge drawn and his party neutered Nkomo opted briefly to remain in Cairo where the first external office of the ANC was opened. Apparently experiencing British interference with his Egyptian relations, and with some funding from the Egyptians, Nkomo soon moved his external office to London where he found it easier to move in liberal political circles. He quickly establishing a network of sympathetic contacts among whom where Baroness Joan Lestor, Labour MP Ian Mikardo, the Rev Michael Scott and Jane Simmonds of the Africa Bureau, Commander Fox-Pitt of the Anti-slavery Society, members of the Fabian Society, the Labour Party and many other organisations and individuals committed to the anti-colonial cause.

It is here that the story of Joshua Nkomo and the saga of the liberation struggle in Southern Rhodesia begins to enter murky water. Joshua Nkomo claims in his autobiography, and in many other forums besides, that his decision to relocate to London at that time was made against a natural desire to return to the trenches of bare knuckle politics in Rhodesia, and to join his colleagues languishing in restriction or detention. He states, however, that it was his firm belief that the work he was able to do, and the contacts he was able to forge, over the course of what would turn out to be a wide ranging global ambulation were of far greater value to the struggle than the heroic but largely fruitless incarceration of his fellow revolutionaries. This may have been so, in fact it was almost certainly so, but his absence from the main arena of the struggle at a time of its first bitter challenge was poorly interpreted by many, and in particular those that might have wished to compromise his leadership.

Meanwhile, and in an almost year long absence of any nation organisation, and without substantive leadership, a group of second tier nationalists headed by teacher Moton Malianga decided to pool their resources and fill the vacuum with a second national movement to be named the National Democratic Party. The NDP held its inaugural congress in November 1960. Joshua Nkomo was voted first president in absentia. It was decided that the principal aim of the organisation would now be to secure full inclusion in the constitutional conference that was mooted for 1961 to formalise the status of Southern Rhodesia against a backdrop of inevitable federal collapse.

The issue of race partnership had died a natural death, and beneath the surface of a rather lunatic Whitehead government a radical shift to the right was underway. This did not stop Edgar Whitehead careening towards an upcoming election on a platform of race parity, a campaign touted as the ‘Build a Nation’, in which Whitehead sought the support and vote of the black middle class by offering such paltry reforms as opening previously whites only swimming pools to all races. This prompted Nkomo to remark that he had no interest in swimming with whites in a swimming pool, but on equal terms in parliament.[iii]

In the meanwhile the NDP stepped more or less into the shoes of the ANC, inheriting its membership and organisational structures, but aligning its ideology on more radical lines. Political violence, which had hitherto been an unconstituted political tool, now became the main weapon in the arsenal of black political expression and enforcement. The first significant act of political unrest was what began as the March of the 7000, an ostensibly peaceful and spontaneous demonstration that began in Salisbury to protest the continued detention of the nationalist leaders in the aftermath of the February 1959 State of Emergency. This ballooned into a 40 000 strong gathering that prompted Whitehead to place the military on standby and mobilise the police for a massive crowd control exercise that eventually erupted into violence. Unable thanks to comprehensive security to get to grips with the source of their frustration, violence was inwardly directed and resulted mainly in substantial damage to the townships themselves.

Meanwhile the event introduced as a speaker and thereafter an influential party functionary a 36 year old school teacher by the name of Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Mugabe had prior to this avoided any involvement in nationalist politics, preferring instead to pursue his career in education as an expatriate in Ghana. However a demand for effective leadership combined with the momentum of events steered Mugabe towards the first NDP congress where he was elected to the party executive as Publicity Secretary. The naming, meanwhile, of Nkomo as president pressured the exiled leader to return to Rhodesia to actively assume the leadership, which the negative version of Nkomo’s myth suggests that he was unwilling to do, preferring the safe, comfortable and socially rewarding role of international statesman.

Nkomo did, however, return to Rhodesia, a great deal wiser for his international experience and some 25 pounds heavier. Here he was greeted with enthusiasm by some, but with less enthusiasm by others, who, according to which version is accepted, had begun to question his leadership capacity and commitment to the struggle, or had begun to harbour ambitions of their own for the leadership of the liberation movement. Among these was Leopold Takawira, Chairman of the Salisbury branch of the NDP and executive member who would replace Nkomo as London representative. Another was arguably Robert Mugabe himself, and another was founding nationalist, intellectual and author Ndabaningi Sithole, Treasurer of the NDP.

1960 also saw the introduction of one of the first major articles of security legislation that represented the first sign of a government responding to what was by then a sustained surge of popular political expression, characterised, predictably it was observed in official circles, by extreme levels of violence. At the vanguard of the violence were party youth made up largely of the urban unemployed and other susceptible groups seconded as the visible front of party enforcement. The Law and Order (Maintenance) Act introduced sweeping powers of arrest and detention largely as a means of curbing black on black violence which at that point still had very little direct impact on the local white population. Sections of the act attracted significant criticism from both sides, with Federal Chief Justice Sir Robert Tredgold resigning as a consequence of opposition to the Act.

Meanwhile the defining moment of Joshua Nkomo’s early career was approaching. The constitutional conference to define the post Federation status of Southern Rhodesia was approaching, and Nkomo, along with Ndabaningi Sithole and executive member and legal advisor, the brilliant barrister Herbert Chitepo, where chosen by the party to make representations in what was seen as the moment of truth by many.

Why this was so lay in the fact that white belief, built on many layers of expectation, had for long been that, if, upon the dissolution of the Federation, the political independence of each member territory had been implicit in its founding constitution, then this principal ought to apply equally to Southern Rhodesia as it seemed inevitable that it would to Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The difference was, of course, that the two northern territories were to achieve independence under black government while Southern Rhodesia applied the same principal to its expectation of independence under white government. This placed an Imperial Government desperate to resolve this last great conundrum of empire in a dilemma. Certainly there were many in the British establishment willing to allow this, but there were a great many more in various international forums, and among the growing club of independent nations worldwide, that rejected wholesale the notion of some anachronistic accommodation to a comparatively small population of white colonists. Principal among those in objection, of course, where the blacks of the colony itself, and with leaping advances in political organisation, and with the tide of global political convention on their side, the British Crown, with the best will in the world towards its subjects, had little choice but to give serious consideration to black opinion.

The British chose as conference chairman the brilliant, mercurial, and in Joshua Nkomo’s view untrustworthy Commonwealth Relations Secretary Duncan Sandys. To the whites Sandys conceded a great deal, and to Sandys Nkomo conceded, or according to him was tricked into conceding a great deal. It was recognised in London that the ideal solution of an immediate handover of the territory to majority black rule as was proposed for the two northern protectorates was not practical, and it was recognised by the Whitehead government that an immediate handover to minority white rule was impractical, so an unequal compromised was agreed that involved the elimination of most, although not all of the reserved clauses that had since the end of the Jameson era given the imperial government general oversight, and in particular over unequal legislation, in exchange for which a number of safeguards and an extension of the franchise was agreed to by Whitehead. In essence de facto independence was offered to the whites under distant imperial tutelage in return for the promise to play fair with the blacks.

Most chronicles of the affair, except Nkomo’s own, report Nkomo and his negotiating team as accepting this, although in fairness to Nkomo his acceptance was not absolute. His words on the matter where that he was prepared to ‘give the new constitution a chance’, and after a rather ineffective walk out and a muted return the NDP closing statement on the negotiations stated:

We could not be party to the franchise as it stands. This leaves us with the issue of franchise still as the greatest field of political operation. It is a subject for political pressure. But although we did not approve of the franchise, the attitude we adopted was not to impede or encourage the introduction of these proposals. The onus is on the UFP [United Federal Party] to prove the truth of its intentions in the implementation of these proposals.[iv]

 Nkomo did however attach his signature to the draft document, and was immediately railed upon and scalded by criticism from his fellow executive members, an attack led principally by Leopold Takawira from London. In his autobiography Nkomo reports this as being part of Takawira’s bid for the leadership of the party magnified by the innate bitterness of his character. Reeling under a concentrated barrage Nkomo’s initial response was to try and defend his actions, but recognising the weight of opposition he conceded. From London it was Takawira that lead the charge, but within the country it was Mugabe who had most to say. Nkomo endured the sustained rebuke because he had no choice, but a drop of bad blood was shed between the two that would never entirely be washed clean.

Meanwhile Nkomo’s decision was reversed at an emergency meeting of the NDP, and although he flew to London to attempt to pour oil on troubled waters, the ramifications of the incident widened thanks to the inescapable fact that he had signed. It remained for the draft constitution to be put to a referendum, a process that the NDP initially agreed to participate in, but only upon the release of all the nationalist leader remaining in detention following the February 1959 crackdown. When this condition was refused a boycott was announced.

The referendum was held in July 1961, conducted largely among whites, alongside a parallel and informal referendum held by the NDP with a heavily intimidated black vote of 471 for and 370 000 against. The 1961 draft constitution was officially endorsed and soon afterwards was adopted. That same month Nkomo visited London and was disappointed to be told by an under-secretary in the Commonwealth Office that it was the advice of Her Majesty that the nationalists make the best of the new constitution. It was candidly explained that the Rhodesian economy was second only to South Africa on the continent, and that with a weight of British investment, and with a highly sophisticated infrastructure, the British Government would be unlikely to make over a blank cheque to Rhodesia to anyone or any organisation without a proven track record. To this Nkomo returned to Rhodesia grumbling that if that if economic development in Southern Rhodesia was an obstacle to black rule then it was incumbent on blacks to destroy that development.[v]

True to his word an accelerated pace of black political violence was immediately recorded in Rhodesia. This was what Mugabe termed Positive Action, and was an attempt in part to make the country ungovernable. Primarily, however, violence was once again inwardly directed with the NDP Youth Wing directed on the local population in an orgy of arson, intimidation and assault. Fearsome examples were made of black collaborators and quislings. These were identified as United Federal Party black members, black members of the police or armed services, and even chiefs.

Meanwhile on 9 December, 1961, the NDP was proscribed by the government under the Unlawful Organisations Act and its assets and funds seized. This time preparations had been made in advance, and ZAPU, or the Zimbabwe African People Union, stepped adroitly into the shoes of the NDP without a noticeable break in the stride of the ongoing political violence that was traumatising the country. Joshua Nkomo was again elected President of the new party which for a short time existed legally before in September 1962 it too was banned. The leadership was rounded up and detained, although once again, and again to the detriment of his reputation, Nkomo happened to be out of the country. According to his own explanation Nkomo was out of the country sourcing arms and support for an armed struggle, which was partially true, but the ZAPU leader then displayed an unseemly reluctance to return to Rhodesia to face the consequences of arrest and restriction. It was only on the intervention of Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, and further persuasion from Nadabaningi Sithole, that Nkomo agreed to return to Rhodesia, upon which he was arrested and duly restricted to the Sobukwe Reserve situated south of the Matopos.

There is no doubt that this aspect of the struggle did not appeal to Joshua Nkomo’s taste in the slightest. It would be wrong to suggestion that this comfort loving man lacked genuine commitment to the struggle, but he was nonetheless congenitally unsuited to the rigors of detention or any aspect of his political circumstances that demanded asceticism and deprivation. The fact that as a revolutionary this was almost expected of him was a glumly recognised fact that he paid lip service to but would rather have avoided if at all possible. Whether for this reason, or for reasons of genuine belief, Nkomo began to ruminate upon and articulate his belief that a nationalist government in exile would be a far more effective revolutionary vehicle than a gifted elite silenced in prison for the duration of white resistance to the inevitable, the end of which may not come in their lifetime. This was an unpopular suggestion, and one that Nkomo was forced to reinforce with a lie that might, had matters worked in his favour, have succeeded, but unfortunately which did not.

There existed at that time a growing club on Africa leaders confronting the remains of colonialism with their combined economic and moral influence. These included in order of influence Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Hastings Banda of Malawi and Seretse Khama of Botswana, and of course would later include the redoubtable Samora Machel of Mozambique. These men were the moral leaders of the southern African liberation movement, and from the platform of newly independent states they were in a position to provide vital economic and logistical support to any movement, support that was at that point necessary if any hoped to succeed.

There was not much in the way of personal chemistry between Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Joshua Nkomo, but nonetheless Nkomo decided that Tanzania would be the most logical seat of a government in exile. According to all authoritative accounts of the incident, except Nkomo’s own, upon his and the release of his colleagues from restriction, Nkomo let it be known that Julius Nyerere had issued an explicit invitation to he and his executive to relocate to Dar es Salaam where every assistance would be given to the party to commence a government in exile. With this kind of compulsion it was difficult for the opposition in the executive to this suggestion, led from the rear by Robert Mugabe, but articulated explicitly by Takawira and Sithole, to refuse, and plans were duly made for each to travel north to Dar es Salaam.

Bearing in mind the conditions under which each man existed in Rhodesia, and the difficulties and expense of travel, the arrival of the executive in Dar es Salaam was achieved with no small amount of risk or expense. It therefore came as a profound shock to each to discover on arrival that Julius Nyerere had made no such invitation, and moreover wholly rejected the notion of the entire party leadership abandoning the struggle to languish in Dar es Salaam in the hope of achieving liberation through diplomacy. Nkomo was exposed, and although in his autobiography his explanation is vague and coloured mainly by his personal and reciprocated dislike of Nyerere, other accounts tend to offer the worst possible interpretation of his motives, and certainly the incident could not be adequately explained or overcome. Nkomo suffered the deep humiliation of public censure at the hands of his own party executive, and had no choice but to leave Tanzania ahead of a gale of invective and reactivate the struggle in Rhodesia within a temporary party structure.

A split in the party was inevitable. In Tanzania the remaining executive members rallied around Ndabaningi Sithole in a rounding condemnation of Nkomo, while Nkomo fought back from Rhodesia by dismissing each from the party. He then formed a Peoples Caretaker Council to function as a proxy for the banned ZAPU, to which he was elected President for Life. The executive tricked black into Rhodesia hwre a breakaway party was formed under the leadership of Ndabaningi Sithole. On August 8 1963 the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) was given life at the home of amaNdebele nationalist Enos Nkala in the Highfield Township of Salisbury while Nkomo held fast to the structures of ZAPU.

It was at this point that an element of tribalism crept into the composition and verbiage of the struggle. The assessment of the Special Branch intelligence arm of the British South Africa Police was that ZANU had been formed by elitist Mashona intellectuals seeking primarily to distance themselves from the amaNdebele dominated ZAPU.[vi] Bearing in mind the principal figures – Ndabaningi Sithole, Leopold Takawira, Robert Mugabe and Herbert Chitepo – all men of Mashona origin, this could easily have been so. A notable exception was amaNdebele nationalist Enos Nkala who as singled out by Nkomo for disapprobation and removal from ZAPU, and who was then instrumental in the formation, and who would in later years remain an intractable and dangerous enemy of the ZAPU leader. ZAPU then began to take on the complexion of an amaNdebele party and ZANU a Mashona Party, and it was more or less thus that the black nation of Rhodesia marched towards the defining phase of the Liberation Struggle.



[i] Meredith, Martin, The Past Is Another Country: Rhodesia UDI to Zimbabwe, (Pan Books, London, 1980), p24

[ii] Sibanda, Eliakim M, The Zimbabwe African National Union 1961-87, (Africa World Press, Trenton NJ, 2005) p38

[iii] Sibanda, Eliakim M, The Zimbabwe African National Union 1961-87, (Africa World Press, Trenton NJ, 2005) p53

[iv] Zimbabwe: The Search For Common Ground, 1992, p85.

[v] Nkomo, Joshua. The Story of My Life, (Methuen, London, 1984) p98

[vi] Ellert, Henrik. The Rhodesian Front War, (Mambo Press, Gweru, 1993) p3

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