The Emergence of the Zimbabwe Liberation Struggle

This entry is part 18 of 20 in the series History of the amaNdebele

The immediate consequence of the split in the nationalist movement was violence on a level hitherto unseen. This was a fight to the death, an equalisation and an unequivocal exposure of the deep ethnic and personal fissures that had lain unseen beneath the surface as the cordial first phase of the struggle came to an end. One of the most beautiful understatements ever written about the Zimbabwe Liberation Struggle came from the pen of ZAPU historian Eliakim Sibanda when he wrote: ‘Zimbabweans have a long history of bitter and sometimes violent disagreements based on mostly non-ideological, ethnic, and very often personal differences among the members of various liberation parties’.[i] This was certainly true, and the white law enforcement and political establishment, and lay analysts in every bar, club and parlour countrywide could make neither head nor tail of the inability of the blacks to disengage themselves from their own deadly conflict in order to focus effectively on the common enemy.

This was a fact of life, however, and the early years of the 1960s in Rhodesia where characterised by shocking levels of black-on-black violence that had about it all the signature features of African independence that whites feared so acutely. This bitter phase of the Liberation Struggle was chronicled ruefully by Drum Magazine, a lively and largely black circulation news periodical that spoke often very candidly about working and middle class black dismay at the ongoing horror that surrounded them.

This is a civil war of sticks and stones and sneers. Old friends and neighbours are divided – and sometimes even families. Salisbury, with its big and tribally cosmopolitan population is worst hit – this is a city divided. ZANU men shout at Nkomo’s followers: ‘Nyongolists!’ (fishing worms). PCC [Peoples Caretaker Council] roar back: Chidamanbakura!’ (lizards). The sticks crack down and the bricks arch lazily through the air. The police move in and cart away the injured. No one wins and the government is left with the rare excuse to clamp down on nationalism.[ii]

 So it was. The war was driven by militant youth who are ever to be found at the vanguard of political division. The PCC youth called themselves the Zhanda, a corruption of the word gendarmes, while the ZANU youth called themselves the Zimbabwe 1st Battalion. Drum Magazine was apt to call them both the ‘highly irregulars’.

Force was deployed by the state against this only by use of the police, with the military placed on alert but never deployed. The police were hard pressed to contain the violence which at times threatened to engulf the whole country, periodically erupting in bouts of stoning, petrol bombing and mob violence in the townships of all the major centres. Again most of the attacks and mass mobilisations were internecine, with extreme coercion being the main tool of motivation in one side seeking membership advantage over the other, and generally subjecting the black population of the colony to the stark choice of support the revolution or suffer the consequences. ZAPU was by far the most active at this time, with members touring the country, holding  political rallies by day and covert and violent enforcement by night. These activities were closely monitored by the state intelligence agents then operating within the early formation of what would later become the pervasive Special Branch.

 This period was known in nationalist circles as the days of Zhii, a chiShona term implying devastating destruction.[iii] This describes very well the face of such irregular violence perpetrated largely by youth brigades acting on random impulse and expressing the usual lawlessness of rowdy elements given licence to act without restraint in an environment of poverty, unemployment and urban social decay. It was harnessed and directed initially only very loosely by the parties in order to generate commitment to the new phase of the struggle on the part of any that might lack commitment, and then later to advance the individual agendas of leaders and leadership cliques battling for control of the overall battlefield. Very little of this violence was directed at the whites, and certainly very little of it was ideologically driven or directed towards anything other than internal political ends.

The decision to use violence had not been made, but had instead been implicit in the final understanding reached in the late 1950s that passive measures had achieved nothing. If time had run out on passive resistance and in efforts to work within the constitution, then clearly no alternative to violence existed. While violence in the early stages was largely amorphous, within it nonetheless was latent the seeds of war. As the revolution rapidly evolved through its formatives stages – from the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress, through the African National Youth League, the New ANC and the National Democratic Party its trajectory was leading irreversibly towards the two revolutionary parties of ZAPU and ZANU. Within each of these, with their use of the name Zimbabwe, was contained an implicit threat of overthrow. It was understood that, somehow, Rhodesia, and everything that it stood for, was to be replaced by violent means with Zimbabwe.

From the slough of youth militias and leaders where drawn the first recruits for formal guerrilla training. These were sent primarily, and in small numbers, to China and Russia, but other sympathetic countries such as  Algeria, Cuba, Bulgaria and North Korea, through which Nkomo had toured extensively during his lengthy overseas travels, also offered training facilities for selected members of ZAPU. One of the first to travel abroad for military training in 1963 was a 24 year old youth by the name of Dumiso Dabengwa who would survive to play a defining role in the Liberation Struggle to follow. The training for these initial pioneers was comprehensive and tended to dwell on more theoretical aspects of guerrilla war, with an emphasis on political orientation, and with those entering intelligence training exhaustive instruction in ciphers and codes, radio trading, interrogation methods surveillance and counter-surveillance. Many of these men would form the backbone of the future military leadership of the organisation, and would apply their training mainly in the preliminary organisation of the struggle.

Meanwhile there was necessary rite of passage to follow as many bold but inept actions played out in the opening phases. Zambia was increasingly becoming the preferred base of a semi-organised response to the need for a more controlled approach to the violence. Black Rhodesian youth were urged through radio broadcasts assisted by the Zambian Government to form into Zhanda groups in order to attack white owned farms and government property. In response to this a flush of Zhanda units sprang up during 1965/6. The 1964 killing of a white estate worker in Melsetter area by a group calling itself the Crocodile Commando was reputed to be the earliest overtly political act of the protected war that would follow. The crime was perpetrated by a handful of committed but inept militants, the majority of whom were quickly rounded up by Rhodesian authorities. Other hazily defined missions of sabotage and terror more often than not had a disorganised hit and run character involving mostly the use of the Zhanda weapon of choice, the petrol bomb, against soft targets identified as blacks working with or too closely with the government. Although early Special Branch assessments of the unfolding situation suggested the existence and use of foreign sabotage schools, most of the Zhanda were either very sparsely trained or not trained at all, leading to a general ineptitude.

Underlining these early efforts was a hope harboured by many, and illustrated by the ease with which colonial rule had folded when subjected to popular unrest in Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, that a similarly quick collapse of white resolve would occur in Rhodesia. Intially the Zhanda campaign was very effective inasmuch as it certainly did spread alarm and despondency among whites, and at the same time mobilised large numbers of people into direct support of the struggle. Had it been supported by large scale and more organised guerrilla insurgency it might have registered a radically destabilising effect, but in fact the Rhodesian security and intelligence services proved themselves to be devastatingly competent in identifying and neutralising almost every incursion and killing or arresting black militants and the inept Zhanda units with clinical efficiency.

The amateurishness and abject failure of most if not all of these early operations served as a salutary lesson for both sides. For the nationalists it proved that a much more concerted effort would need to be mounted to have any effect on the Rhodesian regime at all, and for the Rhodesian security services it allowed for their methodology was honed and refined in an environment where the aims of the struggle were poorly understood by the masses and intelligence relatively easy to gather. Intelligence methods were simple. Black policemen formed the vanguard, infiltrating rural areas, attending local beer drinks to gather information, cultivating informers and identifying anyone suspected of involvement with Zhanda groups. Interrogations were conducted with occasional, and sometimes frequent use of physical influence that, although not official condoned, where acknowledged as necessary under trying circumstances.[iv] Most indictees were charged with common law crimes of arson, malicious injury to property, assault and murder.

The acquisition of arms was also extremely amateurish in its early phases. One of the first recorded incidences was that of Nkomo himself being given a gift by the Egyptians of a collection of British World War II vintage Lanchester  submachine guns, ammunition and hand grenades which he carried with him as hand luggage aboard a scheduled Air France flight. These, according to historian Terence Ranger, where then smuggled into the country via Victoria Falls at a time of very lax security. The courier was a certain Abraham  Nkiwane who stored them temporarily at his fathers farm near Lupane in Matabeleland before they were unearthed in September 1962 by an astonished black constable manning a roadblock just outside Zvishavane in Fort Victoria Province.[v] Bobylock Manyonga, the driver of the vehicle, was arrested. Joseph Msika, and early ZAPU loyalist, succeeded in smuggling a later shipment of these weapons into the country, making his the first consignment to find their way into active service, and setting a trend whereby a rite of passage for many young guerrillas would be the highly risky undertaking of smuggling guns and other ordinance into the country.[vi]

By the end of 1963 early optimism that a quick resolution to the question of majority was fading as the comparatively moderate government of Edgar Whitehead fell to the right wing Rhodesia Front party formed by ex-Federal Chief Whip Ian Smith who had gathering around him a corps of men concerned at the apparent march to majority rule defined by Whitehead’s leadership, and efforts on the part of the British Government to renege on undertakings given that independence would be given to each territory of the Federation upon its dissolution. The Rhodesian Front chose to adopt a very narrow interpretation of British action, undertakings and intent and demanded an immediate granting of independence under minority government behind an implicit threat of a unilateral declaration. This set the stage for what would be a 17 year standoff between the Rhodesia Front government under Ian Smith and successive British Governments that would form a backdrop to bitter war of independence waged by blacks against the Rhodesian government. It became clear as Ian Smith engaged in a series of unyielding diplomatic skirmishes with the British that white Rhodesia had no intention of capitulating in the face of a limited front of black reaction, and more importantly that the British had no intention of exerting any immediate and direct pressure.

War on a wider front then became inevitable. Limited action and catastrophic failure might have achieved a satisfying publican relations result among supporters of the nationalists, but it stood no chance of ruffling, let alone dislodging a regionally powerful, expertly trained and highly motivated Rhodesian Army, supported as it was by a police force in the great British tradition and an intelligence community that had so far doused every major guerrilla action with depressing ease. By 1964 the Smith government had acted to proscribe both major nationalist movements and all the main nationalist leaders, including Nkomo, Mugabe, Sithole and Takawira were restricted or detained, a status most would endure on an off for a decade. It was then that the notion of a government in exile was finally accepted, and those members of the executive of both ZAPU and ZANU accepted asylum in Zambia where ZAPU came under the leadership of Nkomo’s deputy James Chikerema and ZANU under the gifted barrister Herbert Chitepo. Through a complex communication network of couriers and agents contact was maintained between the exiled and detained members. The restrictions and banning did nothing to curtail the violence underway, and eventually, on November 6 1965, a state of emergency was declared that remained more or less in effect well into the independence period.

     Meanwhile James Chikerema had assumed responsibility a year earlier for the formation of a department within the party known as Special Affairs. This was in effect a nascent war council charged with the responsibility of laying the foundations of an armed wing of the party. Thus the formal induction of manpower for training begun, and seeds of war sown. With the return of the first wave of formally trained cadres the business of planning formal military operations began. An Armed Wing within ZAPU was instituted with a small command structure consisting of a commander overseeing heads of operations, personnel, intelligence, reconnaissance and logistics.[vii] The military plan such as it was, was pared down to the manageable process of infiltrating small groups of trained cadres into the country with the objective of recruitment and low level economic sabotage.

The signal for a acceleration of the war came on November 11 1965 with the illegal declaration on independence, or UDI. This was perpetrated on the deeply symbolic Armistice Day in order to draw British attention to the ties of kinship that bound white Rhodesia and her parent nation, of the contribution made in two world wars to the defence of the homeland, and to the desire of British Rhodesia to look beyond post-war Labour ineptitude and back in time to a period when Britain was great and the values of empire prevailed. On the whole this failed, with any official Rhodesian delegation being banned representation at the formal ceremony, and the establishment following the government in a rueful but nonetheless emphatic rejection of any attempt by white Rhodesia to prolong an anachronistic and irrelevant rebellion. Sanctions were imposed, sides drawn, and although Britain did not come out with any active military solution in favour of the oppressed, it also seemed unlikely that it would defend its rebellious colony against a war waged by its own majority.

One of the first identifiable guerrilla actions perpetrated by a ZAPU guerrilla unit was an attack in September 1964 on the homestead of Dube Ranch in the Kezi farming district some 40 miles south of Bulawayo. The attack was brief and ineffectual and was abandoned quickly with the combatants leaving most of their weaponry at the scene and fleeing west across the border into Botswana where they were soon arrested and handed back to Rhodesian authorities.[viii]

ZANU was at this time more militarily active, conducting a number of early incursions, with a similarly spectacular lack of success, that culminated in the defining episode known thereafter as the Battle of Chinhoyi. This was in fact the climax of a relatively large ZANU incursion of 24 well armed and trained guerrillas who had infiltrated the country from Zambia with order to undertake a number of missions. The group were more or less from the onset under Special Branch observation with most being detained soon after their deployment. An incident did occur at the Nevada Ranch of Mashonaland farmer Johannes Viljoen which on 18 May 1966 resulted in the death of he and his wife. The bulk of the force were however eventually run to ground and in a helicopter assisted police action were accounted for relatively easily. This action, although of very limited military significance was seized upon and apotheosised by ZANU as the first blood of the shooting war. The day, 29 April 1966 was later commemorated as Chimurenga Day, and used as proof by ZANU that it had been it that commenced what it later called the Second Chimurenga, the first Chimurenga being the Mashona Rebellion of 1896.

Through 1965, meanwhile, low key ZAPU incursions continued to little effect, with most groups breaking up and quietly reintegrating into society. Ten Moscow trained intelligence offers were deployed to fortify the mettle of inactive groups and generally coordinate and liase in the planning and supply of ZAPU’s military presence in the country. These were very quickly accounted for by Rhodesian security services.  1966 saw a more concentrated series of ZAPU armed incursions across the Zambezi River at various points along its length, most with reasonably comprehensive Soviet and Algerian training, and generally charged with orders to disperse into particular tribal reserve areas to establish bases in order to identify and train recruits. Most of these were accounted for relatively quickly by the Rhodesian Security Forces with only a small group of eight men remaining at large until November 1966 when they were detected in the Nkai/Lupane area which led to the discovery of a network of well camouflaged hideouts and arms caches. It was discovered that a certain amount of integrated had taken place within the local community and that a high level of cohesion, training and ésprit de corps characterised this group. Twenty three locally trained recruits were identified in mopping up operations.

Zimbabwean historian Terence Ranger relates an interesting example of early an early guerrilla incursion into the Shangani/Lupane reserves, or areas that were under the new Rhodesian government known as Tribal Trust Lands. Early in April 1966 a group of 8 ZAPU guerrillas crossed from Zambia into Matabeleland, and with great difficulty made their way overland in the direction of Papu, or the location of the last stand of the Shangani Patrol in 1893. They apparently struggled through the Wankie Game Reserve for 9 days without food before risking discovery by shooting a rhinoceros and subsisting off its liver. They however arrived safely, choosing the Papu district as their destination for reasons both practical and symbolic. Practically this was still an area of dense bush and scattered population, but it also held the symbolic significance of being the region of Lobengula’s death and where the last significant victory of the amaNdebele was recorded. It was also a region of mixed population, with amaNdebele immigrants living alongside originals of Tonga, Nyai and Lozwi stick, many of whom had become militant in the days of rocks and spears and could be relied upon to support the struggle.

Despite this the men were met with deep caution and suspicion. The guerrilla leader arrived armed with the name of a leading local contact man, but since none of the guerrillas were known in the region, a complex introduction took place, with the guerrillas first introducing themselves as police. Food was requested and payment promised while arms and ordinance was cached in the nearby forest. Even when the men revealed their ZAPU identity caution prevailed, and the local people denied any knowledge of Joshua Nkomo or ZAPU. When finally a cordial trust was established, and the aims and objectives of the guerrillas explained, training and organisation began.

It almost goes without saying that the Rhodesian Security Forces had been aware of the presence of the men in the region almost since their arrival in the country, and were tracking them towards their sanctuary in the Gusu Forest. In due course armed police details appeared in the area handing out photographs of the wanted men and promising rewards for information. Two of the guerrillas were captured and under torture revealed the location of the guerrilla hideout. The following day an attack was launched and the surviving guerrillas split up. Those mashona that spoke poor siNdebele were identified quickly, and under a blanket operation, combining the inducement of reward with the threat of detention and torture, the remainder where quickly accounted for…

On the Rhodesian side beatings and torture – sometimes fatal – became habitual ways of extracting information. The same was true for Nkayi, where the guerrillas went after leaving Papu.[ix]

Caught in the middle of mutual violence on the part of the police and the guerrillas, the incursion as seen to have achieved nothing. The level of violence increased in Lupane, with a massively increased state paramilitary presence and the peace of the region shattered comprehensively. All that could be said in its favour was that it had happened, a precedent had been set, and the people knew what to expect in the future. State violence in a quest for information and punishment was extreme. It perhaps succeeded serving a salutary lesson, but it won the government no friends in the region. However the nationalists were seen to be unable to meet state violence head on, and unable to protect the people. The net result was a setback for the revolution.

It now stood to reason that as trained cadré began to emerge from training abroad and return to Zambia for deployment that an accelerated pace of armed insurgence into the country would begin. By 1967 the potential existed for larger and more concentrated incursion, and it was at this time that a controversial alliance was forged between ZAPU and its sister armed movement, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or MK, which was the armed wing of the South African ANC. At some point in mid 1967 ZAPU was approached by the ANC with a proposal for joint operations. The rationale behind this for MK was to establish a conduit of infiltration for its trained members into South Africa, having established by then that military co-operation between South African and Botswana security services precluded any obvious entente that should by rights have existed between an independent state and a nationalist revolutionary organisation. Botswana had tended to remain in the shadows of the Frontline States, as had Malawi, leaving Zambia and Tanzania as the only active members of the bloc. Other factors also made western Rhodesia an ideal transit route. The inhabitants of the region predominantly spoke siNdebele which, thanks to its root similarity to Zulu, meant that MK cadré could communicate and be understood over most of the region.

Why this was a controversial alliance was because it appeared to make no sense to either the Pan African Congress of South Africa or ZANU, both of which warned against offering any excuse to South Africa to deploy forces into Rhodesia. ZAPU functionaries and historians have maintained that this was moot, and that South Africa had already deployed significant force into the country, which is a rather unabashedly political interpretation of the facts, confirmed by southern African military historian Peter Stiff who was a serving officer with the British South Africa Police at the time, and had no knowledge of any official South African armed deployment. Stiff suggests that there may very well have been liaison personnel in the country, and perhaps individuals in a private capacity, but that would have been the limit of South African involvement at that point.[x] One of the most authoritative proponents of an earlier involvement of South African manpower in Rhodesia is Dumiso Dabengwa, ex-ZAPU intelligence supremo and a voice not easily rejected.[xi] However ZAPU came under such relentless and universal criticism for this alliance that motive to manipulate the facts certainly do exist, particularly the cristisim levelled by members of the OAU and Frontline States that ZAPU had no business forging foreign alliances in the face of its inability to find common cause with ZANU.[xii]

Nonetheless the alliance, for better or worse, went ahead, and against this backdrop the first combined MK/ZAPU unit numbering just under 200 men crossed the Zambezi at the Gwaai Gorge situated between Victoria Falls and Kazangula. The presence of the group in the Wankie Game reserve was reasonably quickly detected, with the first major engagement occurring on August 13 between the combined guerrillas and a Rhodesian force comprising units of the Rhodesia African Rifles and the Police Anti-terrorist Unit (PATU).[xiii] During this operation, codenamed Nickel, the Rhodesians met with stiff resistance, neutralising the guerrilla force only after several hours and with the intervention of Hunter strike jets deployed by the Rhodesia Air Force. The operation concluded in September 1967 with the loss recorded of seven members of the Rhodesian Security Forces and some 30 guerrillas killed. This had been a significantly more challenging encounter than any hitherto, proving that the salad days of easy victory over untrained amateurs was at an end.

Needless to say, and after careful examination of accumulated intelligence, an offer of security assistance was made by the South Africans through the Rhodesian Central Intelligence Organisation, an offer which was quickly accepted. Soon thereafter a detachment of 2 000 South African Police members posing as ‘riot police’ arrived in Rhodesia supported by South African Air Force helicopters to help reinforce the Zambezi line.

Meanwhile, between December and January 1968 a second large ZAPU/MK force numbering some 200 trained men crossed into Rhodesia from Zambia and established themselves in the Chewore controlled hunting area in northern Rhodesia east of Lake Kariba. For several months they moved backwards and forwards shuttling in supplies ferried across the Zambezi by inflatable watercraft. In the meanwhile constant contact was maintained with Lusaka by high frequency radio transmitters. Their temporary fortification was carefully hidden from aerial observation with a Vietcong style network of underground tunnels. They however carved a wide footpath through the sandveld as they worked to carry in supplies, which altered the attention of a patrolling game scout who in turn alerted the authorities. A large scale mobilisation of manpower immediately followed the formation of a Joint Operational Command and Operation Cauldron swung into action that over the course of a few months witnessed a series of valiant but futile running battles. Rhodesian War historian Hendrik Ellert records the comments of the Chief Superintendent of Special Branch whose observation was that the failure of ZAPU to make any meaningful headway could be explained by the fact that no effort had so far been made to secure the support of the local people in advance of large scale incursions.

This was certainly the case, and was a phenomenon that had also characterised the catastrophic failures of ZANU’s early militant adventures. Local people suddenly finding large numbers of armed men in their midst with no explanation, and no recognition among them of any sons of their own, almost invariably either reported their presence to the authorities or allowed information to leak, leading to the inevitable deaths or capture of guerrillas at the hands of a well trained, equipped, supported and motivated military machine. Although the Rhodesian Security Services were by no means the largest in the region they were the most battle ready and effective by a signicant degree. This fact was acknowledged by the aging and phlegmatic Doctor Hastings Banda who, upon hearing the Organisation of African Unity air the notion of an African military response to the white Rhodesian constitutional rebellion remarked: ‘Ten Rhodesian mercenaries’, he told his colleagues, ‘could whip 5 000 so called African soldiers. If [Ian] Smith so commanded it the Rhodesian Army could conquer the whole of east and central Africa in a week.[xiv]

Although that was obviously an exaggeration, it was only a slight exaggeration. Even the British at that point were wary of a military engagement with an armed and belligerent white Rhodesia. If guerrilla war was to be successful it would be necessary for both parties to step back and re-evaluate their strategy. ZAPU historian Eliakim Sibanda defends the failures of this period by reminding his readers that an evaluation of ZAPU’s strategies must be made in the context of its stated goals. ZAPU, according to Sibanda, entered the early phase of the struggle with a view to actually avoiding all out war. If this was the case then it failed in even this context, for all out war found both parties to the detriment of each man deployed for whatever reason he was, and a great sacrifice was put upon a great many individuals in order to establish any sort of strategy at all. At the close of the 1960s both parties would indeed withdraw from the struggle for a period of reflection, out of which would come a renewed effort and far greater success.


 [i] Sibanda, Eliakim M, The Zimbabwe African National Union 1961-87, (Africa World Press, Trenton NJ, 2005) p90

[ii] Zimbabwe: The Search For Common Ground, 1992, p210

[iii] Ellert, Henrik. The Rhodesian Front War, (Mambo Press, Gweru, 1993) p5

[iv] Ellert, Henrik. The Rhodesian Front War, (Mambo Press, Gweru, 1993) p7

[v] Alexander, Ranger & McGregor, Violence & Memory. (James Currey Ltd. Oxford, Heinemann Portsmouth, NH, David Phillip, Claremont South Africa, Weaver Press Harare) p120

[vi] Sibanda, Eliakim M, The Zimbabwe African National Union 1961-87, (Africa World Press, Trenton NJ, 2005) p98

[vii] Sibanda, Eliakim M, The Zimbabwe African National Union 1961-87, (Africa World Press, Trenton NJ, 2005) p99

[viii] Ellert, Henrik. The Rhodesian Front War, (Mambo Press, Gweru, 1993) p10

[ix] Alexander, Ranger & McGregor, Violence & Memory. (James Currey Ltd. Oxford, Heinemann Portsmouth, NH, David Phillip, Claremont South Africa, Weaver Press Harare) p122

[x] Correspondence with Peter Stiff, 2009

[xi] Bhebe Ngwabi, Ranger Terence (Editors). Soldiers in Zimbabwe’s Liberation War. (University of Zimbabwe, Harare, Heinemann, Portsmouth N.H., James Curry, London) p27

[xii] Bhebe Ngwabi, Ranger Terence (Editors). Soldiers in Zimbabwe’s Liberation War. (University of Zimbabwe, Harare, Heinemann, Portsmouth N.H., James Curry, London) p29

[xiii] Sibanda, Eliakim M, The Zimbabwe African National Union 1961-87, (Africa World Press, Trenton NJ, 2005) p107

[xiv] Moorcraft, Paul L. A Short Thousand Years, (Galaxie Press, Salisbury, 1980), p19.

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