How Mugabe came to power

R.W. Johnson talks to Wilfred Mhanda

It’s not an easy thing to have on your conscience that you were personally responsible for putting Robert Mugabe in power but Wilfred Mhanda has had to live with that knowledge for the last 24 years. You might think the last year, which has seen 32 murders, countless cases of rape, torture, arson and beating, all to help Mugabe steal an election, would have made it even harder, but the reverse is true. ‘It’s a relief now that Zimbabweans realise at last what sort of man he is,’ Mhanda told me recently. ‘It became obvious very quickly that we’d made a terrible mistake: that he was paranoid, authoritarian and ruthless, a man believing only in power. He hasn’t changed. What’s changed is that other people have his measure at last.’

You look at Wilfred, roly-poly, 50 and a quality control manager, and you don’t find it hard to believe that he lives a blameless suburban life with a wife, a house and a Mazda 323. Even now the suburbs of Harare – still one of the pleasantest places in the world to live – include a quota of golf-playing Telegraph-readers who would not be out of place in Chiswick or Cheltenham. But they are also home to many, white and black, who have, in their time, been involved in a lot of bloodshed. Now, with Harare, like the rest of the country, crumbling before your eyes, some of these men are willing to say what they know. It’s part of the general atmosphere of fin de règne.

Mhanda was the sort of young boy in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia who was bound to grow up to become a guerrilla. His father was a keen African nationalist and his childhood heroes were not singers or soccer stars but Nkrumah, Sekou Touré and Kenyatta. He went to the primary school at Zvishavane which the former liberal Prime Minister Garfield Todd had founded and often visited even though he was living under a form of house arrest imposed by Ian Smith. By the time Mhanda left school he was in such regular trouble with the police that ‘I would spend all day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the police station, sitting there working at my school books for A-levels.’ The first thing he did at university in Salisbury, as it was then called, was to join the Zanu – Zimbabwe African National Union – underground.

Young activists like Mhanda took it for granted that armed struggle was the only way to change Smith’s mind about majority rule: ‘We used the Student Christian Movement as cover. People would go on SCM “holidays” when actually they were going for basic military training for Zanu’s military wing, Zanla.’ But Mhanda’s cell was also organising demonstrations against discrimination in education and he had to walk 25 miles each way to Goromonzi to organise protests at the secondary school he’d attended. Eventually there were demonstrations on the university campus itself and the whole thing came to a head with the discovery that one of the members of Mhanda’s cell was a police agent: ‘My handler was furious. Now you’re going to have to run for it because of these stupid student demos, he said, when we wanted you here organising the military underground.’ Together with four others, Mhanda skipped the country and, via Botswana and Zambia, made his way to Tanzania. At this time, Rhodesia’s neighbours – Tanzania and Zambia in particular, and after Independence in 1975, Mozambique – provided bases for the Zimbabwean liberation fighters as well as the African National Congress.

In Tanzania Mhanda showed great aptitude for all things military and rapidly rose to become a military instructor, a party commissar and a Zanla commander. Eventually Zanla’s Chinese trainers took him off to China for advanced instruction. ‘China was a strange, closed society and the Chinese themselves were essentially racist,’ he recalls. ‘If people like me appeared in the street there’d be an immediate traffic jam as people queued up to look at blacks like you’d look at monkeys. But I didn’t care. The training itself was excellent and that was what I’d gone there for.’ The Chinese insisted that Mhanda was too great an asset to risk his life at the front, but he saw plenty of action, on one occasion living off the land for three months in a protracted operation in north-eastern Rhodesia.

The main problem for Zanu was that its leader, Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, had been in detention in Salisbury for ten years so that none of the younger fighters like Mhanda knew him. Herbert Chitepo had been chosen as interim leader but in March 1975 he was murdered in the Zambian capital, Lusaka. To this day no one knows who did it: Mhanda’s best guess is that Smith had him killed with help from agents infiltrated into Zanu. At any rate, President Kaunda of Zambia took Chitepo’s death as his cue to crack down on Zanla. He had all the Zanla camps closed and imprisoned the fighters in a remote part of the country.

Mhanda, who’d been travelling to the front in Rhodesia when he heard that his own camp had been raided by Zambian troops, fled to Mozambique to confer with the Zanla commander-in-chief, Josiah Tongogara. It was essential, he argued, that the fighters not be left on their own because Kaunda was trying to strongarm them into accepting the leadership of his client, Joshua Nkomo, the head of the rival liberation movement in Rhodesia, Zapu – the Zimbabwe African People’s Union. The differences between the two were largely that Zanu drew its support from Beijing and consisted mostly of Shona members, while Zapu was backed by Moscow (and close to the ANC); its members were, on the whole, drawn from the Ndebele, the smaller of Rhodesia’s two largest ethnic groups. Kaunda’s long-term aim was to subsume Zanu within Zapu, calculating that one day, using Nkomo as his mouthpiece, he would be in a position to call the shots in Zimbabwe.

In Mozambique, after due consideration, Tongogara agreed that Mhanda should go back to Rhodesia disguised as an ordinary recruit. For eight months he acted as secretary and assistant to the man the Zambians thought commanded the Zanla forces, though it was Mhanda, who now ranked second only to Tongogara, who gave all the orders.

‘Kaunda was pretty ruthless,’ Mhanda remembers. ‘The big watchword for the leaders of the Front Line States’ – i.e. all the independent countries bordering the white minority regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa – ‘was unity, but usually when they said we must accept unity it meant we must do what they said. In this case, Kaunda had decided we must all join Zapu’s armed wing, Zipra, and intended to starve us into submission.’ Some 1200 Zanla people were under arrest in Zambia but of these only 400 were seasoned fighters: the rest were raw recruits plus women and children. The Zambian Army didn’t let any supplies get through to the camp and 105 hungry fighters defected to Zipra, but Kaunda was wary of taking his starvation tactics too far and eventually the Zambian Army was sent in to bully the camp inmates into line.

Mhanda and his colleagues wanted to consult Sithole before making any deal about uniting the two movements. When their demand was rejected they engineered a mass escape, effectively daring the Zambian soldiers to shoot the women and children – which they didn’t. A new camp was established and again the Zambian troops surrounded it. This time Mhanda led a phoney hunger strike (‘we had hidden rations and ate in the dark – but the Zambians thought we were starving’) until it was finally agreed that they could consult Sithole.

Robert Mugabe, another of Smith’s nationalist prisoners, had already led a bid to topple Sithole in August 1974. No one outside Que Que Prison knew Mugabe. As a militant youth-wing leader he’d been in jail in Rhodesia ever since 1964. Before that, he’d spent three years in Ghana. At the end of the year Smith let out all the prominent black nationalists and Mugabe led a Zanu delegation to the Front Line leaders, Kaunda, Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), Agostinho Neto (Angola) and Samora Machel (Mozambique). But Nyerere especially was so angry at the idea of a leader being so obviously sent to them with Smith’s connivance that he refused to talk to Mugabe and demanded that he and his followers go back to Rhodesia and return with Sithole. Nyerere got his way; Sithole was quick to understand the situation and agreed to a unity pact with Zapu.

‘Are you saying that Mugabe was really Smith’s man?’ I asked. Mhanda grinned and later when I tried the question on a number of his old guerrilla comrades they all grinned together. ‘We’ve thought about it a lot,’ they said. ‘Nothing can be proved, but if you look back you see that over and over again Smith acted so as to create openings for Mugabe. Maybe he thought Mugabe was so extreme that he would destroy African nationalism in Zimbabwe. If so, he was right in the end.’

Sithole, they explained to me, was still in charge but his power was diminished; and Mugabe refused his instruction to attend Chitepo’s funeral. Instead he went off to the Mozambique border, where he sat for three months. Machel said he was a Smith agent and wouldn’t let him into the country. (Machel had emerged from the Frelimo guerrilla movement and believed that a future Zimbabwean leader should also have fought in the bush.) In the end Mugabe crossed the border disguised as a refugee. He had wanted to build a following in the refugee camps in Mozambique, but Machel was furious when he discovered his whereabouts and put him under house arrest to keep him out of trouble. What we suspect now, Mhanda said to me with a sad smile, is that he had help getting into Mozambique: maybe Smith was still behind him.

Meanwhile Mhanda and his fellow Zanla fighters were discovering how wrong they’d been about Sithole. Above all he had revealed himself as an out and out Shona tribalist. ‘Maybe we all started that way,’ Mhanda said, digging the ground unhappily with a stick. ‘Once you became a fighter all you cared about was that your comrades would literally lay down their lives for you and you for them: tribe had nothing to say to you after that. The problem was that our leaders had never been fighters themselves, so they remained tribalists.’ By now he’d dug quite a pile of soil and as he spoke I became very aware of the terrible unhappiness of the thing, the devotion of the fighters to their cause, the depth of their betrayal. Maybe they’re wrong about Mugabe being Smith’s man, maybe that’s all post factum suspicion and nonsense, who knows? But what no one can gainsay are the extraordinary sacrifices these fighters made and how little they got out of it.

With Sithole still in place, things went from bad to worse. The Zambians shot and killed ten Zanla fighters. Sithole didn’t protest, didn’t want to know, didn’t even want Mhanda and his comrades to attend the funerals or visit the wounded in hospital. Sithole believed that he was close to a deal with Smith and the fighters were, at best, an irrelevance. ‘I will never forget the way he turned to us and said: “I can certainly talk to Ian Smith but as for you, my children, I don’t know what’s to become of you.” Our blood ran cold. He saw us as mere cannon fodder. The final straw was that he wouldn’t attend the memorial services for our dead comrades but then said he had to go to the US to see his daughter because she was suffering from headaches.’

Mhanda and his friends realised they were now in danger. It was rumoured that Sithole, seeing them as potential mutineers, had arranged with the Zambians to have them arrested. They melted away into Tanzania. When Sithole returned from the US, he asked Nyerere to arrest all 42 Zanla commanders. Nyerere refused. The 42 met, voted to depose Sithole and decided, in desperation, to put Mugabe forward as a mediator. Though they didn’t know him they realised they needed a politician of some sort – that a simple fighter wouldn’t do. But the Front Line States continued to insist on unity so the fighters united the two military wings of Zanu and Zapu – Zanla and Zipra respectively – forming Zipa, the Zimbabwe People’s Army, under the leadership of Rex Nhongo. ‘The number two position had to go to a Zapu man, so I was number three in the command structure,’ Mhanda explains, still steadily digging the soil with his stick. Together they sat down and worked out a new war strategy and in January 1976 resumed military operations as a united force.

Machel was very unhappy with this outcome: he had always supported Zanu, and now he had no one to sponsor. He demanded that Mhanda and his friends find new Zanu leaders, so they came up with Mugabe and Tongogara, the guerrilla leader. Machel was furious: he didn’t trust Mugabe and he knew the fighters didn’t trust Tongogara. (‘He was quite right,’ Mhanda says sadly. ‘We knew Tongogara would be an absolute disaster.’) They settled for Mugabe, not really knowing him, and with the greatest reluctance Machel accepted him. Scared that a single united movement might end up under the leadership of Nkomo, the senior African nationalist, Mugabe closed down all organisations such as Zipa which united the two movements. He led the Zanu delegation to the Geneva talks later that year – 1976. But by then Mhanda was so disillusioned he refused to be a delegate. What he failed to take into account was that Mugabe was bound to see this as a threat.

The real irony – and the stroke which sealed Mhanda’s fate – was that just as the guerrillas were losing confidence in Mugabe, Machel threw his weight behind him. Mugabe got enormous international exposure as a result of the Geneva talks and even though they failed Machel was now convinced that Zimbabwean independence was just around the corner. In the circumstances the best thing he could do was to make sure he was backing Zimbabwe’s first President. This was clear enough to Mugabe and when he returned from Geneva, where he had been furiously brooding over Mhanda’s refusal to join the delegation, he told Machel that he must act swiftly to prevent Mhanda and his friends leading a military rebellion. Machel swooped and arrested 600 Zanla guerrillas, including Mhanda and the rest of the high command. The 64 top commanders were kept in jail for three years.

The prisoners were packed into the cells like sardines, they slept on cement floors and weren’t allowed to wear clothes. There were no toilets, so they had to defecate on the floor and eat and sleep in their own filth – the cells were cleaned once a month. They were infested with lice, had so little food they would put sand in their rice to bulk it out, had malaria and other fevers and froze in winter. Luckily, someone told Nyerere about the conditions under which they were being held and he prevailed on Machel to relocate them to another camp where life was hard but bearable. They were freed when Lord Carrington insisted that all political prisoners be released at Independence.

Mhanda went back to Zimbabwe and found Mugabe being treated on all sides as a great and magnanimous hero. Machel had tried to make the prisoners’ return conditional on their joining Zanu-PF. Mhanda and 26 others refused – which meant that in the first week after Independence they were arrested again and spent ten days on hunger strike before Nkomo intervened. Even so all doors were barred to them and getting a job was impossible. After a year Mhanda met the man in charge of the President’s security, who told him that he was ‘mad’ to hang around, that he must be looking for trouble and that he would certainly get it if he didn’t leave the country very soon.

He went to Germany on a scholarship, studied biotechnology, acquired a German girlfriend, was offered a university lectureship in West Berlin: as far as he was concerned he’d emigrated and would never see Zimbabwe again. But the Zimbabwean authorities told the Germans he was a Communist and the lectureship was withdrawn. He shuttled around Europe, wasn’t allowed to stay anywhere and in 1988 crept back into Zimbabwe, where eventually a deal was struck allowing him to work provided he stayed out of politics. This deal he has now broken by coming out openly against Mugabe. ‘I’ve got to,’ he says. ‘Most Zimbabweans agree with me now – and it’s important that we stand up and say we are the real war vets, not these criminals who are occupying farms and terrorising the farmers and their workers.’ Today he is a passionate believer in all the liberal verities: the importance of the rule of law, of a strong opposition, of free speech and all the rest. He sympathises with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change but is quick to say that if they win power he wants to see a strong opposition to them, too – ‘as long as it’s not Zanu-PF.’

It’s difficult to know what to make of his story. Mhanda doesn’t regret being a guerrilla or fighting for independence but it’s hard, as you listen to him, not to wonder at the sheer frenzy of it all. Smith and his supporters fought for a white supremacy which was both morally and practically mad. (I talked to Smith a year ago and it’s obvious that he now considers universal suffrage perfectly normal: so what was all that murderous lunacy about?) Mugabe and his like fought for a ‘scientific socialism’ which turned out to be a cover for self-enrichment and authoritarianism. The one thing both sides had in common was their contempt for democracy. Ignorant armies clashed by night and Mhanda – bravely, naively – led one of those armies until his usefulness was over because he hadn’t understood the rules.

In the 1970s the battle between the white elite and an army of African nationalists was fought on the lands of the rural peasantry, who paid a heavy price as both sides bullied, tortured and killed in their attempt to get the upper hand. A generation later, the nationalists have turned into fat cats: they have had the cream and nationalised the cream factory. Their control is contested by a new black elite, the trade-union and middle-class ‘outs’ (those who have no share of the spoils or the patronage) supported by the few whites who have remained in the country and by the mass of the poor who have derived no benefit from independence. Once again the battlefield is in the countryside and once again the people who are getting beaten, tortured and killed are primarily the rural poor.

I’ve been thinking about what might have happened to Mhanda had he not stuck to his guns and fallen out with Mugabe. His comrade in the Zanla high command, Rex Nhongo, went on to become head of the Army and the biggest landowner in Zimbabwe. Mhanda trained the men who are today the heads of the Air Force and the police: he could have had their jobs, been a cabinet minister or run one of the big state corporations. But he says he has never had the slightest wish to go into politics: he simply grew up surrounded by the mystique of the African freedom fighter and never considered being anything else.

In the end neither Kaunda nor Machel succeeded in making Zimbabwe a client state. If Ian Smith’s dream of a white Rhodesia came crashing down, so did the dream of socialism in the neighbouring states. Nkomo became immensely fat and rich but is now seen as having betrayed his Ndebele people. Rex Nhongo was so embarrassed by the whispering about his ill-gotten gains that he changed his name. Tongogara died in mysterious circumstances and some point the finger at Mugabe. As for Mugabe, he has reduced his country to near-ruin and is widely hated. Mhanda still dreams of a peaceful, democratic Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe he fought for. Of the four friends with whom he skipped the country to start his military training, one was killed by Smith’s forces, two were killed by Zanla itself; the fourth was killed in a way Mhanda still doesn’t understand. ‘I have had such a lucky life,’ he says: ‘I’m the only survivor.’