COMRADE Agrippah Gava (born 1956) whose Chimurenga name was Cde Conary Mabuto grew up in Zvimba where he attended primary education at Mhandu Primary School. He then moved to Kutama College and later went to Tekwane High School in Plumtree for his A-Levels. While at Tekwane he, together with 34 other students crossed the border into Botswana to join the liberation struggle. That was in 1976.
After joining ZIPRA, Cde Conary rose through the ranks to become the deputy commander in charge of the artillery department. In this interview with our Deputy Editor Munyaradzi Huni, Cde Conary narrates that when they joined the liberation struggle, they were neither ZAPU nor ZANU. He explains the link between Marxism and Leninism to the liberation struggle and boldly declares that “we were not trained to die cheaply.” Read on …
MH: What motivated you to leave school and join the liberation struggle?
Cde Conary: You see from a very young age, I had discovered that whites ill-treated blacks. This was after some incident that up to this day I will never forget. I think I was still in primary school and had gone to Chinhoyi. I met a nanny who was carrying a white baby on her back. Kamwana kemurungu aka kakabva kandisvipira. I asked the nanny kuti ko uri kurega kamwana aka kachindisvipira sei? Kamwana kaya kakabva kadzokorora kundisvipira. I didn’t know what to do but whites were untouchable at that time. From that time I developed a negative attitude against whites. This added to stories that we grew up being told that varungu vakatora nyika yedu and vakatibvisa kwatairima.
Now while at Tekwane, what really motivated me to leave school and join the liberation struggle was the fact that other comrades were already fighting the liberation struggle and we would receive news on radio saying ‘huyai murwire nyika yenyu.’ We would secretly listen to Radio Maputo, Radio Moscow and Radio Dar es Salaam. We were not allowed to listen to these radio stations but we would do it secretly at the school.
MH: What was the message that really touched you from these broadcasts?
Cde Conary: The comrades would be saying ‘nyika ndeyedu, yakatorwa nevarungu. Saka tisu tega tinofanirwa kuzvisunungura.” This was in 1976. If you remember during this time, Ian Smith had introduced a system that if you wanted to go to the University of Southern Rhodesia, you were supposed to go for Call Up. I had to make a choice to say should I go kuCall Up and fight against vana mukoma vari musango, the freedom fighters or ndoenda kunorwa nevakoma. So there was a choice to be made and I decided to go and join vana mukoma. I was really motivated to fight for my country than to fight against vana mukoma.
MH: Tell us how you left school exactly?
Cde Conary: During the day, we had sent some youths to go musango and try to locate the freedom fighters who were operating around that area. They went and came back saying they couldn’t find the comrades. We arranged takawanda that we would meet at the Senior Common Room in the evening. However, when we got to the Common Room we were only 35. The other students had chickened out. We panicked a bit and decided that ngatipindeyi munzira izvozvi.
I remember there was Cde Dhaudhini. He was in Form 3 at that time. Akakwachura book regeography remap reading. This book had pictures and map of Plumtree area. We left Tekwane around midnight using this map. This was 1976 around October.
MH: Who are some of the students you left with when you decided to join the liberation struggle?
Cde Conary: When we eventually left school, I was the only A Level student that time who crossed the border to join the liberation struggle. The majority were in Form 4 and Form 3. I remember we left with General Dhiye, he now works at the Ministry of War Veterans under the projects department. There was Major General Matatu, at that time he was in Form 3. There was Machacha, whose brother was in ZANLA. There was Clayton Badze. These are some of the comrades I remember. In total I think we were around 35.
MH: You made the decision to leave school and join the liberation struggle. Did you notify your parents?
Cde Conary: Hazvitaurwe kumba izvo. We just took the decision on our own. Hazvinei nevanhu vari kumba. So we walked from Tekwane during the night to Plumtree border post. They used to call it Vhakaranga Border Post. After studying the area, we found a way to cross the border between Plumtree town and Vhakaranga border post. By dawn, we were already in Botswana. The 35 of us we all managed to cross into Botswana. We were later told that those students who had failed to join us at Tekwane were put in serious trouble by the Smith regime.
We continued walking until we got to some place called Rhamakwebani. We were immediately taken by some trucks from Botswana Defence Forces (BDF) and were taken to Francistown. When we got to Francistown that is when we discovered that many other recruits were join the liberation struggle. I can tell you at the camp we were there were many recruits from Zimbabwe. I am talking of thousands.
While we were at this camp, Smith was threatening that ari kutevera kuzotora the students who had left Tekwane High School. Now because of these threats by Smith, we were quickly flown to Lusaka, Zambia. I think we spent only five days in Botswana.
MH: So how exactly did you join ZAPU?
Cde Conary: The BDF took us to the ZAPU camp. We didn’t even know who were the ZAPU leaders there. We were being referred to as ‘vana vechikoro.” I think it is important at this point to tell you that when we went to war, I can talk even on behalf of my other colleagues, we were just young people who wanted to liberate their country. We were not politicians. We were neither ZANU or ZAPU. We were young people who had the zeal to go and fight for their country. So whether there were differences between ZANU and ZAPU, it was none of our business. Our business was to fight for our country.
That is how we were being recruited. The radio broadcasts would never say ‘come join ZAPU or ZANU.’ They were just saying ‘come for the armed struggle, come so that we liberate our land.’ I mention this because I wonder why after independence somebody in power would segregate me just because I fought under ZIPRA.
MH: When you talk about ZAPU and ZANU, it seems as if there were divisions – ZAPU being for Ndebeles and ZANU for Shonas. How exactly did this happen?
Cde Conary: When we join the liberation struggle, it was never like that. This division of ZAPU and ZANU was a creation of the enemy. Go to the national executive of ZAPU and you will see it was full of Shona people. There were people like Chinamano, Willie Musarurwa, Jirira, Msika and many other Shona comrades. These divisions were the creation of the enemy to divide and rule. The idea was to divide the Zimbabwean people so that when they are divided, they become weak.
As you know, all of the comrades had started in ZAPU. The division was actually an intrusion by the enemy. Do you know that the person who had created ZIPRA was actually James Chikerema? He was Joshua Nkomo’s deputy in Zambia and he is the one who created the armed wing of ZAPU, which is ZIPRA.
MH: Wasn’t it the Joshua Nkomo factor?
Cde Conary: Joshua Nkomo was actually not Ndebele. He was Kalanga and Kalanga is one of the Shona dialects. The majority of the people in Western Zimbabwe are not Ndebeles. When the Ndebeles came into that part of the country, there were the Rozvi people there under chief Tohwechipi whom Mzilikazi fought in 1861 and defeated.
MH: Ok, let’s go back to your journey. You arrived in Lusaka and where did you go?
Cde Conary: From Lusaka we were taken to a camp in the west of Lusaka called Nampundwe. We stayed there for about a month. It was at this camp that we started training, but this was just a holding camp, a transit camp. We would wake up around 4am and start toyi-toyi in the mountains. This was the beginning of something that was really tough.
MH: Things are getting tough. Didn’t you start thinking that you made a mistake joining the liberation struggle?
Cde Conary: Not at all. I was determined to finish what I had started. There was no other alternative. Joining the liberation struggle was the best alternative. So we spent slightly more than a month at Nampundwe.
MH: Who were some of you instructors at Nampundwe?
Cde Conary: Like I told you this was just a holding camp and so the training was just to keep us fit while waiting to go for real training. From Nampundwe we were taken to a camp called Mwembeshi, on the Great East Road to Chipata in Zambia.
The training at Mwembeshi involved a number of activities. We got lessons in topography, engineering which was the use of explosives, tactics, it included politics — there were commissars there to teach politics. There was also physical training which included toyi-toyi, judo, and bayonet charge. We also got lessons on attacks – section attacks, platoon attacks and company attacks. This training last between six to seven months. Our instructors included Cdes Sgoge, Emmanuel Siziba, Cephas, Stanley Kagisa and others.
MH: With regards to politics, what exactly were the lessons about?
Cde Conary: At a very simple level, we were taught about the liberation of our country. The message was that the whites came and took over our land. At the detailed level, it was about Marxism and Leninism.
MH: What had Marxism and Leninism got to do with the liberation struggle?
Cde Conary: When they spoke about Marxism and Leninism, it was another way of trying to enlighten us on capitalist exploitation. When we are talking about capitalist exploitation we are talking about the exploitation of the workers and peasants by the capitalists – being exploited by those who hold capital. The message was that we were supposed to liberate ourselves from these capitalists. We were taught that the means of production should belong to the masses and not individuals as was the case in Rhodesia. When we are talking about means of production we are talking about things like mines, land — in short all major resources must belong to the masses. You know that before the colonialists came, land in this country belonged to the people and not a few individuals.
As for topography, this was about map reading. We had to know how to move in certain terrain and to know what to expect in this and that terrain. It was important to know all these things so that when you got deployed at the war front, you would know where to lay ambushes and how to do it. With regards to attacks, we were taught the different formations to attack the enemy. There was the single file battle formation, double file and the battle formation. We were taught all these things in class with illustrations on the blackboard. After the class lessons, you then go into the bush to practice what you would have learnt.
MH: Some ZIPRA comrades I have spoken to tell me that ZIPRA used live ammunition during training?
Cde Conary: Yes we used live ammunition. During the first days, we would not use live ammunition. But during the last half of your training, we used live ammunition. The first quarter or half of training, you would use logs that resembled guns. We were told that that log you never put it down. The log must always be on you, because that is your gun. You could never put that log on the ground and if you were found without it, that would spell serious trouble. After passing this phase that is when live ammunition was used.
During training, the instructors would actually use live ammunition. For example if you were crawling, they would fire a volley of bullets right above your head. If you lift your head too much, you will be hit.
MH: Weren’t there casualties?
Cde Conary: Well, we heard that there were some casualties in other training camps and in other groups. We never faced such a problem ourselves.
MH: You spoke about receiving physical training – judo and so on. Do you still have the moves?
Cde Conary: (laughing) Ahhh, not now. But during that time, oohh yes. We were also taught bayonet charge, that is using that knife in front of a rifle.
MH: This training would start from what time to what time?
Cde Conary: This training was continuous from 4am up to 7pm. We would only break only when we were going for feeding. Every day the first thing was toyi-toyi because as you know, guerilla warfare is about hit and run. You hit and run. A guerilla is a very expensive human being. A guerilla is very expensive to produce.
MH: What do you mean?
Cde Conary: A guerilla has no resources like a soldier. Because of this a guerilla is well trained to survive under extreme conditions. So you can’t just lose a guerilla. You don’t have resources to fight the war and so the guerilla is all you have. As a result you must train the guerilla so that he or she doesn’t die cheaply. We were trained not to die cheaply. I remember one of the parades, actually it was our pass-out parade. UJoshua Nkomo said to the instructors, ‘you have said these children have finished training, we don’t want to hear that when they go to the front, they are killed like chickens. What will we say to their parents when we go back home? Where did we put their children? If you say you have finished training these comrades, then they go, only to be whipped out by the enemy, what will we say to their parents?’ I vividly remember uJoshua Nkomo saying this.
MH: As you are talking, you are mixing Ndebele and Shona. Where did you learn to speak Ndebele?
Cde Conary: Yes, I am from Zvimba but I was at school at Tekwane. That is where I started learning how to speak Ndebele. Of course when we joined the liberation struggle, there were Shonas and Ndebeles in ZIPRA so we would mix the languages.
MH: So your training went for about six to seven months?
Cde Conary: Yes. Intensive training. During our pass-out parade like I said Nkomo was there, Willie Musarurwa, I think Chinamano was also there. Nikita Mangena was the overall ZIPRA commander and he was there. I think uJZ (Jason Moyo) was also there.
MH: Many people speak about people like Joshua Nkomo, Jason Moyo and Nikita Mangena in passing. They don’t really understand these nationalists. Can you briefly tell us who Nkomo was, JZ and Mangena?
Cde Conary: Joshua Nkomo was a fatherly figure. He had this simplicity when talking to people. He was someone anonzwira vanhu nyasha. He was a man of the people. He always wanted to put people before himself. Like I told he always asked our instructors kuti ko vana vevanhu ava kana vafa tichanoti kudii kuvabereki vavo? Then uJZ, I didn’t spend much time with him. As for Nikita Mangena, I stayed with him for a short while and I can tell you he was a tough man. A tough commander. Very tough. When he gave order, they were supposed to be carried out without questions. The orders were to be carried out to the point.
MH: After your pass-out parade, where did you go?
Cde Conary: I was then chosen to be one of the people to go for further specialised training in the Soviet Union. This was 1977. I think we went to the Soviet Union as a group of over 200 comrades. We went to receive specialised training in different areas — some trained as company commanders, some as battalion commanders, some trained in artillery and that was my department.
MH: What is this thing you keep saying artillery? Explain it to the people a bit.
Cde Conary: You know when we are talking about the rifle or the machine gun, you are talking about something you can hold in your hands. Now when talking about artillery, you are talking about something that you can’t hold in your hands. It’s not portable. It’s operated by three or more people. It sends a shell that when it hits the target, explodes. It can hit a target from quite a distance. During that time I am talking of artillery equipment that could hit 11km away. When you talk of artillery, you are talking about arms of war that are towed on wheels. They are big arms that can destroy buildings. This also included anti-air craft which was meant to fight against airpower — bomber jets and helicopters.
When we got to the Soviet Union, we were somewhere around the Black Sea. That is where we received our training. In this small town, there were also guerillas from Yasser Arafat’s PLO, guerillas from MPLA from Angola and guerillas from Mozambique under Frelimo. We were all receiving training there but at different locations. I remember at one time we used the same hostel with guerillas from PLO, but that didn’t last long because there were problems. We clashed due to different cultures.
The training in the Soviet Union went for eight months if I am not mistaken. The instructors were Russians and there were interpreters.
To be continued next week
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