Exclusive: How Zambia tried to nail Tongogara in Chitepo’s death

A few weeks ago when we published Cde Noah Mbira whose Chimurenga name was Cde Chemist Ncube’s fourth interview, we had decided to end his narration but due to public demand, we continue his narration.

In this interview with our team comprising Munyaradzi Huni and Tendai Manzvanzvike, Cde Chemist for the first time reveals how the Zambian government tried to bribe him into nailing Cde Josiah Tongogara in the death of Cde Hebert Chitepo. lt’s a Sunday Mail exclusive. Read on . . .

SM: Day six Chairman Chitepo had passed away and you were now in detention — take us through what then happened?

Cde Chemist: Like I said both the Zanu military and political leadership in Lusaka were arrested. Those arrested were sent to the Zambian Maximum Prison. Some were later transferred to Ndola Maximum Prison and what I can tell you is that the “sorting” of people started.

SM: What do you mean sorting of people?

Cde Chemist: The Zambian government wanted to know who was who? So they would call people’s names to see who was where. All members of Dare, the High Command and Cde Saddat and I were taken from Ndola Maximum Prison to Kabwe. I and Saddat, we did not stay long at Kabwe. We were whisked back to Lusaka CID Headquarters which was under the directorship of Mpundu. I think he was the chief CID officer or something to that effect.

The CID took turns to interrogate us. From me they wanted to know what exactly had happened after the shooting at Cde Tongo’s house. They wanted to know whether the story was true that the situation at the war front was bad.

As I told you in earlier interviews, my story about the shooting at Cde Tongo’s house remained the same even up to this day. I have told that story repeatedly and I don’t think we need to go over it again. We had challenges and those challenges at the war front had gone on for quite a long time without any solutions. Some of us didn’t know what exactly was happening at the rear in Lusaka. So the challenges I knew were all war related and we had reached that stage of the struggle were we needed to enhance our strategies and tactics in military terms together with mass mobilisation.

The question about the shooting at Cde Tongo’s house I explained that I was seated in front after being asked to sit in front of the car with Cde Mataure driving. I had been told that we were going to meet Cde Tongo as a follow up meeting to the earlier meeting where Cde Tongo had met those four commanders. When we got near Cde Tongo’s home, the Zambian police fired at us. I escaped together with Cde Badza from that shooting and proceeded to that hideout.

SM: By the way, was the Zambian police always guarding Cde Tongo’s house or they had just been brought on this day of the shooting?

Cde Chemist: I really don’t know much about that. I don’t think its a fair question. Like I told you I didn’t know much about Lusaka and what was happening there. I want to talk about reality not my assumptions. What other precautions were there and so on, I don’t know. All I know like I have told you several times on approaching Cde Tongo’s house, the Zambian police fired at us. We escaped the shooting, went into hiding, I later delivered that letter to the Zanu town office.

All we wanted after this shoot out was dialogue between the High Command and the rest of the commanders with a view to analyse all the challenges at the war front and come up with solutions. It was also our time to learn of the challenges that the rear was facing. We couldn’t go on fighting a war without knowing what was happening at the rear. As a commander you had to know what was happening all round — rear and the front because war is not an entertainment game. No. War is about people dying. People suffer. So those challenges at the war front were real challenges which needed solutions, immediate solutions.

That was the appeal that was in the letter that I wrote together with Badza and I delivered it to the Zanu office. We needed to sit down and find a way forward. Then my escape from town office and later wanting to meet Cde Rex Nhongo and him producing his pistol. I was the first to dash off and escape. Followed by Badza. Later we meet Cde Rice Santana and Cde George. Separate meetings started but I wasn’t part of these meetings. It was arranged that we go back to Chifombo sponsored by Mr Madekurozva. Then we later met at Chifombo with the commanders who were available and the appeal to High Command and the political leadership that we needed to sit down and talk about the challenges at the war front. All this despite whatever had happened. This was a national issue and it required to be exhausted.

We made this appeal to Frelimo through their commander at Kaswende base. A date was given and on this date I was included on the delegation, partly because of my experience at the war front. I was the most experienced person in terms of the advancement and command over the past three years.

At the war front I had taken the war right up to Chombira where we found people being dispatched to Keeps, that was July 1974.

As I narrated earlier on, I was the first commander to open Madziva area. Apart from all this, I was also coordinating operations with my last position being provincial officer in charge of security. Cde Chimedza and Cde Nhari knew about my experience and this coupled with my reports to the rear, it was known that I had lots of experience at the war front.

I fought in many battles. I saw my comrades die while others got injured due to lack of arms and failure to take initiatives when they were required. Despite all these challenges, we executed the war with unparalleled zeal. Like I pointed out to you, by this time we were not more than 50 at the war front. This was 1974.

So the meeting at Kaswende was in view of our commitment and experience at the war front. Like I told you, Cde Chimedza was a very sober man and right from training he was my camp commander and instructor. Later on when he came to the front he became a sectorial commander and we fought quite a number of battles together. We contributed a lot to the establishment of the war. I want to give credit to all those commanders who came under my command and others. We were under 50 but we fought the Rhodesians leading to the release of political prisoners in Salisbury.

It was in this spirit that we needed to advance the war, especially at this time because Mozambique was now in a transitional period. We wanted to know how we were going to plan our operating positions and so on. The High Command didn’t know what was happening. The transitional period in Mozambique came as early as April 1974. This was the same time that the Rhodesian forces mounted very heavy attacks on us in a bid to gain ground. So despite whatever had happened, there was a need for us to meet with the High Command. This was the essence of the meeting with Frelimo. Frelimo agreed to our concerns and gave us a date, a date that led to our capture.

SM: So this is the narration you gave to the Zambian CID?

Cde Chemist: I gave this narration to the Zambian CID officers. They also wanted to know whether there was any tribalism in Zanu. I narrated my journey and what I saw. My three years stint at the forefront, this was in the middle of a battle and in a battle you don’t choose friends. The situation dictates friends for you. A comrade in arms is a comrade indeed.

My relationship with Badza, Nhari and Cephas was that of comrades. We were comrades indeed. Whatever is being said today and even at that particular time, l still say no. They were and are part of the struggle. These were some of the heroes. Yes, people have differences but I think we need to acknowledge that these comrades played a pivotal role in the establishment of the war. They were the pillar for further advancement of the war across the country. This was the commitment that was lacking in all the previous years.

These comrades fought a good fight and whatever people say they remain heroes. If I don’t tell the truth, my comrades won’t forgive me. People can say whatever they want. Rest in peace macomrades. I will never ever forget. The High Command was running away from the war. Who among them was prepared to cross the landmine infested border areas? They all retreated to Lusaka. It wasn’t a joke crossing a landmine field, but we managed — in and out. That’s commitment and that sacrifice has to be taken into account. We overcame the earlier mistakes relating to crossing of freedom fighters from Zambia into Rhodesia. For those three years at the war front, there was no proper sleep. We were planting the seeds of the war and anytime the Rhodesians could attack us. We went to the war front without experience and gained the experience at the war front despite all the challenges. I still say no, there was no sell-out from the commanders at the forefront.

This is what I told the Zambian CID. I think the success at the war front despite the clear challenges brought personal differences between some members of the High Command and some commanders at the war front. The demotion of Badza wasn’t handled well. It was unfair. We should learn to be accommodative because if we don’t, we are bound to make worse mistakes. The High Command made mistakes on Badza. I am saying this because people have to know why and why Chemist? Why is he still alive?

SM: Yeah, we also want to know why are you still alive Cde Chemist because all your comrades in this rebellion were killed?

Cde Chemist: I am not scared of any situation. Once I face a situation I treat it as such. Coming back to the Zambian CID, I was now fully aware that I was dealing with a foreign element. This foreign element had the potential to destroy the whole liberation struggle. Yes, we had our own challenges but I had to maintain focus.

SM: Are you implying that you had to withhold some of the information because it could be used to destroy the struggle?

Cde Chemist: Not exactly but I knew what I was going to say was going to be detrimental to the whole struggle. I am a portrait and people should accept the portrait Chemist as it is. I told them that I didn’t know what was happening and indeed I didn’t know. I had no contacts at the rear but I told them of the challenges at the war front. The Zambian CID interrogated me for three weeks. Saddat would also be interrogated.

SM: Before this, did you know Cde Saddat?

Cde Chemist: No, I didn’t know him. I later discovered that he was one of the bodyguards of Cde Chitepo. I need to be very honest, I wasn’t tortured, except mental torture. But Saddat, despite his wounds from the car bomb that killed Cde Chitepo, he suffered quite a great deal of torture. Munhu haafi just like that. That man was strong.

SM: How do you know that?

Cde Chemist: We were in the same room and we would take turns to be interrogated in another room. They would come at night or early morning and start the interrogation. I maintained my story.

We were later released to the cells where there were some members of the High Command. While in the cells, I never told anyone my story. I kept to myself and the situation in the cells was very tense between myself and members of the High Command.

SM: Who were the members of the High Command you were with?

Cde Chemist: Cde Robson Manyika, Cde Gava, Cde Dauramanzi, Cde Josiah Tungamirai, Cde Mukudzei Mudzi and some other junior members of the party. Cde Chimurenga was being held in another cell alone just like Cde Tongo.

SM: Why was the situation between you and members of the High Command tense?

Cde Chemist: It was very, very tense. We were not talking at all. They were worried what I had told the Zambian CID but they couldn’t ask me. I kept my strategy close to my chest.

SM: These members of the High Command, where they also interrogated?

Cde Chemist: No, not really. They were later called to the commission that was inquiring on the death of Chitepo. Cde Chimurenga and Cde Chigohwe were also interrogated. Cde Mudzi was always very quiet and always reading his books. The only consoling thing was that I had read books about the Mau Mau struggle in Kenya. It gave me inspiration to live on and that remains the same up to this day. If you were a trained person who had fought at the war front, in terms of the political establishment, you were not a wanted person. That was the British theory. Go anywhere you want and study the history of the British — the relationship between the freedom fighter at the war front and the politicians is never cordial. I am seeing this up to this day.

A freedom fighter goes through the mill and being given a gun you are being told you can die for you country. And you accept that because of commitment. On the other hand, a politician only has interests, sometimes very divergent interests. The tragedy is that some of the politicians have no principles and have no solid grounding.

SM: Now, let’s go back to your story in the cells.

Cde Chemist: Like I told you, I found solace by reading the Mau Mau struggle. Later I think around August 1975, the Commission of Inquiry had been established and people were being called from Zanu to give their sides of the story. I was also called to the commission, specifically to tell the story at the war front and what had happened to Cde Mataure after the shoot out. I was also asked whether I knew who had killed Cde Chitepo. I was also asked whether there was tribalism in the party.

My story at the war front didn’t change. I knew of its impact on the international arena. The question on tribalism, I told them we were commanders at the war front and we didn’t have time to choose a friend or relative to cover us. We were comrades in arms.

I however told the commission that just from the outlook, sometimes it looked as if there was some tribalism. Most people in Zanu at that time were MaKaranga and vaManyika. Most of the recruits at that time were coming from Mt Darwin so it was like a Mt Darwin affair at this particular time. I didn’t know where to call this tribalism because to me as a military person, Mt Darwin by this time was the centre of the operations. Just like in any situation, the easiest thing is to recruit your closet friend. It only becomes tribalism when one starts getting undeserved favours and during war, there were no such favours.

One of the commissioners, I think from Malawi, then shouted at me “you bloody Mukorekore! You teamed up with Tongo.” I didn’t respond because that wasn’t necessary.

I told you in earlier interviews that there were quite a number of mistakes that were made during the war. One of them was the bad relationship between ethnic groups. Relationships between interested parties. This is still the same today.

SM: This Commission of Inquiry was set up when?

Cde Chemist: In 1975. It comprised of ambassadors of African countries in Zambia and some notable figures. I was asked how I got to Tongo’s home on the day of the shooting. I repeated my story. I was asked where Cde Mataure was and I said I had no idea. They said “but you were together?” I said the best people to answer that were the Zambian police.

The next question was: Who do you think killed Cde Chitepo? I just said I don’t know. I was then asked whether the letter I delivered to the Zanu offices had anything to do with the death of Cde Chitepo? I told them that the letter was meant to call for dialogue between the High Command, the political leadership and the commanders at the war front.

They also asked me how I had survived when other members of the Nhari rebellion had been killed. I told them I didn’t know how I had survived, just like I didn’t know how I had survived the battles at the war front. I was just lucky. I told them how I was taken from that vehicle with the note, that I was wanted by the Zambian government. I told them that was the last time I saw those comrades I left in that car.

They repeatedly asked me — who do you think killed Chitepo and I kept on saying I don’t know. Some of the commissioners told me “comrade, you have to think.” I then said, I think it’s the enemy, the Rhodesians. They then asked me, how do I know and I said, isn’t it you asked me to think? I am thinking. When Chitepo died I wasn’t there so I am just thinking as you have asked me to do.

The commissioners had no kinds words for me but I kept my composure. I was before this commission from morning till 10pm. This was in 1975.

In 1976, I was called once more by Mpundu at the CID Headquarters. He took me to a very isolated place —it was just the two of us. He said what I am asking you now is between you and me. He said would you assist us and turn against Tongo in the trial in connection with the death of Chitepo?

I asked him, in what respect? He said you were the last person to see Mataure and your story could be used to nail Mataure and in turn nail Cde Tongo. Can you assist us? He said I don’t want your reply today, but our offer is we will give you political asylum and you will live in Zambia for the rest of your life. I wanted to respond there and there but he said, no take your time.

He came later and we drove to some other place once more, trying to buy me all the goodies. Then he said, yes, Chemist, what’s your response?

I said I am sorry, I can’t do that because I don’t know what happened after the shoot out and who killed Cde Chitepo. I told him I could not go and stand in the witness box and lie. I told him I don’t know what happened and my story as a witness against Cde Tongo may work against your case.

He said, don’t worry Chemist, nothing is going to happen to you. I said I am not scared of anything and my answer is I cannot. I could have said yes, for the sake of wanting asylum. Remember I was still being held in prison and I had no good relationship with the High Command.

When we were captured at Kaswende, I told you I was tortured by my fellow comrades and I don’t know how I survived. I told you the story when I was taken out of that vehicle that was going kuMateriel, which meant l could be killed. I could have died. Like I told you I never saw again the comrades I left in that car. I was going to meet my death.

It now dawned on me that indeed when Cde Chigohwe came and took me out of the car saying the Zambian government wanted me, indeed they knew I was one of the survivors after the shoot out at Cde Tongo’s house. So when Cde Chitepo died, the Zambians thought I was bitter and they could use me against Cde Tongo.

When I refused, I was taken back to the cells. I later discovered that having refused this offer, I was charged as one of the accused persons. I think around August 1976, I was called to stand trial. I was asked to narrate what had happened during the Nhari-Badza rebellion. I was standing against a British lawyer in the court. By this time I had been given a military uniform by Cde Chimurenga and I went to court putting on this uniform. I told the court everything, including the fact that I was with Cde Mataure at the shoot out at Cde Tongo’s house. I narrated how things went. I was then asked whether I knew that Cde Mataure was dead and I said I didn’t know about that. The court then told me that Cde Mataure had been killed during the shoot out at Cde Tongo’s house.

I said I wasn’t aware of this and only the Zambian police could know because they were the ones who fired at us. I could understand how Cde Mataure could have been killed because he wasn’t a military man and he was on the driving seat.

The British lawyer tried to make many scenarios and in the end asked me whether I didn’t feel remorseful that Cde Mataure was dead. I stood my ground saying I didn’t know he had died and that was it. The judge asked the lawyer if he still had any more questions and he said he didn’t have any more questions. The judge said I could step down from the box. The whole gallery clapped hands and cheered for me. From then on, the character Chemist became strong in Lusaka. A few days later, everybody else was released.

I understand Cde Mnangagwa was working behind the scenes as a lawyer to ensure our release. I never got the chance to thank him.

Despite my position, despite the capture and torture and despite everything, I gave it all for Zimbabwe. I refused the political asylum because one day I wanted to go back home. I had a home. I had taken a position to fight the Rhodesians and nothing was going to stop me from doing that.

SM: What do you mean when you say Chemist became strong in Zambia?

Cde Chemist: Everybody now knew me. People were curious to see this Chemist who had stood his ground in court. This was the turning point for the case. In September 1976, we were released. We came out of prison and the person I was now a bit close to was Cde Webster Shamu. He took me to Cde Manyika’s house in Lusaka.

SM: Do you think the Zambians handled this case properly?

Cde Chemist: No, not at all. That’s why I refused their asylum. It was against the spirit of the war and I think the Zambians wanted to settle a score with Zanu.

SM: Why?

Cde Chemist: Zanu had proved a point that the Rhodesians could be defeated and the Zambians were not prepared to face this reality. This is another unfortunate chapter of our liberation struggle.

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  • Kudzai M

    Mr Huni your interview ended prematurely. What happened to Cde Chemist after his release? Did he continue with the struggle?

    What was his relationship with the released commanders who had tortured him? Where is he now and what is he doing. may you expand on the last 3 questions. thank you.

    • Muzimbo

      Read chronicles by Chemist himself and you will be answered, the are there under the bloggers column.