In late 1978, Zanu’s Secretary for Defence Cde Josiah Magama Tongogara granted a rare interview to Zimbabwe News in which he gave his views on Zanu leaders and insights into the evolution of Zanla into a giant fighting ensemble that eventually crushed colonial rule in Zimbabwe. The Sunday Mail reproduces that interview from “Tongogara: In His Own Words”, published by African Publishing Group 2015, in support of the Josiah Magama Tongogara Legacy Foundation.
Cde Tongogara answered questions in which he recounted the growth of Zanla from a small band of committed men numbering about 100 in 1964, to about 400 in 1967, and to the mammoth army of many thousands of men and women who successfully challenged and defeated the white Rhodesian army and air force by the late 1970s.
At the beginning of the liberation war 14 years ago, the Rhodesian Army enjoyed many advantages – experience of action in two world wars, sophisticated weaponry, mobility, financial resources and a strong determination to defy and defeat the African nationalist movement.
However, after many years of painstaking work by the Zimbabwe African National Union, led by Cde Robert Mugabe, and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, led by Cde Joshua Nkomo, now together in the Patriotic Front, their committed commanders and their guerrilla army – out in the bush with little food, clothing, and very few weapons, under the political leadership of the parties – had slowly tipped the balance against the powerfully armed Rhodesian forces.
In a rare interview, Zanu’s Secretary for Defence, Cde JM Tongogara, spoke candidly about the successes and failures of the last 14 years of armed struggle, and stressed that in Zanu “it is politics that commands the gun” that liberates the country.
Q: Please recount the early history of Zanla – its origins, problems and programmes. . .
A: After the Gwelo Congress in 1964, military work was started within the Department of Public Affairs.
Planning and training cadres for a protracted armed struggle was started. When the party was banned in Zimbabwe in 1964, the members of the Central Committee who had been detained instructed those who were outside to continue with the preparations and operations for armed struggle.
A Revolutionary Council, headed by Cde Chitepo, was formed, consisting of those members of the Central Committee who were outside and others who were emerging from the Military Planning Committee.
Our general strategy was to face homewards, mobilise the masses and recruit new cadres.
The programme succeeded, although we met many difficulties such as the geographical barriers of the Zambezi River and the escarpment on the Zambezi side of the river, which is uninhabited.
We had to cross the Zambezi in canoes and dinghy boats which did not make noise.
The enemy engaged agents who patrolled the river daily and reported any tracks and footprints. Even after crossing the river, it took us between two and five days walking through forbidding and thick bush before we reached the first villages. Water was scarce and dangerous wild animals were plentiful.
These geographical factors slowed down our infiltration and recruitment programmes, but after some time we managed to penetrate deep into the population behind enemy lines.
The battles at Sinoia, Makute, Binga and Urungwe were some examples of the success of our programme at the time.
Q: What were the special features and lessons to be drawn from the north-eastern offensive in 1972?
A: In order to find an answer for tomorrow, one should study the past and present. A war progresses in stages, and one should study carefully the past and the present stage in order to avoid problems of tomorrow.
I have said that we made our mistakes in the 1960s. We studied these mistakes and geographical obstacles referred to above. We also studied the characteristics of all border populations.
We found that when Zanu was formed in 1963, it had received strong support in north and north-eastern areas and in the Midlands.
Furthermore, by moving to the north-east, we minimised the difficulties of terrain and geography. We started negotiations with Frelimo with a view to utilising their liberated areas in Tete province of Mozambique as an entry point to Zimbabwe.
We submitted a programme of action in 1971 which they accepted.
We sent a scouting team consisting of Meya Urimbo (who later became Chief Political Commissar), Ernest Kadungure (later the Secretary for Finance), Justin Chauke (later Deputy Secretary for Welfare and Transport) and Joseph Chimurenga (member of the High Command) to survey the area and ascertain the possibilities.
After six months of thorough study and discussions with Zimbabwean peasants, they reported that the conditions were favourable. We then sent in 45 comrades as commissars to go and organise the masses, raise their consciousness and identify their national grievances.
At the same time, we carried weapons and war materials into strategic areas so that when the fighting started, the enemy would not cripple our supplies by cutting our supply lines.
We spent six months building up our material supplies and weaponry inside the country.
Although the journey from Chifombo in Zambia to Mukumbura on the border between Mozambique and Zimbabwe was long and arduous – 180 miles carrying food and weapons on our backs – we were able to put several tonnes of weapons inside the country.
In this Herculean task, we were assisted by Mozambican peasants who carried large quantities of ammunitions to the Zimbabwean border. From Mukumbura into the north-eastern districts, we were assisted by Zimbabwean peasants who regarded the war as indeed their own.
The north-eastern area was particularly favourable because the people still remembered the battles fought in 1897 and as late as 1917. Nehanda, the famous spirit medium, had taken the last stand against colonisation in this region.
Furthermore, Zimbabweans could see what Frelimo had achieved in liberating Mozambicans from Portuguese colonialism and fascism across the border.
Some of our comrades took refresher courses with Frelimo and participated in some battles where they saw Frelimo fighters defeating the common enemy. All these factors combined to raise the morale of our people, and generate enthusiasm for the war.
When we felt we had our people, a grip on the area, we struck the first blow with the massive force in the rich settler farming district of Centenary on December 22, 1972.
Q: What is your view on the unity of the fighting forces and the political movements of Zimbabwe?
A: Unity of the fighting forces is of paramount importance. You can never succeed without maintaining the unity of the forces. But unity emerges from a high level of political consciousness among cadres and their commitment to common objectives in the armed struggle.
Zanla forces have remained intact through the many years of struggle. The question of unity with Zapu was tackled at many stages by the party, Zanu.
In 1964, the foreign ministers of Malawi and Zambia convened a meeting of Zanu and Zapu leaders in Lusaka in an effort to unite us, but it was still too soon and we were each pursuing our own paths towards liberation by armed struggle.
Again in 1971, we formed the Joint Military Command with the objective of forming one formidable army of Zanla and the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, the armed wing of Zapu.
We took the Joint Military Command seriously, but it foundered again on the different approaches to liberation through armed struggle.
When Zanu members of the Dare (Dare reChimurenga, the external executive) and the High Command were arrested and detained in Zambia in 1975, we held discussions in prison with the late Jason Moyo, then leader of the external wing of Zapu.
We sponsored and approved the formation of the joint Zimbabwe People’s Army for the purpose of continuing the armed struggle. Our political leaders who had been released in Rhodesia also called for national unity in Zimbabwe with Zapu.
The young men in the General Staff of Zanla who formed Zipa rose to the occasion and did an excellent job of re-organising the armed struggle and opening new areas, and launching of new offensives, but they forgot that they had commanders more senior and experienced than themselves and they lacked the political maturity to move to the next stage.
The Patriotic Front of Zanu and Zapu was formed for the purpose of confronting the British government and the Rhodesian regime together, as one fighting entity, and for co-ordinating our armed struggle in Zimbabwe generally.
It was not formed for a Geneva conference of November 1976 as some people have alleged.
We have steadily and surely broadened our areas of co-operation over time.
We have put behind us any possibilities of a major military conflict between Zipra and Zanla, although there may be mischievous and self-seeking individuals who may try to incite one army against the other.
I must stress that both Zipa and the Patriotic Front were creations of the people of Zimbabwe and their leaders after careful analysis of the demands of the armed struggle and the objective situation.
Before these steps were taken, we had long and comprehensive discussions with Zapu political and military leaders, especially the late Jason Ziyaphapha Moyo.
Q: What was the impact on the liberation war of the three phases détente in 1974, 1976 and 1978?
A: The stated reason for the détente exercise was to stop the spread of communism into southern Africa, but the real objective was to destroy the liberation movement.
It nearly succeeded because the imperialists managed to eliminate our illustrious chairman, Herbert Wiltshire Chitepo, who was the rallying point of the liberation struggle, with a bomb in his car in Lusaka in March 1975, and less than two years later, they killed JZ Moyo with a parcel bomb sent to his office in Lusaka in January 1977.
The Geneva Conference in 1976 was a second front created by our fighting forces who had now pinned down the enemy.
The achievement of independence in Mozambique in 1975 had removed most of the geographical barriers we had encountered in the past, and opened a new frontier of 800 miles (1 200km) that made it possible for us to launch new offensives in eastern and southern areas of the country.
Ian Smith, who boasted that he would never sit at a conference table with Africans, had to eat his words and come to Geneva.
At the Geneva Conference, the enemy started on a new strategy of creating protégés among Zimbabwean nationalists, and opposition groups that pretended to be revolutionary but actually set up to defeat the revolutionary cause and disrupt the process.
Alliances and contacts were made with Ndabaningi Sithole, James Chikerema and others, and they were promised safe return if only they condemned the fighting forces.
This move was not unexpected. A liberation war process goes through many phases.
When you reach the decisive stage, the enemy creates protégés and opposition groups within the liberation forces in an attempt to rob the people of final military victory and to perpetuate the dying colonial system in new guise and new way.
We were surprised at Geneva to find some African people and some so-called leaders who were talking the same language as the enemy.
Once the enemy showed an inclination to talk to them and to incorporate them in his exploitative and repressive system, the struggle for them was over.
Q: What about the toiling masses back home?
A: Fortunately for us, and because of the experience we had accumulated over the years in the struggle, Zanu survived these imperialist pressures and remained committed to the correct political and military line.
Our leadership continued to put the interests of the masses before everything else, and so did Zapu.
Our leadership kept its ears to the ground, listening to the voice of the people, and our eyes were wide open to counteract and foil imperialist manoeuvres by the United States, Britain, apartheid South Africa and the racists at home.
We are also fortunate in choosing friends who backed us to the hilt in our mounting resistance to the détente exercises.
The Front Line States – under the chairmanship of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania – and the socialist world backed us in our resolve to continue the struggle.
A luta continua, as Frelimo says in Mozambique.
Q: What has been the basic strategy of Zanla in the current phase, and where does it draw most of its support in the Zimbabwe population?
A: President Robert Mugabe has said that this year, 1978, is to be the Year of the People when we should create political base areas within Zimbabwe.
We are working hard in the north, north-east, east, south-east, south and south-west to create areas where we can place a new administration, establish party structures, and run civil administration providing social services to the people.
This phase of consolidating our political power in these areas is a difficult one, but it has been made easy by the support we have among the people.
The masses of Zimbabwe have denounced the so-called internal settlement in total, and they are rallying to the cause of true liberation which we represent. We have attacked and destroyed many protected villages and freed the people.
President Mugabe has estimated that a million people now live in areas where they can no longer be molested by the oppressive settler administration, and they are co-operating with our army in establishing a new socio-economic order. The bastion of our support has been the Zimbabwe peasantry, but the workers in the cities, students in the high schools and universities and intellectuals have joined in a massive national democratic revolution.
Strikes of workers and students have disrupted the enemy’s administration and swelled the ranks of our forces and recruits. All the masses of Zimbabwe have joined in a massive national and patriotic war.
Q: What is your personal view of the political leaders under whom and with whom you have worked in Zanu?
A: Well, our first president was Ndabaningi Sithole. I found him to be thoroughly dishonest and possessing typical reactionary and capitalist ideas. He does not have a single idea about socialism in his head, although he has written books about it.
After his release from detention in 1974, it was my task to brief him on the progress of the liberation war.
I found that he did not know a thing about the ongoing revolution. All he wanted was to remain leader of Zanu. He thought that he was impressing me when he told me that he would see to it that we have farms, cars and lots of properties in a free Zimbabwe.
He imagined that we spent so many years in the bush to get farms and cars for ourselves. I was not surprised to hear that Sithole was conniving with the enemy in prison.
When he was released and we were detained in Zambia, we expected Sithole to offer direction and leadership to the party but he did not.
He turned a deaf ear to all of us, tried to appoint persons from his district to key positions in Zanla, paid no attention to victims of the Mboroma shooting or the wives and children of detainees, and he blessed the international interpretation of the events leading to the assassination of Comrade Herbert Chitepo. As we could no longer have a tribalist and reactionary at the head of a revolutionary liberation movement, we consulted and agreed on the Mgagao document which effectively deposed him.
The late Herbert Chitepo cannot be compared to Sithole.
Although he had grown up at a mission school and became one of the leading intellectuals in Zimbabwe, he quickly adapted to the needs and demands of the revolution. He mixed freely with people and listened to their grievances. During his nine years of leadership of Zanu, he became a father of the party. More importantly, he understood and internalised the process of the revolution.
Bishop Abel Muzorewa is a churchman who cannot even slaughter a chicken, but surprisingly at one time, he thought he could lead an armed struggle. I was summoned to a private office in the State House of Zambia in November 1974 to confer with the bishop.
There he told me of his plan to return to Salisbury with Sithole, Nkomo and others, and then return to Lusaka to visit the military camps with me.
I realised that the little bishop was power hungry and ambitious. I told him that he could only tour the camps in the company of Sithole who was the party leader at that time.
When he insisted on returning alone, I stood up, slammed the door in his face and left. Robert Mugabe, the present leader of Zanu, is a self-confident and principled man. He cannot be moved from principles he holds, or from collective decisions of his organisation.
His practice is firmly set against tribalism and regionalism; he judges issues on their merits, not on the colour, tribe or region of the person who has brought them up.
Zanu is blessed to have such a leader.
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