LAST week, Mr Dave Popatlal, born in 1942 in Mozambique narrated how around 1975, by divine intervention he bumped into Cde Chrispen Mandizvidza who had been sent by Zanu to Maputo to look at how the party could relocate from Zambia to Mozambique.
He went on to narrate how he went on to become the link between Frelimo and Zanu in Maputo as he organised accommodation for members of the High Command and Central Committee. He explained that this was quite risky, but it was a risky worth it as he was assisting fellow comrades.
In this interview with our Deputy Editor, Munyaradzi Huni, Mr Popatlal continues his narration explaining how they buried Zanu comrades in Maputo, he speaks in detail about Cde Tongogara’s death revealing new and exciting details and how General Constantino Chiwenga got his first suit at his shop in Maputo. He concludes by explaining why at 75 years, he is still continuing his studies. Read on . . .
MH: Thank you once again, Mr Popatlal for your time. Now as we continue this interview, we would want to know whether as you assisted Zanu, you had the opportunity to sometimes meet President Mugabe in Maputo?
Mr Popatlal: Yes, I met him on quite a number of occasions, especially the days when we were celebrating Zanu Day, Takawira Day, Chitepo Day and so on. I want to emphasize here and take this opportunity to say we must revisit those celebrations because on those days celebrating Takawira Day, Chitepo Day and Zanu Day was special.
This was meant not only to remember but to strengthen the will to carry on with the struggle until final victory. President Mugabe would attend these gatherings. The comrades would sing revolutionary songs and honour those who passed away during the struggle. I was part of people who washed the bodies of the dead comrades and clothed them. I would organise their coffins and organize their funerals. President Mugabe would come and give speeches.
I also used to meet President Mugabe at the offices now and then. He was a very active person. I remember his office was on the 11th floor and he would go up to the 11th floor using the steps. He said he preferred the steps. He was a very dedicated leader. Fantastic person. Very friendly to all his comrades. A very responsible person.
MH: You spoke about organising funerals and so on. What would have happened to these comrades?
Mr Popatlal: Some passed away due to diseases like malaria and other natural causes. Even car accidents. There were no family members to bury them. That is when I would use all my facilities to make sure that they had a decent burial. Maputo was just a transit place for most of the comrades before they went for military training to countries such as Yugoslavia, Romania, China and so on. We would bury these comrades at the civilian cemeteries. There was no special place for them. It was up to the municipality to allocate them the burial space.
MH: Take us through the funeral procession.
Mr Popatlal: We had houses where we would lay the body. Their fellow comrades would sing revolutionary songs. All the officials present in Maputo would attend the session. They would be given the opportunity to pay tribute to the fallen comrade. The funeral services were also nationalized. There were no funeral services like we have in Zimbabwe today. So transport was difficult during those days. We would use our own pick-up truck. The other comrades would follow us in different vehicles. We would go to the cemetery and again some comrades would give speeches, encouraging other comrades to carry on with the struggle.
MH: We understand that when Zanu relocated to Maputo, some of its leaders like Cde Tongogara were in prison in Lusaka following the death of Cde Herbert Chitepo. Tell us how they later joined their fellow comrades in Maputo?
Mr Popatlal: They came after they were released to attend, I think it was the Malta Conference. At the same time, Frelimo gave total support to Zanu because Mozambique saw the need for Zanu to open up other fronts to execute the war. President Samora Machel was very vocal in giving Zanu that unconditional support. So when finally the Zanu leaders were released, they found their houses ready for occupation in Maputo.
MH: Some people say Frelimo seemed to support Zanu more than Zapu. Did you see this yourself?
Mr Poptlala: I don’t think that needs any comment. In the eyes of Frelimo, all liberation movements were the same.
MH: There were internal clashes in Zanu when the party relocated to Maputo. How did these clashes affect the assistance you were giving to Zanu?
Mr Popatlal: They didn’t affect us that much because Mozambicans took a position that any internal issues or misunderstandings should be solved by Zanu. Also the Zanu leadership had devised ways of dealing with their issues and we left them to run their party. Even when the Zanu leaders met for their meetings, that was not my area. They would meet on their own and they would choose where they wanted to meet. I was not involved at all. These were not part of my responsibilities. Remember we were assisting and not running Zanu. We left Zanu to the leaders of the party.
MH: Let’s talk about the death of Cde Tongogara briefly. You said his death was one of the deaths that you vividly recall. Tell us why?
Mr Popatlal: Comrade Tongogara was the commander of all the forces and he passed away at a very crucial moment of the struggle for Zimbabwe. Like I told you, he was the overall commander of all the forces but to me he was now a personal friend. I really felt the loss.
MH: When was the last time you had seen him alive?
Mr Popatlal: I saw him the day when Cde Rex Nhongo (Mujuru) was departing to Salisbury with the first contingent of uniformed comrades. After this, Cde Tongogara decided to travel by car to different bases to inform comrades about ceasefire. So I can say it was two days before he passed away.
When I spoke to him, he was very happy, enthusiastic and very satisfied that finally the war was over. He was really looking forward to meeting the comrades to deliver the message on ceasefire. We also spoke about the Lancaster House talks. Generally, he was a happy man.
MH: How did you get the news that Cde Tongo had passed away?
Mr Popatlal: I heard the news from Cde Nathan Shamuyarira. He phoned me saying Cde Tongo had died in a car accident on his way to Chimoio. I received the news with tears. I was in total shock. When I saw his body when it was brought to the mortuary in Maputo, I could see that this was a severe accident. The physical injuries on his body showed me that this was indeed a car accident.
I felt a great loss. This was a great man. All the Zanu comrades who were at Cde Muzenda’s house cried when they heard that Cde Tongo had passed away. All of them had tears in their eyes. All of them without any exception. It was shocking. I remember there was Cde Shamuyarira, Cde Mutasa, comrades in the administration department and many others. There was stone silence. Nobody could say anything. This was very, very sad. Everyone was shocked. Even some Mozambican officials, I saw them crying.
MH: The story of death of Cde Tongo would be incomplete without me asking you this direct question. There are many theories about the death of Cde Tongo. In your opinion and from what you saw, do you think Cde Tongo really died in a car accident?
Mr Popatlal: It was a genuine accident. What I was told had happened and the injuries on his body, there was consistency. You could see that his vehicle had hit behind another truck. You could see that the driver was trying to avoid hitting this other truck. According to reports, this truck moved suddenly into the middle to the road.
Before this, one of the vehicles carrying Cde Josiah Tungamirai had overtook this truck. Cde Tongo’s vehicle was following behind and was also trying to overtake this truck. I think the truck driver didn’t notice there was another car coming and he moved into the middle of the road. There was little time to react and Cde Tongo’s car hit this truck. I am told Cde Tongo was seated next to Cde Chamu (Cde Oppah Muchinguri). I was told that on impact, his forehead hit the windscreen. He had quite a number of injuries but very deep cuts on the lungs.
MH: After the announcement of Cde Tongo’s death, did you play any part or this was left to Zanu?
Mr Popatlal: Together with Cde Herbert Ushewokunze and another gentleman who came from Mashford Funeral Services from the then Rhodesia I assisted in the embalming process. This was a very delicate process to preserve the body because of the several injuries I told you about. His coffin was ordered from Salisbury (now Harare). Access to the mortuary where Cde Tongo’s body was, was very restricted.
I was given the responsibility to make sure that only few people had access to the body. I was also given the responsibility to safeguard the body until the whole funeral process.
After the attainment of independence, I was part of the team that brought Cde Tongo’s remains to Harare. I was very, very close to Cde Tongo and I was the one looking after his body in Maputo and so it was only natural that I be part of the team to bring him to Harare. A plane from the Air Force of Zimbabwe was dispatched to Maputo and I together with Cde Tongo’s family members who came from Zambia flew to Harare.
We took his body to Stodart Hall in Mbare from where the process to bury Cde Tongo at the National Heroes Acre started. Cde Tongogara was buried first then the remains of another comrade from Zapu were also buried at the national shrine. The remains of the two comrades were buried side by side.
MH: How would you describe the loss of Cde Tongo to Zanu and to Zimbabwe?
Mr Popatlal: Great loss. Very great loss. He was the commander of commanders. He played a crucial part during the war and at the Lancaster House talks. He was always preaching the principles of unity. One of Zanu’s pillars had been shaken and taken away but as per his motto, “the struggle had to continue.” I was happy when the other Zanu comrades decided to carry on from where he had left.
Whenever Cde Tongo visited my house, he would always say, “hey, Cde Popatlal, you must continue with the struggle whatever happens.” He would say, “Popatlal you must come and see our liberated Zimbabwe. Work with us and be part of us.” He would always thank me for the support. This made me part of the Zanu family.
MH: When you look back, do you think it was by accident that you met Cde Chrispen Mandizvidza leading to the establishment of this long relationship with Zanu?
Mr Popatlal: When I look back, my first meeting with Cde Chrispen Mandizvidza was through divine intervention. It would have compromised the principles and safety of many comrades had Cde Mandizvidza met the wrong person. Can you imagine I was organising accommodation for all the members of the Zanu High Command and the Central Committee? I even organised office space for Zanu and ensuring the safety and comfort of these comrades. This was divine coincidence because if Cde Mandizvidza had approached the wrong person, Zanu could have been heavily compromised in Mozambique.
MH: Your wife actually cooked for some of these comrades when they visited your house?
Mr Popatlal: Yes, she did. We felt that as friends, in our Asian tradition we invite our friends to our house. Also these comrades didn’t have family members in Maputo to socialise with or to entertain themselves. So whenever it was possible, whenever they were free they would come for simple meals at our house. But this simple meal on most occasions was at awkward times.
The comrades were so busy but they loved the family atmosphere that we provided. These comrades would come for dinner very late into the night but my wife was always ready to make nice food for them.
I remember Cdes Dzingai Mutumbuka, Tongogara, Simon Muzenda, Dydmus Mutasa and Kadungure are some of the comrades who really enjoyed Indian food. Cdes Mnangagwa, Kangai and Sekeremayi also used to visit our house. Chief Rekai Tangwena once came to our house. We would play them Indian music and they would enjoy themselves.
MH: You also spoke about this house that was meant for rehabilitation of the injured comrades. Tell us briefly about this house.
Mr Popatlal: Yes, this was meant to ensure the rehabilitation of the injured comrades or those who fell sick. This house was a bit out of Maputo and was under the management of Mrs Getrude Mutasa and Mrs Doroty Shamuyarira.
MH: While you were giving all this assistance to Zanu, didn’t your business suffer?
Mr Popatlal: I actually moved out of my business. My prime objective then was to assist Zanu than running my business. My young brother was assisting me to run the business. Of course the business was affected but we soldiered on.
I got satisfaction that I was assisting fellow comrades. The comrades would come walking in slippers and shorts and they would go dressed in suits. That made me very happy. You know General Chiwenga got his first suit at my shop. We were very proud to dress him. You see, we didn’t want our senior commanders to go out of the country not properly dressed. We took it upon ourselves to provide proper comfort to the comrades. We even supplied soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes and so on.
MH: How did you manage to source all these things?
Mr Popatlal: I don’t even know. When I look back I even wonder how I managed to do some of the things I did. I feel honoured because besides becoming part of Zanu I learnt a lot from these comrades. I learnt the concept of patriotism, the concept of citizenship and I learnt what it meant to be determined, to have a vision and a mission.
MH: As you are speaking, I am just wondering what are you now — Mozambican or Zimbabwean?
Mr Popatlal: It’s no longer an issue of nationality. We are comrades.
MH: Many people fought for the liberation of Zimbabwe through different means. The povho fought the struggle by providing food and shelter for the freedom fighters, Cdes like Chinx fought the war using music, Cdes like Felix Muchemwa fought the war using the syringe while others used the gun. What did you use to fight for the liberation of Zimbabwe?
Mr Popatlal: I used my heart and my sense of humanity. There were different spanners and instruments to fight the war. I value all who contributed to the liberation of Zimbabwe by whatever means.
MH: How would you describe the role that Mozambique played in the liberation of Zimbabwe?
Mr Popatlal: Mozambique played a fundamental role. Mozambique gave refugee to Zanu. They supported Zanu materially, morally, politically and strategically. The assistance cannot be quantified. Mozambicans sacrificed a lot — the citizens, the infrastructure and so on.
I am happy that the bond between Frelimo and Zanu-PF is still strong but I think there is need to increase the economic and social interactivity between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Through the Zimbabwe-Mozambique Friendship Association, we are trying our best to link the two countries at different levels but more still needs to be done.
MH: After playing such a crucial role for Zanu, did you receive any thank you after the attainment of Independence from Zanu-PF?
Mr Popatlal: We accomplished the job that was at hand. To me that is the biggest thank you. We won Independence. I played my part together with my wife and my family. The aim was never materialistic. I still I am part of this big family called Zanu-PF. I feel honoured and privileged to have played my part in the liberation of Zimbabwe. To me that is enough.
I don’t even think I deserved some post or to be given special treatment. However, just like it was before independence I am available to serve this nation whenever my services are required. I am 75 years old and still studying so that I serve this country unconditionally.
MH: Still studying at 75?
Mr Popatlal: Yes, I am still studying. This is the only way we can understand the new generation. As you know society is in constant transformation. It’s not always the case that we the elders should teach the youngsters. As elders we should also learn from the youngsters. The world is changing.
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