He has a rich history in the liberation struggle. He rubbed shoulders with some of the country’s early nationalists like Nikita Mangena and Jason Moyo and went on to train some comrades like the late Cde Solomon Mujuru who went on to become high ranking officials in the Zimbabwe National Army.
Yet he remains humble and can even afford to smile when he is talking about issues that he is “very, very bitter” about. As we head towards the Heroes and Defence Forces holidays next week, our Assistant Editor, Munyaradzi Huni (MH), sat down with Retired Brigadier Ambrose Mutinhiri (AM) to hear about his uncelebrated journey during the liberation struggle. Read on . . .
MH: Retired Brigadier Mutinhiri, can you briefly tell us about yourself?
AM: Well, Ambrose Mutinhiri is a self-made person, who has risen to what he is through his own efforts. Peasant background, born of peasant parents and brought up partly in that peasant life and partly in Harare. My education started in the rural areas then I moved to Harare for part of my secondary education and from there went into politics.
MH: When exactly did you join the liberation struggle and what were the reasons that led you to join the struggle?
AM: My father was a very active person in the National Democratic Party (NDP) and I know that we joined the NDP. I was very young but he bought membership cards for all of us which he never gave to us but he showed us. I only became active in politics myself in 1962. The reasons, you know the environment in which I lived in Harare played a part in my active participation in active politics.
MH: What was that environment like?
AM: At that time the nationalist movements were very active in Highfield and, as you may be aware, almost all of them, nationalist parties, were founded in Highfield and so there were a lot of activities in Highfield. Public rallies, resistance riots and so on and we lived in that environment and so we found ourselves involved in politics.
MH: So you are saying you became active in politics at that time, 1962, take us through the journey from then on.
AM: I didn’t leave the country in 1962 but I joined Zapu in 1962 and became a member of the youth league. The same year, I was arrested and sentenced to six strokes in the first instance and eight strokes in the latter. Because I was a juvenile they could not put me into prison, so all they could do was to give me a good beating.
MH: When you say they sentenced you to six and eight strokes, you are actually saying they beat you up?
AM: Yes, they beat me up.
MH: What did they use to beat you?
AM: I really don’t know what they called them in English but that was the sentence you got in the courts at that time. Six strokes at the magistrates’ court, then at the High court eight strokes.
MH: So you said you joined Zapu, now many people think Zapu was for Ndebele people only. As a Shona person, how did you end up in Zapu?
AM: Well, I think at that time the situation was different. Zapu had a national character, so to say, and I think I will not be far away from the truth if I say Zapu was more popular in Mashonaland than in Matabeleland at that time. The support base was very very strong both in rural Mashonaland and the urban areas.
MH: But as a Shona person, we understand the leadership of Zapu was predominantly Ndebele. Did you feel welcome?
AM: At that time whilst in this country, in Zimbabwe I wasn’t living among Ndebeles, I didn’t even know them at that time. I was among Shonas and all of us supporting Zapu. So there was nothing to think about in terms of tribes.
MH: But as the years went by, Zapu became a Matabeleland political party, when exactly did the party assume this character?
AM: I think this only came about when people began to leave the country and were regrouping outside. Remember, in 1962 Zanu was not there. Everybody belonged to Zapu. It was only in 1963 that Zanu was formed, then there was that distinction. Most Shonas went to Zanu and the majority of the Ndebeles remained in Zapu. This is a scenario that took place when we were outside the country.
MH: Now, tell us of your journey in the liberation struggle from the time you went out of the country.
AM: Yes, but let me cover this part of some of the things that influenced me to join the struggle, to be active in politics. I was born in this area (Mahusekwa), we lived there. My father left this area in search of good soils, he needed a farm. So he moved to Chitomborwizi and at that time, to have a farm, you were required to do some kind of apprenticeship, they called them master farmers, you would live with a farmer who is actually on his farm, you use part of his farm and you do your training there under this farmer under the supervision of a lands officer and after qualifying maybe after two or three years, then you are allocated a farm to buy, the normal small native purchase areas. So my father moved to Chitomborwizi, and whilst he was there, he was active in politics after qualifying to get a farm the system could not allow him to get a farm. At the same time he could not come back here. So he moved to Chirau area and settled there. The chief there didn’t support the nationalist movement.
MH: Which chief are you talking about here?
AM: Chief Chirau, he didn’t want my father to settle there because he thought my father would influence people in the area. My father resisted and just settled himself there. So there was this harassment by the system. He would be arrested from time to time, he was told he could not live there but he lived there. That harassment of my parents also added to my hatred of the white man. Remember I had never had any direct contact with
the white man. I had never worked for a white man. That treatment they gave to my parents made it worse and I was determined to fight this white man.
MH: So that’s when you formally left to join the struggle?
AM: So I decided it was time to go. We had a man, he is still there, called Augustine Mombeshora, he lived in the Chitomborwizi area, he was my teacher, he taught me but he was very active in politics also. He had left for Dar el Salaam. I made my investigations to find out how he had gone out there and there were all sorts of rumours that there was an army being formed out there and we were told that Mombeshora is one of the commanders. That was enough to motivate me to leave the country. So the party made arrangements for me, Zapu. There was a man called William Mukarati, he is the one who made all the necessary arrangements for me to leave. We left with a friend using Clan Transport. It was still during the Federation, that was now 1963.
There were roadblocks on the way but we would walk before the roadblocks and rejoin our truck after the roadblock. So he took us to Lusaka and during that period you could be arrested in Zambia because the Federation was there also. So you had to be very careful. So we moved into Lusaka, we had a letter with us, for the introduction. So we gave this letter to Willie Musarurwa, he is the man who was in Lusaka. Later on we moved to Dar el Salaam, the same year 1963. In 1964, I was chosen to go for military training. In 1964 around February we left for the USSR, the then USSR, Soviet Union.
MH: When you say “we”, who are these others you are referring to?
AM: We were a group of six. The first Zimbabweans to undergo military training in the USSR. The group was led by the late national hero, Ackim Ndlovu, he was our group leader. The other members of the group were the late Robson Manyika, myself, Elliot Mlala, Arthur Nyoni and John Moyo.
MH: Of these six, how many are still surviving?
AM: I am aware of two. Elliot Mlala and I. So there we were in 1964, did military training. It was a ten-month training programme, almost the whole year. It included all sorts of things, military training, intelligence, political training, political awareness and we came back at the end of the year1964 to Dar el Salaam. We moved to Lusaka and Ackim Ndlovu became the head of what was to be known as Special Affairs. It was a department which was directly under the acting president then James Chikerema. All those who had undergone military training fell under this department of Special Affairs. But the situation was very difficult in Zambia that time, you could not carry out operations because you could be arrested for that. So the whole exercise was underground. We were there in Zambia but we were doing things underground.
MH: It must have been very difficult . . .
AM: Very, very difficult indeed. So I remained in Zambia for the rest of 1965. In 1966, the leadership then decided I should go to Tanzania to run a recording camp, the camp that was going to be receiving all the cadres who were coming from outside who had already been trained from Korea,
China, Soviet Union wherever, all over the world. All the people who were trained, they would first come to this camp. The camp was under the command of the overall command because all the liberation movements, there were five liberation movements in that camp, Kongwa was the name of that camp. There was the ANC of South Africa, MPLA of Angola, Frelimo of Mozambique, Swapo of Namibia and Zapu from Zimbabwe. So the overall command was under a Tanzanian officer and then the camp commanders of these liberation movements who reported directly to him.
I became the second-in-command of that camp, the Zapu element. I had distinguished myself during training as a young man because I was very young. One of the tasks was to unify the various training programmes that we had received from various countries and try and unify that training so that the cadres were able to operate together.
Kind of standardisation if you may call it so that at the end of the day, people spoke the same language, their tactics, their everything was the same.
So I remained there until 1967 when the Organisation of African Unity, the Liberation Committee, offered us a bigger camp at a place called Morogoro. So we moved to Morogoro and I became the chief instructor there. We trained the first group of 200 cadres, followed by another 200.
The second group that’s where the likes of the late national hero, Rex Nhongo (the late Cde Solomon Mujuru) was. He was part of that group in 1968, the likes of General Maseko, he is there in Bulawayo. So yes, these were in that group. The Nharis, if you have ever heard of the Nhari rebellion from the Zanla side, all those guys were in that group. So most of the time I was running the training and later on I became the commander of that camp.
MH: We hear you also trained Cde Obert Mpofu?
MH: Cde Philip Valerio Sibanda?
AM: Yes. All those comrades. There are several I can mention because training was my baby. I loved training. I was young and adventurous. I really enjoyed training. So I remained there until the early ’70s when there was a problem within the liberation movements. Things came to a standstill.
MH: What were these problems?
AM: These problems had to do with the leadership. This was the period when most leaders were released from detention here. There was a power struggle amongst the leaders and so the Frontline States did not know who to support and who not to support. There was a problem. That caused problems even amongst the fighters. Morale was very low and everything just went wrong. This is what later on led to the formation of Zipra.
MH: This was a joint formation between Zanla and Zipra, isn’t it?
AM: Yes. It was during that period when some leaders realised that the struggle had come to a standstill. There was nothing happening and we had confused the Frontline States. They didn’t know what to do. But Mozambique was free and there was an influx of refugees into Mozambique. It was an open border so a lot of people crossed. So there was nobody to receive these people. So they just got there, received by Frelimo and stayed there. So the late Jason Moyo and others met, I think this was an initiative really by Samora Machel and President Nyerere that let’s leave out the politicians for the time being until they sort themselves out.
And let’s get the fighters to get together and continue the struggle. So five officers were dispatched to Lusaka including myself. We were led by the late Nikita Mangena, myself, the late Golden Munyanyi, Report Mphoko, who is now our ambassador to South Africa, and I can’t remember the fifth one. From Zanla there were five officers also led by Cde Rex Nhongo, Dzino, what’s his name again, Wilfred, James Nyikadzinashe, Elias Hondo, there was a fifth one, Mark Dube.
MH: Sorry, make us understand something here. So you trained Cde Rex Nhongo, under Zipra?
MH: And now he was under Zanla?
AM: Yes. This will take us back to your earlier question, the Shona-Ndebele issue. There was some kind of a conflict. The Shonas were not well received. As you know the leadership on the Zapu side was predominently Ndebele. So there are those who could not take it. And they left. Like Robson Manyika, he was one of the first to leave Zapu and cross to Mozambique. Then came this other group comprising of, it must have been ten or eleven.
MH: So we go back to these two groups of five . . .
AM: Yes, we formed a ten-man command which we later expanded to eighty because ten was too small. Fighters were brought from Zambia, those who were in Mozambique, we brought them together and launched the war supported, of course, by the OAU’s Liberation Committee. It was that war that we launched in 1975, it never stopped. That’s the war that liberated this country. We had our own problems which led to us splitting again but that launch was the final launch.
MH: This launch was under ZIPA?
AM: Yes, it was ZIPA under Rex Nhongo. He was the commander, deputised by John Dube from the Zapu side. Nikita Mangena was the commissar.
MH: So at that time what was your role?
AM: I was the director of training.
MH: Oh, there you are in training again?
AM: Yes, yes. I was now training ZIPA.
MH: You were fighting together, so when did the split between Zanla and Zipra occur and why?
AM: The politicians. I think soldiers respect each other and I think because of fate they face the same fate so they easily work together. But the politics. Really if you ask me today what were the main reasons that led to our split, I have no explanation. I don’t have any sensible explanation, except that others belonged to Zanu and others to Zapu.
MH: So where are we now? Ok, ZIPA is fighting, what happens after that?
AM: We then had the Geneva Conference. We couldn’t go as ZIPA to Geneva. Political leadership had to come in. So we had the late Vice-President Joshua Nkomo on the Zapu side and the now President, Cde Mugabe also coming in on the Zanu side. Then we were already aligned as fighters. Those from Zanu were aligned to President Mugabe and those from Zapu were aligned to Vice-President Nkomo. So that was it. From Geneva we went to Zambia, and that element that belonged to Zanu went to Mozambique. It was at that time in Zapu that I rose to become the chief of general staff. In other words I was second-in-command to Nikita Mangena, that was ’76, ‘77 and ’78 Mangena died. At that time, things took a sharp turn.
MH: When Nikita died?
AM: Yes. In fact things took a sharp turn when Jason Moyo died. Then Nkomo came to Zambia to take over the leadership. (pause) Things really changed. Remember Chikerema and Jason Moyo were the real founders of Zipra, and you couldn’t help cadres singing about Jason Moyo being the founder and so on.
That didn’t go down well with some of the leaders. So people were named the Jason Moyo boys and whatever. We had our own problems.
So when Mangena died, I was the obvious person to succeed him but no, things did not work out that way.
AM: Well, I suppose Joshua Nkomo wanted people he knew, people he knew very well. People he was with either at Gonakudzingwa in prison , he preferred those. So instead, Lookout Masuku was appointed commander. I did not hold really any meaningful position. I was just being tasked to do things, most of the times outside Zambia, go to Ethiopia, visiting camps and so on. I did not have any specific post or assignment. That was the situation.
MH: So how would you characterise your relationship with people like Nikita Mangena, Lookout Masuku and Jason Moyo?
AM: We were very close. Very, very close. (pause) Nikita Mangena and Lookout Masuku we met for the first time at this receiving camp, Mangena was coming from Algeria where he did his training, Masuku was coming from the Soviet Union.
We got to know each other. Mangena was also somebody who had distinguished himself during training in Algeria. He was really outstanding as a military leader. He got a present from the then President of Algeria for being the best student. So he was someone who knew his stuff. So we got to know each other and we respected each other. And so we started working together from that receiving camp. We had identified Mangena to be one of the instructors when we moved to Morogoro. Lookout Masuku joined us. He was a very good political leader.
MH: We see that you were involved mostly in training and you trained many cadres. Did you ever go to the battle front?
AM: Naturally, you know if you were to remain current, to change your programmes and so on and yes, I went to the front but not to fight. I went to assess.
MH: During this time, you obviously lost some of the comrades you had either trained or you had at some point associated with. Who are some of these comrades who quickly come to mind?
AM: There are many. There were many. Like I told you, training was my main task. There are so many. People like Assaf, people like our
communications chief, am forgetting the name. There were several of them.
MH: We also understand that you are one of the survivors from the massacre at Freedom Camp. Tell us exactly what happened on this fateful day
AM: Yes. On that day, very sad. It was our headquarters, Zipra headquarters. Like any guerrilla camp, you have to be mobile, move from time to time. So it was really one week after we had moved our headquarters from Freedom camp, to a new location that the place was attacked. We had left behind or brought in some people, civilians not yet trained, awaiting to go for training. Those were the people in that camp.
On that day, I was visiting that camp, Freedom Camp. The attacks started before I had even entered the camp. I saw people running, so I said to my driver stop. What’s happening? And as I stepped out of the car, to find out what was happening, there were planes over us, attacking. We were defenceless, no weapons, so we just ran for cover.
MH: How did you survive? Was there a bush nearby or what?
AM: Yes, there was a bush nearby. We managed to drive the car into the bush.
MH: Did your driver survive?
AM: Yes. He survived. We were the first, soon after we felt that the attack had stopped. We drove into the camp.
MH: Tell us what the situation was like in the camp?
AM: (pause, tears filling his eyes) It was bad, really really bad. It was very bad. Limbs there, heads there, screaming all over. Someone is asking for water, you fetch water, by the time you get there he is no more. It’s sad, it’s really sad. You can’t really describe it. You know attacks, bombs, napalm bombs. Napalm was supposed to have been outlawed sometime back but the Rhodesians used napalm. Large scale.
MH: So sad indeed. Then what happened after seeing all this?
AM: By then almost everybody had known that there was an attack. Zambians played a very big part. They were able to transport some of our wounded, who had managed to escape but got as far as the roads. So the Zambians who were driving along the roads, picked them up and rushed them to hospital. So information was all over that there was this kind of thing.
The planes, the bombs you know, Freedom Camp is just a few kilometre from Lusaka about 30 kilometres or so. So everybody knew there was this tragedy and so everybody started coming. We later buried the dead comrades in mass graves.
MH: As one of the leaders you must have felt bad.
AM: You know for a person who was in a position of leadership, like I was at that time, it’s annoying, it was very very annoying but again we had to
revise the way we looked after our cadres, the way we received them. We had to revise all that, the concentration of people, the numbers of people in some areas. All that had to be revised.
MH: As one of the leaders, do you regret that you should have handled the issue in a better way? Did you feel like you had let these people . . .
AM: Yes, yes, yes. Certainly. If these people had been kept in small groups, even though it was difficult to handle people in small groups and from
a security point of view, the Zambians wouldn’t welcome that but really we felt we had let them down. It was too big a concentration of people at a small place like that and without any form of defence.
MH: During my interview with Cde Dabengwa a few weeks back, he indicated to me that at integration and demobilisation, there were some Zipra comrades who were not happy because their role in the struggle was not being recognised. He said this led to the dissident menace. According to you, what caused the dissident menace?
AM: Well, I was no longer in the inner circle at that time so I would be telling lies to say anything about that. I don’t know whether this was planned or not. I really can’t say anything, but I also don’t know the comrades who were unhappy and decided to take up arms.
MH: So during Gukurahundi you were . . .
AM: I was in the States.
MH: Now, in light of what happened to you at integration when you were left out, what are your views of the late VP Nkomo because he was the Zapu leader then?
AM: (pause) My views? (laughs) Well, he was a good leader, national leader and he did his part, but I wouldn’t like to antagonise relations because some of the things may be personal. You know maybe somebody doesn’t like you as a person.
MH: What do you think of the people who are using, issues like Gukurahundi for political gain?
AM: I think that is very very sad. It’s not wise, to say the least. The history of mankind is a history of conflict. And without forgiveness, I think this world would be in pieces. Even our own history as a country, we have had conflicts. If you want to start digging into those conflicts, we will not have peace in this country. Things that happened , happened, let’s forgive and move on.
MH: Can you tell us a little more about the Hwange Campaign because we understand many Zipra cadres perished during this campaign?
AM: Well, the Hwange Campaign was our first major operation. Again, I think people who had not really grasped the essence of a guerrilla campaign, because again the huge concentration of fighters in an area and these people were not properly equipped to defend themselves. That’s 1967. People not equipped to protect themselves against an organised and well-equipped enemy. It was a disaster. We teamed up together with the ANC of South Africa but it was a disaster.
MH: You think things could have been handled in a better way?
AM: Yes, yes. Had we really done what we knew was supposed to be done. You know as guerrillas you know when to fight, you hit and run, you attack at will, you fight when you want, you choose the time and everything. You don’t present yourself as a target.
MH: What was your role at that time?
AM: I was still a trainer.
MH: So you were actually not there?
MH: And the downing of Viscount 1 and 2 aircraft?
AM: Then I was in the command. I was the chief of staff of Zipra. Well, the target really was, the first one, we were targeting tourism as an industry. We wanted to disrupt it completely. We had succeeded in disrupting tourism in the Zambezi area, hunting and so on. Remember we also destroyed the Elephant Hills hotel. So we had succeeded but you see, tourists kept on coming to Kariba by air, to Victoria Falls by air. So we wanted them to know that it’s not safe to travel in the air. So we did that. The second one was an accident, really. We were targeting General Walls (Rhodesian army commander), who happened to be in Kariba. He was using a Viscount that day. But instead of him leaving first, he chose to leave later. So the first Viscount which was carrying civilians was brought down. He then left, changed the route and went by road.
MH: At independence, during
integration you were from the Zapu side. What were some of challenges that you faced at this time?
AM: Yeah, that’s where some of (pause) the things I even don't want to remember today happened. First, when it was time to come back home, I was left in the cold. Dabengwa became the head of the team that came although he is not a military man. He was appointed to head the team and my friend, Lookout Masuku, was to be under Dabengwa and then some of the people we were with were not part of the high command. Let me not talk about others, let me talk about myself, I was left in the cold. So I came here. . .
MH: But why were you left out? How did this happen because this is the second time this was happening to you?
AM: Eeeer, (pause) I will be open here. From the Zapu side, I suppose the leadership thought the Shonas were well represented from Maputo where Zanu was. So there was no need to get some more Shonas from their side, strengthening this other side. Yeah. That was the feeling. People talked about it. I personally approached Dabengwa and asked him why am I not in the high command. At integration, the whole thing was very fair, so many generals from Zipra, so many generals from Zanla and so many brigadiers, so many positions were allocated. I was left out and
that’s when I approached Dabengwa to find out what the situation was and all he could tell me was ahh, well sorry, we are full. There is no place.
MH: So, Cde Dabengwa was your senior?
AM: Well, we belonged to different departments and he was in the party longer than me. In that sense he was my senior.
MH: So are you saying they did not give you any post? Nothing, nothing really?
AM: Nothing, nothing.
MH: Cde Mutinhiri, take us through the journey that you travelled after meeting President Mugabe in independent Zimbabwe?
AM: Then I was integrated into the army as Lieutenant Colonel, sent to the USA as defence advisor, came back after promotion to full colonel and appointed again as director of army training. Took active part in integration as director of training. Promoted to brigadier, left army headquarters then to command 2 Brigade. When I was director of army training, I took command of Special Taskforce in Mozambique, came back, I had just done my intermediate staff course, did another command course at Staff College, then commanding 2 Brigade. I took 2 Brigade to the Special
Taskforce in Mozambique.
MH: Tell us a bit more about that campaign in Mozambique.
AM: Well, our mission really was to protect our communication lines, our lines of communication, the pipeline, the road, the railway line. It wasn’t a very easy task on foreign land, fighting small groups, people not in uniform. You don’t know who is who. During the day you can be eating and drinking together, at night they are blowing up the pipeline. I think the ZNA did a very good job to protect our lines of communication and, by and large, we succeeded in bringing peace to that country.
MH: After that campaign, what else did you do?
AM: Then I came back into the army at 2 Brigade. In 1992, I then again went to the President and said there is Tungamirai, we are almost the same age and this means we are going to retire at the same time. What that meant was that I had reached my ceiling. I asked him to find me something else to do. So he said to me what do you want? I said anything you know outside the Defence Forces. So I was then considered for a diplomatic posting. I joined Foreign Affairs after retiring from the army. I was then appointed ambassador to Yugoslavia, Hungary and Albania. I covered those three countries from Belgrade. It was a very interesting posting because Yugoslavia then was disintegrating.
MH: Then you came back?
AM: I came back. What happened was that the man who was MP for this area was a personal friend of mine, Rufaro Gwanzura. He paid me a visit to Yugoslavia when I was winding up. He was coming to say thank you for the support I had given him after the election in 2000. We were going to meet here. So I came here first and we never met. The next thing I heard was that he was involved in a car accident.
I was just one week back in the country. So I was approached by people from this area to replace him. You were his friend, so on and so on. I took up the offer but I had wanted, from Yugoslavia, I wanted to come and rest. Maybe do business or whatever. So I accepted and became an MP for Marondera West. I became a Minister of Youth, Gender and Employment Creation 2004. Then Minister of Youth Development and Employment Creation must be in 2005 after the elections, a post I held until the formation of the inclusive Government.
MH: You worked with President Mugabe as a Minister, how can you describe him?
AM: He is a teacher in the true sense of the word. You can’t spend a minute with President Mugabe and you don’t learn something. He is a leader who listens. He is tolerant.
MH: Cde Mutinhiri, as we conclude, you definitely have a very rich history dating back to the liberation struggle up until you became the MP for Marondera West. How have you managed to remain this humble? Even when you were disappointed during integration, you didn’t decide to take up arms as others did. Why?
AM: I guess this is my nature. That’s me.