Mgagao clashes: A ZIPRA narrative

COMRADE Joseph Sibuko Mbedzi whose Chimurenga name was Cde Joseph Sibuko was born in 1951 in Beitbridge. He grew up in a family that was heavily involved in politics. His big Brother John Mbedzi was expelled from Zezani School because of his involvement in politics while the whole Mbedzi clan was banned from going to Wenela (South Africa) due to the politics.

In 1969, Cde Sibuko made his first attempt to skip the country and join the liberation struggle but he failed. In 1971, he got fed up with the continuous harassment from the Rhodesian forces and he decided to leave the country for Botswana to join the liberation struggle. On the day he left, he wrote a letter to one of his relatives: “Sekuru ndaenda kuhondo. Saka musanetseka, musanditsvage. Please tell my parents and after reading this letter, don’t show anyone, burn it.”

In this interview with our Deputy Editor Munyaradzi Huni, Cde Sibuko narrates the long journey they walked together with his relatives Mafungo Mbedzi and Ntateni Ndou from Beitbridge to Francistown. He speaks  about his training at Mgagao and the clashes between ZIPRA and ZANLA at Mgagao that left 48 ZIPRA comrades dead. He talks about the differences in military training between ZIPRA and ZANLA and explains how some Zambian soldiers one day came to his camp and saw him seated on top of a corpse of a fellow “comrade.” “I was actually smoking a Russian cigarette,” he brags. Read on . . .

 

MH: Comrade, thank you for your time. Now tell us how did you join the liberation struggle?

Cde Sibuko: We left home in 1971. When we got to Francistown, we were put in prisons. Most comrades who joined ZIPRA from Botswana went through this. The conditions in this prison were terrible. We were only allowed to see the sun for two hours the whole day from 12 to 2pm. We stayed in this prison for about three months. At one point we actually called for a strike saying we want to go for military training. I was actually thinking that once we get kuhondo, I continue with my education. I had left school during the first term of Form One so I was thinking of continuing with my education.

One day the ZAPU representative in Francistown called Bvuma came and told us that he wanted 20 comrades to go for military training. He then said to me “iwewe you are the platoon commander.” I didn’t even know what he was talking about. My deputy was John Sibula. I knew John because we had grown up together and went to the same schools in Beitbridge. We were then flown to Lusaka, Zambia and arrived during the night. Right in the middle of that night we were given a Zambian truck and were driven to Nampundwe Camp. This was a former ZANLA camp but after some clashes between ZANLA and the Zambians, ZANLA was removed from Nampundwe.

Around 5am the next day, we heard the sound of a whistle and someone shouting “parade, parade.” We were taken by surprise because we thought as people who had travelled during the night, we would be given time to rest. There was this comrade from Frelimo who when Mondlane died knew that he would be killed in Mozambique so he had joined ZAPU. We used to call him Frelimo or Toyi-Toyi. He was the instructor who took us through physical training. Very ruthless was that comrade, he would say “if you play around here I will kill you because the enemy doesn’t argue with you.” After two weeks, we were used to the exercises but we vomited a lot. He started teaching us crawling and rolling tactics. The Zambians taught us several drills at this camp. At this camp, we didn’t have any guns. Later I was transferred to Mboroma. At Mboroma there were about 200 ZIPRA comrades and other comrades from FROLIZI and ZANLA. The arrangement was that between ZANLA and ZIPRA, there was a FROLIZI camp in between.

ZIPRA and FROLIZI were very close because its leader James Chikerema was a former ZAPU comrade. Most of the comrades in FROLIZI had trained under ZIPRA. Later there were clashes between FROLIZI and ZANLA and some Zambian officer died. As the ZANLA and ZIPRA comrades were fighting, this Zambian official tried to wave a white cloth signalling peace but he was caught in the crossfire and he died.

MH: What had caused the clash between FROLIZI and ZANLA?

Cde Sibuko: Some of the causes were very stupid. Sometimes they would clash at the kitchen saying who should start eating first. They could clash after mocking each other regarding training. During this time, ZIPRA training was 18 months and we would receive training in semi-officers’ course.

MH: What was that?

Cde Sibuko: If you meet an ex-ZIPRA, they don’t talk about guerilla in full. They talk about GWA. Meaning guerilla warfare and administration. Under ZIPRA you received training in everything. You should be in a position to administer yourself. We would receive training in combat tactics, engineering, reconnaissance, first aid, logistics, and battle procedure. The idea was that if during the war you got injured and got lost you were supposed to look after yourself. Each one of us carried medical drugs. We were taught almost everything including how to make napalm and other explosives. Everyone got this training then later one would then specialise. As for guns we got training to use the smallest weapons which was a Makarov up to a PK. If you meet a well-trained ex-ZIPRA cadre, he or she can tell you how to operate up to 28 weapons. Even 40 sometimes. I personally can operate more than 30 weapons, including artillery.

MH: Who were your trainers?

Cde Sibuko: The first group was trained by the Ghanaians. When we went for military training, we were now being trained by some Zimbabweans including Brigadier General (rtd) Collins Moyo, the now army commander Cde Valerio Sibanda and others. I received my military training at Mgagao Training Camp. At Mgagao ZIPRA had fewer comrades than ZANLA.

At Mgagao there were clashes between ZIPRA and ZANLA, leading to a shoot-out. Even at Morogoro there were these clashes. On many occasions, ZANLA would undermine the ZIPRA numbers and these clashes would erupt. For example at Morogoro, ZANLA had around 600 comrades yet ZIPRA had 137 comrades. So ZANLA thought it was easy to overrun ZIPRA. On many occasions ZANLA failed to assault ZIPRA. ZIPRA had superior armament. So the numbers didn’t matter.

MH: Did you participate in this clash at Morogoro?

Cde Sibuko: At Morogoro I wasn’t there but at the clash at Mgagao I was there. During the clash at Mgagao, ZIPRA was not armed at all.

MH: What caused the clash at Mgagao and what happened on this day?

Cde Sibuko: We went for military drills as usual. Our camp commander was Sam Madondo, after the war he was called Zephania Mawire. He is late now. He was from Hwedza. As ZIPRA we were called “chuwa-chuwa” regardless of the fact that you were Ndebele or not. The instructors failed to work together on this day and so the ZIPRA instructors decided to sleep with their cadres. Some of these ZIPRA instructors included people like Richard Mataure, now called Dr Ngwenya the herbalist, Cde Kwela from Mutare, Cde Lenny, CdeKgagisa, Brigadier Ben Mathe, Cde Billy Mzami and many others.

Some ZIPRA comrades, I remember there was Cliff who was from Gwanda. They went to the kitchen to eat and the ZANLA comrades started complaining kuti imi hamupedzi kudya sei? What we didn’t know is that as ZANLA was saying this, they were already ready to attack us. They started fighting at the kitchen and we could hear the commotion. From nowhere, the ZANLA comrades rushed to their armory and took their guns. Pfuti dzakutorira paya. We were shocked. I had my sister wokwana babamunini who was there. We had about five female comrades at Mgagao. Those were the first female comrades to train under ZIPRA. I remember there was Belinda, Jane, Peasant, Alice and Sgoke. This other female comrade, we called her Peasant because she was very weak. Those female comrades survived the shoot-out at Mgagao.

MH: Comrade, we want to get a clear picture. Take us through what happened after you heard people fighting at the kitchen.

Cde Sibuko: Like I said, the ZANLA comrades rushed to their armoury and took their guns. They started shooting at us. We didn’t have any guns. The Chinese were involved in this fight. They were supporting ZANLA.

Remember ZIPRA received training and support from the Russians. The ZANLA comrades and their Chinese trainers always complained about our Russian training. ZIPRA had uniforms while ZANLA didn’t have. When the shoot-out started, some of our comrades were at parade. We lost about 48 comrades during this shoot-out. Unarmed people.

MH: Please explain to me, how could comrades from the same country, fighting the same enemy, do this to each other? Where was this hatred coming from?

Cde Sibuko: It’s power. Let me give you an example. If you go to Angola, that country had two political parties MPLA and UNITA. UNITA covered almost two-thirds of the country while MPLA covered a small area. UNITA covered all this space, yet they were very few. But when time for independence came, UNITA was overpowered and MPLA got into power. That is why Savimbi died fighting MPLA. It was about power. Who will get into power after independence?

MH: So 48 ZIPRA comrades are gunned down. How did you survive?

Cde Sibuko: I don’t even know. Only God can answer that. I was a platoon commander and so when I heard the clashes I went outside to see what was happening. You know some ZIPRA comrades picked some bamboos trying to fight back. Mgagao area was full of bamboos. In the confusion, I managed to sneak out of the camp. Some ZANLA comrades were even laying some ambush shooting those who would have escaped from the camp. I managed to escape and I went to Iringa. Others also managed to escape and went to our Gathering Point. The OAU Liberation Committee forces intervened to restore peace. It comprised soldiers from other countries. All the dead, the 48 comrades, were buried at Mgagao.

MH: How were they buried?

Cde Sibuko: That much I can’t tell because I was not there. They were buried by some senior ZIPRA commanders together with members from the OAU Liberation Committee. The late Hashim Mbita was the chairman of that committee. He was always taking sides. He supported ZANLA because ZANLA was receiving support from the Chinese who were very close to the Tanzania government. There was a move to eliminate the Russian influence across the world and we were affected. Even today I see there is a move to eliminate the Russian influence across the world. So as our leaders clashed, the politicians, the superpowers also clashed and as soldiers we became the victims.

MH: What was the difference in terms of training between ZIPRA and ZANLA?

Cde Sibuko: The ZIPRA training was so difficult. It was like torture. ZIPRA never used dammies for training. We used live ammunition. The Russians always said “the enemy doesn’t use dammies. You should know the sound of a bullet so that when you hear it at the war front, you don’t panic.” This made ZIPRA comrades brave. We had some barbed wire entanglements, we received training in judo and karate.

MH: Judo and karate? Can you still . . .

Cde Sibuko: Ohh, yes. I still have the moves (laughs). That was part of the training. We would receive physical training lessons running up mountains.

MH: Did you receive any political orientation?

Cde Sibuko: Yes, we did. You can say everyone in ZIPRA was a political commissar. However, as ZIPRA we never had pungwe, those mass rallies. No. We avoided that for the safety of the civilians. When we got to a certain area, the political commissars went into houses talking to individuals. Even our ideology was different from that of ZANLA.

As ZIPRA we were saying land to the people. Not through willing buyer and willing seller. We were talking about mass production of goods and controlling that process. Our idea was that we were going to force these companies to comply and work with indigenous people or else they close. At ZIPRA we used to say there were only five people who fought the liberation struggle.

MH: What do you mean?

Cde Sibuko: That is the honest truth. There were five societies. These were the workers, peasants, petty bourgeois (now you call entrepreneurs), the national bourgeois, but during the war these were not there. We had international bourgeois and then the strata. The strata that’s the intellectuals. We used to call them strata because they couldn’t operate on their own. They need all these other societies. When these five societies went to war, they had five different objectives.

However, other societies didn’t realise that towards independence, things would change. The intellectuals wanted power, the peasants where I come from they wanted to go to their original homelands where they had been chased away by the Rhodesians. The workers were talking about better working conditions. You know up to now I don’t think there are workers in this country. There are semi-workers because a worker is someone who relies solely on his or her pay slip as collateral security. He or she doesn’t even own a goat. He or she is a flat dweller. As ZAPU, we were socialists while ZANU was talking about humanism.

MH: What about in terms of training? What was the difference between ZIPRA and ZANLA?

Cde Sibuko: In terms of training, ZIPRA training due to the numbers, our training ended up being for six months. During the first years it was 18 months, then 12 months, then nine months. We even went for commando training where the fittest people were selected. For us there was a big challenge between Zambezi River and the Great Dyke. As ZIPRA we were required to carry food and ammunition that could last for 30 solid days. This was a must, including even the commander. We got training on how to read maps and how to locate where there was water and so on. We even used navigators and, can you imagine, we used to use these things at night.

MH: From what you are saying I get a feeling that as ZIPRA you didn’t rely on vana chimbwido and mujiba?

Cde Sibuko: Vana mujiba and chimbwido were there, but we didn’t rely on them that much. Those people were put in a lot of danger. As ZIPRA we had our own way of fighting the war. And I need to tell you we were well-resourced.

MH: Some ZANLA comrades I have interviewed allege that the Zambian government favoured ZAPU. What is your comment?

Cde Sibuko: Yes, ZAPU was close to the Zambian government but not that the Zambians favoured us. As the war went on, there was friction between us and the Zambians because Zambia lost many civilians because of our war. For example in Feira where I was the commander, when the Rhodesians came, many Zambians were caught up in the crossfire and many died.

You see Zambia was hosting us and they expected us to be disciplined. This is one of the reasons why ZANU clashed with the Zambians. This led to the arrest of the ZANU leadership after the death of Chitepo. The Zambian government was not happy about that. They believed this was an inside job. They thought Chitepo was killed internally. Before the death of Chitepo ZANU had gone through some dark moments when they killed each other. You know ZANU used even to ask questions like; “Why are you educated, why did you join the liberation struggle and so on?” This created problems in the party.

MH: Can you tell us where the thinking that ZAPU is for Ndebele and ZANU for Shonas came from?

Cde Sibuko: I think this came from the leadership. Nkomo was Ndebele. In actual fact he is a Kalanga. But if you look at the Central Committee of ZAPU, there were many Shona people. There was Jirira, Chambati, Munodawafa, Nelson Nyashanu, Musarurwa, Nziramasanga and many others. Out of 120 Central Committee members you could see there were around 15-20 Ndebeles. This Ndebele thing for ZAPU was because of Nkomo, the leader. I am of the Venda tribe.

MH: Let’s go back to your journey.

Cde Sibuko: I finished military training at the end of 1975. Some of my instructors included Rodwell Nyika who is now General Moyo, the now Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Philip Valerio Sibanda, Brigadier Sam Mfakazi, Sam Mawere, Kgagisa, Douglas, Dr Milton Chemhuru, he is still alive, Brighton Johns from Nyanga and many others.

MH: I am always amazed by how you remember these names just like that.

Cde Sibuko: That’s the memory of a trained person. They say it takes about 24 hours for a soldier to be a civilian but it takes about 48 years to remove the instinct of being a soldier. So after training we went to Zambia, waiting for deployment. I was now a deputy section commander. My commander was called Agrippa. I was deployed around the Feira area. This area, on the Zambian side is called Feira, on the Zimbabwean side it’s called Kanyemba. That’s where I operated throughout the war.

MH: Tell us of your first days in Feira.

Cde Sibuko: We crossed Zambezi River using small boats. Our platoon commander was Big Joe. When we got into Rhodesia, we were not aware that the enemy was already patrolling the area. We saw the enemy and I think out of excitement we started shooting at the enemy. We killed two and one escaped.

We quickly had to retreat to our gathering point because we were afraid of the helicopters. We used to refer to helicopters as commissar because that thing can terrorise. When we got to the gathering point, we discovered that my section commander had ran away. He didn’t fire a shot but just ran to the gathering point. I was chosen to command the section. Later we were assigned to go deep into Kachuta for reconnaissance. When we got to Kachuta, I was very happy. People could see the difference between ZANLA and ZIPRA. We were always in uniform as ZIPRA. We were not talking about pungwes.

MH: Am happy to be talking to a ZIPRA comrade who was at the war front. Tell me, there was ZIPRA operating in the same area as ZANLA. Did you clash? Did you coordinate the battles or what?

Cde Sibuko:  I remember one incident, there was Cde Dudzai Dudza from Zvimba. He was in my section. I said to him I think we should not fight each other. Can you talk to the ZANLA guys so that we can carry out combined operations? We carried combined operations for about two to three days.

MH: Why did this operation last for a few days?

Cde Sibuko: I spoke earlier about power. The politicians didn’t want the forces to unite. When the ZANLA commanders went back for reinforcements and I also went to take my reinforcements, I came back and was told that seven of my comrades had been killed by the ZANLA comrades. I am told that these ZIPRA and ZANLA forces were greeting each other and the ZANLA comrades just started shooting. Only two ZIPRA comrades survived. After this they took our ammunition and I was very angry on hearing this. I gave orders that we should capture these ZANLA comrades. When we finally met these ZANLA comrades we spoke about this issue and just when we thought the issue was over, they again started shooting at us. Fortunately, we were now some distance away.

MH: But why?

Cde Sibuko: I think there was an element of the Rhodesian government. The Rhodesians didn’t want ZIPRA to go further into the country. They wanted to confine us closer to the border. The Rhodesians spoke very badly about us to the ordinary people. The locals told us. Despite this we had gone as far as Mvurwi and Mudhindo area. As far as Bakasa, St Philips, St Johns School and so on.

MH: By this time, what was your rank?

Cde Sibuko: I didn’t mention that at one point I went back to Zambia for reinforcements and I was promoted from section commander to detachment commander. Later I was recalled to Zambia and was promoted to become the zone commander. In no time I was made the deputy regional commander in charge of operations.

Under ZIPRA we spoke about regions. The area I was covering stretched from Mashonaland Central and Mashonaland West. Along the border I am talking from Chirundu to Kanyemba covering Hurungwe, Norton, Chitomborwizi, Shurushuru airbase and so on. This was the Northern Front. This was the difference between ZIPRA and ZANLA. I ended up opening my HQ in Kachuta. This was the most terrible area.

There were three forces fighting each other here – ZANLA, ZIPRA and the Rhodesians. I chose to put my HQ right in the middle of terror. I wanted my forces to see that I was not afraid of both ZANLA and the Rhodesians. You know during that time, nothing happened to me. I was only shot by one of my comrades who was a Rhodesian informer. When I discovered that he was an infiltrator, he wanted to shot me on the chest but I quickly moved and he shot my hand as I was going down.

Just by looking at him, I could see that he was about to shoot me and I quickly took cover. He infiltrated us and had actually trained under ZIPRA. He actually rose up to become a zone commander, but I was always suspicious of him. He would sneak from our bases during the night and go all the way to Feira to drink beer and sell information.

Some of the comrades informed me that he was trying to incite some comrades to shoot me. I confronted him. That is when he took a gun and started shooting at me. I took cover but quickly charged towards him. After overpowering him I said to him hands up. He told me point blank that, “I know what you want. You want to capture me and torture me to give you information. I am not going to give you any information.” He quickly took cover and started shooting again.

Some of the guys who were there on this day were very new. They had just come from the rear in Zambia. When this started, they all ran away. This infiltrator also took advantage and ran away. I chased him and my main intention was to make sure that he doesn’t cross to Zambia to go and cause more problems.

The next morning, I just heard a loud explosion and went to investigate. This infiltrator had blown himself with a grenade behind some hill. This was around 4:30am. I found British pounds, US dollars, rands, Zambian kwacha, Malawian kwacha and Rhodesians dollars. When the Zambians came with their army thinking that I had been killed, they saw his body and they told me that they used to drink beer with this infiltrator in Feira.

MH: What was the name of this infiltrator?

Cde Sibuko: We used to call him “Meeting.” Very huge guy. We later buried this infiltrator in a shallow grave. He wanted to kill me but he made me a hero. You know when the Zambians came with other comrades, they found me seated on top of this infiltrator’s body smoking a Russian cigarette.

Next week, Cde Sibuko will talk in detail about the Battle at Feira that went on for six days non-stop. Sounds like a movie, but as the commander-in-charge, Cde Sibuko fought back until the Rhodesians retreated.

 

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  • Ntokozo Nyathi

    Mr Huni you are doing a wonderful historical job can you track one Northen regional former Zipra commander whose nom de guerie was Cde Toddy Mpisi he is now called Cde Ndebele his wife works at GMB Gweru and track him from there