The Sunday Mail
CDE Ernest Mdluli (EM) is among former freedom fighters who were captured by Rhodesian soldiers during the war. After weeks of severe torture — first at police stations and then in prison — he had to endure a long and soul-sapping wait as his captors decided his fate. After a quick trial, Cde Mdluli was subsequently sentenced to death. That sentence was, however, later commuted to life imprisonment. For 11 years, the former ZAPU cadre languished in two of Rhodesia’s most notorious prisons — Salisbury and Khami — before he was released in 1980. This week, he begins narrating to our Senior Reporter Tendai Chara (TC) his horrendous experience at the hands of Rhodesian security forces.
TC: Cde, if you can start by introducing yourself and taking us through your childhood days.
EM: My name is Ernest Mdluli and I was born in Chipinge in 1942. I went to Rattleshoek Primary School in Chipinge. As I was growing up, we got used to fending for ourselves. After primary school, I left Chipinge and went to Nyanga where I got employed as a farm hand. I worked at the farm for a year. I then left Nyanga and returned to Chipinge.
TC: Why did you return to Chipinge?
EM: The white farmer I worked for was racist and abusive. He treated his livestock better than black workers. One day, my hand got injured and two of my fingers were severed. I approached the farm owner for compensation, but he declined. The farmer even refused to cover medical expenses that I incurred as a result of the work-related injury. After a harsh exchange of words, I packed my bags and returned to Chipinge. White farmers treated black workers badly.
TC: You can continue with the narration.
EM: I stayed at home in Chipinge until 1959 when I went to Mutare, where I was once again employed by a white family as a cook and gardener. In 1960, I left Mutare and went to Kwekwe, where I once again worked for a white man called Mr Bushnell. I worked for him for a year.
Mr Bushnell was not a bad employer. I was not, however, happy with the accommodation that he offered his black workers. I was living at his plot. As Mr Bushnell was living in a large house, his workers were living in dilapidated log cabins. He didn’t seem to care.
TC: How much were you earning then and was this a fair wage?
EM: I was earning £2. That amount of money could only buy you the cheapest trousers and a shirt. It was not enough to buy decent clothing. I was becoming more and more politically conscious and this resulted in me leaving the job in search of greener pastures.
That was the time when the National Democratic Party was formed. From Kwekwe, I went to Kariba where I was employed by a cementation company that was among the many that were working on the Kariba Dam wall. When I came to Kariba, the dam wall had already been constructed.
From Kariba, I was then transferred to work in Livingstone, Zambia. Zambia had not attained its independence. The Zambians were, by then, more politically active compared to people in the then Southern Rhodesia.
We were working at the Victoria Falls Bridge where we constructed a power station. It was hard work. From Livingstone, I was transferred to Mount Mulanje in Malawi where we constructed a dam. The owner of the company that I was working for was Mike Finn. We worked in Malawi for six months and after completing the dam, we returned to Salisbury where we worked at the company headquarters.
At that company, I had a friend of mine, a Tanzanian, whom I regarded more as a brother than workmate. So one day, the white foreman called him and without giving any explanation, fired my friend. This foreman was racist and treated black workers like children. When my friend was fired, I told the foreman that I was resigning as I was not happy with the way my friend had been treated. That was the year when Malawi got its independence.
From Harare, we packed our bags and once again set for Kariba. We stayed briefly in Kariba where I was being taken care of by my friend’s relatives. My friend decided to go to Zambia and I once again decided to follow him.
However, my passport had expired and it was not possible for me to go to Zambia via the legal route. I had to use an illegal route. We got to Lusaka where I was employed by a quarry-mining company which was owned by a white family.
I am telling you the experiences that I had with white-owned companies in all these countries so that you can understand some of the factors that forced us to join the liberation war.
At the quarry mine, we were earning peanuts and this forced me to make another long trek back to Livingstone, where I re-joined the company that I had worked for earlier on. This time, the company was digging a trench that was diverting water from the Zambezi River.
In Livingstone, I was staying with a married relative. One day I overheard my relative’s wife expressing displeasure at my being at their house. I decided to move on and this time I went to Mufulira in the Copperbelt.
In Mufulira, I was employed at a mine. That was in 1965. In 1966, ZAPU representatives visited us and talked to us about the need for us to support the war of liberation. For some months, we were contributing to the war effort by donating money and food.
ZAPU representatives later told us that supporting the war effort through donations was not enough. They said we should go to Lusaka and be trained to become liberation war fighters.
TC: Do you still remember the ZAPU officials that addressed you in Mufulira?
EM: Yes, I remember there was David Nkiwane and Cde Ngoshi, two senior officials. These two convinced us that we had to train as freedom fighters. The two later came back and took us to Lusaka. We were a group of six. Among the cadres that we went to Lusaka with was a distant relative.
From Lusaka town we were taken to a farm which was located on the city’s outskirts. The farm belonged to a man called Dube, who was from Zimbabwe. The farm was situated some 15 kilometres outside Lusaka, along the Mumbwa Road. When we arrived at the farm, some cadres were already there. Plans were being made for us to go to the then Soviet Union for military training.
◆ Next week, Cde Mdluli will take us through the guerrilla training he undertook. Don’t miss this action-packed edition.