The Sunday Mail
Dr Strike Mkandla
THE passing on of Dr Dumiso Dabengwa on 23 May triggered a great buzz on Zimbabwe’s political scene, which is unusual when an opposition figures dies.
This unusual interest, largely derives from his famed role in the war of liberation as head of security and intelligence in the Zimbabwe People’s Liberation Army (ZPRA), the armed wing of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).
His more recent role, as a keen unifier of the opposition parties, has also left an indelible mark over the last few years.
The ability to fashion and sustain successful security machinery was indeed no small feat.
However, this is part of a wider politics, where belief in the importance of victory made sacrifice and service to a cause feel natural.
Even so, soon after his death, it is remarkable how Dabengwa spent his life fighting for one right or another. In his teenage years, he rose against the intensification of racial politics.
At an early age of 20, he found himself compelled to join the African National Congress (ANC) led by Dr Joshua Nkomo.
He was to join the parties that were formed in succession to replace the ANC — National Democratic Party (NDP) and ZAPU.
On the other end of the political spectrum, the ruling white population was moving to the right while the blacks were becoming radicalised in the struggle for political representation and better working conditions.
The 10 years from 1953 were also a block of years covered by the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in which Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi) saw the growth of nationalist movements that caught the imagination of many young people like Dabengwa to fight for their rights.
What struck me is the coincidence of 1963 between the acrimonious end of the federation and the departure, for military training, by young people like Dumiso Dabengwa and Luke Mhlanga who had already started on sabotage operations. This is also the year in which the Rhodesia Front of Winston Field and later Ian Smith gained ascendancy in the ruling white population after winning elections at the end of 1962.
This party was committed to retaining all the historic discriminatory legislation and practices, such as the Land Apportionment Act of 1933, the Land Husbandry Act of 1952, and was about to add draconian security legislation to define a perennial authoritarian state.
Playing a key role behind the scenes
When one looks at the panorama of Dabengwa’s politics, what is evident is that, throughout internal and external challenges in the liberation movement, he did not lose sight of the independence and freedom of Zimbabweans as the ultimate purpose for waging the armed struggle.
This is not to say that ZAPU party politics did not feature as a motive in his contribution with others in the creation of cooperation agreements in the ZAPU-ZANU Joint Military Command (JMC) of 1972; the 1975 attempt to forge the Zimbabwe People’s Army (ZIPA) between the forces of ZAPU and ZANU and finally the Patriotic Front which took place in the late 1970s to pilot joint negotiations for an independence settlement.
In the same manner, he was an important bridge with Umkhonto WeSizwe (MK) armed wing when ZAPU and the African National Congress (ANC) built an alliance to tackle Rhodesian and South African forces across the Zambezi.
The simple but profound values that drove the campaigns of the National Democratic Party in 1960 for a democratic vote, the strong commitments of ZAPU in land restitution and an end to repressive and unaccountable government, fired Dabengwa’s attitude on the relation between the people and the State.
He proved a staunch follower of party leader Dr Joshua Nkomo and has lived under that influence from his youth politics to the end.
A retreat into business interrupted by imprisonment
It is not a subject of this piece, but the integration of the ZPRA, ZANLA and Rhodesian Army, following the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement under British auspices, owes a lot of its success to Dabengwa’s unpretentious commitment to peace-building and stability.
He wanted all the people in the country to thrive under it.
As the saying goes, this is now all water under the bridge.
In a back-handed compliment, Dabengwa was destined not to be the first head of the integrated army and he gracefully opted for civilian life in order to pick up from where he had left when he joined the armed struggle.
This short digression into Dabengwa’s involvement in the military is unavoidable because that sector continued to affect the way he was viewed by the newly-independent State of Zimbabwe.
Having married in 1980 to Zodwa Dabengwa nee Khumalo, the liberation war fighter enthusiastically moved from the army into various business ventures.
He partnered former ZPRA Commander Ackim Ndlovu and Charles Madonko in a company called Limpopo Holdings, but this was soon overtaken in 1982 by arrest on allegations of caching weapons to overthrow the new Government.
After being acquitted of treason charges with his colleagues, Dabengwa and others were moved into detention without trial in Chikurubi maximum security prison where he was held with Lookout Masuku and others until 1986.
Along with the “Gukurahundi” disturbances in Matabeleland and the Ndebele-speaking parts of the Midlands province, Dabengwa’s incarceration in Chikurubi ranks among the darkest periods in his life.
Unity Accord and ZAPU revival
Dabengwa was a reluctant entrant into the Unity Accord between ZANU-PF and PF -ZAPU in 1987.
This is important for the record because there are sometimes claims that he was an architect of the agreement in which Nkomo was not rewarded with a position as deputy leader to Robert Mugabe.
Instead, Nkomo was appointment one of the two Sate Vice-Presidents alongside Simon Muzenda. This sort of arrangement was guaranteed to fall apart and it duly happened in 2010 when ZAPU resumed independent existence under Dumiso Dabengwa.
Dumiso Dabengwa accepted the challenge to lead the re-instituted ZAPU after he had already left the ruling party with Simba Makoni and others to form Mavambo-Kusile-Dawn in 2008.
In other words, he was never afraid to stand up and be counted; he would not send others to take the risk and roar from behind.
This is the stance he took in efforts to craft a united front of the opposition in 2013 and 2018 elections.
He refused to be used as an excuse for failure.
There are many who will only realise, with the passage of time and his own life, that there are times when national interest has to overcome personal interest.
On this one, Dabengwa ran a perfect race although the prize eluded him in his own time. I even have a suspicion that he could have paid more attention to tell-tale signs that his health needed more monitoring, but focused on solving our collective ills more than his underlying ones.
Preparation for ultimate retirement
Dabengwa, a tireless and patient party leader, was also determined that ZAPU should stick to its constitutional provision that the President serves for no more than two five-year terms.
It was thus a shock to many party members who could not imagine a future without him when he reminded them and announced, at the 2016 Congress, that he was serving his second and last term.
He did not stop there, but went on to urge members to start looking for the next president in time for the 2020 Congress.
He was active in pushing for gender equality in leadership positions and entry of younger people into leadership as well.
This was well before he realised that his health was getting bad.
It is remarkable, therefore, how he almost foresaw the need for renewal after him without expecting to leave us so suddenly.
May He Rest in Peace.
Dr Strike Mkandla is ZAPU secretary general.