The Sunday Mail
BORN in Mozambique in 1942, Mr Dave Popatlal is an unassuming Indian comrade who has become part of the Zanu family. His parents migrated to Mozambique in 1911. After opening his business in Maputo around 1975, the Portuguese-educated Mr Popatlal by what he calls divine intervention, bumped into the then Zanu secretary for finance Cde Chrispen Mandizvidza outside his shop. Mr Mandizvidza had been tasked by Zanu to look at how the party could relocate from Zambia to Mozambique.
However, there was a big challenge. Zanu wanted office premises and accommodation for its leaders yet Cde Mandizvidza didn’t know anyone in Maputo and didn’t have much money. After introducing himself to this Indian stranger, a very close relationship developed as Mr Popatlal became the link between Zanu and the Frelimo-led government of Mozambique. He organised accommodation for most of the Zanu members of High Command and Central Committee.
This was a very risky task considering that the Ian Smith regime had employed all manner of dirty tricks on Zanu in Zambia. Mr Popatlal had to make sure that he was safe and had to put in place measures to guarantee the safety of the members of the High Command and Central Committee.
In this interview with our Deputy Editor, Munyaradzi Huni, Mr Popatlal confirms that indeed he had to be very discreet in his operations as “there was 100 percent exposure to be victimised for supporting Zanu.” This story about how Zanu relocated from Lusaka to Maputo has never been told before in this graphic manner. Read on …
SM: Thank you so much Mr Popatlal for your time. Now as we start, can you briefly tell us how you met Cde Chrispen Mandizvidza and how things went from there?
Mr Popatlal: I was fortunate to meet one of the comrades from the then Rhodesia. I was standing outside my shop in Maputo on this day. This comrade introduced himself as Chrispen Mandizvidza. He asked me whether I could speak English. During those days, there were very few people in Mozambique who could speak English.
By this time, there wasn’t much interaction between myself and the Mozambican government or Frelimo because this was soon after the Independence of Mozambique on 25 June 1975. When we opened our business that is when we started linking with Frelimo officials who were coming to Maputo. That friendship led to much more connectivity with Frelimo. We used to receive high-ranking officials in our shop. There were shortages of clothes, food and everything. So Frelimo decided to look for someone who could assist them in supplying the basic clothes and so on. A very trustworthy relationship developed with Frelimo.
So when Cde Chrispen Mandizvidza contacted me, the relationship I had with Frelimo made it easy for me to get authority from Frelimo and the Inspector of State and the Minister of Defence then to interact and support Zanu in all aspects possible.
MH: When you met Cde Mandizvidza, what exactly did he say to you?
Mr Popatlal: He said he had come to Mozambique with some comrades to liberate Zimbabwe. He told me that Zanu was a liberation movement. He said he wanted to establish the administration and all necessary procedures so that Zanu could operate legally and properly from Maputo. He told me that he didn’t know anyone and he didn’t have the knowledge of logistics on how to do all this. He didn’t have houses for his Zanu officials and he didn’t know how to go acquire the houses. He was the Zanu secretary for finance then. Because of the restrictions existing then, the issue about security and safety of liberation movements was of paramount importance. This led me to contact relevant authorities and got clearance to assist. From then on, the sky was the limit.
MH: When you got clearance from the Mozambican government, what was your first task?
Mr Popatlal: The first task was to assist them to open a bank account to safeguard their flow of finances. The second was to set the administration, they needed offices and they needed houses for the top Zanu officials. I started looking for strategically located houses for members of the Zanu High Command and members of Central Committee. I did this with the authority given to me by the relevant government and Frelimo officials. By this time, all houses had been nationalised, all properties had been nationalised in Mozambique. I think this was around the end of 1976. So I went and spoke to senior officials in the department of housing to facilitate the whole process. This is how I chose the houses that were appropriate. Like I told you, many Portuguese people had left the country and some of the houses were available.
MH: This was obviously not an easy exercise. How would you choose the houses?
Mr Popatlal: I was assisted by officials from the department of housing. They had a list of the houses. The houses were situated in areas that were reserved for future diplomatic missions and high-ranking officials. The first houses were for members of the High Command. The first house we got was for the secretary general the late VP Simon Muzenda. We also located premises for our comrades who were injured in the struggle. These premises were ideal for their rehabilitation. I later got houses for the other officials. The next phase was to make sure the houses were operational in terms of electricity and water connectivity. This was a very complex process because we had to guarantee that everything was working properly. I have to mention here that Frelimo and the government of Mozambique were very, very generous. Practically, they didn’t charge any rentals. We made arrangements that there was no need to pay for anything. This was assistance from the housing department.
MH: You told me earlier on that these Zanu comrades wanted all this assistance but they didn’t have money?
Mr Popatlal: Yes, they didn’t have much money. But later Zanu started getting money from a number of donors and they were now paying for water and electricity expenses. When we started, I had to make sure that electricity and water was in constant supply even without any payment. Besides this, I had my own car which I used to transport comrades to and from various places. I also gave Zanu access to my business facilities whenever they wanted.
MH: You took this huge responsibility but there were very high risks considering what the Smith regime had done in Zambia and the bombings of camps in Mozambique. Didn’t you fear for your life?
Mr Popatlal: There was 100 percent exposure to be victimised for assisting Zanu, but I had to take lots and lots of precautions. There was a lot of confidentiality. Even the movement of comrades into my business premises was done very discretely or even at very odd hours so that no one would discover what was going on. The comrades would come just like any ordinary person. We created a system to assist them without being noticed.
MH: As a Mozambican why were you taking such a risk?
Mr Popatlal: I knew about the history of Frelimo and how they had got their history. Also when I got in touch with the Frelimo officials, they told me of the sacrifice that other country had taken for Mozambique to be free. I actually felt honoured to be assisting Zanu. The other thing, my parents once lived in a concentration camp, during the conflict between Portugal and India and so I felt I should play my part in the freedom and independence of the people of Zimbabwe. I had a taste of poverty, a taste of restrictions, a taste of racism and a taste of discrimination. So when the door and opportunity came to me to assist, I naturally fell in love with Zanu.
I fell in love with Zanu because the comrades came to Mozambique barefoot, some with slippers, walking with shorts and shirts with short sleeves. That showed me their determination and I said to myself, this is high time to assist. This was divine time for me to participate with them in their struggle for liberation.
MH: Where you married by this time?
Mr Popatlal: Yes, I was married. I was married to Jaishri who is still my lovely wife today. She was born in Malawi.
MH: You took this huge responsibility, putting yourself and your business at risk. What was your wife saying?
Mr Popatlal: She was very, very supportive. Extremely supportive up to now. When the comrades visited us at home or at the shop, she would welcome them and even cook for them. By the way, we started our shop with a capital of 13 shirts nothing else, we didn’t have money. The shop we took over had been abandoned and it was in ruins. We had to renovate it day and night. There was no employment in Mozambique by this time. Mozambique was in chaos. There was a bitter war which had taken place in Maputo in October 1974. There was systematic destruction of property. People were killed and massacred. Frelimo and the Portuguese government had signed a peace agreement in September 1974. In October 1974, there was a rebellion by Portuguese soldiers. On their way out of Mozambique, they caused lots of damage. They killed people, civilians. That turned very nasty. So when we started this business with my wife, we didn’t have factories or anything.
MH: Who are some of the Zanu leaders you organised houses for?
Mr Popatlal: Like I said one of the first houses was for Cde Muzenda and then another for the transport and logistics department. We also had to make sure that the houses had basic furniture like beds, mattresses, tables — the basics so that the comrades could be comfortable. The officials from the housing department of Mozambique would just show me the available houses and I would choose which houses suited which comrades and when. I made sure the houses were in reasonable conditions and by the time the high-ranking Zanu officials came, most of the houses were ready for occupation.
Among the first comrades were Cdes Chrispen Mandizvidza, General Gava (Zvinavashe), Matemachani, Justin Chauke, William Ndangana, Kumbirai Kangai who was head of all logistics, Cde Chapungu (Chamupupuri), General Ruwodo, Josiah Tongogara, Edgar Tekere, Don Muvhuti and others. Around 1977, we had Cdes Eddison Zvobgo who came and started the publicity department with Charles Ndlovu (Webster Shamu), then Richard Hove, Dydimus Mutasa, Dr Felix Muchemwa, Cde Militant, Cde Justin Chauke and others. After Zanu’s first Central Committee meeting in 1977, in Chimoio, we also had comrades like Ernest Rusununguko Kadungure who was now the secretary for finance. Cde Chrispen Mandizvidza had left. On the health side, there was Mrs Shamuyarira and Mrs Getrude Mutasa. There was also Oppah Muchinguri, we used to call her Cde Chamu.
MH: By this time, was President Mugabe already in Maputo? Did you organise a house for him also?
Mr Popatlal: President Mugabe came when most things were settled in Maputo. He was allocated the house by the presidency. President Samora Machel is the one who allocated the house for President Mugabe. However, it was in the same zone with the other houses for the high-ranking Zanu officials. This house was along D. Naria I Rua road. Remember, President Mugabe was teaching in Kilimane. When he came he was given all the support by President Machel’s office directly.
MH: You were organising accommodation for freedom fighters and nationalists. How was their discipline?
Mr Popatlal: It was fantastic. I would say 101 percent discipline. I never saw anyone going out to any restaurant or public place. There were all focused on the objectives of the liberation struggle. I don’t have any single case of indiscipline among these comrades who came to Maputo. Very exemplary, very honest, highly ethical and respectful. And loving and caring.
MH: How would you ensure that they were safe?
Mr Popatlal: The strategy was not to be noticed. This meant that they had to mingle humbly, no extravagant behaviour, no funny clothes and no security. We didn’t want any security because that would attract attention of other people. Most of the time I was with these comrades.
MH: When you were with these comrades, what would you talk about?
Mr Popatlal: We would not discuss any sensitive issues. The idea was to keep them happy, to motivate them and keep them smiling. I encouraged them to carry on fighting.
MH: These were comrades from different backgrounds. Did you buy anyone of them drinks? Whisky?
Mr Popatlal: In my presence they wouldn’t drink but whatever they did at their homes, it wasn’t my business. This was their privacy. We didn’t allow strangers or any visitors to visit these comrades. Not even for maintenance of the houses. I am the one who was providing everything to make sure the comrades were safe. Even the changing of bulbs in the houses, I was responsible. During the night, very late in the night I would drive around the houses to see whether they were any suspicious vehicles and people loitering around.
MH: Where you being paid for doing all this?
Mr Popatlal: (laughs) No, no, no. There was no salary. The issue of a salary never drove me to be a friend of Zanu. You saw the letter that was written to me in 1980 that I was now part of the Zanu family. My family was now Zanu. This was never an issue about being employed or getting a salary. This was in the context of humanitarianism, friendship, solidarity and comradeship. When you have these four elements, there is no material issue. It was priceless. There was no price tag on rendering these services, especially when we saw Frelimo comrades marching on the streets of Mozambique in Maputo.We felt very proud that one day Zimbabweans would also march in their streets with the same freedom.
MH: Who are some of the comrades you became very close to as you rendered this assistance?
Mr Popatlal: I became very, very close to Cde Simon Muzenda, Tongogara, Solomon Mujuru, Paradzai Zimondi, General Gava, Kadungure, Mutasa, Petit Moshe, Topsy, William Ndangana. In fact I was close to most of them because I had to deal with all of them at some point.
MH: What about the setting up of their offices in Maputo? Where you also involved?
Mr Popatlal: Yes, I worked with the department of housing in Mozambique. The government allocated the offices at Predio Isatex — Bairro da Coop. Today it’s called Praca OMM. On the first floor we had offices of Zanu and on the second floor we had Zapu offices where the now VP Mphoko used to operate from. However, there wasn’t much activity at the Zapu offices. Zapu comrades would just come in and out. At that time, I was exclusively dealing with Zanu because they were the ones I had come into contact with.
MH: Besides Zanu and Zapu, there were offices for other liberation movements?
Mr Popatlal: Yes, the Mozambican government hosted quite a number of liberation movements. There was a liberation party from East Timor, MPLA from Angola, ANC, PAC and others. They all operated under the laws of Mozambique. We had a department under the Ministry of Defence called the Nucleo de Apoio Refugiados e Movimentos de Libertacao whose director was Cde Francisco Langa. This department was created specifically to coordinate all operations and activities of liberation movements. To facilitate travelling and travel documents and so on.
MH: You said you became quite close to some of these officials from Zanu. How would you describe Cde Tongogara?
Mr Popatlal: He was divinely gifted, energetic, dedicated and devoted to the struggle. A person of extreme integrity. An extreme hard worker. Very human and very loving. He used to grind his teeth sometimes.
MH: From pictures he looks like someone who was very tough? Those big red eyes?
Mr Popatlal: Not even. He was divine. He was a wonderful person to work with. He was very close to all the comrades.
Next week, Mr Popatlal continues narrating his fascinating story explaining the bond between Zanu-PF and Frelimo and the role that Mozambique played in the liberation of Zimbabwe. He will talk about the fatal accident that claimed one of the country’s top commanders, Cde Tongogara and how he was part of the team that brought the remains of Cde Tongo to Zimbabwe. Make sure you get your copy of The Sunday Mail.