WHEN President Robert Mugabe learnt of the recent death of his comrade-in-arms, Enos Nkala, whom he had visited in hospital the previous night, he immediately declared him a national hero.
By Foster Dongozi
This was a departure from the tradition of the Zanu PF politburo formally sitting down and awarding what it would deem an appropriate status to whoever would have died. Nkala must have occupied a special space in Mugabe’s heart.
“If a person like him is not buried there, then no one else qualifies. I am sure he will be buried at the national Heroes Acre. We want to see him well buried, well honoured,” Mugabe said. “I will miss him as a great friend. He was a great fighter for our liberation; very, very staunch fighter, unyielding…”
The Zanu PF politburo inevitably later declared Nkala a national hero. Mugabe’s reaction may have brought into focus the true nature of his relationship with Nkala following their well-documented public spats, especially over the past few years.
After Nkala’s death, I harked back to a recent unpublished interview that I had with Nkala while in the company of a few journalists, one of them a German national.
We arrived at his Woodlands home and after negotiating our way past some charging vicious dogs, Nkala who looked frail, welcomed our crew and ushered us into his study. With the aid of a walking stick, he walked in and sat on an easy chair. Occupying pride of place was a portrait of the first cabinet of independent Zimbabwe with Nkala sitting at the front row together with Mugabe, Simon Muzenda, Joice Mujuru and Maurice Nyagumbo.
“You are British?”, Nkala bellowed in a booming in a question directed to the German colleague.
The German journalist responded“no”, explaining his background before Nkala said: “You know we fought the British and defeated them.”
I smiled to myself because as I was gazing into his garden, I noticed an umbrella fashioned out of the British Union Jack, which seemed like an irony.
With many believing that Nkala and Mugabe no longer saw eye-to-eye, everybody wanted to know the reasons behind their public fights and reasons behind the fall out.
In addition, we also knew Nkala was irritable – had a “short fuse” – and was prone to say or do unexpected things, including verbal assaults on anybody, journalists included. So we were cautious.
We shot our first question: What has become of Robert Mugabe who was this liberation struggle hero from the 1970s up to independence but has now become the person that he is?
Unexpectedly Nkala said: “Mugabe is a very nice man actually. Well in life you don’t have everybody liking you. There are those that don’t like you and there are those that dearly like you. I think I am among those that dearly like him, he is a good chap; we initiated the struggle together from kind of ground zero to the point of independence and in the process we spent more than 10 years in jail together.”
He added: “Robert Mugabe and myself, I think we like each other but we are also frank with each other. I have known him before he was even anything. I have no problems with him and he has no problems with me, there are no restrictions we joke about so many things that nobody else can joke about with Mugabe. The differences are just exaggerated, politics is mostly pretence.”
Nkala said their friendship had developed into a strong one especially in jail.
“In prison we played football together, discussed issues together, played draft, and did many things, including angering each other, but we never came to blows.”
So strong was their bond, he said, that he was one of few people who could question Mugabe on the composition of the first cabinet in 1980. “After Independence, I was made the finance minister, and I don’t know why. Not that I was really a key financial person but for some reasons he thought I could do well in that area and so when he reshuffled the cabinet, I had my own ministry called National Supplies whose vision I shaped.
“I think I enjoyed my time at Home Affairs and National Supplies, policemen are easier to work with. I didn’t enjoy myself as Minister of Defence, soldiers are very intimidating they are not yes-men; they will obey but after some struggle or threats.”
Nkala was asked how Mugabe has managed to remain Zanu PF leader and Zimbabwe’s ruler for so many years. “He is a good speaker; very eloquent, speaks good English, well-organised, you will like to listen to him even if he started speaking now! He is not a kind of a corrupt individual – he earns whatever he has, as far as I know him.”
Nkala continued: “So far no-one comes close to him in Zanu PF at the moment. He is a first-class intellectual, good debater, impressive. He remains calm while everybody around him is rioting and that makes many people respect him, including myself. He is not just an idealist but a realist.”
So after saying all the right things about Mugabe, what are their differences and what are his views on his rule?
Nkala opens up: “I have hinted strongly to Mugabe that he has made a mistake by staying in power for too long. I told him that he would lose his reputation because issues cannot remain the same, they continue to change and he must change.
“Because we are frank with each other, I have advised him that he has overstayed in power for too many people’s liking. I have told him that he should rest like me and that I think his wife isn’t that happy – they need to take a rest, doze on the chair during the day, take a drive, and rest.”
Nkala stepped up the attack, saying Mugabe was behaving like a monarch. “Mugabe is behaving like a king; a king is in power until he dies and that should not obtain in democratic politics in my view.”
About his relations with Mugabe and other founding Zanu PF leaders, Nkala said: “I have never had a direct confrontation with Robert, we respect each other. Even with Simon Muzenda, we had no direct confrontation, except Eddison Zvobgo because that one was very talkative and I had to call him to order once in a while.”
Nkala said he was proud that Zanu was formed in his house in Highfield in Harare.
He touched briefly on his differences with the late vice-president Joshua Nkomo who was PF Zapu leader and Zanu PF founding leader Ndabaningi Sithole, saying his clashes with them were more to do with strategies on how to dislodge the settler regime than personal. “Some of us felt we had done enough talking with the settler regime and when we suggested that we take up arms, we were labelled reckless,”
he said. “I influenced others to leave Nkomo and Zapu, with Sithole as our leader but when Sithole started behaving like Nkomo on how to pursue the goals of the liberation struggle, we said to hell with you!”
More controversy from Nkala followed when we asked him about the possible outcome of the July 31 general elections. Will Zanu PF win, we asked and he said: “Is Zanu PF still there? If elections were held tomorrow, Zanu PF will disappear, the leadership is now too old. There is no decisive leadership. It’s only Mugabe but he can’t do everything alone. The party that I think would win is MDC (Tsvangirai). You go to the countryside in Matabeleland South and the people there support the MDC.
“Maybe Zanu PF would retain one or two seats in Matabeleland South, people are looking for an alternative because they are fed up with Zanu PF’s long history of failure and making mistakes, including the Gukurahundi massacres; people have not forgotten those massacres presided over by the Zanu PF government.
Did he have any regrets about his period in government, including Gukurahundi massacres?
“I think I have many regrets. No single individual on earth can say they have no regrets in life unless they are lying. You regret that I should not have done this. I should have gone this way,” he said.
“Life has ups and downs and in those ups and downs you make mistakes. I always say I have gone through hell and I don’t know which other hell is waiting for me. I haven’t had a good life. What is a good life anyway? I don’t know. The massacres in Matabeleland and the Midlands by the government are something that I regret.”
Who actually coordinated Gukurahundi?
“Privately you know we lobby each other in a debate and you have a view that you put across. You don’t have to go out and say ‘this is what I said in the meeting’. That’s not it, you put your views there, you may even make threats to say if you continue to talk as you are talking I will walk out and when you walk out the journalists will want to know why,” he said. “So everyone will be concerned about that and say let’s prevent him from doing that.”
Asked whether he would like to be buried at Heroes Acre after his death, Nkala said: “If I have honour that I have to be given or dishonour, it’s not for me to say or do it. The people who are observing know who qualifies for honour or dishonour.”
Did he still occupy a special place among Zanu PF leaders and does he get surprise visits and even gifts? “The young ones don’t know but President Mugabe visits me and let me say Mugabe himself has taken care of me. Most retired politicians don’t get much pension but he himself increased that for me. As you can see I am not looking really hungry!”
So who did Nkala think must be the next Zanu PF leader and president after Mugabe?
“If Mugabe were to go and I was asked who should take over as leader of Zanu PF, I would recommend Joice Mujuru. She is very mature, very sound, sound thinker, she does not exhibit her ambitions too much. I would recommend her; I have a lot of respect for her.”
After a long interview, Nkala signed off with a joke. As we bade him farewell, he introduced us to his family before turning to the German colleague to ask: Are you married? To which he replied: “No.” And then Nkala pointed at one of his daughters and said: “This one is looking for a husband.” The German, because of the presence of his daughter, looked ill at ease and we left immediately after what has now turned out to be Nkala’s last major interview.