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Mphoko: Ace up the sleeve?

IF there was to be a public identification parade, most Zimbabweans would be unable to recognise newly-appointed Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko (74), but that has not stopped President Robert Mugabe from picking the former Zipra commander as one of his deputies.

Owen Gagare

This has raised questions as to why Mugabe has appointed to such a key post the man popularly known within nationalist circles as Report.

The former diplomat, who also spent years in Zapu’s military wing, Zipra, and its intelligence service, National Security Organisation and the Central Intelligence Organisation after Independence in 1980, is publicly seen as small fry.

Yet he has strong liberation struggle credentials. He is also a good businessman in his own right, being chairman of Zimbabwe’s fastest-growing supermarket chain, Choppies, from Botswana chaired by former president Festus Mogae.
Mphoko is set to quit after his appointment though.

Born on June 11, 1940, at Gwizane in Bubi District, Mphoko is in the public opinion a nonentity, but he emerged ahead in the race to succeed the late John Nkomo, beating former Zanu PF chairman Simon Khaya Moyo, now party spokesman and Economic Planning minister, Home Affairs minister Kembo Mohadi, former Zipra commander Ambrose Mutinhiri and ex-Senate president Naison Ndlovu.

Nobody, except those who know his history and him personally, took him seriously as he appeared like a spoiler in the battle in which Khaya Moyo seemed shoo-in until August when Mugabe’s wife Grace unleashed a political tsunami which possibly changed the course of history by wrecking ex-vice-president Joice Mujuru’s presidential plans.

Over and above his strong credentials, it seems Mphoko was mainly helped by his closeness and loyalty to Mugabe whom he lived with in Maputo, Mozambique, after the Patriotic Front and Zipa initiatives from 1976 onwards. Zipa was formed in 1976 as a coalition of Zipra and Zanla, Zanu’s military wing, to intensify the struggle.

That was the year South African President Jacob Zuma arrived in Maputo from Swaziland after being deported following detention as the ANC chief representative subsequent to his Robben Island imprisonment for 10 years.

His background in the CIO also seems to have counted in his quest for ascendancy.

Mphoko was one of Zipra’s first seven commanders in the military planning committee formed in 1965. The committee boasted the likes of Mutinhiri, Abraham Nkiwane, Akim Ndlovu, Gordon Butshe, Robson Manyika and Walter Mbambo as well as Dumiso Dabengwa and others later.

Mphoko was in charge of logistics and supplies during the liberation struggle after he trained in the Soviet Union in 1964 where Ndlovu, Dabengwa and others also trained.

He forged a close relationship with Mugabe after he was appointed as Zapu representative to Maputo. He also reportedly married into former Mozambican president Samora Machel’s family, which brought him closer to Zanu leaders in Mazambique and other nationalists.

During his time in Maputo, he enjoyed a close relationship with Zuma and other ANC heavyweights, among them Joe Modise, who was one of the founder commanders of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, which fought with Zipra in the Luthuli Detachment during Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns in 1967-68. Mphoko and Dabengwa, as well as Modise, later South African Defence minister, and Chris Hani were involved.

Mphoko is also reportedly close to South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, who is likely to take over in 2019 from Zuma currently serving his last term.

After Independence, Mphoko served in the CIO, including during the Gukurahundi era in the early to mid-1980s when Mugabe’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade massacred over 20 000 civilians in Matabeleland and parts of the Midlands, a dark chapter in the new vice-president’s record, just like his counterpart Mnangagwa.

Mphoko caused a stir while posted in Botswana in 2009 when he claimed, without elaborating, Gukurahundi was a “Western conspiracy”. He was speaking during a panel discussion on Zimbabwe where he also harangued panelists, who included prominent attorney Beatrice Mtetwa, calling them “sell-outs”.

Although the period of his life in the CIO is hazy, it appears he was arrested in August 1985 together with Zapu heavyweights Cephas Msipa, Sydney Malunga, Welshman Mabhena and Stephen Nkomo as Mugabe cracked down on Joshua Nkomo and his allies. Joshua Nkomo was hounded and tormented, but survived an assassination attempt in 1983 before escaping to Botswana and then to self-imposed exile in Britain.

Mphoko’s diplomatic career began in 1988 — after his activities in the demobilisation process in the early 1980s and the CIO — when he was posted to Mozambique as consular. Between 1996 and 2001 he was posted to Austria, Botswana in 2002 and later Russia in 2005, as well as South Africa in 2011 until this year.

His major weakness though seems to be that he does not have grassroots support and is relatively unknown in national politics, although he commands respect among nationalist leaders. This, together with Mnangagwa’s appointment, could cost Zanu PF in 2018 if Mugabe goes unless they quickly rejuvenate the party’s social base.

Mphoko is, however, a successful businessman with an interest in cattle ranching as well as retail, and is thus not necessarily coming into government to be on the feeding trough like most of his colleagues who use politics as a means of survival.

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