THIS week Zimbabweans and other people had a chance to reflect on the contributions the late Vice-President Joshua Nkomo — a pioneer and towering liberation struggle figure who died on July 1 1999 — made to the freedom and progress of the country.
Let’s be clear upfront. In terms of African nationalism, Nkomo stands alongside Africa’s greatest fighters against colonialism and injustice. But biographers and journalists interested in telling his story in full, together with its hagiographical accounts and criticisms, must not just wallow in sentiment but give varied enlightening narratives.
Nkomo’s record in the struggle is illustrious. Of course, it would be naïve to think everybody celebrates it. Some actually don’t. There are others who quietly claim his feats are exaggerated, while others say he made critical strategic and tactical mistakes during the war. Others even allege he was not revolutionary enough as he wanted to achieve freedom and peace through a mixture of combat and negotiation.
In fact, some, especially in Matabeleland region, say he let down his own people after Independence by not standing up to President Robert Mugabe to demand an inclusive and representative system, hence rising marginalisation complaints and demands for secession. Yet Nkomo always thought of Zimbabwe, not as a region but as an indivisible entity with diverse cultures, languages and interests. He was patriotic such that despite the military capability of Zipra, backed by a superpower then, and Cold War imperatives that gave him options he rejected the catastrophic path of Mozambique’s Alfonso Dhlakama and Angola’s Jonas Savimbi. All these are legitimate views, although some sound too harsh and revisionist. But revisionist deconstructions and vilification of Nkomo failed to sully his legacy.
Nkomo’s influence on the struggle is not in doubt, although his impact is sometimes taken for granted, particularly in his own country where his legacy was saved by his unassailable record rather than the magnanimity of his comrades.
If Nkomo had made grave mistakes during the struggle through errors of judgment and strategic miscalculations like other stalwarts such as Ndabaningi Sithole and Abel Muzorewa, Mugabe and his fanatic loyalists would have buried him alive. For they tried after 1980 to rewrite history, erase him from the struggle narrative and discredit him through deception, propaganda and lies, but all in vain.
In the end, Mugabe and his diehards had no choice but to accept the truth: that Nkomo was a liberation icon who deserved to be honoured, not hounded in pursuit of a narrow one-party state and authoritarian agenda. While Nkomo did a lot for Zimbabwe since his days as a trade unionist, through the struggle and after Independence, his decisive intervention to help Econet founder Strive Masiyiwa realise his entrepreneurial dream stands out as one of his best contributions to the country, underlining his pragmatism and vision as a leader.
Masiyiwa has shared in public how a call from Nkomo out of the blue at the height of his fierce court battles against government to secure Econet a licence changed the course of events. He says after Nkomo’s intervention “persecution against me ended that day”, and as they say, the rest is history. Nkomo’s legacy must be valued and preserved.