THAT Dumiso Dabengwa is a liberation struggle hero is not in doubt. For he did not just fight for Zimbabwe’s freedom and assisted its state formation, but also that of the region as well, particularly South Africa. This is not romanticisation of his Che Guevaran heroism, but a fact of history.
The KGB-trained former Zipra intelligence supremo led a sophisticated guerilla force which battled in Angola, Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe for independence.
He also fought to push for South Africa’s freedom through alliances with some of the struggle movements and greats in the region.
Dabengwa fought alongside the likes of Zanla commander Josiah Tongogara, Zipra chief Nikita Mangena, Solomon Mujuru, Lookout Masuku, Chris Hani, Joe Modise and Jacob Zuma, among others. Although he was Zipra, he cooperated with Zanla and Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC, during the struggle.
Examples of joint forces operations include the 1967 Wankie Campaign and Sipolilo battles involving Zipra and MK, and the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station bombing in South Africa. The Wankie campaign was the ANC’s first military operation and Zipra’s first major incursion into Rhodesia after the relatively smaller but significant attack by Zanla, the Chinhoyi battle, the year before.
From the Wankie Campaign and Sipolilo battles, through the fierce fighting of the 1970s up to the Air Rhodesia Viscount disasters, in which Zipra forces shot down Rhodesian passenger airliners using Russian missiles at the height of the war — the country’s deadliest aviation incidents, and the subsequent vicious backlashes by Rhodesian forces such as the Freedom Camp and Mkushi bombings and massacres in Zambia in 1978, Dabengwa was there in the thick of things; leading from the front.
Dabengwa had joined the struggle in the late 1950s through the National Democratic Party, the forerunner to Zapu which later splintered leading to the formation of Zanu. He had earlier honed his skill in the struggle via the party’s youth league activities and activism, for which he was harassed and arrested.
During his youth days in the early 1960s, Dabengwa even helped former president Robert Mugabe and his first late wife Sally to escape Rhodesia through Botswana.
Mugabe acknowledged this at the Zanu PF youth league interface rally in Gwanda in August 2017 with a sense of admiration.
Throughout their interaction, Mugabe treated Dabengwa with a mixture of awe, fear and hate. Even if Dabengwa fought in the struggle and helped Mugabe at personal risk, he was ironically imprisoned after Independence in 1980 on false charges of treason. Although acquitted, Mugabe couldn’t set him free for five years under colonial state of emergency laws. Dabengwa was arrested and detained with a number of senior Zapu leaders and Zipra commanders.
Lookout Masuku, the Zipra commander, died as a result of the detention and torture. After his release in 1987 following the Unity Accord between Zanu and Zapu, Dabengwa spoke about the ordeal and explained that Zipra had kept some weapons for the MK for South Africa’s liberation struggle against Mugabe’s will.
Recently before his death, Dabengwa told MK cadres in Lilliesleaf in Johannesburg that Zapu and Zipra fought hard to support the ANC and MK, while Mugabe refused to offer military aid beyond political and diplomatic backing. Mugabe, in fact, had a well-documented marriage of convenience with apartheid South Africa and cut deals with Pretoria for self-serving agendas and survival.
As a result of his resilience, humility and principle, Dabengwa was equally admired by his supporters, critics and even enemies alike, including by Mugabe himself.
Dabengwa, who resisted jumping onto the gravy train, attendant primitive accumulation and self-aggrandisement, which his contemporaries found irresistible, taught us how to be courageous in pursuit of your cause and how to live on your own terms even if power and trappings of office — or any other enticements — are dangled before you. As a leader who didn’t subscribe to what many of his generation believed in after the struggle — the “it’s our time to eat” frenzy — Dabengwa died fighting for democracy, freedom and justice, as well as prosperity for all.