On April 25 1974, radio stations in Portugal unexpectedly played the banned resistance song Grandola Villa Morena announcing the army officers revolt against the fascist dictatorship. Few of us, if any, in Zimbabwe knew that song or understood its significance. But for me that song is associated with Dumiso Dabengwa and almost five decades of leadership, comradeship and friendship I shared with this extraordinary man.
The victorious Red Carnation Revolution in Portugal triggered the collapse of Portuguese colonial rule. A few days after the installation of the transitional Frelimo government in June 1974 I entered Mocambique, and handed myself over to the Frelimo authorities. My own sojourn in the liberation struggle had begun and although I did not know it yet, I was to be led and guided on that journey by the “Black Russian”.
I found my way to Zapu and volunteered to serve in the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (Zipra). It was Father Zimbabwe himself (the late vice-president and national hero Joshua Nkomo) who handed me over to Dabengwa, saying simply: “This is your commander.” I was terrified. At the time I did not know anything of his numerous and legendary exploits. In fact, I did not even know his name. Dabengwa interviewed me in his incisive, quiet and determined manner, trying to put me at ease, but probing carefully.
I was deployed into the Intelligence Directorate of the National Security Organisation (NSO) reporting directly to the head of intelligence, the late Victor Mlambo. I did not see Dabengwa for quite some time until I was instructed to provide a significant report to him directly. Mlambo was present, but said very little. I made my report, admittedly a rather long and vivid description of what had happened and how and where and the implications and results.
Dabengwa congratulated me on a successful operation, asked a few questions and then suggested that Mlambo leave us alone. I knew this was unusual.
“Comrade,” he said quietly, “when you give a report there are only three points you need to cover. Firstly, if you have carried out your orders successfully then say so and describe the results. Or if you have been unable to do so then say so and request new orders or additional assistance. Secondly, if the conditions or circumstances have changed you should explain this and how it affects your mission. Finally, if you have new information which will be useful, you should provide that information. That is all we require. If we need more information then we will ask for it”.
It was not a dressing down. It was a crucial lesson for life in the struggle. And to spare me embarrassment Dabengwa had asked Mlambo to leave. It was done so gently yet firmly, just as a father would impart a sensitive and important lesson to his son. That was Dabengwa. One of a kind indeed!
In the final years of the armed struggle I was promoted to head a new directorate in NSO, and whilst I continued to report to Mlambo on our intelligence operations, I now reported directly to Dabengwa (or his senior deputy the late Swazini Ndlovu) on my new, and sensitive, tasks. These concerned preparations to launch the ‘Zero Hour’ offensive.
I was with Dabengwa at Lancaster House as the critical moment arrived when the final decision to launch or postpone the operation had to be taken. Although not all the preparations were complete Dabengwa believed we should proceed with the plan. The political leadership, represented by Nkomo, were hesitant persuasively drawing attention to the loss of life such an operation would entail and explaining the significant regional and international political implications and risks. As Nkomo has explained in his memoirs, at the time there was “still a chance of final victory by negotiation”. The decision was taken to postpone the offensive. As always we followed the orders of the political leadership.
The same was to happen when we faced the persecution and onslaught launched against Zapu and Zipra shortly after independence, and during the Gukurahundi massacres. Those who have claimed this was a war between two armed parties are simply wrong. The orders given to, and issued by, Zipra were very clear. We were under orders to maintain a defensive posture, to restrain our forces, to prevent desertion and “dissidence” and to promote stability. This was not easy and not every comrade understood or followed these orders. But our officers battled against the odds to contain the situation and to ensure that the orders issued by the commanders were carried out.
Those being integrated into the Zimbabwe National Army were under orders to remain steadfast despite the provocations, threats and even murder of fellow comrades and to ensure stability and contribute to building the new army.
I know this because these are the orders I received directly from Dabengwa and because for several years I was the line of communication between Nkomo, Dabengwa and the late Lt-General Lookout Masuku after they were incarcerated in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. As the political advisor to the treason trial legal defence team I gained access to the imprisoned comrades throughout this period, including during their continued detention after they had been acquitted of all charges. I carried these orders from Nkomo to Dabengwa and conveyed his agreement and resulting orders back out of the prison walls.
I also carried the orders of the commanders ensuring that we of Zapu and Zipra continued providing all possible assistance to the ANC and Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) despite the hostility of the new Zanu PF government to the ANC and MK at the time.
This history needs to be acknowledged and the great heroes like Dabengwa, Masuku and others who withstood persecution and lies should be celebrated for their principled and courageous defence of our hard won independence and their efforts to maintain peace in Zimbabwe as well as to continue our support for the armed liberation struggle in South Africa.
During this same period I worked closely with both Nkomo and Dabengwa in the preparation of the political report delivered by Nkomo at the sixth Zapu congress held in Harare in October 1984. Dabengwa was in Chikurubi and was unable to communicate with the Zapu president directly, but Nkomo needed the advice of the commanders and their contribution towards the policies to be adopted at the congress. I provided the conduit for these secret consultations.
This was a terrible period in our history, although at the time most Zimbabweans were unaware of the killings and persecution which was taking place. A repetition of the Angolan civil war was a real possibility and apartheid South Africa was actively seeking such an outcome, assisted by Rhodesians in our security services working with apartheid intelligence. Zanu leaders were blindly stoking these fires with their belligerent campaign for a one-party state and outrageous language about “cockroaches” and “snakes” in the house.
In this environment, it was not surprising that some in our ranks were calling for revenge and retaliation, and among them a few had indeed taken to the bush to fight back. Others were simply bewildered and stunned by the appalling turn of events, which had marred our short but disastrous post-independence journey. There was a great deal of anger and bitterness among Zapu and Zipra. This was a time when real leadership was required.
This leadership was provided by both Nkomo and Dabengwa in their secret deliberations under duress and was reflected in the wise and reasoned call for peace and unity, and the call for establishment of a united front of all progressive Zimbabweans made by Nkomo at the 1984 Zapu congress. Dabengwa lobbied strongly for this position from behind the prison walls.
Instead as Dabengwa himself has repeated many times over recent years: “Zapu was forced into an empty and lopsided ‘unity’ which Nkomo saw as a necessary sacrifice to stop the killing and the repression aimed at his supporters”. The united front proposed by Nkomo in 1984, with Dabengwa’s support, was a continuation of Zapu’s longstanding and “irreversible commitment to the unity of the people of Zimbabwe”. In Nkomo’s words: “True unity is the unity of the people!”
More recently, and after the military coup in November 2017, I was once again at Dabengwa’s side as he waited for a response to proposals he had made to President Emmerson Mnangagwa for the establishment of an inclusive national transitional authority. The response was the public announcement of a recycled Zanu PF administration.
Despite this latest rejection, Dabengwa continued to fight for this all-too-sensible policy to his last days, believing it still provided us with the only way forward.
During wartime and in the first years of independence I knew Dabengwa as my commander, and as discipline demands I kept my respect and my distance as soldiers must do. He was a great commander in my experience, steady and focused, encouraging critical thinking, listening thoughtfully to comrades and taking firm and clear decisions when required. He was highly disciplined himself and demanded discipline from others. You knew where you stood with a commander of this calibre and you always knew you had his loyal support. I trusted him with my life.
It was in the terrible early years after independence and whilst we were under siege, hunted and insulted and bearing our pain as best we could, that I came to know Dabengwa the man, his family, his hopes and his fears. This process started with his arrest and continued through the prison years. We still had problems to consider, decisions to take and a command authority to obey and this continued as before. Even in prison Dabengwa maintained his level-headedness, his critical capacity and his principled approach. He remained “The Commander” and fellow prisoners and warders alike always showed him the greatest respect. I could sense his deep frustration and anger as events unfolded and he remained powerless to intervene, but he always held himself in check.
During the prison years I visited him weekly and sometimes daily when necessary, carrying messages, instructions (and food parcels) in and out of the prison.
Sometimes we were alone and sometimes he was accompanied by Masuku or Ndlovu. Warders made efforts to monitor our visits, but we were seasoned guerillas and easily outwitted them. Some were even complicit in our efforts and as the years passed they ceased to even bother to watch over us.
Our conversations covered all manner of things, including obviously political and other developments and the decisions and tasks arising, but also his concern about the fate of comrades, his family and the families of others and my own. When my daughter was born I asked Dabengwa and the other imprisoned comrades to name her. They chose the name Linda, a name both comfortable for English speakers and with a powerful resonance in IsiNdebele (Lindiwe, meaning
waiting patiently). Later when my second son was born I named him Dumiso.
When Masuku became ill, we made determined efforts to get him transferred to hospital, but he was already seriously ailing by the time he was finally moved to Parirenyatwa Hospital. I spent the following three weeks visiting Masuku in hospital and Dabengwa in prison on an almost daily basis. I felt at the time that this was a metaphor for the tragedy of post-independence Zimbabwe.
When Masuku died, I rushed straight to Chikurubi and from his bedside I passed the sad news on to Dabengwa. He was silent for a long time. He then gave me instructions on what needed to be done. Dabengwa was denied permission to attend the burial, but I carried his messages to Nkomo and the Masuku family.
And so I came to know this quiet and immensely dignified man at close quarters and in conditions of terrible adversity. I grew to admire him all the more.
I also came to know his wife, Zodwa Khumalo, and the courageous wives and families of some of the other imprisoned comrades. They stood steadfastly and proudly by their incarcerated loved ones, bearing their pain with great dignity.
The Dabengwa family and mine became closely intertwined during this time and after his release Dabengwa presided over the funerals of my mother, Jean, and my brother, Paul — another proud liberation veteran.
On a happier occasion, Dabengwa was the best man at my wedding, accompanied by his wife Zodwa, who commented at the time: “About time young man. You have been living in sin for too long!”
Dabengwa could have chosen another, and easier, path following his release from prison. But he did not. He chose the path of principle.
Following the death of Nkomo, Dabengwa picked up his spear and continued patiently and persistently arguing for the policies that had once underpinned our hopes for the Patriotic Front. Peace! Unity! Development!
Dabengwa was a warrior and a fearless commander. But he was a true lover of peace. He fought to bring peace to this land. Dabengwa respected culture and tradition, but he did not believe in the politics of tribalism. He rejected racism, tribalism and all forms of discrimination. He fought to bring unity to the people of Zimbabwe. Dabengwa did not believe we should endure, or increase, poverty. He believed we should defeat it, as we had defeated colonial rule. He fought to ensure that all Zimbabweans would share in the wealth of this country, not just the privileged few.
In his last years, Dabengwa spoke passionately about the importance of new leadership and particularly about the need for young people to take up the leadership of our country. He reminded us that at a time when older nationalist and traditional leaders were being cautious and hesitated to take on the might of the colonial state, he and other young people took the lead opening the road to our liberation.
On the occasion of my last encounter with my commander, my mentor and my beloved friend and comrade he said to me: “Our time has passed, Jeremy. The future belongs to the youth. We can only guide them and pray that they do their duty with a genuine love for the people”.
Besides his legendary heroics, Dabengwa left a legacy of untiring dedication to the struggle for democracy, freedom and prosperity, as well as peace and tolerance.
Hamba kahle qhawe lamaqhawe! (Go well, hero of heroes!)
Brickhill served in the military wing of the late vice-president Joshua Nkomo’s PF Zapu, Zipra, and has experience in conflict and post-conflict processes in Africa and has consulted on this with the United Nations.