Insights into Rex’s complex life

THIS is the second extract from Blessing-Miles Tendi’s book, The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe: Mujuru, the Liberation Fighter and Kingmaker (Cambridge University Press). Tendi is an Associate Professor in Politics at the University of Oxford. Permission for reproduction of extracts of the book was granted exclusively to this paper by the author. Mujuru, the Liberation Fighter and Kingmaker is available in Zimbabwean bookshops and Exclusive Books (South Africa).

Josiah Tongogara appointed Rex Nhongo Zanla’s (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army) chief of operations after Zipa’s (Zimbabwe People’s Army) downfall in 1977. As chief of operations, Nhongo was effectively deputy to Tongogara, Zanla’s chief of defence.

Nhongo and Tongogara had dissimilar approaches to military leadership and their personalities also differed. Nhongo often wore a black beret, jackboots and a Chinese-made plain green uniform and he carried a folding-butt AK-47.

He could arrive at a scene populated by Zanu cadres and merge into the gathering unnoticed.Nhongo “would just blend in with ordinary people. It is only when he was dealing with the trained personnel that he adopted the posture of a commander”, a senior Zanla guerrilla observed.

The Zanla guerrilla’s view of Nhongo was reinforced by some of the reminiscences of Mozambican Frelimo cadres. Nhongo was “not noticeable, a quiet person”, Joachim Chissano remembered.

For Armando Guebuza, “Rex was easy to talk to.”Jacinto Veloso supplemented that Nhongo was “very down to earth. He was often cracking jokes and laughing, but he was very quick to act on war things when action was needed.”

According to Frelimo’s Antonio Hama Thay, Tongogara was “a good speaker. When he was giving a speech, it captured you. Nhongo spoke less and he was more direct than Tongogara. Nhongo did not go around in circles.”

“Tongogara had a lot of charisma. It (his charisma) was natural. Rex Nhongo was not like that”, commented Jose Ajape, a Frelimo cadre assigned by Machel to assist Zanla commanders in their guerrilla operations in Rhodesia. Some Frelimo cadres saw Tongogara as deriving inspiration from Machel, whereas Nhongo was his own person.

As Hama Thay put it: “Tongogara saw Samora as a role model. That is what I saw. I was with Tongogara several times in Tete province and I could see Samora in him. The strong military leader who is also a politician. Very firm. Charismatic.”

Within Zanla, Tongogara was well-known for his acutely militaristic behaviour, language and leadership style. Nhongo was not bereft of some of the militaristic behaviour Tongogara exuded, as evinced in this recollection by a Zanla guerrilla:

“Rex once drove us to Maputo for a mission. After the mission, he took us for drinks, then he drove us back to Chimoio. The other comrade, I don’t know if it was because beer had gone to his head, on the way back, he started saying bad things about some of the High Command members. He was saying so and so must be demoted. Rex never commented, but this comrade just kept saying these things. When we got to Chimoio, Rex beat that comrade with a thick stick on his buttocks until he defecated on himself. On that day I realised how much Rex believed in respect for military hierarchy.”

Still, Nhongo by and large was seen as more genial and closer to the guerrillas than Tongogara.Nhongo “listened, but with Tongo, it is you who would be doing the listening. Tongo was the sort of person you felt afraid of rather than close to, but you could feel close to Rex”, one Zanla guerrilla compared both commanders.

“Rex moderated Tongo. If you wanted Tongo to reverse something radical, you told Rex and he would try to talk to him but that does not mean Tongo would change”, another Zanla cadre evaluated.

An additional point of difference between Nhongo and Tongogara was their conflicting degrees of recognition for Mugabe’s authority in Zanu.Nhongo had a supportive alliance with Mugabe, but Tongogara’s relationship with Mugabe was a competitive one.

A Zanla fighter remembered witnessing the following dynamics between Nhongo, Tongogara and Mugabe: “Tongo would challenge Mugabe. On one occasion, Tongo almost got into a fight with Nhongo for challenging the president. A physical fight. Mugabe trusted Nhongo more than Tongo.”

I asked Mugabe about his views on Tongogara, to which he responded:“(He was) very strong. Very determined, but feared by others. You know you do not want a person who is feared because he is cheeky. He would beat up people. When we were at Lancaster (House for the 1979 Independence negotiations), he was staying with Tungamirai. Tungamirai wanted to go out at night and enjoy London. Tongo wanted routine, keeping to bedtime. Tungamirai was not happy about that, so Tongo said, ‘You are stubborn’ and he beat up Tungamirai. Yes, at Lancaster.”

Mugabe’s remark, “you do not want a person who is feared because he is cheeky” betrayed his discomfort with Tongogara’s leadership style. Conversely, Mugabe pointed out that from the Zanla guerrillas, Nhongo was the “dearest” to him and he added that in warfare.

“Mujuru was unafraid. Completely unafraid and daring, and he is the one Tongo relied on first and foremost, then Tungamirai, then Zvinavashe . . . Tongo was the commander, so he remained in the background. He would not fight, although Mujuru would have wanted him to fight.

“Sometimes when they quarrelled about something that had gone wrong at the (war)front, Mujuru would say, “Why do you not come and we see if you can do better?”