Unmasking the secretive Rex Nhongo

ASSOCIATE Professor in Politics at the University of Oxford Blessing-Miles Tendi last month released the book, The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe: Mujuru, the Liberation Fighter and Kingmaker (Cambridge University Press). Journalist Ranga Mberi (RM) spoke recently to Tendi (BMT) on the book. Below are excerpts of the interview:

RM: First off, take us back to the time you decided, ‘I want to write a book about Rex’. Why Rex?

BMT: When did it all start? It started when I still had something of the innocence of childhood — 2010! At the time, my research interest was shifting from intellectuals and politics, which is what my first book, Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: Politics, Intellectuals and the Media, is about.

I was, more and more, being drawn to the subject of civil-military relations. Rex was the first black commander of independent Zimbabwe’s national army and Zanla’s chief of operations when the liberation war ended. All this made him a military figure of interest to me, as well as the fact that he was a public private man. He was a public figure, I knew he was significant, yet so little about Rex the man was actually known. So I decided to write a biography.
RM: How long did this take?

BMT: I began seriously researching Rex’s life in early 2011. I knew then that it was not going to be easy because he was notoriously private. His dramatic and mysterious death in August of the same year deepened my resolve to tell his story.

RM: How do you bring all these diverse voices together?

BMT: Writing biography requires great perseverance and meticulousness. Robert Caro is probably the greatest biographer alive today. His four exceptional biographies of former American president Lyndon Johnson, each took him 10 plus years to write. That is 40 years on a single life! So you have got to be able to hang in there for the long haul and win the trust of people who know about your subject. You try to interview anybody who knew him. Some agree to talk, others decline. And as you go, you try to make sense of the information you are getting. What are the recurring themes and why, what are the silences, what can and cannot be corroborated?

RM: But how did you manage to gain the trust of the people that spoke here, especially on the most sensitive matters?

BMT: The first thing is giving your interviewees the distinct impression you are a Robert Caro type of biographer (laughs)! That you are serious about the subject and in it for the long haul. I also read everything that had been written about Rex. There was not very much, but that little information helped me show my interviewees that I was knowledgeable about him. If they agree to talk, never interview them once. Interview them repeatedly across several months.
You build understanding and trust this way and then, as was often the case, they start to tell you the secrets, what you really need to know. But it was not just what I did to win trust.

The manner of Rex’s death helped me a lot in the sense that there were many people who felt his memory needed to be recovered. Some people would phone me out of the blue and say “I heard you are writing about Rex Nhongo. There is something you must know that I did with Rex Nhongo in the liberation war. Can you come to my farm this weekend?”

RM: Why do you think many politicians involved in the struggle do not want to write books?

BMT: There was a strong security culture in the liberation struggle because the context was war and the Rhodesian state was prodigious at infiltrating liberation movements. So a lot of the liberation war time figures learned to be guarded, constantly on the lookout for spies. That security culture never went away.

It accompanied them when they came home from Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, for Independence and it has inhibited many from writing. Rex was a product of that security culture. It is partly why he was very secretive. But as I show in the biography, while the liberation struggle had a noble cause, a lot of disagreeable things happened in the course of the struggle.

There were controversial killings of the Nhari mutineers in 1974, women were abused and war degrades humanity. Many just do not want to remember some of these horrors and others fear besmirching the nobleness of the liberation struggle, if they write about it honestly.

RM: In your book, we meet Emile Munemo, a deputy commander of the 5 Brigade. He speaks of directly reporting to Mugabe on Gukurahundi. You quote various voices saying Rex knew what was happening, the atrocities and murder, but did not support it. Are you absolving Rex?

BMT: In the book I quote various figures close to the operations at the time as saying Rex knew about the human rights abuses in Matabeleland and Midlands, but he was not responsible for them all. There were two operations in Midlands and Matabeleland.

One involved Rex’s Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) against dissidents and another one saw CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation), 5 Brigade, PISI (Police Internal Security Intelligence) and the Zanu PF-aligned People’s Militia going after Zapu structures.

The ZNA committed grave human rights violations in Matabeleland and Midlands, which I describe in the book. I write, categorically, that all human rights abuses carried out by the ZNA in Midlands and Matabeleland should be placed at Rex’s doorstep. He was the ZNA commander. Many Zipra cadres were also persecuted inside the ZNA. Those abuses in the ZNA should also be laid at Rex’s doorstep. But I also write that the abuses by 5 Brigade, for instance, go back to Mugabe, who had direct control of 5 Brigade.

You mentioned Munemo, who would drive to Harare on weekends to discuss operations with Mugabe, not Rex. Rex was a Zapu cadre before he was Zanla. As I show in the book, this meant he faced unique constraints. Those constraints, like past friendships in Zapu, made him less gung-ho than others in going after Zapu. Rex also had a particular make-up. In the book we see him protect certain Zipa cadres from being purged in 1977 because he appreciated their war expertise and wanted to retain it. We see him do the same with some Zipras. He protected some for their expertise. Zipra had a better signals unit than Zanla in the liberation war. So who gets to dominate the ZNA signals department after the liberation war? Zipra cadres like Tshinga Dube, Fakazi Mleya and others. All that was Rex’s doing.

RM: Your portrayal of the Mavonde battle is fascinating. This is where we see Rex in action, right at the war front. You have one of his comrades saying of Nhongo: “Rex had this intuition. A sixth sense for survival.” How much did all this action shape his views of comrades who did not actually see action the way he did? We learn, for example, that he thought very little of Mnangagwa’s role in the struggle.

BMT: You left out something important in those stories of Rex’s audaciousness and brushes with danger. It is that by the time the war ends, Rex had become quite dependent on alcohol to mask the horrors of war.

At one of the battles you mention, a Zanla cadre remembers Rex giving out marijuana to calm their nerves before renewed Rhodesian bombardment in the morning. Rex was certainly an innately brave person, but his life also shows the extent to which soldiering can be pharmacological. He was not superhuman. Rex rarely discussed, in public, his exploits in the war, but in private he could be quite scathing and dismissive of people he thought never distinguished themselves in the liberation war.

As you say correctly, he thought little of Mnangagwa’s role in the liberation struggle. But it is not just Rex. One of the reasons there was a coup in Zimbabwe in 2017 is that liberation struggle participants would not allow those who did not take part in the struggle, the so-called G40, to govern Zimbabwe in their lifetimes. The liberation struggle matters to its participants. It helps determine who is who and after determining who is who, some have more authority or legitimacy in Zanu than others.

RM: Let us talk about 2008 and Rex’s support for Simba Makoni. Vitalis Zvinavashe initially backs Makoni but then, rather literally, shuts him out. Rex does the same, on the eve of elections. Cowardice, or a clever politician preserving himself as he had always done?

BMT: Definitely not cowardice. Zvinavashe’s changed stance had an impact on Rex. When he saw Zvinavashe snub Makoni, he suspected he was about to be played out politically. I think it is also helpful to point out that Rex and Zvinavashe were never that close.

They clashed over appointments in the ZNA, for example. Rex did not fully trust Zvinavashe politically, so when a person he did not trust entirely suddenly withdrew from a political arrangement, the calculating Rex also pulled back to live and fight another day. I should also say that the book makes clear that in the course of the presidential election campaign Rex developed doubts that Makoni could win the election.

RM: So, does this all put paid to the theory that Makoni was just some ploy to prevent Tsvangirai from winning an outright majority?

BMT: As I write about it in the book, a political ally goes to see Rex at his farm when the March 2008 presidential election result is being withheld by Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec). This particular chap is worried that Makoni has not made it and Tsvangirai has won the election. What does Rex say? He says worry not, Tsv-tsv-tsv-tsvangirai ano tonga ka! Rex wanted Mugabe out of the presidential office more than he sought to prevent a Tsvangirai presidency.

RM: There is this line in the book: “We probably will never know who killed Chitepo.” Will we ever know just what happened to Rex Nhongo on that night in August 2011?

BMT: The million-dollar question! I wondered when that was coming. In the book I also write that “we will never know the difference Tongogara might have made in independent Zimbabwe had he survived the December 1979 car accident”. That is History for you. So many unknowns. What ifs. Counterfactuals.

RM: What is your next book?

BMT: I began falling in love with civil-military relations in 2010. I have not fallen out of love yet and the elephant in the room is without doubt Zimbabwe’s 2017 coup. I have started writing a book about that. — newZWire.