This is the third 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 book shops and Exclusive Books (South Africa).
Solomon Tapfumaneyi Mujuru is one of the most illustrious figures in modern Zimbabwean military and political history and in the transnational politics of Southern Africa’s 1970s liberation struggles. He is, arguably, the greatest of all guerrilla field commanders from Zimbabwe’s independence war against Rhodesian white-settler colonial rule. In the late 1970s, under the nom de guerre Rex Nhongo, Mujuru reached the acme of his public acclaim, among black Africans, as a principal liberation fighter. He had abundant infamy with many white Rhodesians because his war successes threatened to overturn their colonial privileges.
Mujuru became the first black commander of independent Zimbabwe’s national army in 1981 and he oversaw a complicated military integration involving three undefeated rival armies from the independence war. By 1992, under Mujuru’s command, the Zimbabwean Army had attained a high degree of conventional training, education, discipline and fighting effectiveness. It was the second-best conventional combat force in Southern Africa, only because the South African Army was better resourced. Mujuru was also an influential political figure. He was a kingmaker in ruthless and violent liberation wartime succession politics. Robert Mugabe would not have risen to power in Mozambique between 1976 and 1977, were it not for Mujuru’s influence. Mujuru once served as a Member of Parliament after his 1992 retirement from the army and, until his alleged death by fire on August 15, 2011, he was a powerful member of former Zimbabwean leader (1980–2017) Mugabe’s Zanu PF ruling party.
Mujuru was the quintessential public private man. He avoided, assiduously, the public eye but remained a much-discussed public figure. Nothing else underlines the degree to which Mujuru sought to maintain privacy than the fact that very little is known about his personal history. Mujuru rarely gave interviews to media and researchers on any subject and on the few occasions that he did, he revealed only scant detail about himself. Consequently, what has been recorded about this great historical figure’s personal background is narrow and often misleading. Take for instance the oft-expressed pseudo fact by politicians and official scribes of Mujuru’s ZAnu PF party that he was the last-born child in the Mujuru family. Mujuru was in point of fact the third-youngest child.
To rectify these factual errors about Mujuru’s personal background and in order to use his life story as a prism to write a panoramic military and political history of 1970s transnational Southern African liberation struggles and the post-liberation era, the biography assembles Mujuru’s personal history and the principal components of his public business – the African liberation warrior, the peacetime army general and the Zanu PF politician. Mujuru’s life history is transfixing, dramatic and embodies important turning points in the military and political histories of his time.
Through Mujuru’s life history we learn about aspects of Southern African liberation movements’ 1970s transnational politics. As a leading commander of Zanla, Zanu PF’s liberation army, from 1971 to 1979 Mujuru interacted with a range of important African liberation struggle actors in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. African independence struggle leaders like Mujuru journeyed across multiple borders and confronted colonialism from beyond their countries of origin, making their warfare and political engagement transnational in content. Mujuru’s biography is a useful resource for grasping some of that transnational warfare and politics. This is a critical pursuit because our knowledge of transnational liberation politics and guerrilla campaigns is mostly unclear whilst the nature of politics between liberation fighters and the leaderships of host states is equally obscure.
Even as the biography emphasises Mujuru’s hand in the post-independence amalgamation of Zanla, Zipra and the Rhodesian Army, it illustrates Britain’s lasting influence on part of its former empire, by way of its assistance in post-conflict state-making processes such as military integration. Mujuru had enormous impact on the value system of the new army through his efforts to foster its commitment to conventional army training and capability and improved formal education standards. However, Mujuru’s time as army commander also coincided with mutinies by and the persecution of Zipra elements in the army, as well as Zanu PF political violence against Zapu supporters, in which thousands of civilians lost their lives. The biography implicates Mujuru in some of these early 1980s human rights violations, but it also points out the significant ways in which Mujuru remained sympathetic to Zipra and how his actions as army commander often sought to balance competing pressures placed on him by Zanu PF, ex-Zanlas, former Rhodesian Army soldiers, the British Army and past Zipra colleagues.
Mujuru joined active politics after his retirement from the army in 1992 and he led the Mujuru faction, one of the main Zanu PF groups in the internal contest to succeed Mugabe. The biography examines the politics of this succession struggle.
We learn the reasons Mujuru’s desire for Mugabe to leave office began in 1990 and why, by the time of Mujuru’s mysterious death, his relationship with Mugabe had become acrimonious. Mujuru’s demise captured scholarly and popular attention, as attempts were made to unravel the political implications of his death and uncover the precise cause of his passing. Mujuru’s death inspired the title of C. B. George’s novel The Death of Rex Nhongo, in which a gun that may or may not have been used to kill Mujuru is a MacGuffin in the book. Drawing on unique access to confidential investigative documents and oral sources, the biography painstakingly reconstructs events prior and after Mujuru’s expiry and it casts grave doubt on the plausibility of the state’s account that he died in a housefire.
After his death, Mujuru was publicly vilified by Mugabe and state controlled media. The biography also serves as a recovery of Mujuru’s memory, which has undergone distortion and erasure in official discourses and memorialisations. The biography shows that Mujuru carved out his name not because he came from a wealthy family or was highly educated. Mujuru was a pragmatic man of natural talent. A self-made man. Cunning and charismatic in his particular way. As a soldier, he was an intrepid and discerning god of violence. He led from the front and was at his most comfortable in the operational field. He lived for the warfront. Mujuru had an eye for talented soldiers. He respected scientific training and technical expertise in and outside the military – a trait he acquired during conventional army training in Zapu and with Frelimo. Mujuru was not indifferent to the suffering of men under his command. He understood what motivated fighters and how to make them feel valued.
Partisanship transmutes political ‘adversaries into enemies. An adversary has to be defeated, while an enemy must be destroyed. You cannot compromise with enemies. With adversaries compromise is possible.
An adversary today can become an ally tomorrow.’ Mujuru stood against partisanship and its accompanying enmity politics. He believed in and openly advocated the principle of periodic leadership renewal, when the majority of Zanu PF elites feared vocalising it publicly. His parliamentary career was short-lived and at no time did he hold a ministerial cabinet post.
Mujuru never sought political leadership because he saw himself as a soldier essentially and believed that his limited education and speech impediment made him unsuited for high political office. He had none of the hubris that incited politically ambitious soldiers to stage coups d’état in a range of independent African countries – Zimbabwe included. Mujuru was also too reticent, ordinarily, and too brutally frank, when he chose to open up, for a flourishing career in active politics. He nevertheless retained a lofty position in Zanu PF and stubbornly sought to influence succession politics from behind the scenes, until his end in 2011.
Mujuru continually sought the affections of women. He was a Lothario – an improbable one at that, as we shall discover. Mujuru was a poor husband owing to his ceaseless womanising and frequently absent from his children’s lives, most of whom were born out of wedlock. In economic activity, Mujuru’s at times unethical pursuit of wealth was fuelled by a sense of entitlement. He saw wealth accumulation as reward for his heroism in the liberation war. But there was also a powerful sense that the adult Mujuru never again wanted to be deprived, having been desperately poor in childhood.
When Mujuru died, the record-breaking crowd that witnessed his public funeral was indicative of Zimbabweans’ and Southern African former liberation wartime actors’ recognition of his remarkable role in the independence war. The vast funeral attendance was also a show of popular anger and disbelief at his gruesome and unfathomable supposed termination by fire. The converging of profoundly partisan domestic political actors to mourn Mujuru, underscored that he had been above partisanship. Every country has its war heroes. Zimbabwe’s last great hero died on August 15, 2011.