The name Robert Mugabe will be forever associated with the black struggle in Rhodesia before its transition to the state of Zimbabwe in 1980. Mugabe may be considered to have subsequently overstayed his welcome but another giant of Zimbabwean politics played a most significant part in that country’s liberation from white minority rule. Indeed, in many ways Joshua Nkomo mentored Mugabe and brought him into the limelight as friends before the two became rivals and ‘friends’ once again.
Nkomo could well have become independent Zimbabwe’s first leader had the former British colony secured black majority rule in the early 1960s when most African nations were winning their independence. But Southern Rhodesia’s large white settler minority and the West’s Cold War strategy meant that the nationalist struggle which Nkomo initiated was one of the longest and bloodiest of the whole period of African decolonisation. In the course of that bitter struggle Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) was gradually overshadowed by Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) and by the end of the war it was the latter who was best poised to drum up domestic support to take power in the elections of 1980.
Born in 1917 in Semokwe, a native reserve in Malobo district near Bulawayo, the main city of Matebeleland, Joshua Nkomo was a child of the mission system in which so many African independence leaders gained their education. His father was a driver and his mother a cook in the local branch of the London Missionary Society. The young Joshua worked as a baker’s delivery boy and attended primary school before making his way to Durban in South Africa; as a mature student he had difficulty in squeezing his already formidable form into a classroom desk.
In South Africa he came under the influence of the African National Congress (ANC), returning in 1947 to a job as a social worker for the Rhodesian Railway (the first African to hold the post) where he quickly became involved in union work, from 1951 as the General Secretary of the Rhodesian Railways African Employees Association.
Nkomo soon came to the notice of the colonial authorities as one of the rising stars of Rhodesia’s African nationalist movement and became the target of British efforts to co-opt the movement into their plans for a federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. After some initial hesitation, Nkomo joined Kenneth Kaunda, the nationalist leader of Northern Rhodesia, and Hastings Banda, the future president of Malawi in opposing federation. In 1957 Nkomo became the leader of Southern Rhodesia’s nationalist movement, the ANC, which was banned two years later. Exiled, Nkomo turned to international advocacy and succeeded in putting the question of independence for Southern Rhodesia firmly on the international agenda at the United Nations.
While Zambian and Malawian independence were born from the failure of Britain’s federation project, in Southern Rhodesia the consequences were altogether more painful. In 1965 came UDI, the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, and the emergence of the white segregationist regime under Ian Smith that was to precipitate more than a decade of violent conflict.
By 1965 Nkomo’s leadership of the nationalist struggle was already disputed. Militants within the movement suspected that he had been too ready to compromise with the British both over the federation and during the important 1961 constitutional talks, the failure of which paved the way for UDI. Nkomo was also seen as lacking the confidence of the new leaders of independent African nations who supported the liberation struggle. For the militant faction within Zapu he was not the right man for the struggle ahead. The Zapu dissidents, including Robert Mugabe and Ndabaningi Sithole, deserted him in 1963 to form the more militant Zanu under the leadership of Sithole.
In 1964 Nkomo, after failing to persuade the Tanzanian President, Julius Nyerere, to support his plans for a government-in-exile, returned to Salisbury where he was placed in detention, along with the other main leaders of the nationalist struggle. For the next ten years he was to remain under one form or another of restriction, detention or imprisonment in various parts of Rhodesia.
During this period Nkomo was still seen in the outside world as the most acceptable leader of the nationalist movement and it was to him that British officials, including Harold Wilson, turned when they visited Rhodesia as part of Britain’s various efforts and initiatives to find a solution to the Rhodesian question. But by the time of his release in 1974 his position as leader of the nationalist struggle was seriously undermined by the successes of Zanu and its military wing, Zanla.
Zapu had guerrilla bases in Zambia and was getting most of its military support from the Soviet Union. Zanu on the other hand, which was supported by China, had its bases in Mozambique where its ally Frelimo was about to win its liberation war against the Portuguese. So after the border between Zambia and Rhodesia was closed and sealed in 1973, it was Zanu which carried out most of the military operations and which won most of the recruits. Zanu’s imprisoned leaders were better served by their subordinates in the field, who managed to put in place more effective structures of mobilisation, recruitment and indoctrination.
Following the release of the nationalist leaders in 1974 there was a power struggle within the liberation movement in the course of which Mugabe replaced Sithole as the leader of Zanu and forced the world to recognise that it was Zanu rather than Zapu which held most of the cards, both militarily and politically, in the final stages of the struggle.
Nkomo, while never giving up his ambition to become independent Zimbabwe’s first President, opted for co-operation rather than rivalry. Together Mugabe (who is Shona) and Nkomo (Ndebele) forged the Popular Front in 1977 which papered over Zapu Zanu differences and presented a common political strategy against the collaborationist transitional government of Bishop Abel Muzorewa and worked together in the drawn-out negotiations and conferences which led to the Lancaster House agreement on an end to white minority rule and the 1980 elections.
In those elections Nkomo was eclipsed by Mugabe. Zapu won only 12 parliamentary seats to Zanu’s 57. Offered the largely honorific post of president, Nkomo rejected it in favour of the Home Affairs portfolio which he held until 1982 when he was accused of complicity in a Zapu plot against the government following the discovery of an arms cache linked to Zapu. In the crisis that followed, former Zapu fighters deserted from the national army and an armed rebellion started in Nkomo’s home region of Matebeleland which was also the Zapu stronghold. The rebellion was swiftly and ruthlessly put down by Mugabe loyalists.
Nkomo himself protested his non-involvement and fled first to Botswana and then to London. He said Mugabe’s troops had raided his home and killed his driver in an assassination attempt. In spite of the confiscation of his property, he returned to fight the 1985 elections. He fared no better than in 1980, but won his way back into Mugabe’s favour and in 1987, when Mugabe decided to form a national unity government, Nkomo joined it as a senior minister. Although Mugabe was by now attracting criticism for his political and economic management of the country even from among former colleagues in the liberation struggle, Nkomo remained loyal and became vice-president in 1990, remaining an older statesman figure in the background of politics until his death.
In a 1986 interview, embittered and speaking in a raspy whisper, he sat in his modest house in a suburb of Bulawayo, the old Ndebele capital whose name means ”the place of killing.”
He dandled the carved stick that had become his symbol and said of his relationship with Mugabe: ”The Prime Minister seems to be hostile toward me. I’ve suffered much more in the last four years than in the 30 years of my struggle for independence. I have nothing against him myself. Why should I?”
An accord was signed in 1987 under which Mugabe, seeking a Marxist one-party state, absorbed the party of Nkomo, who became Vice President. Mr. Mugabe’s party ended up with 147 of the seats in the new 150-seat Parliament. Mugabe celebrated the accord, saying they could ”move into the future hand in hand.”
Nkomo’s enthusiasm was more subdued. He urged his followers ”not to look to who has gained and not gained” but to take pride in a more united nation.
Nkomo was a big man, somewhat slow and given to caution verging on indecisiveness. His contribution to Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle was considerable. He forged the embryonic nationalist movement into a political force to be reckoned with, he worked tirelessly to put black Rhodesians’ aspirations on the international agenda and he endured years of privation and hardship for the sake of the cause he believed in. For this he became a national hero.
Nkomo never made much of a secret of his disdain for the armed struggle. He preferred the route of negotiation and did much to marshal a diverse range of international backing for the cause. It was once said of him that he could “have breakfast in the Kremlin, lunch in the Lonrho boardroom and dinner in the White House”. But it was precisely this diplomatic versatility which earned him the distrust of the fighters in the guerrilla war on whose support his rival rode to political victory. Ironically his death, after a long illness, coincided with an all-time low in the fortunes and reputation of Mugabe, who faced an acute economic crisis brought on by corruption and mismanagement and exacerbated by Zimbabwe’s ill-advised military intervention in the Congolese civil war.
Nkomo, who had prostate cancer, died at the age of 82 on July 1, 1999, in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare.