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'The Armed Struggle: Was it Worth It?' - Dr. Dumiso Dabengwa

by Dr. Dumiso Dabengwa
28 Nov 2016 at 11:53hrs | Views
Public Dialogue, Department of History, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa
Wednesday, 23rd November 2016

Discussion Note by Dr. Dumiso Dabengwa, ZAPU President
Your Excellencies
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen
All protocols observed

I would like to thank the organizers of this public dialogue which invites us to consider whether the armed struggle for liberation was worth it.

Not so long ago such a question would have sounded preposterous because the colonial, racist, repressive and exploitative regimes in Southern Africa had pushed the largely black majority of the people to a corner. Progressive elements in society and those of us at the bottom of the racist political and economic ladder saw a stark choice between permanent subjugation to minority rule and the imperative of taking up arms as the last resort to throw off the yoke of brutal oppression. The Portuguese hold on Angola and Mozambique, the post-UDI rebel Rhodesian regime of the 1960s and 1970s, South African continued occupation of Namibia, and the Apartheid regime in South Africa itself, constituted challenges that required the "last resort".

Armed struggle at the beginning and armed struggle at the end
Like most African countries, the territory and current borders of Zimbabwe were defined by the carving up of the continent among European colonial powers at the 1884 Berlin Conference. It was only a matter of time therefore before the Pioneer Column of Cecil John Rhodes crossed the Limpopo into what is now Zimbabwe. This piece of history is a necessary point of departure because the Pioneer Column set up forts along its route (Fort Tuli, Fort Victoria and finally Fort Salisbury where they hoisted the Union Jack in 1890). By 1893 the occupation force was ready to move back southwards to attack the Ndebele King Lobhengula who they had skirted on their way north. Several battles were fought including Lalaphansi and Shangani. The most ferocious battle was that fought at Gadade as the aggressors got nearer the capital Bulawayo.

There are contemporary accounts of the 1893 Matebele War that recount the fierceness of the encounters.  At Gadade (Mbembesi) in their familiar bull-horn formation, several regiments threw their might (spear and shield) against the approaching invaders who were armed with guns and heavy cannon). IHlathi, iNsukamini, INqobo, iSiziba and iNduba formed the right flank and led the attack.UMcijo, Amavevane, uJinga and INxa formed the left flank. IMbizo and INgubo, the crack Matebele Regiments formed the military epicentre of the entire campaign. They were commanded by Generals Mtshana Khumalo (uNdindikuyasa) and Fusi Khanye respectively.

Dr.Leander Starr Jameson, one of the prominent leaders of the invasions is reported to have later expressed bewilderment at what he had witnessed at Gadade when the colonial invaders clashed with Matebele warriors: "The pluck of iMbizo and INgubo regiments was amazing…No troops anywhere in the world could have fought and withstood such terrific fire as was unleashed for half as long as the Matebele took it… hour after hour they kept coming."

"The amajaha fought extremely bravely in defense of their land, their King, their Sovereignty, their Nation, their dignity and pride as amaNdebele. They fought until they blocked the nozzle of the Maxim gun with their leather aprons (amabhetshu) after spearing to death the operator of the machine.

"In any age, in any land, of any men where brave deeds are sung or told; the feats of the Matebele on the plains of Shangani and Mbembesi rivers will forever shine and glitter with the best and brightest".

The 1895-1897 fighting, Matebeleland and Mashonaland rise against occupation
The bulk of the Ndebele regiments had not been decimated because they were not yet deployed to the 1893 theatre of war. In 1895 they rose against the colonial regime. Whereas there was no fighting when the Union Jack was hoisted in Salisbury (Harare), in 1896 the whole territory (Matebeleland and Mashonaland) was engulfed by fighting in response to the excesses of the colonial regime. 

Sources and legitimacy of resistance
Someone once said that peace is not just the absence of war. In our case (Zimbabwe) the end of armed resistance in the middle of the 1890s was followed by new forms of struggle. These included the mobilization of workers into trade unions in the emerging industries, campaigns for opening of the franchise to Africans, and pushing for economic opportunities denied to "non-whites". There were other factors that fed the growth of nationalism, such as the experiences from the two World Wars. After fighting for the British Empire in the two World Wars, returning black soldiers got grossly inferior benefits from those of their white counterparts.

As young people who benefited from educational opportunities driven mainly by church mission schools in the 1950s and 1960s, we were also radicalized by racial inequalities in access to professional employment and unequal pay for the same work. Peaceful agitation on all the above issues was met with more and more police and even paramilitary responses from the white minority regime. This made it clear to us that what was needed as the struggle escalated was some way of redressing the balance of force.

The emerging African and International tide in favour of independence movements
The tide of nationalist victories and calls for independence that moved from West Africa (Ghana and Guinea of Kwame Nkhrumah and Sekou Toure initially), then East Africa, added to our confidence that victory was possible in Southern Africa. The North African countries (Egypt and Algeria in particular) later became valuable sources of technical and material support. The growth and success of "Third World" movements for independence in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East were similarly significant for turning the tide in our favour.  

At the international level, the League of Nations and later the United Nations raised the bar when it came to independence and sovereignty of states. The United Nations bodies such as the General Assembly and the Trusteeship Committee provided vital international support to our claims for independence and an end to regimes based on racial discrimination. United Nations Resolution 1514 of 14th December 1960 explicitly called for the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples. This and other resolutions noted the aspirations of colonized peoples to exercise their right of self-determination, and laid the foundations for formulation of the right to development.  
Rapid movement from nationalist campaigns to armed struggle
Few among our older nationalists would have foreseen that peaceful political agitation for "One One Vote" and other demands would reach their limits in less than ten years from development of mass movements in Zimbabwe. The African National Congress (ANC) lasted barely two years from 1857 to being banned in 1959. Its successor, the National Democratic Party (NDP) lasted barely a year in 1960, to be followed by ZAPU in 1961 which was also proscribed by the Rhodesian regime. The banned ZAPU suffered a split in 1963 when ZANU was formed by elements opposed to the leadership of Joshua Nkomo, but it too suffered the same fate. From then on the nationalist movement(s) went underground and became more convinced of an inevitable armed struggle.

The period 1963-1964 witnessed the training of guerrilla units and the formation of military wings by both ZAPU and ZANU.
In 1965-1966 there was deployment of reconnaissance and sabotage units into various parts of the country from bases in Zambia (which had become independent in 1964). ZAPU further made an alliance with the ANC and had combined operations in 1967 (Wankie) in which Umkhonto (MK) legends like Chris Hani and 1968 (Sipolilo) which provided valuable lessons for the development of the war effort.

By 1977 the war had escalated and we had acquired sophisticated weaponry and trained a large number of fighters, some of them organized into the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZPRA) regular army formation. Large operational areas in the North and the West of the country were contested by ZPRA with the enemy, In fact, the "Turning Point" strategy that Joshua Nkomo and the ZAPU leadership had adopted would have seen the racist regime's forces being taken head-on by ZPRA and parts of the country taen under our partial control as was beginning to happen. Meanwhile ZANLA forces from the North East and the East (from Mozambique) put enormous pressure on enemy forces. It is this environment which convinced the British government to convene the Lancaster House conference in 1979 to negotiate with the Patriotic Front of ZAPU and ZANU. As they say, the rest is history because in 1980 the country became independent.

I have omitted the role played by global East-West rivalry in our struggle, but it was not insignificant. What we can say here is that choices of friends and perceived enemies were made on bi-polar considerations beyond our internal contradictions. This is why the repression of ZAPU members in newly-independent Zimbabwe and the genocidal "Gukurahundi" massacres of the early 1980s in Matebeleland and the Midlands did not excite necessary international outrage. Ironically, the brutal land grab campaign against white formers got more attention in the West than the unprovoked slaughter of over 20,000 civilians in the "Gukurahundi" campaign.
Was the Armed struggle worth the trouble and the sacrifice?
To answer the question whether the armed struggle was worth it, one has to take a long range view of the origins and permanent gains of the struggle, but also the immediate and short-term effects on the people and those who bore the brunt of the war effort. The latter includes those who survived the armed struggle and those who paid the supreme price of permanent injuries and death.

At the level of the country we got the right to chose and to control our rulers, never mind that those who got into power soon saw themselves as rulers instead of elected representatives of the people. This is in clear violation of our basic demand that led to war, the demand for "One Man One Vote" (really One Person One Vote!). Universal suffrage has virtually been replaced by universal control by a powerful President and ruling clique. A culture of "winner takes all" in which outwitting competitors is given priority over goal-oriented collaboration has been built by the ruling party and unconsciously pervades even models for collaboration among the opposition parties.

One example of preoccupation with ruling and not representing the people is the unwillingness of the ruling party (ZANU) to adopt the culture of peaceful change of government through free and fair elections. More than three decades after independence there is still need for electoral reform and repeal or reform of repressive legislation retained in spirit and sometimes in words from the Ian smith regime. Implementation of the Constitution adopted in 2013 is slow and in some cases there are numerous violations.

 Political repression and economic mismanagement in independent Zimbabwe has led to well-known results such as youth unemployment, emigration of skilled and unskilled but industrious workers, and collapse of vital institutions that were among the best in the region.

In spite of all these setbacks to our aspirations and original expectations the armed struggle on balance was worth it.

Among other things the armed struggle proved beyond all doubt that anyone can wield modern state power, not just a "chosen race".

The armed struggle gave opportunities to people that were previously officially denied them because of their race and allotted social status during the racist regime.
The armed struggle restored dignity to those previously automatically relegated to inferior class and social status in a racially stratified state.

More controversially, the armed struggle made it possible to acquire or grab economic assets that had been reserved for people of European origin. The implementation of this necessary land re-distribution was brutal and poorly implemented from both an economic point of view and reverse racism whose consequences are the decimation of commercial agriculture and resulting food insecurity.

We can therefore conclude that the armed struggle was worth it but very costly to the extent that not all immediate benefits were realized. The best result is that an independent people have acquired the inalienable right to determine their course, with ups and downs.

I thank you for your attention.

Source - Dr. Dumiso Dabengwa