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Joshua Nkomo's symbolism in Matabeleland's search for true freedom

17 May 2020 at 09:40hrs | Views
It all began with Sipho Malunga's speech which was virtually delivered in honour of the late revered Zimbabwe nationalist, Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo, on the occasion of his annual Memorial Lecture Series organized by a Foundation named after him. When Sipho Malunga, the son of another celebrated nationalist himself, heaped praise upon praise on the late struggle icon as a selfless  liberator and a visionary whom he dramatically contrasted with the failed leadership of both Robert Mugabe and his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, little did he know that he had opened a Pandora's Box as two ex-ZPRA combatants, General Nandinandi and Dr Churchill Guduza emerged guns blazing and contemptuously dismissed Nkomo as a villain ‘of the century'.

Summary of the Arguments
The two ZPRA ex-combatants and their backers challenged what they viewed as the romanticisation of Joshua Nkomo's leadership and wasted no time in maligning him as the biggest traitor of all time who caused Matabeleland's current unfavourable status in a Shona-dominated Zimbabwe and impugned all the honour conferred on him by Malunga. They questioned his prejudicial decisions taken at the expense of Matabeleland at every crucial moment in the history of Zimbabwe and gave a catalogue of Nkomo's omissions and commissions.

The defenders of Joshua Nkomo's legacy on the other hand were led by Msongelwa Ndlovu, Mxolisi Ncube, Professor Sabelo Gatsheni-Ndlovu, Dr Last Madiwa Moyo and Dumisani Muleya. They cautioned the propensity by some critics to extract struggle figures such as Joshua Nkomo and Nelson Mandela out of their contexts and subject them to unwarranted criticism as this affects the validity of the verdict. They argued that every revolutionary figure is defined by the time and space under which they operate. They further asserted that Joshua Nkomo carried the generational mandate of his time which he managed to accomplish with distinction.

Msongelwa Ndlovu in particular accused the ‘detractors' of Joshua Nkomo for being agents of President Mnangagwa who is said to be frantically campaigning to get himself elevated to the position of a statesman of some sorts in Zimbabwe to replace the founding fathers of the liberation struggle and possibly qualify his remains (when he dies) to be interred in the Mausoleum that had initially been meant for his departed predecessor, Robert Mugabe.

The Purpose of this Article
It is not the intention of this article to shy away from the controversy of this debate by offering a cowardly peace-making analysis. Cowards have no place in opinion leadership and stimulation of productive ideas.  It will fearlessly examine the merits of both arguments and try to explain why such a dichotomy of radical views exists about Nkomo, a man whose place and status in Matabeleland nobody had dared question before with such alacrity, elaborateness and defiance as has been demonstrated by the two ex-ZPRA combatants. It is a firmly held belief by this writer that any public figure who is worthy of public praise and exaltation for the good they did while they lived should equally be worthy of public criticism for those things they did not get right when they lived. The deeds of any deceased leader should therefore be able to defend that leader long after they are dead. However, this does not mean that critiques should break all ethical protocols of good debate by resorting to invectives and expletives as a means to subdue their opponents.

Was Joshua Nkomo a Villain?
That Joshua Nkomo was a shrewd and charismatic leader cannot be successfully contested. The size of crowds he drew to his rallies is sufficient testimony of his charisma. He was a totally detribalised African whose exposure to the South African political environment during his studies in that country in the 1940s had sharpened his revolutionary intellect. He had a broad worldview that transcended across the narrowness of tribal identities. He sincerely believed in the unity and equality of all people in an independent Zimbabwe irrespective of tribe, creed or race.
When Nkomo is being criticised for facilitating the transfer of the colonial status of Matabeleland in Rhodesia from the British to the Shona in 1980 his examination script is being marked based on a syllabus he did not study. As his defenders have legitimately pointed out, purely judged according to his generational mandate, Nkomo excelled in the goals and objectives set by his generation. That is the syllabus he studied. He always meant well and would have done exceptionally well as Zimbabwe's first black Prime Minister given his renowned sense of progress.

Much to his credit, it could be asserted, with conviction, that the entry of Joshua Nkomo into politics in the early 1950s revolutionised the entire direction and intensity of African politics in Southern Rhodesia. Previously, African nationalism sought accommodation within the systems of white governance without any intention to overthrow the entire establishment. Before Nkomo took over the leadership of the nationalistic project, African grievances were mere protests against de-stocking, land alienation and unfair labour practices. When Nkomo moved in he demanded constitutional reforms that would make African majority rule a reality. Unlike figures such as Leopold Takawira who were begging the Europeans to rule them well, Nkomo demanded that blacks should rule themselves.

Through his much criticised international trips, Nkomo should actually be credited for internationalising the struggle of the black people of the then Rhodesia. In India, in 1958, he took the opportunity to draw the world's attention to the plight of Africans in Rhodesia. He also established important contacts which later proved vital in the prosecution of the struggle. In Ghana, in 1960, Nkomo seized the occasion to lobby for the Zimbabwe cause. During the conference, Nkomo met many personalities and delegations from nationalist organisations which later proved extremely useful not only to ZAPU but to the entire struggle for independence. He also travelled to London and America where he raised the attention of the world on the existence of a country in Africa called Rhodesia where a white settler minority was oppressing the majority of the citizens who were black. In 1962, Nkomo eventually succeeded in garnering the support of the United Nations for blacks in Rhodesia.

"It was in 1962 … before the U.N. was finally able to defeat the irrational objections of the British, and put the question of the independence of Southern Rhodesia on the agenda of its fourth committee" (Nkomo, 1983)

Previously it had been extremely difficult to lobby for support for Rhodesia before the U.N. accepted the crisis as worth of international attention. From this point onward the ice began to thaw. When ZANU broke away from ZAPU in 1963, the important foundation of the struggle had already been laid by Joshua Nkomo. The world now understood and supported the African cause in Rhodesia. As Nkomo's defenders would submit, his record as a nationalist politician is impeccable.

Quite sensibly, Nkomo's critics however lambast him for his obsession with national unity when all signs were clear that there was tribal scheming against his leadership and the entire Ndebele nation. He did nothing about this. The critics also justifiably criticise him for overstretching himself out of reach of his Matabele followers in order to earn Shona acceptance. He was always ready to compromise Ndebele aspirations and disappoint them if doing so would win him the support of the majority Shona people. This way the Ndebele people invested their political future in a man who saw his own people as a hindrance to his own ambitions, which ironically depended on the support of the majority Shona. His critics further allege that he allowed first ZPRA to be disbanded and then ZAPU to be dissolved under Zanu-PF thus obliterating his own contribution in that struggle in which he was a colossus. There is no denying that this is legitimate criticism.

However, it should be noted that when Gukurahundists criticise Nkomo for gallivanting, indecision and poor judgment they do so in order to belittle him and diminish the role played by ZAPU, ZPRA and Matabele people in fighting for the liberation of Zimbabwe in that struggle in which Nkomo personified their participation. All ZANU liberation struggle songs sing only about Robert Mugabe, Hebert Chitepo, Josiah Tongogara, Nehanda, Kagubi and other Shona figures but never about Nkomo, Jason Moyo, Nikita Mangena, Lookout Masuku, Dumiso Dabengwa, George Silundika and many others from ZAPU or ZPRA. The discounting of Nkomo's contribution in the fight for Zimbabwe's independence licenses the Gukurahundists to exclude Matabeles from a meaningful stake in the running of the country. They see Zimbabwe as an exclusive Shona fiefdom to which Ndebeles have no stake. To them it is a continuation of the Monomotapa Empire where non-Shonas have no space.

For their part, Matabele critics of Joshua Nkomo have a different reason altogether for casting aspersions on his leadership. For this reason the attempt to contextualise the current criticism of Nkomo by General Nandinandi and Churchill Guduza around President Mnangagwa's posthumous wishes vis-a-vis the interment of his remains in Mugabe's Mausoleum, are off the mark. These critics simply find Joshua Nkomo's symbolism in the attainment of a sovereign Mthwakazi State a monumental hindrance to their cause.

Matabeleland in Search of True Freedom
It goes without saying that Matabele criticism of Joshua Nkomo is pure, genuine and free of malice. Theirs is criticism stemming out of a sense of being let down by a father who could have done more to safeguard the interests of his own children in a wolves infested jungle. Nkomo's Ndebele critics are not saying that he is not a hero but that his heroism did not benefit them after 1980. A proper appreciation of the rising criticism of Joshua Nkomo should therefore take into account the tragic history of Matabeleland in the past 40 years under ZANU-PF rule. They are not saying that Nkomo was a worthlesss father but that his big heart caused him to write a will where children of hostile neighbours have become the heirs of his inheritance at the expense of his biological children.

Forty years of Zimbabwe's independence have compelled a significant proportion of the Ndebele population to review their status in a shared Zimbabwe and identify the source of their suffering. With half the population of Matabeleland now living precarious lives in exile, there is no hope for the 4 million plus victims of marginalisation who are virtually stateless. It is this review that has emphatically indicated that the marbles were lost after 1980 by the leadership of ZAPU under whose auspices Matabeleland participated in liberating the country. Fed up with Shona tribal triumphalism, the region is now searching for true freedom outside the parameters of the Zimbabwe Project which Nkomo helped to create. It is this search that has found Nkomo's symbolism as a Zimbabwe nationalist hero incompatible with Matabele people's quest for a breathing space, free of Shona oppression.

The quest for true freedom for Matabeleland has meant that Joshua Nkomo's template for leadership, including his title as "Father Zimbabwe" must be discarded by genuine seekers of independence. What this means is that all those Matabeles committed to the struggle for regional autonomy have not only discarded Nkomo as a symbol of resistance but identified alternative symbols in their fight against Shona hegemony. The pre-colonial history of the Matabele nation in which their power reverberated across all valleys and mountains in South-Central Africa easily provided such an alternative. This explains the reason why Ndebele resistance against Shona domination uses pre-colonial Matabele figures such as King Mzilikazi and Lobhengula under whom national pride thrived and flourished as opposed to the period under Joshua Nkomo whose name has practically become synonymous with captivity by the Shona rulers. It also explains the sudden proliferation of kingship revivalism movements in Matabeleland which the Zimbabwe Government has fiercely resisted.

Joshua Nkomo's Symbolism in the Matabele Struggle
The Government of Zimbabwe, conscious of the true meaning of Joshua Nkomo's name as a symbol of subjugation in Matabeleland, has elected to promote his legacy and is quick to label those who reject Shona domination as ‘tribalists'. Nkomo's template of leadership has been tried and replicated numerous times even outside Zanu-PF itself by parties such as MDC but has not managed to get Matabeleland anywhere. Gibson Sibanda was a Joshua Nkomo to both Morgan Tsvangirayi and Arthur Mutamabara in the MDCs. Thokozani Khupe was a Joshua Nkomo to Morgan Tsvangirayi in the post-split MDC whilst Welshman Ncube is a Joshua Nkomo to Nelson Chamisa at the moment. It will never work for the oppressed Matabeles.

For his role as a subdued leader from Matabeleland, Joshua Nkomo was posthumously honoured by the Zanu-PF Government with a giant statue in the centre of Bulawayo. This is calculated to serve as a permanent reminder that it is only under the Nkomo template of leadership that Matabeles can subsist in Zimbabwe as long as they are prepared to give up all aspirations for the highest office in the land. Ask yourself  why it is easier to honour  Nkomo with a giant statue and not king Lobhengula  in  a city built on the latter's last capital. The answer lies in what each symbolises in the eyes of the regime.

When agitators for Matabeleland's national freedom reject Nkomo and his model of leadership, they are not rejecting Nkomo the person but what he politically represents in the context of subjugation, a square peg in Matabeleland's round hole. It is in the context of this incompatibility with Matabele  aspirations that the Nandinandis and Guduzas of this world pour scorn on Nkomoism and Nkomoists as they believe that that approach leads to a cul-de-sac in Zimbabwe's politics. Nkomo deserves his title as ‘Father Zimbabwe' as nobody else waged such a consistent, protracted and risky campaign against Rhodesian settler regimes. However, in Matabeleland's present quest for true freedom, his template and symbolism are destructive weapons in the possession of the oppressor. Those who have opted to defend Nkomo are doing so out of sentimental loyalty and have probably never been frustrated by challenges of trying to mobilise an oppressed people whose fate has been tragically buried in a single individual's template that negates the attainment of their true freedom.

George M Mkhwanazi
Imbovane yaMahlabezulu

Source - George M Mkhwanazi
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