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Story of Zipra field commander

06 May 2018 at 09:41hrs | Views
Joseph Mbedzi
GROWING up in the arid district of Beitbridge in Matabeleland South after his family had been removed from the rich soils and good pastures in West Nicholson, Joseph Mbedzi pseudo name Joseph Sibuko had the desire to one day free his people from colonial bondage.

After coming face to face with political persecution, he one day crossed the border into Botswana on his way to Zambia to join the armed struggle.

Following his deployment towards the end of 1976 after undergoing military training as part of the famous 800 group at Morogoro in Tanzania he was to remain in the operation field ducking enemy bullets until the attainment of the ceasefire in 1979.

At the attainment of the ceasefire his military prowess had not gone unnoticed as he had risen from the rank of just deputy section commander in 1976 to regional commander of the Northern Front 3 (NF3) that comprised parts of Mashonaland Central and the whole of Mashonaland West.

Our Mkhululi Sibanda (MS) caught up with Mbedzi at the just ended Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) where he was part of a team of former guerillas manning a section of the Ministry of Defence and War Veterans stand. Below are excerpts of the interview:

MS: Mbedzi, you are one of the surviving senior former field commanders. When and how did you join the armed struggle?

Mbedzi: First of all I am a Beitbridge boy who now lives in Harare and has farming interests in Kadoma. I was born on 21 March 1951 and grew up in Toporo area of Beitbridge District. However, I was born in Mazunga area near West Nicholson, but my family was removed by the white settlers to make way for their farms. Some of our people were sent to Mberengwa while we were sent to Beitbridge and I was very young at that time. That destroyed our fabric as a people. That is why today we have the Mbedzi people in Beitbridge, some in Mberengwa. Some of our people who moved to Mberengwa are now known as the Hoves while others are Ngwenyas. All these are Mbedzis just like in your case, the Sibandas and Shumbas. For my education I went to Toporo, Swereki and Zezani for my secondary where I did Form One and Two, but because of money issues I left school for my rural home. There was also Manama where my brother John Mbedzi was a student and was expelled because of his involvement in politics.

MS: After leaving school what did you do?

Mbedzi: I worked for a white man called Topup as a domestic worker, but that man later found me a job at the railways as a cook. That white man later took me to the council where I worked until the 70s. In early 1974 I went back to the railways where there was a project of opening the Beitbridge-Rutenga railway track. That track was for commercial business as it was meant to transport cattle to Maputo in Mozambique enroute to Australia. Before the railway line was between Beitbridge-Gwanda and Bulawayo.

I then worked for another white man who showed me how to buy and dehorn cattle. My brother John was then released from prison and my paternal uncle, ubaba omncane who had 300 cattle decided to sell 30 so that we buy a car for John to continue with his political activities in Zapu. John, despite all the arrests and harassment, was determined to mobilise for Zapu and that ended up affected us as well. So after we had sold the cattle, we bought a Land Rover, which John was now using to travel all over the place in his political activities. Then the whites and the police started harassing me, they wanted me to frame John and say he had bought the Land Rover from the proceeds of stolen cattle and I refused. I then found myself in and out of prison because of that. The day I was released, I left the police station in a CID vehicle, which was being driven by a relative, Joseph Makhado who was a detective. I was now ready to join the armed struggle as I could not stand the situation where I was being arrested on flimsy excuses. Then I left my home and we there were three of us, Thatheni Ndou my sister's son and Mazowe Mbedzi. It was August 1974. We boarded a bus and dropped at Shashe. We then crossed into Botswana without an incident.

The first port of call was Gobanjangwe then we moved to Selibe-Phikwe where the police directed us to the prison. We were kept inside the prison as part of a security measure. The Tswanas were afraid that the security forces of Ian Smith would attack us if a camp was set up, so being kept in prison was safe. We were then moved to Francistown. I stayed in Francistown for only three weeks. When we got to Francistown we were received by the late Steven Vuma. For unknown reasons Vuma started calling me platoon commander and being somebody who had a strong rural background I was surprised about what he meant, it was a really surprise for me. Vuma kept on saying if people say platoon commander, you must answer back. He emphasised that since there were 20 people at that facility in Francistown I should keep it in mind that they were under my command. After three weeks we were flown to Zambia.

MS: Who were some of the comrades you were with?

Mbedzi: I remember there was Nathan from Kezi. In that plane I remember well, there were 44 people, some whites and I think they could tell that these people were going somewhere. We were shabby as we had been living in prison for sometime. After arriving in Lusaka we were taken to Nampundwe where we found a Frelimo guerilla called Toy-Toyi. That man had moved from Frelimo to Zambia because it seemed he had some issues with Samora Machel as he was pro-Mondlane. So he had found home in Zipra. That is the man who every morning will take us through exercises including toyi-toyi hence that name. In terms of physical fitness that assisted us a lot. However, he was not armed. Then people started coming in large numbers and the Zambian security forces were also there. During that time many people had crossed to Zambia especially under ANC. Those going to join Zanla were also going to Zambia as Mozambique had not yet gained freedom from the Portuguese, people crossed together — behlangene. So the Zambians would say, Zanla or Zipra and people would choose. In most cases the choice had the influence of parents on which party they belonged. Later we went to Mboroma where there were three camps for Zipra, Zanla and Frolizi. That is where a Zambian officer, a lieutenant was killed during skirmishes between Zanla and Froliz. As Zipra we were not involved in that.

MS: So the problem at Mboroma was not between Zipra and Zanla?
Mbedzi: Not at all. It's not true, it was between Zanla and Froliz. After that we were taken back to Nampundwe and then to Mwembeshi. We were the first people to use that camp, Mwembeshi. We are the ones who cleared that camp. That time the camp commander was Sam Madondo. The Zambians were also involved in our training — for the drills we were being taken by the Zambians, but then the Tanzanian President, Julius Nyerere influenced things that Zambia should not be used as a training base, so we were moved to Mgagao in Tanzania, which was a Zanla camp. During that shoot-out we were there. The Chinese instructors were there.

MS: What was the problem?
Mbedzi: There were ideological differences and also the Chinese instructors felt we were already trained. We were very fit and had done same basics but not undergone full military training, but the Chinese instructors still felt we were soldiers already. It was the group of 800 that included comrades like Andrew Ndlovu, Mafutha, the late Orders Mlilo — the brother to Permanent Secretary, George Mlilo and former MP for Gwanda South, Phebione Mutero (Rtd Lt-Col Ernest Sibanda), who later on became regional commander for Northern Front 2. A majority of that group were people from Gwanda, Kezi and Beitbridge. In that group a majority of the people came from Matabeleland South because we had access to the border with Botswana. Our group was the first biggest Zipra training unit. As a result of the problems encountered at Morogoro and Mgagao, it meant we spent most of the time in training. After the Mgagao incident we moved to Morogoro to complete our training.

MS: Briefly tell us about your training.

Mbedzi: It was very tough but worth it at the same time. Zipra never used dummy bullets during training but live ammunition. A dummy does not go anywhere, it only produces a sound. We would go to barbed wire entanglements and still the instructors would use live bullets to make sure you keep your head down. The bullets would be heard ntswi ntswi and that taught us to be tough and take cover properly. We had tough and capable instructors. The instructors included the now late Eddie Sigoge, Stanley Gagisa, now Rtd Brigadier-General Tshile Nleya who was known as Ben Dubhu. While wriggling yourself from the barbed wire entanglements the military instructors responsible for engineering would greet us with explosives, TNT. I can tell you that taught us a lot as when we got into contact with the enemy during our operations we were used to tough situations, we were not scared of the sound of a gun firing a live bullet, no. That sound was to us as good as one having coffee or relaxing at Meikles Hotel or Rainbow Towers in Harare. There is a vast difference between a soldier trained using live ammunition and one used to dummies.

MS: After completing your training where were you sent?

Mbedzi: There was a détente, cessation of hostilities. However, we were smuggled into Zambia in small groups. I was in the second group that was received by the Zambians at Tunduma at the border with Tanzania and we were taken straight to the border between Rhodesia and Zambia, at Feira, it was towards the end of 1976. The Kenyemba side in Mashonaland Central.

MS: How many were you and under whose command?

Mbedzi: There were 24 of us, which was a platoon and we found a skeleton unit already in operations. I was the deputy section commander with the platoon commander being Biggie Joe, umkhula wami from Kezi.

MS: How was crossing the Zambezi?

Mbedzi: It was tricky, we had dinghies and at some point I thought it was going to capsize. After successfully crossing we moved inland and it took us 16 days to reach the first villages because we were using the compass as we did not know the terrain. It was not easy, the place is mountainous, so we took 16 solid days to reach Kachuta, the first place to get into contact with the masses. If it was not for the tough training we had gone through I tell you, we were not going to make it.

To be continued next week

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