WASHINGTON DC —
The late Vice President Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo, a fiery Zimbabwean nationalist, died on July 1, 1999, at the age of 82.
Nkomo, a strong advocate for the transfer of land from the minority colonial rulers to the majority black population under the ‘son of the soil’ slogan of the 1970s, never lived to enjoy the fruits of independence like millions of people in the southern African nation.
Before independence, Nkomo and other freedom fighters promised that Zimbabweans will live in a land of milk and honey. But 36 years after independence, most local people are living from hand-to-mouth, a far cry from what they were promised when they took up arms to fight against the Ian Douglas Smith regime. Despite the harsh social, economic and political environment in the country, Nkomo’s legacy lives on.
Nkomo was a son of a teacher and lay preacher of the London Missionary Society in Zimbabwe’s Kezi District, Matabeleland South province. At the age of 35, after working as a truck driver and carpenter, and getting involved in trade unionism, he was elected president of the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress, a major political party at that time.
The late vice president, a holder of a social work degree, was once classified as a terrorist by the Rhodesian government and some developed nations.
Nkomo spearheaded the liberation struggle under the National Democratic Party (NDP) when the colonial regime banned the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress. When the NPD was also banned, he formed the Zimbabwe People’s Union or Zapu. He was locked up in prison between 1964 and 1974 and managed to sneak out of the country after his release to lead the nationalist movement.
Zimbabweans in all parts of the country called him Father Zimbabwe, Umdala Wethu (our old man) and Chibwechitedza (slippery rock), among many other nicknames. His name became synonymous with the aspirations of black nationalists and the black population. Following the country’s independence in 1980 after a brutal liberation struggle, he was appointed cabinet minister by Prime Minister Robert Mugabe but fell out of favour as his former Zapu party junior accused Nkomo of attempting to stage a coup.
This resulted in the deployment of the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces, leading to the alleged massacre of an estimated 20,000 innocent civilians, mostly Nkomo’s PF Zapu supporters. The government has never revealed the number of people who were killed by the crack army unit though Mr. Mugabe once described the killings as a moment of madness.
The then Zimbabwean prime minister claimed that he wanted to get rid of dissidents in the two regions using his army, commonly known as Gukurahundi. Nkomo fled the country fearing for his life but returned home from Britain where he stayed for a couple of months. The Gukurahundi massacres led to the signing of a unity agreement by the late vice president and Mr. Mugabe in 1987.
Who was Father Zimbabwe, Umdala Wethu or Chibwechitedza? Apart from being a nationalist leader, Nkomo was a married man, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Life was tough for the Nkomo family when he decided to decolonize the country.
His son, Sibangilizwe, still remembers the time his father was away from home. His mother, Joanna MaFuyane Nkomo, played a key role in looking after the family when Nkomo was in the guerrilla trenches.
“My mother was a very hardworking person, a woman with imagination. She would use her sewing skills, cooking skills to get some money for us to go to school, so somehow we managed. Of course, there was always the goodwill of my father’s business friends who would come up with help. Also there was the Christian Care, the organization which at a later stage helped pay for our fees in secondary school.”
HIGHLY RESPECTED BACK HOME
Nkomo was highly respected in his village in St. Joseph’s Mission area. Thandi Moyo of St. Anne Mission, a few kilometers from Nkomo’s homestead, says Father Zimbabwe was a great man.
“He was such a great man who provided wisdom to the people and I think if people follow his footsteps there would be peace and harmony in the world. He was a peace loving man and a father figure.”
She says his legacy lives on despite the few achievements Nkomo made after independence in his rural Kezi area. “As a person from Kezi … Our place is underdeveloped and kids still travel long distances to school. There is a lot of improvement that needs to be done. Even roads are pathetic.”
Nkomo’s brother-in-law, Lovemore Fuyane, believes that Nkomo always put his country first. “One thing that really stands out for me as far as Dr. Nkomo is concerned is the idea of Zimbabweaness. In other words, a person that thinks of Zimbabwe first before the self … This is really what his legacy represents right from the time that he fought for the liberation of the country as well as the time he served in government.”
Fuyane says the late vice president’ legacy should be emulated by all Zimbabweans. “We need to inculcate more this culture of Zimbawbeaness thinking about the country first before thinking about ourselves. There is no way to celebrate his legacy than that … We need to pass that to the younger generation so that we will have a sense of self-belief in ourselves.
“There is no society that has been able to uplift itself without that inner belief cutting across the entire spectrum of society.”
He says this can be done if citizens dedicate themselves to Nkomo’s vision. “There are movements out there both inside and outside the country (that are already trying to do this). I will just give one example of a movement known as #ThisFlag which is really beginning to speak to citizens standing up for their country, standing up for what the flag represents within the national spectrum.”
Cephas Msipa, one of Nkomo’s close associates in PF Zapu, says that apart from being a visionary leader, Nkomo was a peace maker.
“Nkomo was able to bring people together. He was really genuine in trying to understand people and to bring them together and I think he will always be remembered for that. Yes, he loved peace, Although he suffered under (Mr.) Mugabe he was still prepared to work under him for the sake of peace, hence the Unity Accord.
“It was not easy for him to accept (that) but he did it for the sake of peace. So, Nkomo was a man of peace.
In our next edition, our correspondent Gandri Maramba will be focusing on Nkomo’s calls for a comprehensive land reform program in Zimbabwe.