From Bulawayo we trekked up north west along the glorious teak tree-lined road to Victoria Falls via Hwange National Park. Shortly before the turn off to Hwange, we saw an entire section of Zipra guerrillas marching in formation down the main road towards us. Much to the consternation of my friends, I stopped the car, got out and went to greet them. They were unarmed, although in full uniform. As it turned out, they were exceptionally friendly and we had an animated discussion — to a man they said they wanted me home and even suggested that my South African friends should come to Zimbabwe. I came away deeply encouraged. It seemed to me then as if the horrors of war might be easier to overcome than I feared.
Our trip ended in Salisbury (it only became Harare in 1982) where Fine and I met Nathan Shamuyarira, then minister of Information. I had a mandate, in my capacity as vice-chairman of the UCT Zimbabwe Society, to invite the new Zanu PF government to participate in the annual “Focus on Zimbabwe” week. I explained that we wanted to give Zimbabwean students an opportunity to hear from the horse’s mouth about future prospects in Zimbabwe; students were wondering whether they would be welcome home, especially those who had served in the military. Shamuyarira was warm and encouraging and we agreed that Justin Nyoka, the director of information, would come to University of Cape Town [UCT] in August. It was too short notice for a minister to come but we discussed the possibility of ministers coming the following year. I returned to UCT in a buoyant frame of mind, believing that Zimbabwe was off to a good start and on the right track.
My meeting with Shamuyarira energised the Zimbabwe Society committee and soon after the new term started we had arranged a series of meetings around Nyoka’s visit. Knowing that the South African government had recently prevented Garfield Todd from addressing students at Wits University, we asked Sir Richard Luyt, the vice- chancellor, to issue the invitation, hoping his gravitas would secure a visa. The SRC threw its full weight behind the week, in marked contrast to what had happened just a year earlier when the SRC had been so opposed to Walls’s and Sithole’s visit.
Just a few days before the week we were stopped dead in our tracks by the South African government when it refused to grant Nyoka a visa. TJ Booysens, secretary for the Interior, advised that the visit “was not convenient at this stage”. This was confirmed by the South African minister of the Interior, Alwyn Schlebusch, who said they had refused to allow Nyoka in because “the time was not opportune”. Their action evoked a howl of protest. I said it was “disturbing and astonishing” and the SRC called it “negative and blinkered”. Even Pik Botha, the South African Foreign minister, was drawn in, defending their policy as one of “cautious neutrality”, which in turn attracted harsh criticism in Cape Argus and Cape Times editorials.
Unbeknown to us at the time was that the South African government’s policy was anything but one of cautious neutrality. In truth, it was actively plotting to destabilise Zimbabwe and so the last thing they wanted was a positive view of the country being conveyed to white students at UCT. At the very time we were trying to promote Zimbabwe, disaffected white and black Rhodesian ex-servicemen who had been drifting into South Africa were being organised under Project Barnacle to destabilise Zimbabwe. Their functions were: “eliminations, ambuscades against individuals of strategic importance, gathering of combat information and conducting certain security ‘tasks’”. One of their specific tasks was to sow animosity between Zipra and Zanla and to build relations with ex-combatants from the former.
The first public inkling of Zanu PF’s plans to crush Zapu was given during Mugabe’s address to the first Heroes’ Day gathering held in Salisbury on August 11 1980. He spoke vaguely of the intention to deploy former guerrillas into a militia and trained to deal with “malcontents” who were “unleashing a reign of terror”. Mugabe followed up that statement of intent when he secretly signed an agreement in October with North Korea’s Kim Il-sung “to train and arm a brigade of the defence forces”. Ominously, it was to be for “internal defence purposes and not for external operations”.
Even with the best will and without external interference from South Africa and North Korea, the slow process of integration was a recipe for disaster. Thousands of young men, with high expectations and heavily armed, were scattered around the countryside. As 1980 drew to an end, fewer than 15 000 of the 65 000 ex-Zanla and Zipra guerrillas had been integrated into the national army. Renegades from both armies continued random bandit activity throughout Zimbabwe.
In a vain effort to address the problem, some guerrillas were moved in mid-October to rural agricultural plots and others to low-cost housing schemes in Bulawayo’s Entumbane, Salisbury’s and Chitungwiza townships respectively. Almost immediately there was trouble: there was an outbreak of lawlessness around Chitungwiza, necessitating the deployment of combined police and army patrols. Then in the middle of the night of October 15 there was an exchange of rifle fire between the two camps. But worse was to come in Bulawayo.
Trouble started on Saturday 8 November 1980 when rebrand Finance minister, Enos Nkala, addressed a Zanu PF rally in Bulawayo, virulently attacking and insulting Nkomo and Zapu. He told the crowd that Zapu was “superfluous”, that all minority parties should be crushed and that the country needed a one-party State. Attendees were urged to support another rally the next day at White City Stadium. Sure enough Nkala continued where he had left off the next day, only this rally was also attended by several hundred Zapu supporters who had heard about the previous day’s vitriol. As Nkala commenced his address, his opening remarks were drowned out by these supporters. Nkala responded trenchantly, resulting in a full-scale riot between Zapu and Zanu PF supporters that had to be quelled by riot police.
After order was restored Nkala was undeterred; he said that Zapu had become the “enemy of Zanu PF” and said that if the police (which fell under Nkomo, in his capacity as minister of Home Affairs) would not cooperate, “Zanla troops” would be called in. Several other Zanu PF ministers, including Shamuyarira, spoke in support of Nkala. With temperatures raised among the unarmed civilians, skirmishes occurred in streets outside the stadium at the conclusion of the rally. Inevitably, tension spread and at dusk an all-out battle erupted in Entumbane suburb between several thousand Zipra and Zanla guerrillas, who used machine guns, mortars, grenades and rockets against each other for several hours. Sporadic fighting continued overnight; Zipra sent for reinforcements from Gwaai River Mine and a motorised brigade arrived in the early hours of November 10. Heavy fighting broke out again, which was only quelled later in the day by the arrival overhead of several Hawker Hunter jets owned by white former Rhodesian Air Force pilots. Dumiso Dabengwa and Solomon Mujuru visited Entumbane and persuaded both sides to hand over their heavy weapons on the understanding that they could keep their light weapons. While the official toll was 58 dead and 500 wounded, the overflowing mortuaries at the nearby Mpilo hospital suggested that many more were killed. Whatever trust had existed between the two armies had completely evaporated; there was a mass desertion of Zipra guerrillas who had been integrated into the national army and hundreds in assembly points melted away, taking their personal weapons with them.
I was alarmed by the reports of open warfare in Bulawayo. Although my parents, having emigrated, weren’t under threat, the high hopes I had had during the mid-year vacation of a peaceful transition were shattered as I wrote my final BA exams that November. I entered a very difficult chapter of my life. It had always been a goal to get a degree and although I obtained it comfortably, including passing Shona with an upper-second, an overwhelming sense of emptiness engulfed me as I received my results. Shortly before I graduated, my South African girlfriend of several years broke up with me; I was devastated and thrown into a deep depression. I felt as if all my roots had been severed and my graduation, something I had set as a major goal, was a sombre affair. Christmas was spent with my parents and immediately afterwards I set off to drive the 2 000km to Zimbabwe in time for new year.
As I had experienced the previous July, Zimbabwe was full of hope and exhilarating. Although people were worried about the outbreak of fighting in Entumbane, it had all calmed down. Nearly all my school friends were back and we festively celebrated new year in the Matopos. The war was over and peace apparently prevailed.
UCT’s Zimbabwe Society was determined to have a Focus Week in 1981 and in my capacity now as its chair, I drove to Salisbury where I met Ian Smith, Mugabe’s principal private secretary, D Van der Syde, the deputy secretary for Information, Ed Moyo, and secretary for Manpower and Development Herbert Murerwa, to see if they would participate.
It was the first time I had met Smith since meeting him as a boy in 1968. He welcomed me into his home, which was right next to the Cuban embassy in the plush suburb of Belgravia. I was struck by the absence of security; his gate was wide open and when I knocked on the door he came alone to greet me. Remarkably, although he expressed some reservations about what Mugabe was doing, he was positive about Zimbabwe and happy to travel to UCT to encourage students to return home. He looked tired but he was determined to make Zimbabwe work. Similarly, my meeting with Harvard-educated Murerwa was constructive; I found a man with a kind face and impressive intellect. Although sceptical about our ability to pull off a Focus Week, given what had happened to Justin Nyoka, he wanted to work with us. We were asked if we could assist government by conducting a survey of the numbers of Zimbabwean students studying in South Africa, which we did that year. I was upbeat when I returned to start my LLB degree at UCT, feeling that despite its manifold problems, Zimbabwe had a bright future.
Within days of my arrival back at university, mayhem erupted again in Zimbabwe. In fact, trouble had been brewing for weeks. Mugabe unilaterally sacked Nkomo as minister of Home Affairs when he reshuffled his cabinet on January 10. Nkomo was appointed as the “politically insignificant” minister of the Public Service and as a sop Zapu was given two more cabinet posts. Nkomo met with Mugabe and warned him “of the unrest which might arise if Zapu were stripped of all responsibility for security”. Mugabe responded that he could not persuade his central committee to act otherwise but eventually he relented a bit, appointing Nkomo as minister without portfolio — in this role he was to assist the prime minister on defence matters and some public service matters, and he was to remain on the cabinet committee on security. Nkomo complained in his memoirs that in reality all security decisions were made by the ZanuPF central committee and he was not even shown official papers on security.
There were immediate repercussions. On January 13 there was an exchange of fire between national army troops and Zipra guerrillas in Chitungwiza and at the same time some 500 Zipra refused to be inducted into the national army until the political differences between Mugabe and Nkomo had been resolved.