HomeOpinion & AnalysisThe arms cache at Ascot Farm

The arms cache at Ascot Farm

The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe -Chapter 8

Had Mugabe and Mnangagwa in particular been prepared to negotiate, the horror which was to follow could have been avoided

I was astonished that a prime minister would take the time to write me a telegram. Senator Norman had told me that Mugabe had taken a personal interest in the matter and was saddened about the cancellation, but as a mere student I didn’t expect this. I rushed off to my lecture which was about to be given by one of my favourite lecturers, Dennis Davis (then a trenchant critic of the apartheid regime and now a South African High Court judge), and told him about the telegram. Davis enthusiastically said I should read it out to the entire class; it caused a tidal wave of support across the university. The telegram was converted into a poster which was plastered throughout UCT. The contents of the telegram had a positive effect on Zimbabwean students and many, despite the disappointment of the cancellation, felt that perhaps there was a future after all for us in Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s use of Roosevelt’s phrase of having “nothing to fear but fear itself” came as a particular challenge, and source of encouragement, to me personally.

Dumiso Dabengwa was tried after the discovery of Zapu arms of war
Dumiso Dabengwa was tried after the discovery of Zapu arms of war

There was at that time much to fear, however, because Zimbabwe was starting to unravel. Aside from the secret preparations being made by Zanu PF to crush Zapu and Zipra, the South African government’s Operation Barnacle was steadily being implemented. On July 31 1981, Joe Nzingo Gqabi, the ANC’s chief representative in Zimbabwe, had been assassinated by a South African hit squad in Salisbury. Then, just days before our Focus Week was due to start on August 16, a series of massive explosions erupted at Inkomo barracks, north west of Salisbury. The barracks had been the main armoury for the tonnes of military hardware brought in by both guerrillas’ armies since the end of the war. In addition, the Air Force kept a substantial stock of its bombs there. In a conflagration which lasted hours, millions of dollars worth of arms and ammunition were blown up. A subsequent investigation, which included British army experts, concluded that it was caused by “deliberate enemy (i.e. South African) action”. What compounded the destruction of the armoury was the realisation that former Rhodesian soldiers and policemen were complicit; a former Rhodesian army engineer, Patrick Gericke, was arrested on suspicion of being involved. Gericke was freed within a few days by the white policeman appointed to investigate the case and both, plus the policeman’s entire family, were flown out in South African aircraft in a daring escape mission. That immediately put all the remaining white servicemen and policemen under suspicion.

My term as chair of the Zimbabwe Society came to an end that August. In my meeting with Smith the previous February, when I had asked him what advice he would give students, he had said sardonically: “You are at university to get an education; get on with your studies first, write your exams and then return to worry about the country — it will still be here and will no doubt still give cause for worry when you return!” It was similar advice to what my father had often given and I decided to heed it. There was little point in getting deported from South Africa when I was so close to getting my law degree. Instead, I stood for, and was elected to, the Law Students Council and was appointed director of the Crossroads Legal Aid Clinic at the end of August 1981. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour.

There was also at this time another growing interest in my life which was to have a life-changing effect on me.

Earlier on in the year I had met a gorgeous brunette who also hailed from Bulawayo, Jenny Barrett. Although we shared common friends, our paths had not crossed, mainly because she was on the medical campus studying physiotherapy, which is far removed from the law faculty at UCT. In the course of the year our friendship had grown and by September I was head over heels in love with her. Soon after the completion of Jenny’s final year exams and my 4th year exams, we announced our engagement. Aside from having a deep faith herself, Jenny had a deep-rooted antipathy towards racial prejudice and she also shared my conviction that we should return to Zimbabwe, something she had to do almost immediately to honour the terms of a Zimbabwean government bursary she had obtained to complete her degree. My deep depression I experienced the previous December had lifted totally.

After spending Christmas of 1981 with my parents in Port Alfred, I flew to Bulawayo in early February with the intention of securing employment at the completion of my law degree. Unlike the previous year, I found that many Bulawayo people were pessimistic. My first call was the father of a schoolfriend who was a partner in the firm I would eventually join, Webb, Low and Barry. When I told him I was intending to return at the end of the year, he reacted, “You’re mad — you want to come and work here?!” I continued the hunt for work in Salisbury, where I found people more positive, and the law firms who interviewed me were more encouraging. I met with Andre Holland again, who felt that whites were needed and wanted.

On Monday, February 8, I stopped by the prime minister’s office to drop off a letter thanking Mugabe for his support the previous August. The moment the receptionist saw the UCT logo on the envelope, I was ushered through to the prime minister’s private secretary (and also then deputy minister of Local Government), Godfrey Chidyausiku. I was somewhat taken aback meeting him because I only knew him as the flamboyant MP who had been an MP in the Rhodesian parliament where he was chastised for wearing a psychedelic suit. Chidyausiku gave me a warm welcome, pumping my hand, and told me how thrilled Mugabe was with the constructive attitude of the UCT Zimbabwe Society. He apologised that I would not be able to meet Mugabe, something I hadn’t expected anyway. I was amazed at the reception and wrote to my parents that “the policy of reconciliation is real for those who want it to be”. Twenty years later Chidyausiku was to be Mugabe’s trump card when he became Chief Justice, providing him with a legal fig leaf in the face of gross violations of Zimbabwe’s Constitution.

The coup de grâce came at the end of the visit: I was invited to attend a law conference at the University of Zimbabwe Law School and here I met Professor Reg Austin for the first time, a Zapu lawyer, who also encouraged me to return to Zimbabwe. While standing in the rain after the conference, wondering how I would get back into town, the leader of the Nigerian delegation, Botswana’s first black Chief Justice and director of Nigeria’s Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, Dr Akinola Aguda, asked me whether I would like a lift. No sooner had I accepted the offer than a huge Nigerian embassy Mercedes arrived and whisked us off, the Nigerian flag uttering in front! In the drive into town Dr Aguda encouraged me to return home and I was touched that this senior, leading African jurist could take such an interest in a white final year law student. For all the negativity surrounding the country, I returned to UCT confident that I could make Zimbabwe our home. In a long letter to my parents I poured out my emotions, telling them how people all over the country had “fallen over backwards to help me” and that I was “convinced that the reason for this was my own attitude”. My parents were deeply sceptical.

In the same week I was in Salisbury, rather momentous events were taking place in the country, but at the time I did not appreciate their significance. In The Sunday Mail of February 7 Mugabe announced that a massive arms cache had been discovered on Ascot Farm, just north of Bulawayo, which belonged to a company owned by Zapu, Nitram (Pvt) Ltd. The cache contained thousands of assault rifles, pistols, mortars, rockets, anti-aircraft weapons and landmines. Mugabe warned those responsible that “if they wanted to start another war, they should be careful”. He attacked Zapu, accusing them of buying farms to be used as arms dumps and of stringing along their partners in government “while planning an eventual takeover”. The previous Friday Nkomo had flown to Bulawayo with State Security minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa, without him raising any concerns. Mnangagwa went straight to Ascot Farm from Bulawayo airport to address the press which had been summoned there. He told the gathered press that they had uncovered a Zapu plot to overthrow the government with the help of South Africa.

Action against Zapu and its leaders followed thick and fast. Nearly all of the properties owned by Zapu were raided and further material was found. On February 14, Mugabe upped the vitriol, attacking Nkomo by saying “the only way to deal effectively with a snake is to strike and destroy its head”. The following day a Government Notice appeared, ironically using a statute first introduced by the Rhodesians, declaring a variety of companies and organisations belonging to Zapu “unlawful” and seizing their assets. Three days later, Mugabe dismissed Nkomo, Zapu vice-president Josiah Chinamano and Joseph Msika from the cabinet. In a press conference called to explain his decision, Mugabe accused Zapu leaders and Zipra commanders of stockpiling arms to wage “armed struggle”. Rhetoric changed to harsh action on March 11 when Lieutenant-General Lookout Masuku — then deputy commander of the Zimbabwe National Army — and Dumiso Dabengwa were arrested and charged with treason.

The events of these few weeks proved to be a harbinger of the genocide which was to follow. While there is no doubt that the arms caches were real, what is equally true is that they were no secret. Both guerrilla armies had held onto weapons and the process of handing them over was ongoing. Zipra’s arms caches were so large that there was no possibility of them being hidden. Nkomo argued that many of the weapons could have been cached by guerrillas in the aftermath of the Entumbane and Connemara shootouts and that it would have been easy for Zanu PF elements to swell the numbers of weapons. He pointed out that the acquisition of properties had been disclosed to cabinet and he had discussed the plans to use them “in detail with Emmerson Mnangagwa”. Both Masuku and Dabengwa had played important, indeed brave, roles in containing the serious outbreaks of violence in the preceding year. Neither Nkomo nor any others of the senior leadership of Zapu were ever charged with treason. The only senior people actually tried, Masuku and Dabengwa, were acquitted after a lengthy trial, the presiding judge Hilary Squires finding Dabengwa’s actions in particular “the antithesis of (someone) scheming to overthrow the government”.

There is one other significant factor which aggravated the discovery of arms caches and that is the involvement of white double agents within the CIO. What is alleged by a number of sources is that former Rhodesian policeman, CIO officer and South African double agent Mac Callaway was instrumental in organising the large arms caches “discovered” in February 1982 and in deliberately misleading government into “believing that Zapu was engineering a coup”. It was certainly in the apartheid regime’s interest to stir up tension between Zanu PF and Zapu. More recent material suggests that Zipra cached weapons around assembly points and Zanu/CIO cached some of the weapons on the Zapu properties owned by its company, Nitram (Pvt) Ltd. Whatever the case, with the exclusion of Nkomo from cabinet and the arrest of the most senior Zipra leaders, the scene was set in March 1982 for an escalation of hostilities.

Had Mugabe and Mnangagwa in particular been prepared to negotiate, the horror which was to follow could have been avoided.

The book is available in Harare from Blackstone Books, Baroda Trading and Weaver Press. It is available in Bulawayo from Vigne Bookshop and ‘amabooks’.

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