Not so long ago such a question would have sounded preposterous because the colonial, racist, repressive and exploitative regimes in southern Africa had pushed the largely black majority of the people to a corner.
guest opinion BY DUMISO DABENGWA
Progressive elements in society and those of us at the bottom of the racist political and economic ladder saw a stark choice between permanent subjugation to minority rule and the imperative of taking up arms as the last resort to throw off the yoke of brutal oppression. The Portuguese hold on Angola and Mozambique, the post-Unilateral Declaration of Independence rebel Rhodesian regime of the 1960s and 1970s, South African continued occupation of Namibia, and the apartheid regime in South Africa itself, constituted challenges that required the “last resort”.
As young people who benefitted from educational opportunities driven mainly by church mission schools in the 1950s and 1960s, we were also radicalised by racial inequalities in access to professional employment and unequal pay for the same work. Peaceful agitation on all the above issues was met with more and more police and even paramilitary responses from the white minority regime. This made it clear to us that what was needed as the struggle escalated was some way of redressing the balance of force.
The tide of nationalist victories and calls for independence that moved from West Africa (Ghana and Guinea of Kwame Nkhrumah and Sekou Toure initially), then East Africa, added to our confidence that victory was possible in southern Africa. The North African countries (Egypt and Algeria in particular) later became valuable sources of technical and material support. The growth and success of “Third World” movements for independence in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East were similarly significant for turning the tide in our favour.
At the international level, the League of Nations and later the United Nations raised the bar when it came to independence and sovereignty of states. The United Nations bodies such as the General Assembly and the Trusteeship Committee provided vital international support to our claims for independence and an end to regimes based on racial discrimination. United Nations Resolution 1514 of December 14 1960 explicitly called for the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples. This and other resolutions noted the aspirations of colonised peoples to exercise their right of self-determination, and laid the foundations for formulation of the right to development.
Few among our older nationalists would have foreseen that peaceful political agitation for “one man one vote” and other demands would reach their limits in less than 10 years from development of mass movements in Zimbabwe. The African National Congress (ANC) lasted barely two years from 1857 to being banned in 1959. Its successor, the National Democratic Party (NDP) lasted barely a year in 1960, to be followed by Zapu in 1961 which was also proscribed by the Rhodesian regime. The banned Zapu suffered a split in 1963 when Zanu was formed by elements opposed to the leadership of Joshua Nkomo, but it too suffered the same fate. From then on the nationalist movement(s) went underground and became more convinced of an inevitable armed struggle.
The period 1963-1964 witnessed the training of guerrilla units and the formation of military wings by both Zapu and Zanu.
In 1965-1966 there was deployment of reconnaissance and sabotage units into various parts of the country from bases in Zambia (which had become independent in 1964). Zapu further made an alliance with the ANC and had combined operations in 1967 (Wankie) in which Umkhonto (MK) legends like Chris Hani and 1968 (Sipolilo) which provided valuable lessons for the development of the war effort.
By 1977 the war had escalated and we had acquired sophisticated weaponry and trained a large number of fighters, some of them organised into the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZPRA) regular army formation. Large operational areas in the north and the west of the country were contested by ZPRA with the enemy, In fact, the “Turning Point” strategy that Joshua Nkomo and the Zapu leadership had adopted would have seen the racist regime’s forces being taken head-on by ZPRA and parts of the country then under our partial control as was beginning to happen. Meanwhile, Zanla forces from the north-east and the east (from Mozambique) put enormous pressure on enemy forces. It is this environment which convinced the British government to convene the Lancaster House conference in 1979 to negotiate with the Patriotic Front of Zapu and Zanu. As they say, the rest is history because in 1980 the country became independent.
I have omitted the role played by global east-west rivalry in our struggle, but it was not insignificant. What we can say here is that choices of friends and perceived enemies were made on bi-polar considerations beyond our internal contradictions. This is why the repression of Zapu members in newly-independent Zimbabwe and the genocidal Gukurahundi massacres of the early 1980s in Matebeleland and the Midlands did not excite necessary international outrage. Ironically, the brutal land grab campaign against white formers got more attention in the west than the unprovoked slaughter of over 20 000 civilians in the Gukurahundi campaign.
To answer the question whether the armed struggle was worth it, one has to take a long range view of the origins and permanent gains of the struggle, but also the immediate and short-term effects on the people and those who bore the brunt of the war effort. The latter includes those who survived the armed struggle and those who paid the supreme price of permanent injuries and death.
At the level of the country we got the right to chose and to control our rulers, never mind that those who got into power soon saw themselves as rulers instead of elected representatives of the people. This is in clear violation of our basic demand that led to war, the demand for “one man one vote” (really one person one vote!). Universal suffrage has virtually been replaced by universal control by a powerful president and ruling clique. A culture of “winner takes all” in which outwitting competitors is given priority over goal-oriented collaboration has been built by the ruling party and unconsciously pervades even models for collaboration among the opposition parties.
One example of preoccupation with ruling and not representing the people is the unwillingness of the ruling party (Zanu PF) to adopt the culture of peaceful change of government through free and fair elections. More than three decades after independence, there is still need for electoral reform and repeal or reform of repressive legislation retained in spirit and sometimes in words from the Ian smith regime. Implementation of the Constitution adopted in 2013 is slow and in some cases there are numerous violations.
Political repression and economic mismanagement in independent Zimbabwe has led to well-known results such as youth unemployment, emigration of skilled and unskilled but industrious workers, and collapse of vital institutions that were among the best in the region.
In spite of all these setbacks to our aspirations and original expectations, the armed struggle on balance was worth it.
Among other things, the armed struggle proved beyond all doubt that anyone can wield modern state power, not just a “chosen race”.
The armed struggle gave opportunities to people that were previously officially denied them because of their race and allotted social status during the racist regime.
The armed struggle restored dignity to those previously automatically relegated to inferior class and social status in a racially-stratified state.
More controversially, the armed struggle made it possible to acquire or grab economic assets that had been reserved for people of European origin. The implementation of this necessary land re-distribution was brutal and poorly implemented from both an economic point of view and reverse racism whose consequences are the decimation of commercial agriculture and resulting food insecurity.
We can, therefore, conclude that the armed struggle was worth it, but very costly to the extent that not all immediate benefits were realised. The best result is that an independent people have acquired the inalienable right to determine their course, with ups and downs.
Dabengwa is Zapu president. This is an abridged version of his presentation at the University of Witwatersrand’s department of history’s public dialogue