Yesterday, one of the most memorable figures in the history of the freedom and independence struggle, Naison Khutshwekhaya Ndlovu was laid to rest after enduring slow decline and ill-health for a few years. Right up to the time he passed away, the legendary NK, as he was fondly known in the circles of the banned Zimbabwe African Peoples’ Union (Zapu) underground movement, retained undimmed respect. This is a paradox for those who saw him only through the lenses of the Zanu PF ruling regime which co-opted most active Zapu members through the egregious Unity Accord of 1987 imposed on the late Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo as the price for stopping the wanton massacre of civilians in the notorious Gukurahundi campaign.
the Mark Chavunduka column BY STRIKE MKANDLA
Naison Ndlovu did not become a ‘hero by declaration’
In conversation with some young people since Ndlovu passed away some days ago and in the run-up to his funeral, they marvelled at how Zapu president Dumiso Dabengwa and other party leaders paid tribute to the memory of NK and went to his Bulawayo home to console the family. The expectation was that he would simply be classed alongside “sell-outs” for remaining in Zanu PF when Zapu resumed an independent existence in 2010. This would suit the script of those who have designed “heroism by designation”. In this revisionism those with state power use it to gloss over some and recognise other sterling contributions to the liberation struggle, depending on perceived or real degrees of loyalty to the ruling party. Undisputed heroes seen as aligned to Zapu and even other political entities have been denied state recognition because the state has been reduced to an extension of the ruling party rather than an enduring institution operating on non-partisan defence of the national record and national interest. NK became a hero long ago and not when he was bestowed that recognition by the ruling party and accorded well-deserved national hero status. Seen in this light, it would have been a travesty of his record for Zapu to ignore NK’s consistency as a pioneering Zapu leader before and after independence until the party was literally swallowed into the belly of the beast, so to speak. Many outside the party who did not know him that well must have been surprised when he became the first black mayor of Bulawayo on a Zapu ticket when Zimbabwe attained independence in 1980. NK’s work inside during the liberation struggle and afterwards when he went out of the country with Nkomo in the 1970s is testimony to his role as an insider in the liberation struggle, one who took key responsibilities without much fanfare.
A caring and durable friend of comrades in arms
One of the most enduring memories for me in the last few years is of the ailing NK making sure not to miss the mourning and funerals of colleagues and their family members who worked in Zapu in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. He did not make a fanfare of this. Almost to the end, he just trudged along first using crutches but eventually even relying on a walking frame to sit without waiting to be announced or for special treatment. He would greet individuals he remembered in their youth — “Kunjani mnakwethu” (maybe best translated “How are you home-boy/mate”?). NK kept a good memory of the sacrifices made and risks taken by those he led in the most difficult and dark days in the liberation struggle. Ex-detainees, activists in the underground movement, and guerrillas who managed to penetrate into areas where he was providing guidance and support will always revere the quiet cobbler who unobtrusively provided leadership from his shop in Barbourfields Township in Bulawayo. Behind the affable smile and soft voice there was a dependable man of steel who inspired many young people to undertake hazardous missions with confidence in the victory of the liberation struggle.
Defending the past is defending unique contributions to the struggle
Each time I spoke with NK and reminisced about the repression under the Ian Smith racist regime and the sacrifices made by many who worked under him or with him, it was as if the 1970s and the intensification of resistance was yesterday. He would be wistful about staunch activists like Josiah Jemelele Nkomo (whose family he knew well) who did incredible work in the underground movement only to be killed in Mgagao in Tanzania around 1978. We once considered erecting some memorial to Josiah in his home district in Insiza. In the absence of a concrete memorial, this and other unique cadres cannot be forgotten simply because the contribution of Zapu and Zipra have been underplayed in favour of symbols and history alien to their ideology and relationship with the people of this country. Even if you change someone’s clan or family name you cannot erase their DNA in the process. That is why many Zapu members refused to identify NK through his borrowed clothes, more-so since he did not “join” Zanu PF and simply erase his past. He got into the ruling monolith through the Unity Accord which was signed in order to stop the massacre by the army’s Fifth Brigade that had already claimed the lives of over 20 000 civilians in Matebeleland and Ndebele-speaking civilians in the Midlands.
NK’s capacity and qualities showed even in the “Babylonish captivity”, as a parliamentarian and in accolades he received in his lifetime. His legacy survives beyond the haze that has put an artificial distinction between him and many colleagues, some of whose funerals he dutifully attended although they did not get the kind of official recognition that he deservedly got. By their deeds ye shall know them, whatever garb they wear and whatever protestations they make about their political choices. Hamba kahle Godlwayo!
Strike Mkandla is the Zapu secretary-general.