Dumiso Dabengwa will be remembered as a legendary liberator who resisted trappings of power and stuck to his principles until the end.
Dabengwa died last Thursday in Kenya on his way back home from India, where he sought medical treatment for a liver ailment. He was 79.
The outpouring of grief that greeted news of his death is testament to his larger-than-life character, a trait that earned him respect from both friends and foe during Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence.
South Africa’s former liberation movement Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) described Dabengwa as “a great patriot and fighter for the liberation of Zimbabwe”.
“He was also a fervent internationalist as all true revolutionaries are,” Mk said in its eulogy.
The Black Russian, as Dabengwa was affectionately known, owing to his military intelligence training in Russia, is a hero of Zimbabwe’s struggle for freedom.
He was Zipra’s head of military intelligence during the war against the racist Rhodesian regime and distinguished himself as a commander.
It was his work with the ANC’s military wing MK fighting the apartheid regime in South Africa that put him on a collision course with former president Robert Mugabe’s regime.
In 1982 he was detained with the late Zipra commander Lookout Masuku on trumped-up treason charges and even after they were acquitted the following year, Mugabe kept Dabengwa in detention until 1987.
Masuku, another liberator par-excellence, died in detention.
Dabengwa reluctantly joined Mugabe’s government out of respect for the late Joshua Nkomo, who had just signed the Unity Accord with Zanu PF in order to stop the massacre of innocent people in Matabeleland and Midlands by the Fifth Brigade.
He only lasted eight years in government before he became critical of the Mugabe’s policies and the current leadership’s betrayal of the liberation war ethos.
There is no doubt that Dabengwa died an unhappy man because Zimbabweans are still being routinely arrested on trumped-up treason charges for criticising the government, the same indignity he suffered at the hands of Mugabe soon after independence.
The majority of the former Zipra fighters that he led are wallowing in poverty because the government has refused to return their properties, which it seized as a way to justify Gukurahundi.
More importantly, Zimbabwe has become a very unequal society, with few elites enjoying the fruits of independence that gallant freedom fighters like Dabengwa fought so hard for as they envisaged a just dispensation.
As Zimbabwe bids farewell to the Black Russian, it would be prudent to reflect on his ideals and take stock of the missteps. It is not too late to return to the values that our liberators risked their lives for.