THE story of the liberation struggle that broke the yoke of colonialism that saw the country attaining its independence that we celebrate every year in the month of April is neither part of the hare and baboon folktales nor some action movie from Hollywood.
The struggle was real, in both the practical and literal sense. A lot of people died. Their blood irrigated the tree of liberty whose shade we all enjoy now. Their bodies provided flesh for the vultures of the jungle and manure to the land that they were denied to behold as some became victims of the war of liberation.
Some homes became ruins and some families were left without fathers and mothers as the sound of guns and the smell of gun powder, blood and fresh human flesh pervaded the atmosphere.
Yes, like one historian aptly pointed out that, revolutions begin as wars often do, not because people positively want them but they want other things which in a certain set of circumstances cannot be achieved by diplomatic means.
But before we get into the celebratory mood that is characterised by gallivanting and merry-making, it is prudent to first walk those who are not in the know through the painful and difficult journey that those who were brave enough to sacrifice their lives to liberate the country walked.
Lest we may have some from Mars, it is important to know what we are celebrating and how it came by, for had it not been the tears, sweat and blood of the gallant sons and daughters of this land, both dead and living, we may not have been celebrating freedom in this country.
Or had the independence been donated to us like some of the foodstuffs that we eat today, the day probably could have a different meaning. The country is therefore celebrating independence from colonial bondage that manifested itself in the repressive way that the black majority suffered under the white minority rule.
We are celebrating the various freedoms that we as a people were denied by the white regime but most importantly we are celebrating the power to once again control our land and exploit the minerals that are in it previously shipped across the oceans.
The black majority were forced out of their productive lands and pushed into the Gwaai and Shangani reserves where stones grew better than plants and where rainfall rarely visited. These were areas where nothing else grew except the ranks of the marshals and the white colonial regime thought the black men were blind to its excesses until the people rose up to unmask the hypocrisy and demand justice.
However, it was the treatment of the nationalist heroes by the Smith regime that was appalling. For rising up in arms against the injustices that were perpetrated and perpetuated by the white regime at the height of nationalistic movement in Africa the liberation heroes were treated with utmost cruelty as if they were not the owners of the land.
They were deemed criminals who deserved the punishment of death for demanding what was rightfully theirs.
Most of them were arbitrarily arrested and thrown into detention camps that were built specifically for the purposes of muzzling and curtailing the revolutionary movements that were growing in the early to mid 1960s.
The oppressive white regime established three major centres of detention at Wha Wha in Gweru’s Midlands Province in February 1964, Gonakudzingwa in Chiredzi district of Masvingo Province in April of the same year and Sikombela in Gokwe South district in Midlands Province in June 1965.
These three detention camps were constructed as a quick response to the growing number of Africans who felt the need to fight the repressive, arrogant, snobbish and hypocritical white regime.
There were striking similarities in the geographical location of the three detention camps. Apart from providing punitive accommodation to the black nationalists, the camps were established in the remote, inaccessible and impassable parts of the country.
Sikombela served mainly as a Zanu detention camp. It is where nationalist leaders such as President Mugabe, the late Cde Simon Muzenda, Cde Enos Nkala, Cde Eddison Zvobgo, Cde Edgar Tekere and many others were detained at the height of nationalist revolts while most of those from the Zapu side were detained at Wha Wha and Gonakudzingwa.
Gonakudzingwa was just as the name suggests — a place where those who had been removed from society lived. And what it means is that the nationalist movement leaders who were cast into these camps were regarded as purveyors of a deadly contagious disease that was unwelcome to the social order hence the need to quarantine them.
Leaders of the revolution mostly from Zapu who were detained at the notorious detention camp that is regarded as the equivalent of the Robben Island in South Africa where Nelson Mandela was banished include but are not limited to Cde Joshua Nkomo, Cde Naison Ndlovu, Cde Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, Cde Josiah Chinamano and his wife Ruth Chinamano, Cde Joseph Msika, Cde Jane Lungile Ngwenya, Chief Mangwende, Gini Ntuta, Willie Musarurwa and many others.
The detention camp was established in the extreme eastern parts of the country near the border with Mozambique in the Chiredzi district of Masvingo Province.
It was located within the expansive wildlife zone of Gonarezhou, an area that was and is still famed for being home to big fauna such as elephants, buffalos, lions and rhinos.
According to Munyaradzi B Munochiveyi in his book Prisoners of Rhodesia — Inmates and Detainees in the Struggle for Zimbabwe Liberation 1960-1980, by any measure Gonakudzingwa was unattractive for human habitation. Temperatures could soar to peaks of 118 Degrees Celsius. The area was exceptionally dry. It had an altitude of 1 000 feet and consequently hotter than the rest of the country. Malaria was endemic in this region.
Because of its geographical location that was made worse by its arid conditions the detainees believed and accepted that it was more of a deliberate ploy by the Rhodesian authorities to make them suffer in the camp than just a matter of mere accident or coincidence.
And true, the belief was that after experiencing a torturous life at Gonakudzingwa, the leaders were going to be deterred and go back to influence their black constituencies against rising up against the white minority rule.
The late Father Zimbabwe Cde Nkomo noted in his autobiography with a deep sense of humour how his colleagues and friends Cde Msika and Cde Stanislas Marembo had developed a habit of taking an early morning walk around the detention camp.
He wrote: “One morning they met a lion, a big male on the path and they came flying home. “The animals (that lived around Gonakudzingwa) were dangerous but not hostile by intent . . . it was their jungle not ours. But nobody was going to escape while they were around.”
Munochiveyi further noted the experience of detained political activist Victor Kuretu during his first days at the detention camp.
He had this to say: “When I first got to Gonakudzingwa, I remember wondering whether we were still in the same country or not. The place was unbearably hot and we used to pass blackish sweat during the first days. The water there was no good. When we boiled the water we would remove some whitish residue which looked like lime mineral. We had problems with wild animals at Gonakudzingwa because it was located in Gonarezhou wildlife reserve. At night and early morning, lions would roar very loudly.
We also saw elephants roaming near the camp.”
The camp was therefore deliberately set in an animal area to ensure that even with no security whatsoever, no-one was going to attempt to escape. And yes there was no security at the camp for escaping was just like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
The detainees were convinced that the authorities knew that no-one would dare attempt to escape because the lions and elephants made sure they would not run away.
And with the aggressive animals, they knew that they would not be worried about supervision and security and to synthesise that argument the only supervision was from a little frontier police post on the Rhodesia/Mozambique railway line called Villa Salazar.
One of the few surviving nationalists Cde Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said in an interview with the Sunday News that detention camps of Gonakudzingwa’s nature were established to halt any liberation movement’s pursuits at freeing the country from the tight hold of the oppressive Smith regime as they were in real essence torture and brutality centres.
He said it was not enough to talk of the country’s independence without looking into the painful journey that brought about the independence.
Narrating the journey that he and other nationalist leaders travelled, Cde Ndlovu said it was a strenuous journey where courage was the necessary pre-requisite without which one would have fallen by the wayside as many others did.
He told of how in 1945 Douglas Samkange and others started the African National Congress (ANC) whose reins he later handed over to Cde Joshua Nkomo in 1952 when he (Samkange) became a full time pastor.
The Samkange ANC was however not very well organised and in 1957 nationalist leaders from across the country congregated in Bulawayo and persuaded Cde Nkomo to lead the organised structures of the ANC but it was short lived as it was banned by the colonial regime at the end of 1959.
In 1960 after the banning of the ANC and the harassment of its leaders, Cde Ndlovu said the National Democratic Party (NDP) was formed. That was when President Mugabe who all along had been closely following nationalist politics while teaching at St Mary’s in Ghana came back home.
“When he (President Mugabe) came back, the leaders were happy that he was coming from Ghana where the famous Kwame Nkrumah had waged a successful revolution against the colonial powers. They believed with the intellect that he displayed, that he was going to add a lot of value to the struggle especially that he was coming from the country of a man who was hallowed for his stance against colonialism in Africa. Nkrumah was a political role model to many,” he said.
And indeed, Cde Ndlovu added, he proved worthy to the struggle and was appointed secretary for information and publicity. NDP did not live long as it met the same fate that the ANC met at the hands of the brutal white colonial regime. It was banned at the end of 1960. The political leaders were however all but too eager to have something formidable that would challenge the status quo. They did not tire in their efforts of delivering the country from colonial bondage.
At the beginning of 1961 they met again and deliberated on what they were supposed to do. Instrumental among the leaders who formed yet another part were Cde Nkomo, Cde James Chikerema, Cde Joseph Msika, Cde Ndabaningi Sithole and others — that was at the beginning of 1961.
According to Cde Ndlovu, it was President Mugabe who suggested the name Zapu after Nkomo had opted for Zanu.
“President Mugabe said the name Zanu was not vivid enough and suggested the name Zapu and Cde Nkomo was very impressed. He was always impressed by the intellect that President Mugabe displayed at various political gatherings.
“In 1963 at the height of political harassment of the leaders of the struggle, Zanu was formed. It was the same year I was commander of the Zapu underground liberation group known as Umgandane in Mpopoma. I was using the title General Hokoyo. The Umgandane trained guerrilla warfare and bombings in Bulawayo,” he said.
For his and others’ political contribution, Dr Ndlovu was detained at Bulawayo Central Prison in 1964. But it was their detention later in 1964 at Gonakudzingwa that shaped the course of the liberation struggle.
He said instead of weakening their desire to pursue nationalist politics, their detention did a lot to strengthen their zeal as in a way it spoke volumes of the cruelty of the Smith regime and its efforts to contain divergent political views and thwart the liberation struggle.
Cde Ndlovu said the story of the liberation struggle could therefore never be complete without mentioning the detention camps and prisons such as Salisbury, Kadoma, Central Prison, Connemara, Grey as well as Sikombela, Wha Wha and Gonakudzingwa detention camps.
He said it was at Gonakudzingwa where they started the Gonakudzingwa News with inmate and political detainee Willie Musarurwa. This, he said, did not go down well with the Smith regime with Smith retorting that they had started a university of crime as those who were detained were also studying.
He added that when he became ill at the detention camp he was promoted to a police cell after Cde Nkomo complained that he was going to die.
In mid-1965 Cde Ndlovu escaped to Zambia to deliver messages to Cdes Nkomo, Chikerema, JZ Moyo, George Silundika and George Nyandoro on the formation of Zipra and intensification of the armed struggle.
He reiterated however that it was during their detention time at Gonakudzingwa that various plans of the liberation struggle execution were mooted and emphasised the need to preserve some of these places that are rich in the history of the country as has been the case with Sikombela that is now recognised as a national monument.
National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ) director Dr Godfrey Mahachi highlighted in an interview on Friday that although the makeshift structures that Gonakudzingwa was were no longer erect, efforts were in place to make the detention camp a historical monument from where the history of the country could be told.
He said the challenge was that the architecture of Gonakudzingwa was not like that of Sikombela in that Gonakudzingwa was more of a makeshift structure that was erected on a concrete slab. There were metal structures and rondavels which had no permanence.
“People need to understand the architecture of Gonakudzingwa. It was not a permanent structure but a kind of makeshift one. We therefore do not have anything monumental, it is the same with Sikombela, there are no structures to talk of but we have done all the work at Sikombela and wish to do so at Gonakudzingwa. The other challenge with Gonakudzingwa is that it is a mine area as with many of our border areas. You do not just walk around, it needs to be cleared of the landmines first.
“With Sikombela we have finished the comprehensive survey and we wish to do that with Gonakudzingwa too,” said Dr Mahachi.
He assured the nation that his department was going to do everything to make sure the history of the country was told through those monuments.