The Sunday News
JOHN Robert Mzimela’s political history touches numerous themes that underpin the struggle for Zimbabwe’s independence. First and foremost there were socio-political and economic conditions that led to the establishment of trade unions, the transition from trade unionism to fully fledged political activism following the merger of disparate political formations, engagement in sabotage and later transition to military engagement with its aspects of recruitment, training and deployment, link between political structures and guerrillas, the contentious issue of ZPRA arms of war and the formation of the war veterans body in Bulawayo.
John Robert Mzimela was born on 1 January 1926 to Ndabazezwe Joseph and MaNkomo. His father travelled to Southern Rhodesia with William Robert Meldrum to found a mineral water company in 1896. Mzimela’s second name Robert was given in memory of Meldrum’s father, a Scotsman. Mzimela grew up near Mdanyazana Hill not far from Ntabazinduna. Following the demise of his father in 1935, his father’s co-worker decided to take care of Mzimela’s education. In 1938 Mzimela enrolled as a boarder at the LMS’s Inyathi Mission. At the time Reverend Anderson was the principal, and was soon succeeded by Reverend Walden. Then there were two long school holiday sessions during which he did some temporary work. He did holiday work at the Blue Brand Mineral Water Company established by Meldrum and his father. He also did some stint at Alick Stuart, a bicycle manufacturing company which also operated a bus company plying the Bulawayo-Fort Victoria (now Masvingo) route. Mzimela not only worked for Alick Stuart but was also engaged by several other companies which were owned by the Scottish business community in Bulawayo. As a result, he acquired many skills leading to him being nicknamed the “Jack of all trades and master of none.”
After school he worked for Alick Stuart and also taught at several schools including Saint Aiden’s, an Anglican-run primary school in Ntabazinduna. It was at the time when he worked at Alick Stuart that he cut his teeth in trade unionism and later in politics. It was Masotsha Ndlovu’s Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) established in 1928 that spawned several trade unions in the various work sectors such as artisans, railways, nurses and teachers. There were few black medical doctors then hence there was no trade union for them. Mzimela belonged to the Commercial and Allied Workers Union, one of whose leading lights was Elliot Mwelo. The emergence of trade unionism in Southern Rhodesia was influenced by black workers who went to seek and got employed in South Africa. Masotsha Ndlovu, Maurice Nyagumbo, George Nyandoro and James Chikerema were some of these workers. There were several socio-political and economic conditions that prompted the formation of several trade union movements which had some co-ordinating mother body.
Bulawayo was at that time the industrial hub for Southern Rhodesia. Several industries were opened following the economic boom after World War II. However, wages were a mere pittance. Living conditions were terrible to say the least. Existing townships were designed to house single male workers. There was no room for married couples. There was serious crowding in Makokoba Township to the point where six men shared a single room. In some instances bicycles were accommodated on roofs. Only later were more roomy cottages built. MaDlodlo, Bikwaphi’s wife and Siphambaniso Manyoba Khumalo’s mother, after whom a beer garden is named, was among the first recipients of the cottages, amakotitshi.
Health conditions left a lot to be desired. There were public bathrooms. The bucket system was still in use with human excreta being carried in wagons pulled by mules. A pit close to the smelly Mazayi Spruit was used to receive human waste. Beer gardens were provided as sources of entertainment. Music was a crowd puller then with the Merry Makers featuring the likes of Remington Mazabane, Eric Juba’s father and Ernest Sithole being one of the musical outfits.
Time came when trade unionists realised they had to engage in political activism if they were to achieve their set goals. They sought to be in parliament where they would make laws in their favour as workers but also take care of the black people in general. It was at the time in South Africa when Nelson Mandela and others were championing political freedom. In Salisbury, (now Harare) there was the Youth League whose leaders included James Chikerema and George Nyandoro. In Bulawayo there was the African National Congress (ANC) which, to all intents and purposes, was moribund. Mzimela recognises the role Garfield Todd played in bringing the two together. Delegates gathered at the Stanley Hall in Makokoba to craft modalities for the proposed national political movement. Mzimela was one of those delegates who paved the way for the formation of the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress (SRANC). Many individuals were approached to lead the new body but declined the offer. Joshua Nkomo accepted the offer to lead the organisation established on 12 September 1957 at the Mai Musodzi Hall in Harare Township (now Mbare).
Mzimela recalls when Nkomo, after Thomas Nyongola, approached him requesting that he and others in the political movement look after Nkomo’s family to ensure it did not disintegrate following the new role entrusted on Nkomo. Mzimela was not spared arrests, imprisonment and detention by the colonial authority. His first arrest was in February 1959 during Edgar Whitehead’s Emergency Regulations and the ban of the SRANC. He was arrested again in 1964 the very year Nkomo, Joseph Msika and the Chinamanos were detained in Gonakudzingwa. A white medical doctor used to visit them to assess their health status. The racist doctor who walked with a limp would, after staring at each person, declare, “Off you go!”. He did not bother to do some thorough diagnosis. Mzimela got infuriated and got hold of the doctor’s disabled leg and savaged the man. He was for his offence kept in a prison cell and subsequently taken to Gwelo (now Gweru) Prison where he enjoyed company with the likes of George Marange.
There were times when Mzimela undertook dangerous errands to get recruits going for the liberation struggle out of the border. He used his personal car. In fact he remembers when one day one of his cars involved in party work was being driven to Salisbury when a hand grenade exploded inside the car. The car fortunately had not had its ownership changed. It was still registered in Mkhethwa’s name, a member of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). After work he drove to Victoria Falls where Zapu had infiltrated some people into the customs department. There were times when he crossed to Livingstone. He possessed a Southern Rhodesian passport. He would drive back the same night and be behind his desk in the morning.
There were people within the political structures who maintained links with the external wing particularly after recruitment had spiked. Belonging to what they termed uMtshetshaphansi (underground activities), Mzimela avoided detection and sneaked out of the border in order to visit transit camps in both Botswana and Zambia. There were camps at Selebi Phikwe and Francistown. Contacts were made with officials manning those facilities. When independence approached, they advised the ANC/MK to halt infiltration into South Africa via Zimbabwe where they risked life and limb. The idea was that MK would, after independence, be provided with rear bases from which they, together with elements from ZPRA, launch attacks on South Africa. Indeed, such collaboration did take place. Jeremy Brickhill, a member of NSO recalls an attack on a South African installation which he led after obtaining authorisation from both Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Mafela Masuku who then were held at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison.
When Mzimela first met Misheck Velaphi Ncube at the latter’s house, their conversation quickly drifted towards Zapu weapons. “He knows about the weapons,” he says pointing at Velaphi. Mzimela argues that ZPRA and MK cooperated for a very long time. When ceasefire came into effect, returning ZPRA cadres came along with some elements of MK. Military hardware was documented at the borders by the colonial authority who were still in charge. When the weapons were deposited at the national armoury, it was clear there was a shortfall. “Robert knew about those weapons,” maintains Mzimela. The weapons could not be kept in houses, argues Mzimela. Zapu properties were used to house the arsenal temporarily. In due course, they were going to find their way to South Africa where they were needed most by MK cadres.
Finally, Mzimela remembers their meeting at Mathonisa Beer Garden in Mpopoma Township where they gathered to establish a body that was intended to look after the interests of those who took part in the liberation struggle for Zimbabwe. For them the body was to be all inclusive by embracing even those who never carried arms of war, but assisted in various ways. The fighters knew them. That was the humble beginning of what today is the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association. Mzimela was involved in the initial vetting and has badges that they used to wear back then. Both John Maluzo Ndlovu and Misheck Velaphi Ncube were in that inaugural meeting.