The Sunday News
On the 9th of May 2019 Velaphi was laid to rest at the National Heroes Acre in Harare following his declaration as a national hero.
Born on 25 July 1937 in Matobo District of Matabeleland South, Velaphi became a distinguished participant in Zimbabwe’s armed liberation struggle. Initially participating in the first truly national black political movement, he was part of the transition to the less pacific Sabotage Campaign and finally transforming itself into a fully fledged armed liberation struggle.
Velaphi was born to Mfihlo, son of Velaphi whose own father was Phondo or N’ombe in the TjiKalanga language. His ancestors, of Venda origin, came from South Africa and brought the Mwali Rain Shrine into Zimbabwe. As a result of their skills in medicine they, as the Malabas were incorporated into Ndebele society as reflected in the names of later ancestors. His mother was Matsheku Nyathi, daughter of Nsewula of the Makhweni section of the Nare/Nyathi people who migrated from South Africa to south-western Zimbabwe in the first quarter of the 19th Century.
Velaphi grew up at Nsewula, the place named after his maternal grandfather and undertook various chores normally associated with girls as he did not have sisters. He used to fetch water, cook food and do the dishes. At the same time, he herded goats and later cattle. The spirit of defiance and opposition to oppression ran in his veins. At a tender age, he already was standing up against white colonists, in particular the veterinary officers and the infamous native commissioner Noel Robertson, also known as uNkom’iyahlaba.
He grew up at a time when repressive laws and measures were applied on Africans. Africans, his own parents included, were being evicted from the lands nearer Bulawayo in order to create room for whites returning from World War II. The Land Apportionment Act of 1930 was being implemented. The much resented Matobo National Park was being cleared of Africans in favour of game. In 1951 the Land Husbandry Act was promulgated which sought, among other provisions, culling of cattle beyond what colonists considered as the carrying capacity for the limited hectares of land assigned to Africans. Centralisation was being implemented whereby African homesteads were being arranged into lines. And contour ridges were being constructed in crop fields.
White colonists did not bother to provide education to Africans, both in towns and in rural areas. Consequently, Nsewula and his son-in-law Mfihlo and others arranged some non-formal education for the young Velaphi and other children at a time when there was no formal school in their area. MaMoyo was their teacher.
Later, in 1946, the Salvation Army was approached by local leaders to come and open a primary school. Indeed, Seula Primary School was opened by Major Kirby who was based at Semokwe, the territorial headquarters. Velaphi attended Manama, Seula, Zamanyoni and Cyrene primary schools after which, in 1955 and 1956, he went to do teacher training at the Salvation Army’s Howard Institute in Chiweshe. As had been the case at Cyrene School, Velaphi was instrumental in the staging of strikes at the educational institutions.
More political influences came to bear on the young but defiant Velaphi. At Howard Institute he came under the influence of the “Howard Trio” of Tendere, Munjaranji and Solomon Mutsvairo. Mau Mau in Kenya had generated political interest and consciousness among several African communities. From the trio Velaphi secured several political books which he used to read with keen abandon when he went to herd cattle in his rural home. Either he read books or he hunted game which at the time abounded in the area being settled by evictees from the north.
In 1957 Ghana gained her independence from Britain and that led other African political movements to seek decolonisation. At the time in Zimbabwe there was the African National Congress (ANC), operating in the main in Bulawayo. In Salisbury (now Harare) there was the City Youth League led by the likes of James Robert Dambaza Chikerema and George Bodzo Nyandoro. After initial preparatory meetings in Bulawayo, the two political organisations merged and a new national movement was established on 12 September 1957 at the Mai Musodzi Hall in Harare Township (now Mbare). Joshua Nkomo became the leader of the movement, the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress (SRANC).
Though trained as a teacher, Velaphi had, while still at Howard, embarked upon a Book Keeping course with Pitman. As a result, when he graduated he went into the world of commerce which was better paying. That move had the effect of pushing him more and more into the political arena. One business enterprise he worked for as Book Keeper belonged to Amos Mazibisa who worked hand in glove with Joshua Nkomo. The youthful Velaphi used to eavesdrop conversations between the two.
Velaphi had maintained links with both his rural home and Bulawayo. He was a member of the Semokwe District of the SRANC where he held the office of secretary. The district was politically active during the days of the Sabotage Campaign in the early 1960s. Cattle dips were sabotaged. Equally, the road infrastructure was sabotaged. The likes of Sydney Joseph, son of “Sasi” Yedwa, Peter Njini Sibanda, Tayima Tshelanyemba Ndlovu, Zhindoga Nyathi and Phillip Bhebhe were active participants. The youth too was active. In addition to Velaphi there was David Mongwa “Sharpshoot” Moyo and Roger Matshimini Ncube who were active. A police camp was opened to deal with the situation. One of the camps was named after David. The three radical youths in the nationalist movement were recommended for guerrilla training outside the country.
Indeed, Velaphi left the country in 1962 while Roger Matshimini Ncube went to train in the Soviet Union alongside the likes of Retired Colonel Tshinga Dube in 1964 as the second group after that of Dumiso Dabengwa and Report Phelekezela Mphoko. On the other hand, David Mongwa Moyo went to train in North Korea alongside Tinaye Chigudu, inter alia.
It was in the guerrilla training and arms smuggling that Velaphi was to score firsts. He was in the first “Group of 12” to undertake guerrilla training in Egypt in 1962. Facilities had been provided by Egyptian leader Abdul Gamal Nasser. Among the 12 were Bobbylock Manyonga, Mabika, David Mpongo Khumalo, Kennias Mlalazi and Amon Ndukwana Ncube. Their training started in March and ended in September of the same year.
Upon completion, the group went to Dar-es-Salaam in Tanganyika where Zapu had opened an office at Mtoni. Benjamin Madlela was the Party Representative. Though trained militarily, Velaphi and group did not have weapons with which to wage the armed liberation struggle. At the time the liberation movements such as the ANC/MK. SWAPO, MPLA, PAIGC and FRELIMO lived close to each other at Kongwa on the border between Congo and Tanganyika. Congo had gained political independence from Belgium with Patrice Lumumba as leader. In the ensuing political shenanigans informed by the cold war contestations, Lumumba was assassinated. There was political instability particularly in the eastern part of the Congo, now the DRC. Velaphi and group decided to take advantage of the unstable political and military environment where armed rebels aligned to Gizenge were on the prowl.
Velaphi knew about the qualities of a certain plant called nligazwikono or gundabusi. Amahewu was a common brew in the region. It was then decided to lace the popular brew with nligazwikono. When the rebels came under the intoxicating influence of the plant. Velaphi and group shot them and seized the weapons. These were to be the first ever military hardware to be infiltrated into Zimbabwe in 1962. The trio of Abraham Dumezweni Nkiwane, Kennias Mlalazi and Velaphi transported the weapons in a Zephyr Zodiac car. The Thompson sub-machine guns were among the contraband war materials which were driven from Mbeya, through Tunduma, Lusaka, Victoria Falls and finally to Lupanda Native Purchase (NPA) in Lupane.
From there the weapons were taken to Bulawayo from where weapons of war were distributed to the rest of the country. There was an underground network of Zapu cadres who received and distributed the weapons. Included in the group were the likes of Dumiso Dabengwa, Abel Siwela, Findo Mpofu, Akim Ndlovu, Ethan Dube and Thomas Ngwenya, inter alia. However, the actors within the network did not know each other. This was to avoid the network being compromised when one of them got caught. It was a strategy that was to remain in operation in Bulawayo throughout the liberation struggle.
When Velaphi brought in the next batch of weapons he was in the company of Amon Ndukwana Ncube. The CID operatives intercepted them just beyond Hwange en route to Bulawayo. Velaphi was to get his first taste of imprisonment. Meanwhile, Manyonga was arrested while transporting a consignment of weapons to Salisbury. He spilled the beans under interrogation and torture. Thomas Ngwenya was arrested and remanded at Grey Street Prison in Bulawayo where he met Velaphi. It was then that Velaphi got to know Manyonga had been arrested. “Get out of here!” yelled Velaphi to Ngwenya. Indeed, a letter was written on toilet paper, taken out by Ngwenya’s girlfriend, one MaNdlovu, during a visit to the prison. The letter was given to Ethan Dube who passed it on to Leo Baron, Zapu’s legal advisor and lawyer.
Velaphi served time at Khami Prison where he was kept in solitary confinement. The security arrangements at the prison were tightened during his tenure. Several political prisoners including incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa were his fellow prisoners. Fights were common between the political prisoners and the hard core criminals bent on practicing homosexuality. At one time the superintendent at Khami Prison shot dead some prisoners. Khami was soon to become the place of political incarceration as political activists came from various places in Zimbabwe.
In 1968 Velaphi was released following some mix-up in names. There were two Misheck Ncubes at the time. The wrong Misheck, actually Velaphi, was released. He was rearrested and detained at Fife Street Police Station in Bulawayo prior to being sent to Gwelo Prison from where he was released in 1972 at the time of the Pearce Commission.
When the nationalists were released from detention in 1974 Velaphi was tasked to take charge of Nkomo’s close security. At the time there were a number of guerrillas in operation inside Zimbabwe. Velaphi withdrew some of them from Lupane, Nkayi and Plumtree to go to Bulawayo where they operated as close security personnel for the released Zapu leader.
Velaphi spent more time inside the country than outside. He at one time, under cover, got employed within the banking sector. He knew how to disguise his identity such as inserting round objects in his nostrils. Politicization and recruitment remained his major activities alongside distribution of weapons by using buses such as Pelandaba Bus Service and Alick Stuart. Lorries that transported pigs were less suspected and weapons were hidden below swine waste. Tafi Moyo played an important role of transporting weapons from the Zambezi River area where he collaborated with the likes of Velaphi who always carried a folding butt AK rifle below his suit. Sometimes he wore Sting trousers and blue Denim jeans.
Velaphi collaborated with the ANC’s MK and knew about the crossing points from Zimbabwe to South Africa. Some weapons were taken across at Mwenezi where Afrikaner border officials facilitated smuggling of weapons. Another important crossing point was at the Martin’s Drift (Emtswirini) at the border between Botswana and South Africa. In fact Velaphi had come to be referred to as uMtswiri. The other crossing point was in the Lobatsi area, again between South Africa and Botswana. This last route was used for arms brought along the Kazungula–Kasane-Francistown–Gaborone route where Peter Mackay assisted.
By 1976 Velaphi was operating in South Africa where he was housed in a flat in Johannesburg where white communists collaborated with him. He worked closely with both ZAPU and the ANC members in South Africa. The 1976 Student protests broke out when he was on his way out of South Africa. He was to get back to South Africa in 1978 in order to recruit the WENELA recruitees to join ZPRA. Indeed, many were recruited following the activities of Velaphi and the radio appeals by Jane Ngwenya from Lusaka.
In 1974 ZPRA opened the Southern Front(SF). Guerrilla infiltration was then taking place through two fronts, the Northern front(NF) and the SF. Velaphi moved in and out of Botswana to coordinate with party officials in Francistown. Botswana was heavily infiltrated by Rhodesian security agents. The Selous Scouts abducted Ethan Dube and took him to Brunapeg. At one time they captured Mnyamana “Black Swine” thinking it was Dumiso Dabengwa, the most wanted Black Russian. Velaphi and his group of guerrillas rushed to Brunapeg Police Station in an effort to rescue him. It was too late and Dube had been whisked away.
When ceasefire was brokered following the 1979 Lancaster House Talks in London, Velaphi was appointed Director of Security within the Zapu Elections Directorate headed by Aaron Milner of Zambia. For Velaphi the struggle was not over as he was at the forefront in facilitating the caching of arms meant for use by MK who, from the 1960s, had collaborated with Zapu. The story of his role in the caching of arms belongs to another day.
May his very dear soul rest in eternal peace. He clearly deserved a place at the revered National Heroes Acre.