Analysis Politics

The truth about Dumiso Dabengwa

We need to record our own stories more. Late in 2018, I came across a book called ‘The Organizer.’ It was part of a series called ‘Life histories from the revolution, and told the story of a ZAPU organizer who was based in Zambia in 1974. “Temba Moyo”, the book’s protagonist, narrates the story of his life to Norwegian born Ole Gjerstad, who worked with the Canada-based Liberation Support Movement (LSM).

The book was a serendipitous find, and it piqued my interest right from the beginning. Here was a document from the past, telling the story of a man in the thick of it, and who had committed himself to the liberation struggle and its successful completion. It was written long before Lancaster house was in sight, before the end game intrigue that characterized the end of what was then called the Rhodesian Bush War. It was written before the history of the victors was the only one readily available to us, before the role of that other strand of the liberation struggle, ZAPU and ZIPRA, was all but erased from the hagiographic national narrative.

…before the role of that other strand of the liberation struggle, ZAPU and ZIPRA, was all but erased from the hagiographic national narrative…

Images from the Liberation War.
Image credit: Wikimedia commons

The life of a freedom fighter

“Temba” speaks of his childhood; being born in Inyati in 1939, and moving to Tsholotsho at the age of six to attend school, where he had his first impressions of the racial disparities in then Rhodesia. He vividly recounts living at Umzingwane and Ngwenya mission after that, as his parents sought to make their fortune in a society that was not designed for black success. He explains how he was a product of various mission schools. I was happy to read that he spent some time, first herding cattle, and then later teaching at Cyrene mission, my fondly-remembered alma mater. He spent some years at Kutama, and later studied at Thekwane.

He speaks of the pressures that constantly tested his commitment and dedication, and sets out his reasons for choosing a life in exile, as opposed to taking the easy way out like many of his contemporaries. He constantly reflects on the choice to stay on in what seems like an intractable war, even when material incentives to abandon the struggle and work for individual rewards were sometimes alluring.

The front cover of “The Organizer”
“One of the v11s”

Aluta continua

In the most unassuming, straightforward and eloquent manner, “Temba” outlines the inevitable logic that led him to join the war. As I read his story, I marvelled at how similar the concerns of this young man, decades removed from my lived experience, echoed those of my generation. Speaking of his political awakening, and the motivation to join the armed struggle, he expresses a sense of Sisyphean futility that many young Zimbabweans today will find painfully familiar:

Like thousands of young Zimbabweans in similar situations, Temba became bitter and dissatisfied with the place allotted him in the colonial setup: “Many, like myself (…) had good education…. Yet not one of us earned enough to save even a few shillings a month. Every penny went for necessities. We realized that under the settler regime our material prospects were bleak. Thus we thought it necessary to try to end this system. Only a few young Zimbabweans failed to appreciate this fact.” (p.10)

Zimbabwean graduates getting ready to begin the futile job hunt.
Image credit: Aaron Ufumeli/ANPfoto

Despite the proclamation of the “Second Republic”, have the material conditions of Zimbabweans fundamentally changed in the forty-five years since these words were written? How many of my contemporaries are also “bitter and dissatisfied with the place allotted them in the current setup”? What a pity is it not, that many of the same people who ostensibly fought against a such a system, are themselves now the targets of our youthful anger and frustration because they perpetuate it on their own people? A lot for the few, and to hell with the rest.

Driven by my curiosity, I did some research online and reached out to Ole Gjerstad via email. I asked him if there were any other comparable profiles of Zimbabwean liberation fighters, and more importantly, whether the man he profiled had lived long enough to see the new Zimbabwe for which he sacrificed so much. Only then did I find out that the subject of the book was none other than former ZIPRA military commannder, Dumiso Dabengwa, during his days as a ZAPU intelligence operative in Lusaka. The name Temba Moyo was a pseudonym used to protect his identity at the time.

Broken dreams

So he did live to see the new Zimbabwe, but as a friend of mine once put it, “Just because it’s different doesn’t mean anything has changed.” “Temba” lived to see allies turn to persecutors. In 1982, Dabengwa was charged, together with Lookout Masuku and four others, of treason by the administration of Robert Mugabe. They were acquitted due to lack of evidence in 1983, but redetained under emergency regulations. Dabengwa was only released four years later. Lookout Masuku’s fate in the prison cells remains an egregious stain on the fabric of our nation’s history.

Comrades-in-arms . . . Zipra commander Lookout Masuku (left) and then Zanla deputy commander Rex Nhongo on their return to Zimbabwe in 1979 after organising \rand leading the liberation struggle from outside the country.

A stain on Dabengwa’s own record, which may have made it difficult for him to revive his own political fortunes, was his decision to later work with the same regime that oppressed him and his compatriots. Some will also point to his tenure as minister of Home Affairs, where he was part and parcel of the system. Regardless, I would like to believe that Dabengwa never stopped working towards the vision he narrated to Ole those decades ago. Even as he was preparing to pass over the mantle in his political party, he never really checked out from the struggle. In my view, by focusing his energy to working with his foundation, he was demonstrating that it is possible to leave politics, and still make a meaningful contribution to your country.

I don’t think he could have done it any other way. To quote The Organizer;
It’s no use thinking of what could have been. I am me! With my values and purpose in life. I must continue until all Zimbabweans can live in freedom and security.
And if I abandon the struggle? What kind of example would that be for the young ones just joining the organization? Would they too leave later if the going gets rough? How can I drop out and expect others to fight? If I really want to see Zimbabwe liberated, who do I expect to do the liberating? If I can’t persist in the struggle, why should the others? Having asked myself these questions, I always come out stronger than ever.
I am now determined to make my full contribution to the liberation of Zimbabwe and my people…however long and difficult the struggle may be!

An example to follow

“The Organizer” gave me an intimate look into the mind of a young man who had a vision for his country, and who was willing to give up everything to see it become reality. Future events, as history shows, were to test that resolve to its limits. No man’s life is without blemish when examined under a microscope. There are no angels. If there are, they do not walk amongst us. There are, however, some of us who live their lives with singular purpose.

I pray that my generation finds a comparable way to live up to its own mandate. I pray that we find a way to carry a common cause so fierce that it trumps personal ambition, and allows us to find a shared horizon, one that goes above political party, religious, or tribal fealty. One that raises a whole generation to face its challenges together, shoulder to shoulder. I pray that we can also give credit where it is due, and can tell our stories without always defaulting to the political.

He was only one man among many, but it would be utterly dishonest to tell the story of Zimbabwe’s liberation without telling tales of the “Black Russian”or whatever other identities he inhabited over the course of his adventurous life. “Temba Moyo” was a legend, both as a cover story, and as one among us of whom stories will be told.

May his name find its place on the tongues of our nation’s future generations. May his family find comfort at this time of great loss.

Rest in peace, “Black Russian”.

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