OMRY MAKGOALE: Was Mugabe an African hero or a tribalist?


Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on 21 February 1924 in Kutama in eastern Zimbabwe. He attended school at Kutama College and later furthered his studies at Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. He went on to teach in Ghana where he later met his first wife Sally.

Mugabe gained prominence after the formation of the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu), which split from Zimbabwe African People's Union (Sapu), the first liberation movement in Zimbabwe, founded by Joshua Nkomo as president, Tichafa Samuel Parirenyatwa as vice-president and Ndabaningi Sithole as chairman.

Sithole, Herbert Chitepo, Edgar Tekere , Enos Nkala and Leopold Takawira among the founding fathers of Zanu on 6 August 1963, after they split from Nkomo's Zapu.

Zanu split later into two wings, one under Sithole and the other under Mugabe. It was from this time that Mugabe developed Zanu as a powerful liberation movement mainly taking care of the interests of Shona people. The other tribes were relegated to lower categories.

This was at the height of Cold War, the global political conflict after World War Two between the United States and its Western allies consolidated in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) and consisting of the United Kingdom, France and Germany, in opposition to the Soviet Union (USSR) headed by Russia, with its post-war dependent states in Eastern Europe consolidated in the Warsaw Pact, among them the German Democratic Republic, Poland and Hungary. Cold war is generally defined as war without direct fire between the antagonists. The antagonists were fighting via proxies, such as between Cuba and apartheid South Africa in Angola. This was a proxy war between the capitalist countries and the socialist (also described as Stalinist) countries.

The British were not happy with the close relations between Zapu under Nkomo and the Soviet Union, in which Zapu's military wing - the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (Zipra) - received military training in the USSR along with Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the African National Congress (and the South African Communist Party). Zipra and MK fought together against the white minority regime in Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia, led by Ian Smith, in the Wankie-Sipolilo campaigns in 1967 and 1968.

The British state interpreted this as part of the Communists' onslaught in Africa, and were prepared to use any means they could to detour or stop what they considered as an onslaught which would advance the Soviet Union in military, naval, economic and political power. It encouraged formation of alternative organisations or liberation movements, and any organisation that could oppose the Soviet Union and its allies or dependent states. Hence the split from Zapu and the formation of Zanu was subtly supported and welcomed by the Brits.

It was also the time of the rift between the Soviet Union and China - the two great Communist powers during the Cold War - which became very sharp in 1963. In that year the SACP broke with China, where the first detachment of MK to receive military training abroad had been trained in 1961/62. The six MK cadres in China (among them Andrew Mlangeni, who later served a life sentence with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island) even had a discussion about military strategy with Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing.

After its ideological clashes with the Soviet Union, China needed a foothold in the liberation movements in Africa independent of the Soviets, so it appreciated the formation of Zanu. It offered military training facilities to the military wing of Zanu - the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (Zanla) - as it did also with the Azanian People's Liberation Army (Apla), the military wing of the ANC's main political rival, the Pan Africanist Congress. These were the external factors that nurtured the formation and the rise of Zanu as an alternative to Zapu, which was seen as a Communist-controlled organisation.

Internally in Zimbabwe, Zanu used a tribal card, expressing animosity towards other minority tribes other than Shona - principally the Ndebele people of south-western Zimbabwe.

Zanu leaders revived hostility to the memory of Mzilikazi kaMashobane and his fellow isiZulu-speakers, who had fled north-west from the reign of King Shaka in present-day KwaZulu-Natal in the 1820s. After permanent wars in Mozambique, then in North West province and in conflict with many peoples including the Boer settlers, Mzilikazi and his Ndebele forces defeated the Shona people in western Zimbabwe and occupied their land.

Zanu, led by Mugabe, bundled together all the minority tribes in the western part of Zimbabwe as Ndebele sympathisers. Considering that there are Tswanas, Sothos, Vendas, Shangaans, Swati, Kalanga, Chewa, Tonga, Nambians as well as Zulus and isiNdebele-speakers in that region, it was sinister to bundle them all as enemies in the 1960s.

This was directly opposite to the liberation philosophy of the African National Congress at its foundation in South Africa in 1912, when it included all black people as belonging to the nation. These are contrary political philosophies relating to modern democratic politics in Africa.

Any leader or organisation behaving this way cannot be classified as nationalist but tribalist. Leaders that place the interests of their own tribe ahead of all other tribes in the country are tribalist and not nationalists. A tribalist puts his own tribe ahead of other tribes, ahead of the nation. Zimbabwe as the nation should consist of all the tribes residing in the territory of the current land surface, not only Shona, which Zanu under Mugabe and his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, have never stopped practising. In the current Zimbabwe of Zanu, Shona are first-class citizens and the rest are second- and third-class citizens.

This is completely unacceptable.

It is important to note that the South African apartheid government under the National Party was also unhappy about the relations between the ANC and Zapu, and their close relations to the Soviet Union. PW Botha saw this alliance as a communist onslaught against South Africa.

It was also at this time that President Ronald Reagan in the US and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the UK supported apartheid South Africa openly as their war-time ally from the Second World War, when the South African Defence Force, under General Jan Smuts, fought on the side of the Allies against Hitler's Nazi Germany and Benito Mussolini's fascist regime in Italy. The US and UK had to justify their support for the Zanu regime by using history, although this time they were fighting liberation movements supported by Communists as represented by the Soviet Union, and not fascism.

Then came Gukurahundi - a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians carried out by Mugabe's 5th Brigade from early 1983 to late 1987. The Western world - the UK and US - kept quiet when the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade under General Perence Shiri mowed down the supposed Communists as represented by Zapu and isiNdebele-speakers generally.

The silence of the West gave tacit support and approval for Mugabe to massacre the people of western Zimbabwe, under the pretext of them being Communists. The 5th Brigade used scorched earth tactics, killing children, women and old men as part of exterminating Zapu. The Western countries chose to be silent; they saw these women and children as Communists, so in the fight against the Soviet onslaught in Africa, it was okay to allow them to be killed. This is how cold Reagan and Thatcher were.

This Gukurahundi massacre blocked access to South Africa by MK forces through western Zimbabwe, moving from MK's base in Angola under the Soviet-supported regime of the MPLA government, via Zambia's Western Province.

There has never been proper moral accounting for this, whether by the governments of Zimbabwe, the UK or US. Mugabe was even given a knighthood by the Thatcher government in UK. What a disgrace! "Arise, Sir Robert"!

Mugabe’s Shona controlled Zanu–PF combined its hatred of Zapu with all Ndebele people, to avenge the defeat of Shonas by Mzilikazi in the 19th century. They attacked all people in the Western Zimbabwe, even those who were not Ndebele.

The people of western Zimbabwe were left to perish on the altar of the Cold War between the UK, the US and the Soviet Union because of tribal animosity between Shona and Ndebele, and in the silence and hypocrisy of ANC leaders begging access to the Limpopo river. No statement was issued from ANC headquarters in Lusaka to condemn this massacre, even though we lost MK soldiers who were operating with Zipra forces. Their families have still not received their bones.

Mugabe was a shrewd politician with the ability to say the right things to the right people. In the West he strove to be understood as a nationalist and a former Catholic altar man with a close relation to the Vatican. To the Chinese, he was a socialist who preferred them more than the Soviets, and the Chinese Communist Party regime abundantly offered Zanu, its military training facilities.

During Gukurahundi, Mugabe had the support of the UK, the US and South Africa as his allies to decimate Zapu, a rival political party, and the Ndebele people as his perceived historical tribal enemy. The Soviets were also quiet, because they had their embassy in Zimbabwe and they did not want to antagonise Mugabe for fear of being chucked out.

The people of western Zimbabwe were fed to the wolves with the world watching in silence. Only the churches raised their voices.

There has been no Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Zimbabwe to reveal the truth about these and other crimes against the people. It is a national scandal, but so too is the silence of the ANC government.
Shame on those who hide this terrible truth.

Can we say Mugabe was an African hero? Or a villain... or just a tribalist?

Omry Makgoale is a rank and file member of the ANC. These are his personal views