Joshua Nkomo and the Second Chimurenga

Joshua Nkomo and the Second Chimurenga

Today in Zimbabwe some mourn and some rejoice the death of Joshua Nkomo, a leader of the liberation struggle. The whole day on television there were specials about the history of Zimbabwe, as well as songs, dancing, and tributes to the man whom some called “the King of Matabeleland.” The Zimbabwean national anthem, Ngaikomborerwe Nyika Yezimbabwe, Blessed Be the Land of Zimbabwe, played constantly here in Bulawayo, as well as imbube pieces, a blend of Ndebele and English, by the a cappella group Black Umfolosi. Rachel and Dumy, who work at our hostel, both watched intently and said it was a real shame, and “people in town won’t be happy today — everyone will walk around with their heads down.” But the white owner, David, came in and raised his hands in the air, saying, “Finally, the opposition leader is dead!”

In Harare (then Salisbury), in 1955, some nationalist leaders, dissatisfied with the growing inequality between black Africans and white settlers (the descendants of Cecil Rhodes’ Pioneer Column), formed the City Youth League, which gradually became a new organization called the African National Congress (ANC). Of prime interest in everyone’s minds was the Land Husbandry Act of 1951, which had taken land away from Africans and given it to the minority whites. Elected president of the group, young Joshua Nkomo surprised the settler government by calling for majority rule. Banned in 1959, the ANC changed names and operated as a new National Democratic Party (NDP), retaliating with a series of demonstrations, strikes, and sabotage, called Zhii, or vengeful annihilation of the enemy.

In 1961, while Nkomo was out of the country, the government banned the NDP. In response, nationalists created yet another group, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), a primarily Ndebele organization. Joshua Nkomo again led this group, and was again banned by Sir Edgar Whitehead. The Rhodesian Front Party’s Winston Field was elected in 1962, and he instituted a series of crushing laws, outlawing black assemblies and political debates, and passing a mandatory death sentence for arson. Nkomo thought about fleeing to Mozambique to head up a government in exile, and around this time disagreements between Nkomo and Robert Mugabe (the current Zimbabwean head of state) led to Mugabe’s disgusted resignation. Mugabe went on to form the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), a primarily Shona group. Nkomo pressed on with the struggle as well, and most of the ZANU and ZAPU party leaders continued to be banned or imprisoned for their nationalistic actions.

Mounting tensions eventually led to civil war. (Less than a century earlier, in 1896, the Ndebele and Shona had joined to fight the British South Africa Company in the First Chimurenga, the “War of Liberation.” Squashed in 1897, one of the movement’s spiritualist leaders had prophesied, “My bones will rise again,” in a Second Chimurenga). This Second “War of Liberation” began on April 28th, 1966, now known as Chimurenga Day, with a day-long skirmish between Rhodesian Front soldiers and police against freedom fighters in the city of Chinhoyi: all died except one. In the years that followed, fortified by ZANU training camps in Mozambique and ZAPU bases in Zambia and Tanzania, armed conflict continued, with young women and men trained and fighting as scouts, messengers, spies, and soldiers.

Under the aegis of the Patriotic Front, Mugabe’s ZANU and Nkomo’s ZAPU managed to bring Ian Smith’s white government to its knees. On March 4th, 1980, in a carefully monitored election, Mugabe and ZANU won a majority of seats available to Blacks in the new parliament, while Nkomo and ZAPU won 20.

In town, I asked Evelyn High School students Tryphine, Nancy, Neoleen, and Dorothy, all 15 and in Form 3, if they discussed Nkomo at all in school today. Neoleen said that they just talked about it a little. “Anyway, he was very old. He celebrated his birthday during his illness.” Nkomo represents the past, a part of history almost unknown to this younger generation. What happens in the future is up to youth like these students.


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