DUMISA DABENGWA (1939 – 2019)
Farewell to Zimbabwe’s ‘Black Russian’, Dumisa Dabengwa
Dumisa Dabengwa, who has died at the age of 79, was one of Zimbabwe’s liberation stalwarts. Despite Robert Mugabe’s best efforts, he maintained his commitment to his people to the end.
First published by Zimbabwe Independent.
He used to call me at random and odd times; almost always late at night. The last time he did was at 11pm several weeks ago. He wanted to tell me he was in South Africa and was not well. This was the third call he had made to say he was ill. I had previously received another call, again well after 11pm, when I was in Kenya a couple of years back. We spoke for over an hour-and-half, him explaining his medical condition and this test and that. He was hopeful.
I promised to visit him as soon as I came back from Angola where I was going the next day. He seemed to light up on news that I was going to Angola, and asked many questions. Memories from the struggle, I guessed. He was in the trenches there. I reminded him it was a different kind of place now to what it was during the liberation struggle.
But he had a pressing issue. He wanted to know if I had seen the picture circulating on social media and was keen to find out who the other little girl besides Nombulelo, his daughter, was on the photo. I laughed and told him I was the original source of that picture, although lots of people were now sending it to me on WhatsApp not knowing it had originated from me in the first place.
He thought he knew, but did not want to make a mistake by guessing who it was. I told him it was Gugu and he said: “Of course, I knew.” I laughed. Gugu, now deceased, was the daughter of Benjamin Dube, another Zipra stalwart who died earlier this year. Dumiso Dabengwa broke the news to me in one of our numerous conversations.
Dabengwa and my father Sidney Malunga, two PF Zapu stalwarts, were inseparable: both persecuted by former president Robert Mugabe’s regime; tried for treason, accused of being on an invented Zapu War Council, both acquitted, but kept detained illegally for almost four years, then released within weeks of each other and both standing shoulder-to-shoulder to bury their comrade Lookout Masuku — the Zipra commander — who had died in prison just before they were released. They even bought houses literally next to each other. They were always right next to the big man, Joshua Nkomo, the Zapu leader. Sadly, they are all now reunited by death.
Although I was only 12 when they were bundled off to Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, I had heard too many stories about these Zapu heroes before they went in and after. I recall many meetings held at home where we served as waiters and waitresses as they argued loudly and fiercely over strategy and approach to an onslaught from Mugabe’s Zanu-PF government in the early 1980s. I wondered later when they were all accused of treason, how odd it was that whenever they met at home, they “plotted” so openly and loudly.
They were all quirky. Edward Ndlovu, another Zapu bigwig, was quite “aristocratic” with a very superior quality of English. I recall one time I was asked to bring them cheese as they huddled and argued in my father’s tiny “bar” and when I delivered it and ran off, Ndlovu called me back and said: “Bafuna ukulincitsha icheese (they want to deny you cheese)”, and promptly gave me a huge portion of it back as he shouted, “Let me go to the house of commons” — toilet. He would always laugh at his own joke and we would laugh with him. His English was matched only by Paul Themba Nyathi, another Zapu cadre. I remember wishing I could speak English that way.
Dabengwa was always the quietest of all these many fathers we had. The rest were loud, boisterous, daring and took no prisoners, yet respectful of each other. Everyone spoke. When they disagreed, which they did, at times not talking for months, there was still mutual respect between them and disagreements were always settled. Dabengwa always spoke when he needed to. He never elaborated, never raised his voice, but his points would always land and secure grunts and nods.
I recall one such epic disagreement which only made better sense when I was older: when my father was tried for trying to overthrow the government, the state claimed that it had a star witness who would implicate him with no chance of escaping conviction. The prosecutor, Goodwills Masimirembwa, kept the identity of this witness secret.
Eventually, when the trial started, and the witness was called, it turned out to be none other Welshman Mabhena, another Zapu stalwart, who was himself brought to court shackled and in prison garb. At the very first instance, Mabhena denounced the statement implicating my father and attributed to him, arguing that it had been secured through torture. It was thrown out by the magistrate and the case collapsed, although my father was immediately served with another detention order much the same way Dabengwa and Masuku had been when their treason trials crumbled.
After they were released from prison, tensions surrounding that coerced witness statement endured, although my father well knew that torture was the modus operandi of Zanu-PF, having been tortured himself. I have no proof, but I suspect that Dabengwa mediated in the dispute.
I always wondered why most of the Zapu luminaries “conspired” to make it so easy for the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and other state security services to round them up by buying houses in one area. We had Dabengwa on Diamond Drive, Angeline Masuku on Old Gwanda, Mabhena on Amatja Road, my father on Langa Road and Fletcher Dulini, another Zapu official, on Percy Road in the same neighbourhood. It would only have required one security team to round them up easily in no time.
When they were released from Chikurubi after Nkomo had cut a deal with Mugabe — the 1987 Unity Accord — there were tensions among them. Nkomo had done what he believed was in the best interest of the people and the party. Most importantly, the people. Too many people had died and continued to die, and he and his party could not protect them since they were not in government and had no means to do so. Mugabe seemed willing and ready to kill more. There was nothing to stop him until it was 20,000.
A lone figure, with his movement decimated, his lieutenants in jail, continued attempts on his life, Nkomo — who had escaped assassination and fled the country — had to cut a deal with the devil. The only deal on the table was capitulation. He took it. He had no choice if Angola was to be avoided. As the prisoners were released, they were tasked with selling the deal to the brutalised and traumatised population. None believed in the deal and its sincerity. They knew it was negotiated at gunpoint, but their release was part of the deal and their leadership roles required that they do what they needed to do.
I recall fierce arguments between these comrades over going to rural areas to talk to the people and explain the Unity Accord. Their own safety and security was also a factor. Njini Ntuta, another senior Zapu leader, had been murdered in cold blood by security forces masquerading as dissidents, but in fact, known to have been state operatives, so had Micah Bhebhe in Inyathi in Matabeleland North province.
My father had been warned against going to bury his own father — my grandfather — as there was an ambush set up to kill him. He had taken the cautious path and not gone, sending my older brother Busi instead. I am unsure how Busi himself did not become collateral damage, especially since at one time the CIO had arrested him, my cousin Ronald, Dabengwa’s nephew Xolani, Angeline Masuku’s son, and other teenage children of Zapu leaders in lieu of my father and his comrades who had all gone into hiding. They had detained them at Brady Barracks for at least a week, in order to force the Zipra comrades to surrender in exchange for their children. They had all refused, roundly calling for their innocent teenage children to be released.
After the Unity Accord, Dabengwa had initially been offered the post of Deputy Minister of Home Affairs which Zapu had complained was too junior. He later became the minister. His role as Minister of Home Affairs would be the basis for another point of disagreement with his colleagues.
Every year, the Ministry of Home Affairs oversees the Heroes Day celebrations. In the run-up to this event, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) TV subjects the population to an excessive dosage of liberation war narratives which were always only about Zanla’s contribution to the struggle. The role of Zipra, which was militarily superior to Zanla in terms of training and conventional fighting, even though it was also a guerilla force, had been completely obliterated from history. So when he became Minister of Home Affairs, Dabengwa’s comrades expected an immediate change. They expected to see more of Zipra and Zapu’s role also highlighted, not just Zanu and Zanla. That did not happen. Over the years it became a sore point between the comrades — my father especially.
To be somewhat fair, Zanu had erased Zipra’s contribution when it confiscated its records and its properties. Zipra had been a superior guerilla movement that had bombed the fuel tanks in then Salisbury (which Zanla falsely claimed to have done) and shot down Air Rhodesia flights. Zipra was also trained as both a guerilla movement as well as a regular army. It was like a national army in waiting. It was far better-resourced than Zanla, given that it was supported by one of the two Superpowers then, the Soviet Union, while Zanla was backed by China, then a poor country and small power. None of this was finding its way onto the Heroes Day menu. Only the Nyadzonya and Chimoio massacres by the Rhodesians were being trumpeted. Nothing about Air Rhodesia’s Vickers Viscount shootings by Zipra and the subsequent bombings of Zipra’s Victory and Freedom Camps in Zambia in retaliation and the resultant massacres.
There were other points of divergence between the erstwhile comrades. One key one was the marginalisation of Matabeleland. Gukurahundi, the cold-blooded massacres in Matabeleland and Midlands provinces, had decimated the region. In the years after independence, there had been zero development in Matabeleland. Rural schools were emptied, teachers targeted and killed, clinics closed, business targeted by both dissidents — army deserters — and the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade. Shops were closed to starve the masses. There were curfews under a colonial state of emergency Mugabe had inherited and implemented with zeal fighting his liberation struggle comrades.
Rural life had not only come to a standstill, but had regressed. Recall that the region had endured the wrath of the liberation war before that and barely recovered from that. After the Unity Accord, there had been little done to compensate for Matabeleland underdevelopment during the Gukurahundi years. There had been no mini-Marshall Plan.
Meanwhile, other regions in the country had enjoyed the post-war peace dividend with ambitious and successful resettlement and rural development programmes. Nkomo was not in a position to demand anything at all, except stopping the killings.
But when peace returned, Matabeleland politicians began to face tough questions from their constituents, and in turn ask tougher questions of each other and their own comrades in government. Why was nothing being done to find a permanent and sustainable solution to the region’s water crisis, for instance? Why was the country’s second university slated for Bulawayo taking forever to be built, while Sardc in Harare had overtaken it? Why were factories moving from Bulawayo to Harare? Why were university and college intakes skewed against locals in Matabeleland? Why were there fewer science facilities in the region’s schools? Why were there fewer schools, especially given the targeting of schooling infrastructure during Gukurahundi? Why was the region underdeveloped compared to others in general terms? These questions, whilst aimed at the broader government, landed primarily at the doorstep of former Zanu leaders and comrades in government. For better or worse, they fuelled a sentiment of failure by the former Zapu comrades despite the disruptive circumstances.
Dabengwa always took criticism and these harsh attacks with quiet dignity. He always listened, never gave excuses. In the fullness of time, it has become clear now that the Zapu comrades in government-controlled nothing. In destroying Zapu, Mugabe had built an impenetrable dictatorship in which he allowed Nkomo some leeway, but kept everything else. The Zapu comrades inside government never seriously took time to explain any constraints they faced to their constituents. The alienation with the people grew as did the tensions between comrades in and outside government.
Meanwhile, Mugabe maintained a tight grip on power. I recall having very uncomfortable separate conversations with the late vice-president Joseph Msika, the late vice-president John Nkomo, Mabhena and Dabengwa about what they considered their legacy to be.
To be honest I spoke my mind out against them. They indulged me a lot and in different ways invoked my father’s name with “well your father understood this better. We are alone in there. The system is not in our control.”
I asked: “So why are you staying in it? Why not leave?” “You don’t understand Sipho, my son, we are working to change it from inside. We need you, young people to come and help us. Come back home!” they would reply.
I would always laugh and say “come to do what baba (father)? Work for a system that even you cannot change?” They would retort: “So who will change it for you?” And so went the conversations. But Dabengwa eventually left the “system” and never went back, and with that, my respect for him grew. His other comrades drifted in and out of the system showing the proverbial lack of spine.
The first sign of concern about Dabengwa was when he called me a couple of years ago. I was in Kenya for the week and the call came around 11pm. He wanted to see me urgently. He wanted to talk. We had talked before about his legacy and him writing a book. He said this was now urgent. He was feeling easily tired when he did his daily walking exercise with mama MaKhumalo in Fourwinds, Bulawayo.
Every day they would pass our house and speak with my mother when they saw her. He did not think it was anything serious, but said he would get medical checks. He said he wanted to work on his book. He even had an outline. It was actually two books. I promised to come and see him as soon as I got back to Johannesburg, which I did and we spent a good four hours talking after which he handed me the outline of the two books. I promised to read and get back to him, but urged him to start documenting. I even eagerly told him that I had a title: The Black Russian: Memoirs of A Freedom Fighter. He smiled wryly, waved my suggestion away and asked me to take him to Sandton, which I promptly did.
Although there are many stories, there is an encounter I can not leave out. When the late Richard “Gedi” Dube, former Zipra commander and commissar, fell ill and was hospitalised in Johannesburg in 2013, Dabengwa came to visit him in hospital. Dube was one of the last surviving comrades that had been with Nikita Mangena, the feted former Zipra commander, when he was killed. The others were the late Jevan Maseko and Jacky Mpofu. I was at the hospital about to go in to see Dube when Dabengwa arrived with Dube’s wife, Assah, who is also sister to one of my friends.
We went in together and when Assah told Dube that Dabengwa was there, I was amazed to see a man weak and hardly able to do much literally take the “military attention posture”, while lying there on the bed. He came alive when Dabengwa asked him: “Kunjani ndoda? (how are you man?)”, this was a commander meeting his fellow commander.
It was an unforgettable moment. There is trivia about Dube. At independence he was the current Vice-President, Constantino Chiwenga’s commanding officer in Nyanga as colonel. Dube had quit in disgust when Chiwega — his subordinate — was promoted to be his superior. That was how Mugabe operated; he suppressed Zapu and Zipra cadres and promoted his own comrades. Even in state and public service affairs, that became the norm.
Among many other times, I also had the opportunity of talking to Dabengwa in 2008 at his house after he left Zanu-PF. We sat at the same verandah where they had planned to sit with my father and uncle Backson Sibanda the day my father died. The day before, I had spent several hours with MaKhumalo talking as she shelled groundnuts in the dark — during a power cut — and I drank beers which she said were from the previous year’s Christmas party.
Dabengwa had not been there, so I met him the following day. He told me that he had decided to retire from politics. He explained his decision to leave Zanu-PF and to support Simba Makoni, a senior Zanu-PF official who had also quit, against Mugabe. He also said Zapu members had asked for an extraordinary congress to revive the party.
Dabengwa said he was going to ensure that this happened. I asked him, “Baba, you said you are planning to retire, but you are plunging right back into the fray?” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “the people have asked us to revive the party and we cannot say no.”
One Monday in January 2018, I received a call from Dr Ibbo Mandaza who runs Sapes Trust. “Sidney (he always called me by my father’s name), I am convening a dialogue on Gukurahundi at Sapes on Thursday. I want you to speak. Dabengwa has agreed to also speak together with Eleanor Sisulu and Martin Rupiya.”
It was short notice, I told him and I could not reorganise my calendar. He insisted I do what I can. I realised that it was really not a request and after reorganising my diary called Mandaza and said: “Doc, if we do it in Harare on Thursday, let’s do in Bulawayo the next day, on Friday.”
He promptly agreed. The dialogue in Harare was the first of its kind there.
Expectedly, youths were sent to disrupt it. We had anticipated worse — that the police would stop it, maybe even barricade the road. Instead, the cowardly option of boisterous disruption was used. The event was well-attended, but the small group of Zanu-PF youths was bent on stopping everyone except, manipulatively, Dabengwa from speaking. He refused to accept the bait and rebuked them. I too pushed back, refusing to be silenced, but at some point became exasperated and turned to him next to me and said: “Baba, this is nonsense.” He calmly responded and said: “Don’t let yourself be distracted, do what you came here to do.”
It was a fascinating evening which illuminated the pervasive fear by elements in Zanu-PF to have the Gukurahundi openly debated. The next day we flew to Bulawayo and had the debate there. Dabengwa repeated his most poignant point that Gukurahundi was planned. It was not accidental. Rejecting Mugabe’s “moment of madness” excuse, he implicated the British too, whom he alleged had intimated to Mugabe at independence that his greatest threat was Zapu and Zipra. This was not a debatable issue to him and the die had been cast back then.
There are more stories than there is time and space to write about Dabengwa and indeed about many of the fascinating heroes that Zapu and Zipra produced. Stories about courage, selfless dedication and sacrifice, but also about pain, loss and sadness. A lot is lost in superlatives like “hero” and “man of the people”. The unwritten stories are about the pain and sacrifice these brave men and women showed at personal sacrifice to liberate their country and others.
They are about sacrifices their families made and the suffering. They are about the unspoken heroes like MaKhumalo — Zodwa Dabengwa — and my mother who kept the families together, while inspiring these great men to keep fighting and when they were imprisoned, to retain their sanity in the face of unimaginable pressure. They are about the personal losses and tragedies — like the cold-blooded murder of ugogo Dabengwa’s mother by the Rhodesian security forces both to punish him and also to force him to go back home and bury her so that they could capture him.
He did not go back. She lived with her grandchildren who witnessed this heinous crime. Two men had arrived at night and knocked at the door. They had told gogo that her son Dabengwa was there to see her. She had asked why he was not coming in. They had lured her outside leaving her grandchildren inside. Two shots had rung in the dark night. The very young children including, Smanga, Bongani and Xolani, were too terrified and stayed indoors all night, to discover their grandmother in a pool of blood the following morning. Their terror and trauma was beyond imagination.
One can only imagine the heart-wrenching pain Dabengwa carried in his heart, the guilty conscience and the anguish of not being able to save and bury his mother. He would later work closely with the same Rhodesians who killed his mother in integrating the three armies — Rhodesian, Zipra and Zanla — just as he worked with his Zanu-PF jailers and torturers. Dabengwa carried it all, with quiet dignity that only true heroes possess. His death is a real wake-up call for Zimbabwe to finally and genuinely confront its demons.
Without Dabengwa and many of the departed Zapu and Zipra comrades, fixing past wrongs, especially Gukurahundi, becomes harder, not easier as some misguided elements may want to believe.
What is left is for us is to continue the fight for democracy, freedom, human rights, justice and prosperity — things that the majority of Zimbabweans are currently struggling for — which Dabengwa left unfinished, but fought for relentlessly. Only that way can we ensure that Dabengwa and many of his comrades in Zapu and Zanu, as well as Zipra and Zanla, did not struggle, suffer and die for in vain. DM
Siphosami Malunga is a human rights lawyer and Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (Osisa) director in Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.
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