Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF and South Africa’s old National Party government were publicly sworn enemies. Privately, their relationship was a bit more complicated.
On 7 and 8 February, 1983, for instance, Emmerson Mnangagwa, then Zimbabwe’s minister of state security, and his intelligence officials met secretly with their counterparts in the South African Defence Force (SADF) in Harare. They wanted to discuss a common problem.
Mnangagwa’s avowedly Marxist Zanu-PF under its leader, Robert Mugabe, had come to power three years earlier and proclaimed itself as being on the front line of the regional campaign to topple the apartheid government in Pretoria.
Behind closed doors, Harare evidently had a rather different agenda, one which dovetailed with Pretoria’s interest in thwarting the ANC’s armed struggle.
The SADF notes of that February 1983 meeting, still in the archives of what is now the Department of International Relations and Cooperation in Pretoria, record that the two governments agreed that, “Zimbabwe does not consider political support of the ANC in the same category as military support. For this reason, they provide office facilities to the ANC in Harare but do not allow them to infiltrate over the RSA/Zimbabwe border.”
According to the SADF report, Mnangagwa – now Zimbabwe’s president, having toppled Mugabe two years ago – took personal credit for obtaining permission from his then-boss, Prime Minister Mugabe, for the SADF visit to Harare and for similar future intelligence meetings.
Mnangagwa also claimed at the meeting that he had initiated the similar clandestine dialogues which South Africa was having with the Angolan and Mozambique governments, also Marxist and publicly hostile to Pretoria.
Timothy Scarnecchia, history professor at Kent State University, recounts this meeting in his paper “Rationalizing Gukurahundi: Cold War and South African Foreign Relations with Zimbabwe, 1981-1983”, which describes the complex diplomatic relations between Zimbabwe, South Africa and major powers at the time of the Gukurahundi, the massacre of thousands of Zimbabweans in Matabeleland by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade of the Zimbabwe Defence Force.
Scarnecchia presents a very different picture of relations between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and the ANC from the one projected by President Cyril Ramaphosa and former president Thabo Mbeki in their eulogies after Mugabe’s death in September.
Ramaphosa told the crowd in the Harare stadium at Mugabe’s official memorial service, “Mugabe was a friend of the ANC, a friend of the people of South Africa, who stood by us during our darkest hour and was unwavering [in] support when our people were suffering under the yoke of apartheid.”
And at a later memorial service for Mugabe in Pietermaritzburg he said Mugabe had been prepared to sacrifice much for the freedom of South Africa.
“He was prepared to risk the fortunes and infrastructure of their own country so we in South Africa could be free. He was prepared to give free passage to Umkhonto we Sizwe soldiers to come through Zimbabwe and launch operations in Zimbabwe knowing well he would risk reprisals from the apartheid government.
“Did he flinch or hesitate? Not Mugabe, he was prepared to support us to the end. He was an African patriot, [he] believed [in the] right of self-determination of African people.”
At another ANC memorial service for Mugabe, in Durban, Mbeki praised Mugabe as a great Pan-Africanist; “one of the cadres and comrades we should always value as one of the combatants for the liberation of South Africa”.
The historical record suggests instead that relations between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and the ANC were tense, even hostile, during most of the latter’s liberation struggle. The main reason for the tensions – and for those secret meetings between the Zanu-PF government and the apartheid government – was Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu.
Once Zanu-PF’s former liberation war ally, Zapu later became its bitter political rival, and Zanu-PF’s grievance with the ANC was that it was an ally of Zapu rather than Zanu-PF. Both the ANC and Zapu had received their political and military support from the Soviet Union while Zanu-PF and the ANC’s own South African rival in the liberation war, the PAC, got its support from the People’s Republic of China.
In his history, External Mission: The ANC in Exile, Stephen Ellis recalls that the National Party government in Pretoria had been hoping for a victory for the moderate Bishop Abel Muzorewa in the first democratic elections in 1980. When Mugabe’s Zanu-PF instead won handsomely, Pretoria had to accept the outcome, although it was “privately shocked”.
That’s hardly surprising. More surprisingly, Ellis adds that “initial reactions from the ANC and the SACP were almost as negative as in Pretoria as they had hoped for a victory of their allies in Zapu.
“South African communists were at first inclined to regard Mugabe’s victory ‘as a conspiracy with international capital’,” Ellis writes, quoting from the minutes of an SACP meeting in Lusaka on 18 April, 1980.
The ANC and SACP eventually came to accept the truth that Zanu-PF had won “not by collusion with international imperialism but by a ruthless use of intimidation” – and of course the fact, which the ANC found harder to acknowledge, that Zanu-PF and Zapu were both largely ethnic-based and that Zanu-PF’s Shona base was vastly larger than Zapu’s Ndebele base by a ratio of some 70% to 20% (with other tribes and racial groups making up the rest).
In March 2019, Dumiso Dabengwa, who had been intelligence chief of Zapu’s military wing Zipra during Zimbabwe’s liberation war, disclosed more about the historic relations among Zanu-PF, Zapu and the ANC/MK, at an MK veterans’ conference at Liliesleaf centre in Rivonia, Johannesburg.
Dabengwa, who died just two months after the conference, was then leader of the revived Zapu. After crushing Zapu and Zipra during the brutal Gukurahundi, Mugabe had absorbed Zapu and its liberation war leader Joshua Nkomo into Zanu-PF to achieve his goal of a one-party state.
Dabengwa had become leader of Zapu when it re-emerged as a separate party in 2008.
At Liliesleaf in 2019, he told the MK veterans that, “Zanu were openly hostile towards the ANC at that time [the 1980s] and they were assisted in their efforts to block the ANC/MK presence in Zimbabwe by former Rhodesians and the many South African agents operating in the Zimbabwe security services…
“Prime Minister Mugabe had publicly stated his opposition to Umkhonto we Sizwe establishing any presence in Zimbabwe,” Jeremy Brickhill, himself a former Zipra commander, reported him as saying, in an article for the Zimbabwe Independent.
“Those members of the ANC and MK who operated from Zimbabwe during this period know that it was trusted Zapu and Zipra members who arranged their safe houses, safe passage and provided weapons and other facilities to support the armed struggle inside South Africa. It was not Zanu.”
Dabengwa said because of this opposition from Zanu-PF to their presence, MK guerillas had been hidden within Zipra units operating inside Zimbabwe.
Brickhill told Daily Maverick Zipra had about 250 MK guerrillas operating inside Zimbabwe integrated into Zipra units by 1980, “getting battle experience”.
Dabengwa told the MK conference that after apartheid agents disclosed to the Zanu-PF government that there were MK guerrillas hidden among Zipra forces, Mugabe’s government ordered the ANC to remove the MK soldiers from Zimbabwe.
“What has remained a closely guarded secret for many years was that we did not remove all the MK guerrillas,” Dabengwa said.
“We made a show to Zanu of removing some of them, but others were hidden and provided with assistance by Zipra to establish themselves in our own towns and villages. So, the first MK presence was established secretly in Zimbabwe with support from Zipra.”
Brickhill explained that these MK guerrillas were given false identity documents.
Retired Zimbabwe Defence Force Major Irvine Sibhona has corroborated this account. He was a Zipra commander at independence and was put in charge of the Sezani assembly point where guerrillas of Zipra and Zanu-PF’s military wing Zanla were gathered before being demobilised.
He recently told Zenzele Ndebele, director of Bulawayo’s Centre for Innovation and Technology (CITE), on the latter’s TV show that he also had 112 ANC guerrillas in Sezani. Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation found out and asked him how many. He told them he had only 84. The 84 were transferred to the ANC in Zambia but Zipra helped the rest to disappear into the Zimbabwean population, as Dabengwa described.
Ellis has written similarly that after it came to power, Zanu-PF released from prison 32 MK soldiers who had been captured in the Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns of 1967/8 when MK, including Chris Hani – helped by Zipra not Zanu – tried, largely in vain, to infiltrate South Africa through Zipra’s Matabeleland stronghold. Some were killed, and many were arrested by Ian Smith’s Rhodesian forces.
After the Zanu-PF government released the 32 Wankie/Sipolilo captives in 1980, the ANC decided to keep them in Zimbabwe as a clandestine unit. It didn’t tell Zanu-PF.
When Zanu-PF officials found out “that armed forces allied to their fiercest rival” had been secretly deployed in Zimbabwe, they were furious and expelled the MK guerrillas. However, 14 managed to evade detection and set up a secret military hub in Zimbabwe on orders of the ANC in Lusaka.
Ellis also notes the collaboration between Zipra and MK went back a lot further than independence. Even before the joint Wankie/Sipolilo campaigns, MK and Zipra had trained together in Zambia in the late 1970s. MK learned the high-stepping toyi-toyi military drill, later to become a militant township dance, from Zipra.
Dabengwa told the MK vets that, conversely, Zipra had actively participated in several MK operations in SA, including the sabotage of the Koeberg nuclear power plant near Cape Town in 1982, hitherto attributed to MK alone.
Jeremy Brickhill, the former Zipra commander still living in Zimbabwe, has since revealed that he led Zipra’s involvement in that operation.
Dabengwa told the MK veterans, “Whilst we of Zapu and Zipra were under direct threat and facing a wave of terror unleashed against us by the Zanu government, we continued to provide support and assistance to Umkhonto we Sizwe and to underground ANC operatives in Zimbabwe.”
That wave of terror was, of course, Gukurahundi, which also complicated life for the ANC and MK, but played into the hands of the apartheid government.
Scarnecchia writes in the same article that the South African Department of Foreign Affairs files for 1983 reveal “a sense that the Gukurahundi was viewed as a ‘success’ from the South African point of view.
“It offered a number of ‘benefits’, first and foremost making it difficult for the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation) (MK) to use Matabeleland as a base for training and attacks across the border into South Africa.
“It also worked to discredit Mugabe’s international reputation as a prime minister representing a party committed to national reconciliation. It also, paradoxically, pushed Zimbabwe to cooperate with South Africa on military and intelligence issues, however tentatively and mistrustingly.”
Scarnecchia quotes historian Sue Onslow as saying the apartheid government supplied a small number of weapons to Zipra dissidents (so-called “Super-Zipra”) and this rebounded on Zapu/Zipra forces in the Gukurahundi “as the Mugabe government… was able to stigmatise the disaffected Zipra combatants as stooges of the apartheid state, manipulated by a malevolent and oppressive foreign power”. This helped the Zanu-PF government rationalise Gukurahundi.
Despite the heavy obstacles, MK did launch attacks on South Africa from Zimbabwe, MK sources recount. It established arms caches in Zimbabwe and crossed the border a few times to plant land mines and conduct raids, though these were largely thwarted by very close surveillance of the border area by the SADF.
An MK source told Daily Maverick that while Zanu-PF was frustrating MK operations, it was trying to help the PAC.
“Zanu-PF would drive PAC operatives to the South African border and encourage them to cross,” he said. “Not many did.”
If Ramaphosa and Mbeki are, shall we say, rather ahistorical in enthusing about the huge sacrifices which Zanu-PF made to help the ANC’s liberation struggle, they are not completely off the mark in saying Zimbabwe did nonetheless suffer at the hands of the apartheid government.
South African special forces, their intelligence about the country sharpened by many recruits from the old Rhodesian security forces and spies inside the country, hit Zimbabwe government and ANC targets in Zimbabwe several times, at will. They destroyed a large ammunition dump near Harare in August 1981, bombed Zanu-PF headquarters in Harare in December 1981 and attacked Zimbabwe’s main airbase at Gweru in July 1982, damaging and grounding about one-fifth of the country’s combat aircraft. They also assassinated Joe Gqabi, the ANC’s chief Zimbabwe representative in Harare in July 1981, evidently helped by the lack of protection offered to him by the Zimbabwe government.
So one could argue that these raids conducted by Pretoria’s special forces against Mugabe’s government also deterred him from providing support to MK.
However, Angola, Mozambique and even Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland (now Eswatini) also suffered at the hands of Pretoria because of their readiness to harbour MK operatives.
The latter three countries experienced minor losses, Mozambique substantially more and Angola most of all, through a series of major military incursions by the SADF, starting in late 1975 and only ending in 1988.
The MPLA was then hosting a major military presence, not only of MK but also of Swapo, which Pretoria was fighting in Namibia, then still occupied by South Africa.
The MK sources say the ANC felt a closer affinity to Frelimo in Mozambique and the MPLA in Angola than to Zanu-PF and that this also partly accounted for MK’s greater presence in those countries.
MK sources say it was only after Mugabe had crushed Nkomo and Zapu and absorbed them into Zanu-PF in 1987 that relations between the ANC and Zanu-PF finally improved. But, by then, the ANC’s liberation struggle was effectively almost over as it soon switched its tactics towards secret negotiations with the National Party government.
Brickhill told Daily Maverick, “We kept the secrets of Zipra support for ANC and MK for nearly four decades, not to protect ourselves but to protect the ANC. We knew the ANC had to build a relationship with the Zanu government and that meant repudiating Zapu and Zipra. So we kept our secrets.
“But it is important now that the true histories are revealed because this false story of Zanu support for the ANC after 1980 is preventing the ANC from speaking out about injustice and oppression in Zimbabwe today.
“As Comrade Dabengwa said before he died: we expect those South African comrades who know about these events to speak up and stop spreading falsehoods and tell the true history.” DM
"Authority without wisdom is like a heavy axe without an edge - fitter to bruise than polish." ~ Anne Bradstreet