By way of an obituary for Wilfred Mhanda (aka Dzinashe “Dzino” Machingura): May 26 1950 – May 28 2014
By David Moore, University of Johannesburg
Zimbabwe’s Ides of April foretold the death of the Movement for Democratic Change as we know it. Morgan Tsvangirai dismissed the author of a letter from within the leadership circles asking him to consider leaving the torch for others. This instigated a late April effort, seemingly led by the fiery MDC Secretary-General Tendai Biti, to dismiss the erstwhile champion of change. Tsvangirai, worn with nearly fifteen years of defeat whilst perhaps also sated by the good life, tried in turn to dismiss the cabal. Too much change for him. His heavy handed response will lead to a new party being formed. A week or so later he was in and out of clinics suffering nervous strain. The result: either more fragmentation than ever or renewal breathed broadly into the democratic forces, A détente between the eternal enemies in the Zimbabwean polity, posing within rough camps of ‘intellectuals’ and ‘populists’, could emerge in a new congress of democrats, but there is an equal chance that the gap will widen. Violence between them has already emerged, as in 2005 when the MDC split into a debilitating divide, and indeed when the ‘eggheads’ who would eventually lead Zimbabwe’s current party-state broke off from the folks one of their éminences grise labelled ‘non-working spivs, who had made thuggery and intimidation the law in the African townships’ led by Joshua Nkomo, who despised ‘intellectuals’ ever since.
Much, as usual in Zimbabwean politics, depends on ZANU-PF’s resolution of its internecine competition whilst waiting for its nigh immortal president to tire, retire, or die. One indication of ZANU-PF’s difficulties now that it is in a renewed moment of power, having handily (and slightly sleight-handily) dismissed the opposition in last year’s election but confronting a deflationary economic crisis mirroring the hyper-inflationary inferno of only a few years ago, is its hesitant and half-hearted moves to ‘reengage’ the western ogres of its oft-paranoid imagination. A two-day conference organised in early May by Ibbo Mandaza and the National Endowment for Democracy, appealing to the fringes of the ZANU-PF fray on the side of rational re-integration, signified that. Indigenisation-lite is emerging, haltingly, from these struggles as elements of economic orthodoxy re-emerge from the bowels of a party that has never been as enthusiastic about being radical as it is by helping the high echelons of its membership get rich.
As May bowed out, Wilfred Mhanda aka ‘Dzino’ Machingura, Mugabe’s longest serving nemesis succumbed to cancer’s brutality. He had fought its debilitating spread since late 2012, was diagnosed victorious in late April, but died just two days into his 65th year.
‘Dzino’ had been fighting Mugabe for much longer. Soon after the famed Mgagao Declaration of October 1975 that he – after only three years’ escape from Rhodesia already near the top of the soldiers’ ranks – and the young guerrilla soldiers escaping Zambia’s crackdown on a Zimbabwean African National Union riven by the détente organised by regional and global powers fearing red encirclement, the release of Zimbabwe’s first generation of nationalists from Salisbury’s jails (where some, with Mugabe at the head, had carried out what the green Mozambican President Samora Machel called a ‘coup’ in prison ousting their president Ndabaningi Sithole) to hasten that project, and internecine violence including the ‘Nhari rebellion’ and National Chairman Herbert Chitepo’s assassination, the battle began. Mugabe – declared unanimously (but not without a full night of intense arguing) by Mgagao’s signatories as ‘the next in line’ to lead ZANU perceived ‘Dzino’ as a ‘counter-revolutionary’ on whom ZANU’s axe should fall. Mhanda’s autobiography, Dzino: Memories of a Freedom Fighter, admits that the young soldiers regretted their choice of the current ZANU (PF) incumbent quickly (although they did not lament informing Nyerere that Sithole should go). When the young guerrillas on their way to setting up their Zimbabwe People’s Army (ZIPA later personalised by Mugabe as the ‘Dzino revolt’) drove him surreptitiously from Machel’s Quelemane house of incarceration to the training camps where, with Nyerere and Machel’s promises of support they were starting the journey towards an army uniting ZANU and ZAPU’s militants and creating a politically conscious soldier-force, they were unimpressed with his queries about the ethnic make-up of those awaiting his visit. ‘Another tribalist’, they concurred, and much too quiet and skulking for their – a gregarious lot – liking.
That was not what they were about, having been to the Eastern Bloc and China for military, political and ideological training and carrying on secretive study sessions on Marx and his Soviet and Chinese incarnations, stretching to the likes of Regis Debray on Cuba, Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon, and Amilcar Cabral, for years. They wanted to push a national democratic revolution as far as they could. Mugabe, they thought, was of the old mould. In the absence of Marx and Engels’ fully formed working class, the intellectuals in the vanguard knew that merit, not tribe, should be the start of the long road through primitive accumulation – but they had to stick with the ‘old guard’ (and its reliable ‘first wave’ of the security detail, who were extremely suspicious of upstarts talking about ‘negating the negation’) or else derail the first stage completely.
It was not an easy line to hold: even younger and more impatient soldiers would have gone the whole way. In 1986, one of them blamed Dzino and his comrades for stalling: ‘we needed’, he said, ‘a Gaddafi’. Dzino’s September 1976 interview for the Mozambican Information Agency reflected these strains of radicalism and realism – but probably also warned the political guardians, who would have read the many pamphlets circulating in Western solidarity circles, of the “system of exploitation and the capitalist enterprises and armed personnel which serve to perpetuate it,” which were the ultimate “target of the freedom fighters’ bullets” to do their best to side-line this threat. Meanwhile, the leader in waiting was pontificating the verities of liberal democracy to whoever would listen, for example the young American congressman Stephen Solarz when he visited Quelemane in July: Mugabe told him that he had control over the guerrillas, ZAPU was doing nothing to help the war, he didn’t like Machel’s ‘militaristic’ style of rule, and he would appreciate the USA’s long overdue support. Listen they did.
It was to another end that Dzino and David ‘JV’ (implying Stalin: who else?) Todlhana grappled with the beginning of Wampoa College – eventually headed by Joseph Taderera, far from a Marxist – in the tradition of the Mao and Chiang Kai Shek’s Chinese model for the united front, but agreeing not to parrot the ‘giants’ whilst working out a creative materialist mode. This was the core of the new Zimbabwe People’s Army. It was, Alex Kanengoni (later with the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, along with many other vashandi who stayed with or re-joined ZANU-PF) recounted in 1997, this was ‘like a dream’; as others related, it was a blend of California hippiedom with Soviet realism and the contingencies of restarting a stalled war amidst the ‘old guards’’ manoeuvring for the spoils. Whilst attempting to push this military and ideological renewal – while ‘unity’ faltered in the midst of messy fighting between former ZAPU and ZANU soldiers in Morogoro and Mgagao camps – USA’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stepped in to help the Brits push Vorster and the Frontline States to force Ian Smith to declaim the end of his goal of 1,000 years of white rule.
Kissinger succeeded. Smith and Vorster moved slightly. The Geneva October 1976 Conference ensued. The ZIPA leaders initially refused attendance. They refused to put their cards in the hand of one man, having lost their argument to the Frontline States to send a political united front – including even retrogrades such as Abel Muzorewa and Ndabaningi Sithole – so as to cut off Smith’s divide and rule options. This was the initial moment for the Patriotic Front, the unity Mugabe and Nkomo presented to the world. But when the men imprisoned in Lusaka under suspicion of assassinating Chitepo were released to attend Geneva’s perambulations, Machel ordered the young turks to go: no more support from the President who now accused them of ‘infantile ultra-leftism’. Thus the leaders of what RW Johnson labelled at the time as Mugabe’s ‘ ragged army of teenagers’ went to Switzerland, giving only the most reluctant credence to Mugabe’s assertions that he had the soldiers in hand. Mugabe’s democratic oratory impressed the conference organisers. Others, retrospectively, recalled the possibilities of ZIPA-style rule leading to someone like Hugo Chavez in taking power and “we didn’t want that”.
However, the soldiers and politicians in hand were the ‘old guard’ released from Lusaka, such as Josiah Tongogara and – uncomfortably – Henry Hamadziripi, along with the first wave of the security apparatus. The vashandi could be controlled only if dead or in prison: Machel did not want blood on his soil so the latter route was taken at a kangaroo court on January 18, 1977. Coincidentally or not (Frank Wisner Jr., who worked for Henry Kissinger at the Geneva Conference, not surprisingly claims happenstance!), an American Special National Intelligence Estimate ten days later suggested that ‘defanging’ ZIPA would not hurt the chances of ‘moderates’ such as Robert Mugabe – and on the day before Ndabaningi Sithole sent an incoherent letter to the Organisation of African Unity claiming that ZIPA “consists principally of dissident ZANU cadres associated with one tribal group associated with ZANU kidnappings and killing culminating in the assassination of ZANU’s national chairman Herbert Chitepo in March 1975” who had manipulated the Frontline States to back them, and whose battles against “real” ZANU forces had cost hundreds of lives. But the “real” ZIPA had already helped Mugabe confine Sithole to the side-lines; now Mugabe marginalised ZIPA.
By mid-1977 Mugabe had cobbled together an “enlarged central committee”. His speech printed in the new Zimbabwe News marking the new leadership condemned ZIPA metaphorically as “destructive forces,” a “negation of the struggle” that “we must negate in turn. This is what is referred to as the negation of the negation.” While both Hegel and Marx tumbled in their graves Mugabe continued with his now famous lines: “the ZANU axe must continue to fall upon the necks of rebels when we find it no longer possible to persuade them into the harmony that binds us all”. A few of ZANU’s old guard, including Nathan Shamuyarira and Eddsion Zvobgo (the former in a lecture at Indiana University and the latter in his San Francisco-based Zimbabwe News labelling the new army ‘ZILA’, the Zimbabwe Liberation Army), who in the early ZIPA days said it represented the best and brightest, soon retracted their initial opinions. Shamuyarira wrote in the Mozambique-based Zimbabwe News that supporters of ZIPA such as radical Canadian academic John Saul, who had learned of their hopes from his colleagues in Frelimo and published a supportive article in an American-based solidarity magazine, were “armchair revolutionaries” that were ZANU’s “sworn enemies”.
Dzino was offered the opportunity to re-join the old guard, but decided that this was not compatible with a national democratic revolution worthy of its name. Thus he and his comrades were incarcerated for more than three years, at first in atrocious conditions but later guarded loosely in Cabo Delgado. Many of the politicians who had accompanied Tongogara from Lusaka were meted the same fate, accused of fomenting a coup, about a year later. They joined the original vashandi. By late 1979 a volunteer teacher smuggled messages to Peter Carrington via Labour’s firebrand Tony Benn. This filtered into the post-Lancaster House dispensation and all were returned to Zimbabwe on the eve of full elections and national democracy’s shaky start.
Dzino, once again refusing ZANU-PF’s offers joined PF-ZAPU (political unity’s facade was sundered soon after Lancaster House). His harassment did not cease, so by 1982 his gaining a German scholarship to study industrial biochemistry was a relief. Whilst Mhanda was in Germany, Mugabe addressed his party’s first post-independence congress. The ‘Dzino revolt’ was no longer hidden in metaphors, but accorded full recognition and condemnation. Official history now had it that the cowardly ZIPA leaders had “panicked in fear of their positions” as Tongogara and company were released from Zambia’s jails. ZIPA denounced those who went to Geneva as traitors, and began to cache arms.
The ZIPA counter-revolutionary elements called themselves Vashandi or workers, but dubbed us all zvigananda or bourgeois. It thus became imperative for us to act firmly against them in defending the Party and the Revolution … This exercise was followed by a politicization programme in the camps. We warned any person with a tendency to revolt that the ZANU axe would fall on their necks.
As all now know, whilst Mugabe was waxing lyrical about axes in the past in Mozambique, plenty more were wielded in Matabeleland and the Midlands: Dzino was fortunate to have missed Gukurahundi. He returned home in 1991, taking up a post with Natbrew, where he developed Zambezi Export lager. He later worked on product development with Cairns and Metal Box, but in the wake of the land invasions led by other ‘war veterans’, he helped found the Zimbabwe Liberators’ Platform, again offering principled opposition to the ‘Mugabeism’ he had encountered and confronted in the frontlines until the night he died.
Although Gramsci would have called this second phase of Dzino’s opposition part of a ‘war of position’, it involved the deadly hand of force too. He often recalled nearly quaffing a pint of beer one evening, but it had no head and tasted too bitter (he had, after all, brewed the best beer) so he wondered if it was poisoned and only swallowed a bit. One wonders in retrospect if this contributed to his too early death. He also kept a photograph of his car’s severed brake fluid line – a not uncommon way Mugabe rid himself of enemies. Constant vigilance was thus his lot – although perhaps not with the entrance requirements to the ZLP. It was wide open to anyone claiming to be in the war veterans’ ranks and not ‘vanguardist’ about checking credentials, thus was infiltrated and nearly destroyed. When rebuilt and renamed the Zimbabwe Liberators’ Forum, phony legal charges about the illegal importation of a pickup truck ensued. By the time all that had petered out his Memories of a Freedom Fighter was completed too. It was launched, ironically, on the night Solomon Mujuru aka Rex Nhongo, the man who was the titular head of ZIPA but who betrayed it to Mugabe around the Geneva moment died in flames engulfing his house (the first time Nhongo encountered a dangerous fire was in Geneva, in the kitchenette of his hotel room). Dzino travelled to Johannesburg about 18 months later to have his low blood pressure and poorly behaving heart investigated: but the diagnosis included the cancerous tumour that eventually devoured him.
Our memories of this courageous and principled man must be political. That was the essence of his life. They must also be ideological, yet determinately historical. His ideology was embedded in the idea of the national democratic revolution, a long, winding road through the travails of primitive accumulation to emancipation (a perspective taken up by many before and after him to justify Stalinist authoritarianism and/or letting capitalism do the job of creating the requisite forces of production and getting rich with it in the meantime). Political, economic, social and cultural analysis had to be embedded objectively in this ideological perspective: strive for democracy and its eventual culmination in freedom for the working classes, but beware of the structures militating against this universal dream – and know well that they are more complex in unevenly developed societies such as Zimbabwe’s than the developed north. Mugabe may epitomise the contradictions of these societies: blending nearly feudal and dynastic political tendencies with the ‘modern’ technologies of getting rich, surveillance and repression; veering in the 1980s from a mildly welfare capitalism amidst ZAPU-ethnic cleansing abided by the West because the ‘Communists’ in the ANC were watched; to a form of structural adjustment in the 1990s that exceeded the World Bank’s fondest dreams – and of course failed dramatically, leading to the crisis that left him no choice but an alliance with the ‘war vets’ that sent the country on a downward spiral from which it is yet to recover. And constantly, persistently, the ‘traditional’ leaders are wooed. Mhanda took them seriously too, and was angered at the inability of the MDC and its backers’ tendency to ignore the ways of the past as they merged with the present.
The treatise he wrote, Gramsci-like, in the Mozambican prison camp, attests to this perspective: its calm recounting of the minority-ruled settler form of peripheral capitalism created left a paucity of proletarians in its wake so there would be no socialist revolution in Zimbabwe. Yet there could be thorough-going democracy from armies to the peasants’ fields concomitant with full time guarding against the loud but empty rhetoric of ‘nationalist’ politicians whose radical noises were exceeded only by their insatiable greed and paranoid political styles. Later in life he was working out an idea that would see society’s component parts represented in a parliamentary forum, rather than parties per se.
Most of the time Dzino and the ZLP worked as a civil society organisation would – albeit with more distance from the MDC than many other CSOs, and warning them of the pitfalls of being too close to the political opposition. Dzino was more aware than most of Mugabe and ZANU-PF’s cunning-imbued DNA – after all, he had faced it down and walked away from its lure. He was fond of saying that if Mugabe was in a corner in which the odds were 99% against him he’d get out of it with victory. The point was that the opposition had to work as hard and think as tactically and strategically as Mugabe did: what often happened instead was reliance on the facile bromides that came with donors’ money. (Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with the latter: As Tim Scarnecchia has recorded, Mugabe himself admitted as much to one of his American donors in the early 1960s. It’s OK, he said, to accept foreign funding given our poor working class and weak bourgeoisie, but if one rides the tiger one must not end up inside.) The ZIPA comrades could well have rotted in Pemba had it not been for a volunteer. Of course the ZLP relied on ‘critical cosmopolitans’ among the donors, as do huge swathes of ‘political-intellectual’ middle classes in Africa when their states have abandoned them.
Cautious about the MDC’s chances against one of the cleverest politicians in the world, he did not chase after a position he was never offered, but did proffer advice in the realms he knew best. In the overtly political world, Dzino did run in the 2008 election as a candidate with Simba Makoni’s Mavambo Kusile Dawn, on the grounds that such moves would help convince wavering ZANU-PF passengers that the ship should be abandoned before it sank completely. Those who say that those votes would have gone to the MDC have no way of backing up their guess – and in any case the real margin of victory was much greater for the MDC than recorded. He worked behind the scenes for unity between Makoni and Tsvangirai in 2008 – as he did whilst in a phase of remission before the 2013 contest, travelling to Bulawayo to persuade the MDC-T and ZAPU to consider the merits of a united front against a common enemy. No luck. As he voted in Mbare on July 31 2013, he noted the ominous, funereal eeriness of the morning: no waves of the open hand; no smiles; not very long queues. Truth be told, his funeral ten months later to the day was a happier occasion than the day when his phase of the national democratic revolution died.
We can only guess what his advice would be today, as the MDC crumbles under the waning leadership of a man Mugabe seems to have worn down in less time than Dzino. Remember that as Geneva approached the vashandi advised the stalwarts of struggle to unite with the venal likes of Abel Muzorewa and Ndabaningi Sithole so that Smith would not; not bad counsel for those wanting to go too far their own way in the current conjuncture. Yet all the same when the offer came for Dzino to stick with ZANU just after it had put most of his comrades in jail, he refused. One can only go so far down the road of a united front towards a ‘patriotic’ revolution: nationalism without democracy was the wrong order of priorities for Dzino. All one can safely say is that he would offer advice as objectively as he could, with respect if sometimes combined with stubborn clarity. Hamba Kahle.
David Moore, University of Johannesburg