Dumiso Dabengwa: Preserving the Legacy

By Jeremy Brickhill

I have chosen to commemorate the life of Comrade Dumiso Dabengwa on the first anniversary of his passing by sharing some recollections of my own involving his less well-known role in preserving the legacy of the liberation struggle.

In the midst of the complex challenges after independence, when we were busy dealing with the integration of forces, demobilization and the increasingly threatening behavior of the ZANU(PF) leadership, Comrade Dabengwa already had his mind on the liberation history and legacy. He called me to a meeting, at which Comrade Lookout Masuku was also present, and asked me to take charge of securing the ZIPRA war records and to develop a proposal to collect interviews and other materials concerning the liberation war history.

Together with a small team of ZIPRA officers we developed plans, which were quickly approved by Comrades Dabengwa and Masuku, and commenced an exercise to interview ZIPRA fighters, to distribute questionnaires in Assembly Points and to secure and begin cataloguing the ZIPRA archives at Nest Egg Farm. I was in fact working on the ZIPRA archives at Nest Egg Farm when the CIO pounced and took control of the premises and the war records.

In the tumultuous months that followed, Dabengwa, Masuku and many others were detained, ZIPRA personnel were being hunted down and in many cases killed, ZAPU leaders were persecuted and detained and Gukurahundi was unleashed on the civilian population. There was little time or opportunity to deal with history.

Following their acquittal in the infamous Treason Trial Dabengwa, Masuku and their co-accused were re-detained at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. In one of my visits to Chikurubi, when there were many pressing matters to discuss, Comrade Dabengwa again returned to the issues of liberation history. Had we managed to save any archival materials, he asked. What had happened to the research materials we had collected in the Assembly Points? Was there any information concerning the whereabouts of the ZIPRA war records stored at Nest Egg Farm? “Please do whatever you can to locate and secure any liberation history materials that have survived”, he instructed me. We returned to these issues many times in the following long years of detention and also discussed plans to identify the ZIPRA war dead and locate grave sites and to develop shrines and memorials.

In early 1986 Lt-General Lookout Masuku became seriously ill whilst in detention at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. His health deteriorated rapidly but the authorities refused to transfer him to hospital. Finally in desperation Comrade Dabengwa threatened a hunger strike, as a result of which Comrade Masuku was transferred to Parirenyatwa Hospital in mid-March. I spent most days over the next three weeks at his bedside before he died on 5 April.

From his hospital bed Comrade Masuku gave me various instructions and dictated several letters concerning the plight of the ex-combatants and the liberation legacy. One of those letters was addressed to National Archives Director, Angeline Kamba, requesting her assistance in obtaining the ZIPRA war records, which had been seized by the CIO from Nest Egg Farm, and securing these records in the National Archives. “I am most anxious”, he wrote, “that these records should not be lost to the nation”.1 Masuku also gave instructions that the list of ZIPRA war dead should be collated and published, that their graves should be located and that shrines should be erected and that the deeds of the liberation war fighters should be commemorated.

After his release from detention in December 1986 I provided Comrade Dabengwa with the notes of Comrade Masuku’s last wishes and the letters he had sent concerning these issues. Comrade Dabengwa raised these matters at the next ZAPU Central Committee meeting. Although there were some who were hesitant to tackle these issues because of the delicate atmosphere and the resumption of the unity talks between ZAPU and ZANU, Comrade Dabengwa was insistent that the plight of the war veterans and the liberation legacy was an urgent responsibility of the ZAPU leadership. His argument prevailed and in early 1987 the ZAPU Central Committee established the ZIPRA War Shrines Committee headed by Comrade Dabengwa. The other members of the Committee were Colonel Richard Dube (former ZIPRA Deputy Commissar), Nicholas Nkomo (ZIPRA Northern Front), Mark Ndlovu (ZIPRA Regular Forces) and myself from NSO.

Following the Unity Accord a discussion took place to determine whether the ZAPU War Shrines Committee should be absorbed into the new ZANU(PF) structures. In the complex context of that time it was decided instead that a separate organization was required to oversee this sensitive work and so the Mafela Trust was established and Zephania Nkomo was appointed to oversee this work. ‘Mafela’ was the nomme de guerre of the late Lookout Masuku and the Trust was named by Comrade Dabengwa in his honour.

Research teams were dispatched to identify the war dead, locate graves and details of the circumstances of death and other information. This was a very sensitive and difficult mission, overseen by Comrade Dabengwa and spearheaded by the late Colonel Richard Dube and his team of researchers. In August 1990 the Mafela Trust published the names of 533 ZIPRA war dead in Parade Magazine. A second list was published in December 1990. By the end of 1991 the Mafela Trust had located 1087 gravesites including 35 from ZANLA and 16 from ANC/MK. The real names of 657 ZIPRA dead had been established and their next of kin had been informed.2 This was accomplished without access to the ZIPRA war records, which have never been recovered from the authorities despite numerous appeals by Comrade Dabengwa and others over many years.

The Mafela Trust continued to carry out its difficult mission under the dedicated leadership of Comrade Dabengwa, including in recent years undertaking the rehabilitation of graves in neighboring countries and assisting relatives to obtain death certificates and birth certificates for the children of deceased war veterans. Much of this work remains unknown outside of a small circle of ZIPRA veterans, like so much of our history.

In July 1991 Professors Ngwabi Bhebhe and Terence Ranger organized an international conference on Zimbabwe’s War of Liberation at the University of Zimbabwe. This was a major achievement and breakthrough in addressing the distorted and hidden history of the liberation struggle. Comrade Dabengwa was one of the key speakers and in offering his congratulations to the organisers he characteristically threw down a challenge: “We urge the emergence of a new class of scholars capable of withstanding threats and intimidation and rising above racial, ethnic and tribal considerations… The new breed of Zimbabwean social scientists ought to stand up against the suppression of any information and should develop an ever-critical mind with respect to the facts, especially purported facts and actions of political leaders. Anything short of cultivating a tradition of selfless enquiry and exposure of the truth will certainly lead to a nation of sycophants and robots without the necessary powers of independent thought which we should all cherish”.3

In his paper to this conference Comrade Dabengwa said: “The history of the struggle for national liberation is a long way from being produced and will only be achieved when the chroniclers of the struggle are no longer afraid to confront the truth head-on and openly, and have rid themselves of the biases resulting from our recent political past – a past which saw brutal killings of innocent people in the name of unity, peace, stability and progress. Unless our scholars can rise above the fear of being isolated and even victimized for telling the truth, we shall continue to be told half-truths or outright lies which will not help unite our nation”.4

The half-truths and outright lies, which comprise so much of the official liberation history, are still prevalent today and much remains to be done to reveal our suppressed history. This always concerned Comrade Dabengwa very deeply.

One such event in this hidden history, in which Comrade Dabengwa again played the key role, concerns the propitiation and cleansing ceremonies held at Pupu in Lupane on Heroes Day in 1992.

As part of the Mafela Trust programme Comrade Dabengwa, Jeconia Moyo and myself visited the site of a proposed ZIPRA War Memorial in Pupu Lupane where an existing Mwali shrine was located. During that visit Comrade Dabengwa was told by the medium at the Mwali shrine that “Mwali was angry because the soldiers of the liberation war had still not come to be cleansed of their sins committed during the war”.5

During further visits to Pupu during the early months of 1992 the Mwali medium and other traditional leaders elaborated on their requirements. The Pupu shrine is located at the site of the historic battle between King Lobengula’s warriors and the pioneer soldiers led by Major Allan Wilson in 1893. Mwali required that the cleansing of the ZIPRA fighters at Pupu should include a propitiation ceremony for all those who fell in the great battle of 1893. The inclusion of the white pioneer soldiers and Lobengula’s fallen fighters in this propitiation process demonstrated the extraordinary humanity and wisdom of traditional reconciliation and peace-making, and the need for a truly national and inclusive reconciliation process.

Comrade Dabengwa informed Dr Joshua Nkomo of these messages and further consultations took place, including efforts to persuade the ruling ZANU(PF) to participate in the proposed Pupu ceremonies and to engage in a national cleansing and reconciliation process. These efforts were dismissed by Mugabe and a unique opportunity to address national reconciliation was lost.

However Dr Nkomo and Comrade Dabengwa decided to proceed with the Pupu ceremony and continued to try to persuade government and ZANU leaders to attend. Preparations were conducted by the Mafela Trust and traditional mediums and leaders. The site was cleaned and cleared and bullets, spears and bones were collected. In the final days before Heroes Day in 1992 traditional chiefs and mediums from many parts of the country travelled to Pupu and secret ceremonies were carried out to cleanse the fallen. On the night before Heroes Day several hundred people were gathered around fires at the site. Historian Terence Ranger provides this account of the significance of this extraordinary event:

On the night before the public ceremony many groups gathered around their separate fires. The Ndebele chiefs of Lupane and Nkayi were there; so too were the Khumalo royals. Sangoma diviners chanted praise songs to Lobengula and his father, Mzilkazi. But also present were many clusters of other people with their many different types of spirit medium, each with its own kind of drumming and dancing. In the dark many different histories were being enacted. Then to the surprise of the Mafela organisers a medium was possessed by the spirit of a Rozwi Mambo, those rulers who had been overthrown by the Swazi and superceded by the Ndebele. The medium demanded recognition for this older past and the healing of its violences. A history rarely articulated was breaking through in ritual.

Next day many thousands of people had gathered for the public ceremony. Many had been invited to speak and to represent the various bodies of past fighting men. In the event the anxieties of the government won out [no representative of the ZANU side of government appeared]. Joshua Nkomo took over, speaking as Vice President. Few of the original intentions of the ceremony were realized. But even in its truncated form the complications of the past shone through.6

Among those present were the survivors of the Gukurahundi massacres, civilians and former ZAPU members including those who were now members of ZANU, former ZIPRA fighters and several dozen white Zimbabweans. Our efforts to persuade Government officials and the ZANU leadership to attend had proved fruitless, as had our request to allow (former ZIPRA) serving members of the Zimbabwe National Army to attend. Last minute attempts by state operatives to prevent Dr Nkomo from addressing the gathering were dismissed by Umdala Wethu. He was determined to speak and in his address he paid homage to the fallen fighters, including Comrade Masuku, and he praised Comrade Dabengwa for his efforts to organize the ceremony. Dr Nkomo called on the government to emulate this example and support genuine reconciliation and national healing. State media ignored this momentous event and nothing about it was ever reported.

I attended the Pupu Ceremony with Comrade Dabengwa and can recall how elated and freed from the dreadful burdens of war, persecution and death we all felt during those few days. We paid homage to the fallen, we forgave the persecutors, we made amends with each other and we felt relieved of a great burden. And then we returned to the realities of a Zimbabwe which does not own or even know its true history and which is not yet free.

These recollections of mine of some of the lesser known events and leadership roles of Dumiso Dabengwa are offered in support of his continued message of recent years that the new generations must pick up the fallen spear. Comrade Dabengwa led the work of the Mafela Trust and faithfully carried out the last wishes of his fallen comrade and friend Lookout Masuku. He struggled to reveal our history and to honour the fallen heroes. He demanded that we face our own truths. Now that Comrade Dabengwa has fallen we can only truly honor his legacy by continuing the struggle to tell our true history.


“Soldiers in Zimbabwe’s Liberation War, Bhebhe N. and Ranger T. (Eds), University of Zimbabwe Publications, Harare, 1995, p 164

Projects Report, Mafela Trust, Bulawayo 1991.

“Soldiers in Zimbabwe’s Liberation War, Bhebhe N. and Ranger T. (Eds), University of Zimbabwe Publications, Harare, 1995, p 2

“Soldiers in Zimbabwe’s Liberation War, Bhebhe N. and Ranger T. (Eds), University of Zimbabwe Publications, Harare, 1995, p 24

“Soldiers in Zimbabwe’s Liberation War, Bhebhe N. and Ranger T. (Eds), University of Zimbabwe Publications, Harare, 1995, p 173

Cited in “A Place in the World: New Local Historiographies from Africa and South Asia”, Axel Hamelt-Sievers (ed), p 302

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