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OP-ED: ZIPRA – The People’s Army

Jeremy Brickhill, 27 October 2020

My subject today is “ZIPRA – The people’s army”. And that gives me an opportunity to make a personal introductory comment because I served in this people’s army myself.  

As Zenzele mentioned in his introduction, I left Rhodesia in 1974 to join the liberation struggle. I joined ZAPU and volunteered to serve in ZIPRA . I was deployed into the Intelligence Directorate of the National Security Organisation (NSO), a specialized security and intelligence component of ZIPRA, and was responsible for Special Operations under the command of the late Victor Mlambo, and of course our senior NSO commanders Dumiso Dabengwa and Swazini Ndlovu. Later I was promoted to head a new Directorate in NSO, the Department of Analysis and Research (DAR), which was established to support preparations for the Zero Hour operation.

I am sometimes asked what it was like to serve in a black guerilla army. My answer is that I didn’t actually serve in a black guerilla army. I served in a people’s army. We were called the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army and that is what we were. We were a people’s revolutionary army!

We thoroughly deserve our place in the history of the liberation of Zimbabwe, and indeed in African liberation history. As I will demonstrate in this presentation ZIPRA, uniquely among all liberation armies on the African continent attempted to build a military force capable of achieving a military victory over settle colonialism and seizing state power. No other liberation movement on our continent attempted this challenging mission.  For this reason ZIPRA thoroughly deserves its place in African liberation history.

I would like to begin by quoting the late Commander, Dumiso Dabengwa, on the subject of Zimbabwe’s official liberation history: “Our official history is a mythical narrative about leaders. This mythical history does not record the deeds of simple liberation fighters… Our official history does not recognize the role of ZIPRA… Our official history is not intended to be history. It is intended to perpetuate myths, which project certain individuals and keep them at the center of the stage. Our official history cannot face inconvenient truths. And that is because the truth reminds us of the non-racial, free and democratic Zimbabwe we still have to achieve… But the truth has long legs and in the end it will out-run the short-legged lies and win the race. But this will only happen if we continue to tell the truth”.

My subject today is the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), which was only established in 1971 almost a full decade after ZAPU had commenced armed actions. Depending on your point of view ZIPRA ceased to exist either on 19 April 1980 following independence when it effectively lost its independent command or in May 1981 when disarmament of ZIPRA forces was completed. I will therefore focus on the period 1971-1980, the decade in which ZIPRA existed under its own command operating under the authority of the political party, ZAPU.

But before I tackle the ZIPRA history of 1971-1980 itself I do have to address some of the pre-ZIPRA history, to provide some background to the development of the armed struggle by ZAPU and to refute some of the myths about the armed struggle, which have been propagated over many years. 

Among these myths is the long standing claim that those who split away from ZAPU to form ZANU did so because they were the radicals who wanted armed struggle and those who remained in ZAPU were those opposed to, or fearful of, armed struggle. This is simply not true. 

So here are some facts about the turn to armed struggle.

Firstly the turn towards violent resistance on the part of militant nationalists was a process not an event and it was a complex process, which we can’t address in detail today. But that process should include reference to a series of increasingly fierce clashes with the Rhodesian security forces including the miners strike at Wankie colliery in 1954, the bus boycotts in Salisbury in 1956 which led to the declaration of a state of emergency and the Zhii uprising which started in Bulawayo in 1959. 

These events in which attempts at peaceful protest were ruthlessly and violently suppressed led sections of the nationalist movement, especially the youth, to conclude that they had to fight back. And this is indeed what happened. But it didn’t happen all at once. It happened as an incremental process in which the early resisters, armed only with stones and petrol bombs, began a physical confrontation with settler colonialism. This process, essentially starting with the Zhii uprising and continuing into the 1960’s, led towards the actual armed liberation struggle in which the liberation movement was finally able to face the colonisers armed with modern weapons of war. 

A leaflet distributed in the townships during the Zhii period under the pseudo name “General Hokoyo” called on militant youths to form secret underground cells and to attack the authorities using home-made weapons like petrol bombs, stones and dynamite stolen from the mines. These underground structures, called Zhanda and later in Bulawayo townships operating under the name “the Formidables” attacked police stations, police vehicles, administration buildings and as this violent resistance spread into rural areas, attacks also took place on rural administration buildings, police posts and even dip tanks across the whole country. 

These early underground cells, established secretly by the National Democratic Party (NDP) and its successor ZAPU, essentially started the organized violent resistance to colonialism. These first steps in clandestine operations provided important experience and knowledge of how to build secret party structures, which enabled ZAPU to protect and sustain secret party support for the armed struggle throughout the following two decades after the party was banned. The survival and role of the underground ZAPU party structures was a very important factor in the conduct of the armed struggle by ZIPRA in later years, as I will demonstrate shortly.

ZANU was formed in August 1963. These secret underground cells I have been describing took the first real steps towards violent confrontation with the settler colonial system well before the launch of ZANU and the battles they waged took place under the direction of the NDP and then its successor, ZAPU. The first weapons of war also arrived in the country before the formation of ZANU and the first volunteers for military training were sent for training before the formation of ZANU.

The first weapons were smuggled out of Egypt in 1962, actually by Dr Nkomo himself, and were smuggled into the country through Tanganyika and Northern Rhodesia. The first handful of volunteers left the country for training in sabotage in Ghana at the same time. The second group of volunteers were sent for training in China, Egypt, North Korea and Cuba in early 1963. These early steps were undertaken by ZAPU under the leadership of James Chikerema who had been authorized secretly by Joshua Nkomo to establish the Special Affairs Department of ZAPU with authority “to enable the leadership to use any method of struggle they deemed fit in the circumstances, including armed struggle”. 

So it is nonsense to say that ZANU was formed to enable an armed struggle to commence. The NDP and then ZAPU started preparations for the armed struggle well before ZANU was formed.

A second myth of this sort is the claim that the first armed confrontation in Rhodesia took place at the battle of Chinoyi in 1966. This is also false. The first armed attack was actually carried out by a small ZAPU “Special Affairs” unit under the command of Comrade Moffat Hadebe on 22 September 1964. This was an armed attack on the homestead of a magistrate who had issued and signed the detention orders against many of the nationalist leaders. The unit led by Comrade Moffat Hadebe was one of first trained units that had been deployed into the country by ZAPU to carry out reconnaissance and preparations for armed struggle. 

In early 1965, and following the return to Zambia from military training of the groups of trainees who had travelled to the Soviet Union and Cuba, the Special Affairs department convened a series of discussions on the way forward. Decisions were taken at these meetings creating the “Armed Wing” of ZAPU or the ZAPU Army with its own command structure, and it was this new military command structure which began serious preparations to launch the first guerilla operations into Zimbabwe. 

Following the establishment of the ZAPU Army in 1965 small guerilla units of two to three men each were infiltrated into the country to support the sabotage campaign still being waged by the Zhanda, and to carry our various reconnaissance missions. These units also ferried weapons into the country and undertook some local training of Zhanda members. Similar, but slightly larger units, were introduced into the country in 1966, including the reconnaissance unit in which Comrade Tshinga Dube and other comrades, which operated undetected in Tsholotsho for several weeks and undertook the reconnaissance and preparations for the major infiltration by the Luthuli Detachment the following year. 

The first large scale guerilla military operations in Zimbabwe were conducted by the ZAPU Army in 1967 and 1968 and involved two major incursions by over two hundred and fifty trained guerilla’s; the Luthuli Detachment which entered the country through Wankie in the north-west in 1967 and the Pyramid Detachment operating through Sipolilo in the north-east in 1968. These operations were conducted by ZAPU and ANC of South Africa/Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) guerillas in joint units as part of a military alliance, which had been established between ZAPU and the ANC of South Africa. Comrade Moffat Hadebe, who had already fired the first shots in the armed struggle in 1964, commanded the Pyramid Detachment.

These pioneering operations by the ZAPU Army have also been neglected or been subject to distortion in the official history of the armed liberation struggle in Zimbabwe, but in reality they represent the actual commencement of significant armed struggle in Zimbabwe. 

There are numerous other such myths and distortions of the history of the armed liberation struggle many of which relate to the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) and its composition, development, conduct and strategy. 

It is a shameful matter of public record that the ZIPRA archives, which were confiscated by the ZANU government shortly after independence, have never been returned or made available through the National Archives for the benefit of future generations. Equally regrettable is the fact that post-independence generations have been force-fed a historical narrative, which as Comrade Dabengwa noted, is simply aimed at perpetuating myths and projecting certain individuals and promoting a simplistic, distorted and one-sided account of the very complex and multi-faceted nature of our liberation history. The official liberation history book taught in our schools, The Struggle for Zimbabwe by Martin and Johnson, is a disgraceful travesty containing the most dreadful and utterly shameless distortions and falsehoods. 

Fortunately published accounts by comrades who actually participated in the liberation struggle from both ZANLA and ZIPRA have increased in number in recent years, and offer more realistic and honest accounts of the liberation war. However these publications tend to have limited distribution and are not easily accessible to the general public. Among our own historians Pathisa Nyathi has made very significant contributions to recording and analyzing the history of ZAPU and ZIPRA and international historians such as Jocelyn Alexander have also made important contributions. But much remains to be done and historians still have a very big and important task to accomplish in assessing our liberation history from an honest and objective viewpoint in order to produce an accurate and meaningful historical record. 

So let me now turn directly to the actual topic entitled: “ZIPRA – The People’s Army”.

In the time available for this presentation today I intend to focus on three major aspects of ZIPRA history, which relate most directly to the notion of a people’s army. The first concerns the relationship between the political party (ZAPU), ZIPRA and the people which determined the conduct of ZIPRA forces during the liberation war; the second issue concerns the actual composition and development of ZIPRA; and the third component will focus on the military strategy of ZIPRA and how this strategy was intended to achieve genuine independence and the transfer of power to the people.

Finally before I begin let me make a comment about my sources. In addition to my own personal knowledge as a former ZIPRA officer and various published sources on ZIPRA history, I also make reference to a number of interviews conducted in 1981 and to the results of a questionnaire survey carried out in ZIPRA Assembly Points as part of the ZIPRA History Project. These materials were previously cited in Chapter 3 of Soldiers in Zimbabwe’s Liberation War, Volume One, edited by N. Bhebhe and T. Ranger.

The Party, the Army and the People

When referring to the liberation forces in Zimbabwe many commentators, and even serious academics, often make sweeping generalisations which suggest a uniformity which falsely over-emphasizes some of the common characteristics of both ZANLA and ZIPRA, making little or no attempt to differentiate the composition and conduct of these two armed forces or to note how they changed and developed over time. This “vakomana” characterization is not only historically inaccurate but it also obscures and distorts important features of the liberation war and the manner in which it was conducted. 

Liberation armies are usually young armies. Often they are armies of teenagers. In Africa guerilla armies have been young and predominantly peasant armies. Both ZIPRA and ZANLA broadly shared these characteristics, but as I will demonstrate shortly, even in this regard there were important differences. 

However, the first and most significant differentiation we should make between the two armies concerns the role played by the political parties, which claimed their allegiance.

ZIPRA and ZANLA were two very different military organisations and one of the major differences between them was that ZIPRA operated in parallel with a well established underground political party, ZAPU, which had functional provincial, district and local branch structures in many urban and rural areas throughout the liberation war. ZANU for the most part did not have these party structures and ZANLA forces therefore related to local communities directly whereas ZIPRA inter-acted with the local population through organized party branches. This had major consequences for both civilians and armed fighters and specifically impacted on the relationships between fighters and civilians in different contexts. 

I have already alluded to the important role played by underground structures created by ZAPU in the early 1960’s – the Zhanda and other secret party cells, which carried out sabotage actions and supported the first small guerilla units of the ZAPU Army. By the time ZIPRA was formed in 1971, ZAPU had been banned for several years and by the peak recruitment year for ZIPRA (1977) the party had been banned and suppressed for almost a decade and a half. Nevertheless 60 per cent of all ZIPRA recruits had been members of functioning but illegal ZAPU or ZAPU Youth League branches before they left the country. Almost 70 per cent of ZIPRA recruits came from families in which one or both parents were members of underground party branches. These statistics, obtained from the questionnaire survey mentioned previously, starkly illustrate the major role played by the political party, ZAPU, not only in the recruitment of ZIPRA fighters, but as we shall see in the manner in which ZIPRA conducted the liberation war. 

ZAPU underground party branches existed and survived in many parts of the country throughout the liberation war, despite continuous repression, arrests and detention of officials and activists. ZANU did not have such structures inside the country.  The survival and active engagement in the armed liberation struggle of ZAPU and its underground party branches and structures is certainly the most significant factor in understanding the important differences in the conduct of ZANLA and ZIPRA with regard to the civilian population. 

The majority of ZIPRA recruits came from communities in which local underground ZAPU political structures were functioning and therefore they had direct, local and personal experience of the leading role of the political party. The majority of ZIPRA recruits had been members of underground party structures before they left to join the armed struggle and therefore had personal experience of political organization and activism both in terms of overall resistance to the settler regime but also in support of the armed struggle. The majority of ZIPRA recruits were either recruited by party structures directly or, having volunteered, were assisted to leave the country by party structures. Only fifteen per cent of ZIPRA recruits were directly recruited by ZIPRA forces. 

These political influences meant that most ZIPRA recruits had significant experience of the role of the political party and of political organization itself before they went on to receive formal political education from ZIPRA commissars and military training from instructors outside the country. Such recruits brought with them a level of political experience and maturity not commonly found in African liberation armies, and certainly not amongst ZANLA recruits who did not have experience of a political organization before they left the country. 

The fact that ZANU branches, as such, did not exist in the same way that ZAPU underground political structures existed throughout the liberation war impacted not only on recruitment processes but also on relations with local communities and the conduct of the liberation forces.

With regard to local communities, ZIPRA relied primarily on existing party structures for support. Food, medical supplies, transport and intelligence information was provided to the fighters by existing local underground party structures. When ZIPRA forces were about to enter a new operational area, it was customary for the ZIPRA commissar and/or intelligence officer to seek out local underground party contacts before forces were deployed into that area. If no underground party branch existed, the commissar would seek out local party members and encourage them to re-establish clandestine party branches to prepare to receive and support the fighters.

ZIPRA forces thus interacted with the local population through a structured political relationship. The commissars oversaw this relationship, but ZIPRA logistics officers, security and intelligence officers and later training instructors all sought to develop their relationships with specific civilian party officials responsible for a particular function in the civilian population. 

This had several important implications. Firstly, as many of the organizing, mobilizing and logistical tasks of the war were being carried out by the civilian underground party branches, the fighters could concentrate on their military tasks. Thus ZIPRA generally required smaller numbers of fighters to effectively cover an area and in many ways imposed a lighter burden on the local population. Secondly, and as a rule ZIPRA fighters did not need to carry out political education or mobilization which was conducted by the civilian party structures. This had a major impact on the ZIPRA inter-action with the local population. ZIPRA did not need to hold “pungwe’s” with the local population as ZANLA did. The role of “mujiba’s” differed too.

In ZIPRA this role was largely carried out through specific youth league structures and operated within a civilian party framework under the authority of the elder party officials of ZAPU itself. Thus the repudiation of elders and generational conflict, which characterized the role of mujiba’s in ZANLA operational areas did not take place in ZIPRA operational areas. And finally and in general ZIPRA did not involve itself in imposing discipline on local communities, except in very serious circumstances.  As one ZIPRA Regional Commander put it: “As far as controlling the local people was concerned we left that to civilians”. 

By operating in parallel with the underground party structures ZIPRA fighters were able to avoid being drawn into local divisions and conflicts and civilian communities were protected from potential violence or threats from fighters by the party officials who acted as a protective buffer between unarmed civilians and the armed fighters. When difficulties did arise or on occasions when civilians had cause for complaint against the armed fighters, they had an influential civilian channel to raise their issues, and this mechanism reached all the way to the senior political leadership if necessary. 

In this regard it should be noted that the internal ZAPU party leadership was in regular contact with the exiled leadership. The ZAPU leadership and command structure in exile was headed by the Revolutionary Council, whose membership comprised previously elected members of the ZAPU National Executive Committee, heads of ZAPU departments in exile and military commanders. Responsibility for planning and supervising the war effort had been ceded to a smaller body, the War Council, comprising five permanent members. The ZIPRA (and NSO) command operated under the supervision of this party structure. 

It is as a result of these factors that I have outlined that civilians generally suffered far less abuse at the hands of the armed liberation fighters in ZIPRA areas of operation.

In some areas ZIPRA fighters found functional ZAPU branches ready to receive and support them. In some areas ZAPU branches had become defunct or been decimated by arrests and repression. In such cases ZIPRA commissars worked with local party contacts to resuscitate the party. It is clear that the spread of the war and the approach of the ZIPRA guerillas greatly facilitated the growth of the underground party branches. But by the same token the existence of organized party structures provided important support to the ZIPRA fighters as they moved into new territories.

In addition to immediate local support, the network of underground ZAPU structures provided ZIPRA with vital links into urban centers and across territory controlled by Rhodesian forces. These secret networks even crossed borders. 

ZAPU branches in urban centers provided ZIPRA fighters with important access to supplies, including medicines and clothing, which were not readily available in rural areas. Underground party branches existed in almost all urban centers of Zimbabwe and in many instances these structures had been deliberately re-established by ZIPRA commissars operating in adjacent rural areas. In several towns and cities ZIPRA commando and intelligence units had undertaken reconnaissance missions with the assistance of these underground party structures and had even undertaken several audacious attacks right under the nose of the enemy.  As we shall see in the final part of this presentation it was intended that these underground urban party structures would play a significant role in the Zero Hour Operation.  

The relationship between ZAPU and ZIPRA was not only mutually beneficial to both organisations, but it defined the relationship of ZIPRA with the people and ensured that ZIPRA was a people’s army operating under the disciplined guidance of a civilian political party and acting in the interests of the people.

This type of relationship between a party of liberation and its armed forces did not exist in ZANLA areas of operation and is unique in African liberation history, although some comparisons could be made with the African National Congress in South Africa. 

The existence of the underground ZAPU political structures certainly had a major influence on the perspectives and behavior of the ZIPRA fighters, in particular in two respects; firstly in reminding the fighters that they were operating under a political authority and not autonomously; and secondly in regulating the inter-action between armed fighters and unarmed civilians. But this was a two-way relationship and the existence and role of the party structures in supporting the armed struggle also provided an organized framework, which enabled the civilian population to effectively engage in and support the armed struggle. This gave meaningful content to the phrase “people’s war”, and to the claim that ZIPRA was a people’s army. 

In this regard an important distinction between the two historical narratives is that ZANU and ZANLA have tended to identify direct participation in the armed struggle by combatants as the defining characteristic of historical recognition and heroism. In the case of ZAPU, ZIPRA and in ZIPRA operational areas this was not the case and underground party officials and civilians who supported the war effort (both men and often women) and who displayed great bravery are accorded equal recognition as heroes alongside ZIPRA fighters. 

To illustrate this with an example, ZIPRA front commander, Andrew Ndlovu in his published account of the war describes the assassination of Baba Nyathi, the local ZAPU District Chairman by Rhodesian forces: “He was shot dead in revenge for what he had been doing [to support the armed struggle]. However, when we heard the news of his death we observed a moment of silence and to this day many amongst us remember him for his outstanding bravery”. This account illustrates the respect for the civilian contribution to the armed struggle, which ZIPRA forces felt and in which non-combatant civilian comrades who displayed outstanding bravery were recognized as heroes alongside trained fighters. In this context ZIPRA forces can be said to have regarded their civilian party comrades as an essential and integral component of the armed struggle and of the people’s army.  

The Composition and Development of ZIPRA

I would now like to turn to the issue of the composition of ZIPRA with regard to the notion that ZIPRA was a genuine people’s army. But I also intend to analyse the demographic composition of ZIPRA forces to try to understand how this factor impacted on the development of ZIPRA military strategy, which I will address in the final part of this presentation. 

In the first instance I would argue, as I have in the preceding section, that ZIPRA was a people’s army because it was established and operated under the authority of a people’s political party, ZAPU. 

ZAPU sought the liberation of Zimbabwe and freedom for all its citizens from settler colonialism and imperialism. ZAPU was a political party which sought to mobilise all Zimbabwean citizens to participate in the liberation struggle. Members of ZAPU were, from the outset, recruited from every section of the population and every corner of the country. The leadership of ZAPU throughout the entire history of the liberation struggle can be said to have been truly representative of the people of Zimbabwe, save in one respect only. There were too few women in the leadership, but there were certainly more women in ZAPU’s leadership during the struggle than there were in the ZANU leadership.

ZIPRA itself reflected these inclusive policies of ZAPU and participation in ZIPRA was open to all Zimbabweans. Zimbabweans from all corners of the country were to be found in ZIPRA as was the case in ZAPU itself. This approach of inclusive nationalism which characterized ZAPU, and in which all those who viewed Zimbabwe as their home were regarded as equal citizens who would have equal rights in a liberated Zimbabwe, was put into practice by ZIPRA (and by NSO). My own role in ZIPRA is testimony to this fact. Zimbabweans of Asian origin or mixed race (so-called Coloureds) were also to be found in ZIPRA.

In this regard, and as a small digression, it is worth noting that along with black Zimbabweans, Asians and so-called Coloureds a number of white comrades had participated in ZAPU underground structures and supported the armed struggle from the outset. Their role is largely unknown and unrecorded. 

They included early members of the National Democratic Party (NDP) like Reg Austin, Zimbabwean students John Conradie and Ivan Dixon who went to prison for smuggling arms of war and foreign lecturers at the University College of Rhodesia, Giovanni Arrighi (who was captured and deported) and John Reed who escaped. All these men had been members of ZAPU underground cells, which smuggled and distributed weapons and hand grenades in the 1960’s. A former British soldier, Peter Mackay, played a major role in supporting the armed struggle by transporting ZAPU guerillas and weapons from Zambia through Botswana for many years. When he died in 2013 there was no official attention paid to his important role in the armed struggle over many years, and the contribution made by other white comrades is also neglected in our official commemorations. As Dabengwa noted the role of these whites is an inconvenient truth and “our official history cannot face inconvenient truths. And that is because the truth reminds us of the non-racial, free and democratic Zimbabwe we still have to achieve”.

In my own time in ZIPRA there were several comrades of Asian origin in our ranks including Ronnie Patel, Tim Fisher and Krish Ragadou and so-called Coloured comrades like Mike Reynolds (Charles Grey). Several white comrades also served in my own NSO underground intelligence units both inside and outside the country. 

As Ellakim Sibanda notes in his history of ZAPU: “The involvement of whites in the struggle proved to the world that ZAPU clearly defined its struggle as one against an oppressive regime as opposed to one against whites as a racial group”.

This definition of the enemy as a colonial system, not a racial or ethnic group, by ZAPU and the non-racial and democratic vision of a future Zimbabwe advocated by ZAPU was indeed demonstrated by ZIPRA through its own practice in contrast to the behaviour of ZANU and ZANLA. The participation of white, Coloured and Asian comrades in ZIPRA demonstrates this fundamental difference in ideology and practice between the two parties, and indeed this has continued to manifest itself in the policies and practice of ZANU in post-independence Zimbabwe.

Whilst ZAPU and ZIPRA did not exhibit racial or tribal preferences or prejudices in their conduct of the armed struggle, the geo-political realities of Zimbabwe did impact on the recruitment patterns and composition of ZIPRA at various stages of the war. Most obviously very few white Zimbabweans sympathised with or supported the armed struggle and fewer still actively participated in the liberation struggle. 

In the second decade of armed struggle and therefore during the period in which ZIPRA existed, the entire eastern border was inaccessible to ZIPRA forces. Members of ZAPU underground branches and structures in these areas where ZANLA forces operated were hunted down by ZANLA and forced to change allegiance or perish, often being portrayed as sellouts to the local communities. This had an impact on recruitment patterns and options and reduced the number of recruits to ZIPRA from those areas, which were dominated by ZANLA by that time. Increasingly ZIPRA was confined to recruiting personnel from the main cities and from its own operational areas in Mashonaland West, Midlands and Matabeleland. These realities changed the composition of ZIPRA in the final years of the war.

It is however inaccurate to portray ZIPRA as an Ndebele army, or even an Ndebele-dominated army, for a number of reasons. 

In the first instance status and promotion was based on merit in ZIPRA and ethnic or tribal identity was not a criterion in recruitment or treatment. Secondly ZIPRA articulated a non-racial and non-sectarian ideology and behavior, as directed by the political party, ZAPU, which held authority over ZIPRA. Thirdly, and frequently forgotten in most accounts of the liberation war, ZIPRA’s largest military front, the Northern Front, extended mostly over Shona speaking areas of Zimbabwe and it was these areas that had the largest concentration of ZIPRA forces in the latter stages of the war. ZIPRA recruitment from these areas continued and largely comprised Shona speakers. Nevertheless it should be conceded that in the final years of the liberation war, Ndebele speaking recruits were disproportionately represented in ZIPRA, not through choice or prejudice but as a result of geography.   

Having dealt with this frequently abused and distorted ethnic identification label I now want to turn other significant, and in many respects surprising, aspects of the composition of ZIPRA.

Firstly a brief overview extracted from the survey materials I have previously spoken about. By the end of the war ZIPRA comprised approximately twenty thousand persons in all its various manifestations. Fifty per cent of these entered ZIPRA training camps in 1977, the peak year of entry into ZIPRA. Almost one third of ZIPRA soldiers had entered ZIPRA prior to 1977 and these comprised the veterans. Ten per cent of ZIPRA soldiers were women, mostly incorporated into the ZIPRA Women’s Brigade a conventionally trained infantry unit complete with its own female commanders, engineers, communications and support services. 

Like other African liberation armies ZIPRA was a young persons army, but it was not a children’s army. Only 7 per cent of ZIPRA recruits were under 18 when they were trained. Eighty-four per cent of recruits were aged between 18 and 25 years old when they were trained and 8 per cent were over 26 years old when they joined.  

In educational terms approximately three-quarters of recruits to ZIPRA could be described as functionally literate and of these, 11 per cent had ten or more years of education. This is a comparatively very high level of educational capacity and provided the army with a significantly larger number of suitable candidates for higher levels of technical military training than is the case with most African liberation armies. This factor was a major advantage when ZIPRA decided to train and assemble significant numbers of conventionally trained forces and specialized units, including an air force.

Finally in terms of demographics and perhaps most importantly, although fifty per cent of recruits came from peasant households themselves, over thirty per cent of recruits came from urban working class homes, and over half of ZIPRA recruits had been in formal urban wage employment before they were recruited. Significantly almost ten per cent were recruited from South Africa (mostly through underground ZAPU networks which operated in South Africa). 

Of particular significance in this regard is the predominance of recruits with experience of modern urban capitalism. Although ZIPRA was rooted in the peasantry through parentage and many recruits were peasant boys and girls, ZIPRA was unusually urban and proletarian in composition. This is a very significant feature and combined with the high educational standards provided ZIPRA with recruits who had unusually high levels of technical capacity and experiences of modern wage labour, trade unionism and political organization, which were absent from other liberation armies in African and notably different in comparison with ZANLA. 

These proletarian characteristics of many ZIPRA recruits also reflect a more general dynamic of the split in the nationalist movement dating back to 1963. When ZANU was formed none of the working class or trade union leadership supported the split and they remained loyal to, and aligned with, Dr Nkomo and ZAPU.  Broadly speaking and throughout the following decade and a half of armed struggle, the trade union leadership and the working class movement as a whole remained broadly aligned with ZAPU. Thus whilst ZIPRA attracted recruits from working class backgrounds, ZANLA did not and was throughout its existence essentially a peasant-based army without significant working class participation. ZANU, which had originally been described as “the teachers revolt” at the time of the split, did attract some intellectuals into ZANLA in the mid-seventies but never seriously attracted working class recruits or support. In many ways ZANU’s post-independence composition and policies continue to reflect this orientation – hostility to the urban working class and dependence on the docile and disempowered rural peasantry.

Returning to the composition of ZIPRA, in broad terms we can say ZIPRA recruits were older and better educated on average than their counterparts in ZANLA. Most of them had been members of underground political structures and therefore had unusually high levels of political experience and maturity and finally most of the ZIPRA recruits were proletarian rather than peasant in orientation, having experienced urban wage employment, many of them in South Africa. This in African liberation army terms is a very unusual mix of recruits.

Before turning to the development of ZIPRA military strategy – the final section of my presentation – I should like to make a generalized summary of the implications of the circumstances, background and demographics I have already outlined, specifically with regard to the opportunities and challenges these realities reflected in determining strategic options in the liberation war.

Essentially ZIPRA recruits appear to have been actively recruited (rather than pushed by economic or geographic factors) from communities in which the party of liberation, ZAPU, was present and active and they were the product of a politically mobilised and active population. Most ZIPRA recruits had themselves been active members of these underground party structures before joining the army. They were relatively well educated and the majority of them had been exposed to urban proletarian life and to the modernising experience of exploitative capitalist wage labour. Many had been active in trade unions or labour organisations of some sort and had been exposed to aspects of class-based ideology and politics as well as the racist oppression all black people suffered and the national liberation politics it provoked. 

In all these contexts its is apparent that ZIPRA differed markedly from ZANLA and it is therefore not surprising that the two armies behaved differently in the field, developed different characteristics especially with regard to their relationships to unarmed civilian communities and finally developed very different military strategies. It is to the latter issue that I will now turn in concluding this presentation.

The Development of ZIPRA Military Strategy

Between 1970 and 1971 ZAPU suffered from a debilitating internal crisis whose content and process lie outside our scope today. Suffice it to say that in part the self-critical evaluation exercise, which ZAPU undertook in 1970 to reflect on past efforts and military strategy, triggered serious internal divisions and led to a three-way split in the party. Rhodesian and foreign intelligence involvement was also suspected. A number of senior ZAPU military figures left ZAPU and joined ZANLA at this time providing ZANLA with significant reinforcements and invaluable experience and information, most notably from the north-eastern part of the country where the ZAPU/MK Pyramid Detachment had recently operated. It was precisely in this area that ZANLA commenced its own guerilla operations in 1972. ZAPU also lost its important strategic contact and alliance with FRELIMO at this time. 

Following the split in ZAPU a week-long consultative meeting was called by J.Z. Moyo  at which a new structure, the Revolutionary Council, was established to lead the national liberation struggle and the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) was formed to carry out the military strategy of ZAPU.

Following these developments the newly established ZIPRA command resumed armed actions. Early operations in 1972 and 1973 were largely confined to border areas and concentrated on sabotage, land mine and ambush warfare designed to engage and extend enemy forces along a broad front. These operations were conducted by a relatively small but highly effective and energetic group of veteran fighters who successfully ambushed, harassed and stretched enemy forces along the entire Zambezi gorge and river front. These operations were accompanied by retraining, recruitment and reorganization of ZIPRA forces at rear bases in preparation for an extension of military action deeper into the country.  

Significant progress had been achieved by ZIPRA in all these endeavors when in 1974 the détente process was launched involving the United States, its allies in apartheid South Africa and efforts by the Frontline States to develop a united approach and leadership within the Zimbabwean nationalist movement. These developments disrupted ZIPRA plans to escalate the armed struggle.  ZANU was itself in crisis at this time and most of the ZANLA command were imprisoned in Zambia following the murder of ZANU Chairperson, Herbert Chitepo. The armed struggle therefore came to halt on all fronts.

Whilst various processes involving potential negotiations and unity arrangements among the nationalist leadership faltered and dragged on over the following months, some elements in the Front Line States (most obviously initially Mocambique and then Tanzania) began pushing hard to establish a new format for unity involving a common military formation and leadership involving both ZIPRA and ZANLA. This formation, known as the Zimbabwe People’s Army (ZIPA) came into existence in November 1975. 

As the ZIPRA component in ZIPA played little role in either developing ZIPA military strategy or in fact in restarting the war under ZIPA auspices, I propose to avoid this particular period of ZIPRA history and move ahead directly to ZIPRA’s own internal efforts to recommence armed struggle.

Following the withdrawal of ZIPRA from ZIPA in Mocambique, ZIPRA forces relocated to their bases in Zambia and essentially picked up the armed struggle from the same point of departure where they had left it in 1973. The strategy as before involved ambush and land mine warfare over a large front along the Zambezi river intending to attenuate the enemy forces and avoiding direct combat except in circumstances where the guerilla forces had overwhelming advantage. 

With increased numbers of fighters and building on the experience and skills gained by veteran fighters in the previous round of conflict, this strategy enabled ZIPRA to make significant progress and most importantly to drive the Rhodesian forces out of their small posts along the Zambezi river and back over the escarpment into more defensible garrisons. This enabled ZIPRA forces to move past the unpopulated Zambezi gorges and finally reach the vital sanctuaries offered in populated areas further inland without having to fight every inch of the way.

The strategy remained one of mine warfare, raids and ambushes where ZIPRA forces aimed to strike unexpectedly and withdraw and by repeating this hit and run warfare to stretch, weaken and exhaust enemy forces. 

The ZIPRA political commissar for Urungwe, Jerry Mtethwa, described the process and progress as follows: 

“The enemy was very much affected, especially by mine warfare. They could not move by truck… They also had to move on foot, and when they moved on foot it was easier for us… Then maybe we would put a grenade on their observation post. When they go to that OP it blasts them. Then they fear using their OPs.

“We cut the enemy’s supplies by ambushing supply trucks and mining roads. By doing so we were starving enemy soldiers. As a result they had to retreat, going to bigger camps and tarred roads. They would only come into our areas now for operations. 

From that time our troops started going deeper into the country. Let’s say the enemy is based here. We would then deploy another unit beyond to start operating behind the enemy. That’s when the enemy was disrupted. That made it easier again for us to move on. That’s when the enemy started retreating from the Tribal Trust Lands. That’s when we were free in the Tribal trust Lands”.

This penetration of the rural hinterland marked the real breakthrough for ZIPRA forces and during 1977 they pressed home the advantage, infiltrating several hundred guerillas and rapidly extending their operational areas. 

Todd Mpisi, Deputy Regional Commander in the Zambezi/Wankie area, describes the progress he made having opened operations in that area with only nine guerillas.

“Our unit grew so rapidly that within five months we were over 400 comrades in that area…This was the most successful campaign I experienced in the whole of the struggle. We had very few casualties. We moved in small units unless we planned to hit bigger targets. We lost only 12 men, of which more than half were lost capsizing in the river crossing. In action we lost very few men. Enemy casualties counted were 32 but it should be more. They lost a lot of men”.

Operating from Urungwe, the Regional Commander of ZIPRA Richard Mataure described the spread of the war southwards towards the strategic commercial farmlands of Lomagundi.

“By 1978 our forces had grown to a battalion. My general plan was to base two companies in Urungwe and operate southward. One company was to direct its efforts towards Karoi, Lion’s Den and Sinoia. The second company would concentrate its efforts towards Lomagundi, moving into Hartley, Gatooma and the African Purchase Area…Two of my platoons were left on resupply duties and crossing recruits and wounded comrades”.

By this stage of the war ZIPRA guerilla forces were operating in a wide arc of Rhodesia from Sipolilo and Urungwe in the north, through Gokwe and Silobela into the center of the country and from Kariba and Victoria Falls into Lupane, Nkai and Tsholotsho in the west. These operational areas comprised the ZIPRA Northern Front divided into three sectors. Guerilla units had also crossed the Salisbury-Bulawayo railway line and opened the Southern Front operating towards Shabani, Gwanda and Beitbridge.

In most of the ZIPRA Northern Front, the Rhodesians had been driven back into larger more easily defended garrisons by the guerilla forces and had abandoned their previous strategy of mobile counter-offensive, opting instead for a new strategy based on area defence. In effect the Rhodesians were conceding territory to guerilla control. 

ZIPRA had already taken a decision to train and develop some conventional forces. These forces were now available and ZIPRA was able to deploy the first of them to reinforce the guerilla units in early 1978. This capacity provided ZIPRA with greater firepower in mounting attacks against the larger garrisons and enabled ZIPRA to defend liberated and semi-liberated territory for the first time. 

Artillery weapons such as the 105 mm B10s and 82 mm mortars greatly increased the offensive capabilities of the reinforced guerilla detachments. Anti-aircraft units equipped with ZGU anti-aircraft cannon and SAM missiles were also deployed to provide the consolidated guerilla detachments with air defence capacity.

At this point ZIPRA was moving towards the next and higher stage of guerilla warfare, what the renowned Vietnamese practitioner and theorist of revolutionary war, General Giap, called ‘mobile warfare’. This progress was also being experienced by ZANLA who were also congregating larger forces and making use of heavier caliber weaponry. ZIPRA, and ZANLA were making similar progress at this time along very similar trajectories, which simply reflected the basic shift in the balance of forces in the field, although ZANLA lacked the conventionally trained capacities and weapons to take full advantage of the opportunities.

It was at this point that ZIPRA and the ZAPU War Council made a critical decision, setting in motion a development, which distinguishes the ZIPRA military strategy as unique amongst all African liberation movements. 

No African liberation movement has actually seized power from a colonial power. As a rule African independence, even following violent or armed action, was preceeded by negotiations in which the colonial power was able to construct various conditionalities, which restrained transformation. In large measure this is because no African liberation movement has established either the military capacity or a strategy, which would enable it to defeat the colonial power. They have instead built guerilla armies, which were able to create sufficient pressure to force negotiations. 

ZIPRA is the only liberation army which made a serious attempt to build both the military capabilities and to develop the strategy which could have enabled an Africa liberation movement to defeat the enemy in battle and seize power on its own terms. ZIPRA was actually intending to use mobile warfare as a precursor and preparation for inflicting military defeat on the enemy and seizing power by military means. Herein lies its singularity. 

These developments, which had been triggered by discussions following circulation of a document entitled Our Path to Liberation authored by J.Z. Moyo in late 1976 and shortly before his assassination by the Rhodesians, focused attention on the need for ZAPU to develop a specific military strategy aimed at seizing state power through armed struggle.  

Our Path to Liberation had been presented to an internal ZAPU and ZIPRA consultative conference, the second Conference of Militants as it was called, shortly after the failure of the Geneva Talks. Our Path to Liberation was a seminal document in the evolution of ZIPRA military strategy and in my mind remains even today one of the most significant evocations and assessments of liberation strategy and prospects for revolutionary transformation for Zimbabwe. I do not have time today to do more than draw attention to its key observations as they relate to the topic under consideration. 

These were in the first place the critical question of what indeed, and precisely, was the political objective of the liberation movement in Zimbabwe. Its second observation was a critical warning that the nationalist leadership in Zimbabwe, comprising as it did a relatively significant number of what Moyo called petit bourgeois aspirants and compradors, posed a major threat to meaningful liberation and transformation and would be inclined to betray the revolution. Thirdly Our Path to Liberation warned that the negotiations then underway (at the Geneva Conference), and negotiations in general, were aimed at installing “an interim African caretaker for imperialist interests” in an effort “to prevent genuine independence and the transfer of power to the people”. 

Party strategy therefore, J.Z. Moyo argued, should be geared to defeating attempts to prevent genuine independence. And his solution was stated simply as follows:

“The only way to ensure the independence of our country is to conquer state power….The objective is power to the people. This objective cannot be realized unless the liberation forces of Zimbabwe seize state power”. 

As Dumiso Dabengwa who was a key figure in those deliberations later recalled: 

“We were talking about seizing power. When we looked at other guerilla wars we could see that guerilla warfare does not enable you to seize power. It only creates the conditions for another force to settle the question. We wanted to take it a step further than that, and prepare ourselves to develop our military strategy and gear it to the final goal of a military victory. We felt that guerilla warfare on its own could not achieve that.”

The deliberations on military strategy provoked by Our Path to Liberation led the ZIPRA command to decide to divert some recruits to conventional military training courses, which enabled ZIPRA to introduce heavier weapons and conventionally trained soldiers into the war by early 1978. ZIPRA was now able not simply to occupy more territory, but to attack larger enemy formations and strategic locations. 

Then in late 1978 ZIPRA convened the High Command for an important conference to assess progress in the war and to discuss what became known as the “Turning Point” strategy.

The Turning Point Conference in November 1978, building on the military strategy developed after the Path to Liberation discussions two years earlier and noting that the Rhodesian forces had now lost control in many parts of rural Zimbabwe set two major military objectives. The first objective was to consolidate the gains of the guerilla forces by enabling ZIPRA to defend liberated areas. The second objective was to mount large-scale operations and attacks on larger Rhodesian garrisons and military formations. These objectives were to be achieved through the introduction of significant numbers of regular forces and heavy weaponry into the country, the reorganization of smaller guerilla units into larger detachments and brigades incorporating regular forces, the strengthening of command structures and the transfer of almost half the High Command into the country and the preparation of regional offensive plans to be implemented by the respective Front Commanders. 

But more significantly and in the greatest secrecy the Turning Point Strategy was fundamentally intended to create the conditions for the launching of a major strategic offensive to inflict a military defeat on the Rhodesian military and end the war. Immediately following the decisions of the Turning Point Conference a small team of ZIPRA and NSO officers began making final plans for this strategic offensive. Their plan was called The Zero Hour Operation and its details were the most closely guarded ZAPU secret of the liberation war. 

Previous attempts by outsiders, including academic researchers, to explain Zero Hour have erroneously described it simply as a conventional military offensive across the border and ascribed its design and content to Soviet advisors. The reality is that our Soviet military advisors were in fact not responsible for the planning of Zero Hour, which was developed entirely by NSO and ZIPRA.  Nor were they initially convinced that the plan could work. 

As Comrade Dabengwa explained: “When it came to the application [of the Zero Hour Plan] it was at that stage that we requested assistance. Soviet advisers came in and we unveiled the plan to them, and showed them how we intended to go about it. All they could do was give their advice where they thought we might have difficulties”.

Another hostile falsification, which obviously did not specifically identify the secret Zero Hour Operation but alleged that ZIPRA was holding back forces in order to confront an exhausted ZANLA army after independence, began circulating during this period and then far more intensely during the Lancaster House negotiations. We in NSO believed this ridiculous allegation to be the result of a specific hostile intelligence operation aimed at creating tensions between ZAPU and ZANU. 

More coherently Dabengwa later explained ZIPRA’s carefully considered approach to guerilla warfare, as follows:

“By mid-1978 there was almost a sufficient presence of guerilla forces in most ZIPRA operational areas. The danger in guerilla warfare if you start having too many guerilla units in an area, then you create confusion and lose the initiative… We did not think it wise to just pour in as many guerilla units as possible without having specific objectives”.

Instead ZIPRA began developing new military capabilities, deploying these initially to reinforce guerilla units with some conventionally trained forces in order to establish larger and better-armed integrated guerilla brigade formations capable of holding territory and attacking larger garrisons, and at the same time training and establishing regular infantry and armored formations, and an air force, which would be able to substantially alter the strategic military balance. These were the units, together with the reinforced guerilla brigades, which would form the major strike forces required for the Zero Hour Operation.

The commonplace description of the Zero Hour plan as “an Ethiopian-type Warsaw Pact invasion” is also nonsense. Formulations such as these are neither useful nor accurate, although they do illustrate how ideological tags were used in the disinformation campaigns mounted against ZAPU and ZIPRA at that time. Our plans were in fact far more comprehensive and inventive than has been supposed.

The broad concept of the Zero Hour Plan comprised four major components of a co-ordinated series of offensives to be launched simultaneously. The first component involved five conventional battalions with artillery and engineering support, which were required to seize bridgeheads along the Zambezi river at Kanyemba, Chirundu and Kariba. Reinforced brigades already inside the country were to support these efforts by launching attacks on Kariba, Victoria Falls and Wankie, taking control of the airfields. The principal objective of these attacks was to enable ZIPRA to establish strategic rear bases on the Rhodesian side of the border in support of the second component of the plan, which involved a series of offensives into the heart of the country and to capture airfields from which the ZIPRA air force could operate.

The second component of the plan involved offensives to be launched by the newly reinforced brigades already located inside the country along several simultaneous lines of advance. In the north the attacks were aimed at Karoi and Sinoia. In the midlands the brigade based in Gokwe was to attack Que Que and then move north to attack Hartley. The brigade based in Lomagundi was to advance on Gatooma and Salisbury, whilst the brigade in Sipolilo was to concentrate its efforts towards Umvukwes and Mount Darwin. The brigade based in Nkai was to attack Gwelo. The brigade based in Tsholotsho had the task of advancing to attack Bulawayo. In the Southern Front there were three lines of advance towards Plumtree, Kezi and Gwanda. In each area strategic targets were to be attacked and captured, including military garrisons and police posts, railway stations, fuel depots and other key enemy locations.

The third component of the plan comprised two elements. The first involved specialized commando and sabotage units already located in or near urban areas which were to launch a simultaneous wave of ambushes and attacks behind enemy lines in the key urban centers, aimed at disrupting efforts by the Rhodesians to respond to the major offensives launched by the regular ZIPRA forces and the reinforced brigades. The military bases and airfields in Salisbury, Bulawayo and Gwelo were priority targets. The second element involved locally trained ZAPU Youth League members establishing local militia units, which were to support the commando and sabotage units and reinforced brigades and provide community security. Training of these local ZAPU militia forces was already underway inside the country and large quantities of small arms had been cached around the country for this purpose.

The fourth and final component of the Zero Hour Plan involved the underground ZAPU party branches throughout the country, who were to trigger and stimulate local civilian uprisings in support of the major military offensives.

The Zero Hour Plan, based on these simultaneous offensives, attacks and uprisings across the country, was intended to overwhelm the enemy who would simply be unable to respond on so many fronts at once. It was anticipated that in the first hours of Zero Hour several dozen separate simultaneous offensives, attacks and assaults would take place across the country, in contrast to the average of three or four daily combat related incidents, which were taking place during that period. 

Finally of course, we expected ZANLA to join in the assaults in their operational areas, taking advantage of the chaos created by the ZIPRA multi-pronged offensives. They were however not to be informed of the plans until the very last minute as we suspected that the Rhodesian informers and foreign agents in their leadership and High Command would reveal our intentions. For the same reason no-one outside the War Council and the small teams working on planning in NSO/ZIPRA had detailed knowledge of the Zero Hour plans or the timing. Front Commanders and unit commanders each had appropriate knowledge of the preparations needed for their own missions but not of the overall plan. 

Overall responsibility for the Zero Hour operation obviously fell under the overall supervision of the most senior ZAPU leadership. But for security reasons very few in the ZAPU leadership were aware of the existence of the Zero Hour Plan.  

The ZAPU leadership and command structure in exile was headed by the Revolutionary Council, whose membership comprised previously elected members of the ZAPU National Executive Committee, heads of ZAPU departments in exile and military commanders. This body had ceded the responsibility for strategic policy and planning of the war effort to a smaller body, the War Council, comprising five permanent members. These were: the President of ZAPU, Joshua Nkomo; the ZAPU Commissar, Samuel Munodawafa; the Secretary for Defence, Akim Ndlovu; the ZIPRA Commander, Lookout Masuku; and the Head of NSO, Dumiso Dabengwa (who also served as War Council Secretary). 

The ZIPRA High Command at this time comprised the ZIPRA Commander and his deputies, chiefs and deputies of ZIPRA departments, front commanders and their deputies (regional commanders), rear-base camp commanders and NSO department heads and their deputies. In addition to its direct intelligence and security functions, NSO provided the War Council with strategic intelligence briefings for consideration by the War Council in determining politico/military strategy and in this context developed overall strategic options and conducted some of the detailed planning for the Zero Hour Plan.

In the midst of this planning process Commonwealth Heads of State assembled in Lusaka on 1 July 1979 and Mrs Thatcher famously danced with President Kaunda at a state house banquet. Until this point most commentators believed that the British Conservative government would continue its policy of enabling, and clandestinely supporting, the Internal Settlement, in which Ian Smith had engaged Bishop Muzorewa and others in the comical, but tragic, charade of a country with a surname – Zimbabwe Rhodesia. 

The Patriotic Front (comprising ZAPU and ZANU) had been vilified as “communist terrorists” and the authorities in the USA and the UK had declared ZAPU in particular as a proxy for the Soviet Union, the western world’s global strategic enemy during that period of history. Overnight their stance changed and the Patriotic Front were invited to attend a new negotiation initiative to be hosted by Britain, who apparently now accepted their obligations as the colonial power in Rhodesia.

The Lancaster House conference was scheduled to open in mid-September and suddenly we had to prepare to face our opponents on two fronts – the final offensive planned in the Zero Hour Operation and negotiations. 

Our own assessment was that the shift to a negotiations strategy by Britain was based on an appraisal of realities on the battlefield and a recognition that the Rhodesian army was actually now in danger of being militarily defeated. As we were well aware of the content and implications of the Zero Hour Operation, in particular its objective of ending the war in one final series of major offensives, we had to assume that the British had some knowledge of our plans, or at least and more certainly that they had been monitoring the build up and deployment of our forces and armaments, and had drawn their own conclusions. On this basis we believed that the negotiations were pre-emptive and were designed to rescue the Rhodesians from a military defeat. 

The questions we asked ourselves in this regard were what alternative they had in mind and how we could manouver through this new terrain and still achieve our goals through negotiation. J. Z. Moyo’s warnings in Our Path to Liberation that negotiations would be aimed at installing “an interim African caretaker for imperialist interests” in an effort “to prevent genuine independence and the transfer of power to the people” weighed heavily on us at this time .

I was deployed to Lancaster House as part of the NSO technical support team, and when Dabengwa arrived in London he provided me with an even more worrying assessment, based in part on information he had received during a stop over in Moscow. The view of our Soviet advisors was that this shift in strategy was almost certainly based on some knowledge of the Zero Hour Plan, and moreover that the western powers were determined to prevent another Angolan scenario where Cuban intervention and support from socialist countries had rescued the MPLA from a military invasion by apartheid forces and western mercenaries and enabled Angola to declare independence and to score a decisive victory against apartheid South Africa and the western funded puppet movements. Their view was that the west was now focused on addressing the strategic risk posed to apartheid South Africa and had already conceded independence of some sort for Rhodesia, provided the new regime in Zimbabwe was anti-Soviet. The western world’s primary strategic enemy at the time was the Soviet Union and those countries and forces deemed to be allies of the Soviet Union. The support we received from the Soviet Union and other socialist countries and our longstanding alliance with the African National Congress and close collaboration with its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, made us the immediate and obvious target. As Dabengwa related this somber assessment, he concluded by telling me that the Soviets believed that if ZAPU went to Lancaster House the liberation project for Zimbabwe would be over and ZIPRA would be annihilated.   

Meanwhile the Rhodesian military were launching multiple raids and ambushes, bombing bridges and planting land mines in many parts of Zambia in efforts to disrupt our deployment plans. Although not all the elements of Zero Hour were in place, notably the ZIPRA air force, substantive deployments had already been carried out. Large quantities of armaments and significant units of our regular forces had already crossed into Rhodesia and the major components of the regular forces intended to launch assaults across the border were hidden in the mountains and valleys along the Zambezi river.

In one major set piece battle in the mountain gorges along the Zambezi river at this time, a combined force of the prestigious Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS) and Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI) attempted an assault on one of our staging posts only to discover that they had come face to face with a regular ZIPRA battalion. As Barbara Cole recounts in her official history of the Rhodesian SAS: “From the outset it was very apparent that the Rhodesians were up against a vast assortment of military hardware and an opposition whose discipline and determination were outstanding”. 

The ZIPRA forces were well entrenched and fully able to repulse the Rhodesians and as Cole comments: “The mission had been bad news for the Rhodesians. They had grossly underestimated the enemy and had the living daylights shot out of them. They had been outgunned and outranged and had been unable to take the position.” This came as a major shock to the SAS and Rhodesian commanders. For the ZIPRA High Command this battle was ample evidence that we could launch Zero Hour and defeat Rhodesian troops in battle.

The Rhodesians never attempted another ground attack on ZIPRA forces in Zambia. Instead their air force launched the largest ever series of concentrated air raids of the entire war. These also failed to either dislodge the ZIPRA forces or to inflict significant casualties. Chinyunyu Camp, which contained 4500 ZIPRA regular soldiers at the time, was attacked on three occasions in late 1979 by large sorties of enemy aircraft. The ZIPRA anti-aircraft defense proved too formidable for the Rhodesians and several aircraft were hit by ground fire. Most of the bombs fell well outside the camp perimeter. ZIPRA lost only fifteen men in these three air raids on Chinyunyu. Air attacks on other bases and camps produced similarly poor results for the Rhodesians. On the other hand they provided ZIPRA forces with real battle experience and lifted our morale. 

The balance of forces had truly shifted and we knew it. 

Throughout the period of conference deliberations the ZAPU War Council representatives at Lancaster House wrestled with the decision of whether to launch Zero Hour, or elements of it, and seize the initiative. The prevailing view in the NSO Command, and indeed in the ZIPRA Command as a whole, was in favour of proceeding. The political leadership, including Joshua Nkomo himself, were hesitant persuasively drawing attention to the heavy loss of life which would be involved and relating their political discussions with friend and foe alike, drawing our attention to the major regional and international implications and risks. 

A typical summary of the political risks presented by the ZAPU leadership could be represented as follows: “We will be portrayed as aggressors who do not want peace. Our regional allies will be compromised and will have to denounce us. And worse still our operation will be blamed on the Soviets and that may well create conditions for direct intervention by the apartheid regime and its western allies”. 

Sometimes there are no good choices, only the choice between bad and worse. 

Despite our serious concerns our leaders had to make tough choices and in the end they chose to halt the Zero Hour Operation and direct their efforts towards securing an agreement at Lancaster House and then relying on everyone to implement it in good faith.

Once the Patriotic Front leaders signed the Lancaster House agreement the die was cast. In terms of the agreement ZIPRA forces now fell under the command and authority of the British Governor, Lord Soames, and when they entered the Assembly Points they effectively surrendered. From that moment they ceased to be a people’s army and became instead captured by, and in very many cases victims of, the neo-colonial project implemented by Robert Mugabe and the compliant ZANU nationalist leadership on behalf of imperialism after independence on 18 April 1980. 

In conclusion it seems that J.Z. Moyo’s observations in “Our Path to Liberation” were prophetic and his fear of negotiations proved to be well founded. ZIPRA’s efforts to create conditions in which the liberation movement might determine its own post-independence agenda and undertake a radical and meaningful transformation process in which power was actually transferred to the people ultimately failed. 

But in its determined efforts to wage a liberation war and through its courageous attempt to seize power from settler colonialism and imperialism by military means, ZIPRA certainly displayed the qualities of a truly determined and revolutionary people’s army. 

That is what I believe our history should say about ZIPRA. It was a revolutionary people’s army. 

Finally, and as the struggle for fundamental transformation of our society and our state and the achievement of people’s power continues, these events and experiences illustrate some important lessons that current and future generations should learn from our history in their own quest to achieve genuine freedom for the people of Zimbabwe.

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