The Comrades that saved ZPRA from demise

By Irvine J. Sibhona.

The political changes that flew in the face of the struggle during the seventies were largely influenced by the governments of front line states which arm-twisted the liberation movements in the name of unity for the warring parties of Rhodesia now Zimbabwe. 

The two warring factions ZPRA that belonged to ZAPU and ZANLA that was representing ZANU were the two military liberation armies that the front line states aligned themselves with. That depended on the politics of the sixties in which Tanzania favoured ZANLA and Zambia was in favour of ZPRA.

This was not by design but was shaped by the politics favoured by the leaders of those countries. Zambia, as the host country was more concerned about the behaviour of the liberation movements. ZPRA was from the onset a well-trained and disciplined liberation army owing to their type of training. However, ZANLA lacked that discipline due to some the things that took place in their camps including the killing of the comrades by their commanders.

This did not deter the government of Tanzania for instance to see to it that ZPRA did not exist. The leader of Tanzania was insistent that the parties must unite; though that defied logic as the two parties had differed in ideology from the onset.

However, the Tanzanian President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere went ahead to convince and compel ZAPU and ZPRA to form a joint military force with Zanla; hence ZIPA was born under a titular half-backed ANC party, without dissolving the political parties that created the forces in the first place. 

In 1975 ZPRA had just grown spontaneously under the leadership of JZ Moyo and its strategist military chief of staff/ army commander Alfred Nikita  Rogers Mangena. It had seen successes after the 1971 Zapu crisis to the start of operations under the new name ZPRA In 1972. By the end of the first year of operations ZPRA achieved a lot in the battlefield along the Zambezi Valley leading to the closer of the border between Zambia and Rhodesia on the 9th January 1973.

The efforts of only a few well trained guerrillas put ZPRA on the map again towards the struggle to free their country. The dedication of Alfred Nikita Mangena and his team of the likes of JD Sotsha Charles Ngwenya, Ambrose Mutinhiri, Tapson Mnyanyi (Terror), Report Phelekezela Mphoko, and others was unquestionable as they left the Zambian bases heading for Mozambique after Nyerere had convinced President Kaunda of Zambia to completely evacuate all ZPRA and its command to join Zanla in Mozambique. The idea just looked like a utopian perfected pie in the sky.  

In December 1975, ZPRA had to leave the training camps in Tanzania and Zambia to join ZIPA in Mozambique. This strategy had not been thought thoroughly and the movement was so quick that time was not given to ZPRA to set up its structures to integrate into this new army ZIPA properly. Others left from Dar-es-salaam, Tanzania for Tete in Mozambique and others flew from Lusaka, Zambia for Maputo Mozambique. The strategy on analysis had been designed deliberately to destroy ZPRA and hand over the trained soldiers to ZANLA, a benefit beyond any imaginable strategy.

While the training of ZPRA was of high standard ZANLA was going to gain by inheriting an already trained force. The most unfortunate thing is that while it was a strategy set up by the politics of Nyerere because he hated ZAPU, the coordination had not been properly communicated to ZANLA who soon behaved as if Zapu never existed the very moment ZPRA arrived in Mozambique. Unfortunately, ZPRA took off from Zambia straight into enemy hands as they were taken into ZANLA camps. Without any of the ZPRA command around as some were still as yet to join the ZIPA command structure in Maputo.

ZANLA without asking anybody started dividing and deploying ZPRA forces into their units. Without warning, situations began to be chaotic as ZPRA were deployed into ZANLA sections and platoons and driven straight into the Rhodesia border to cross into the country. Those who were not cooperative were dealt with immediately there and then, they were stripped naked and in front of a parade of almost a thousand man and women, beaten with logs and asked to sing the song “Vachitepo vakafa Vachitaura” and denouncing President Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo by saying “Pasi Na Nkomo”.

One had a choice to sing and live for another day in case you met your ZPRA commander, others were a bit on the rude side and they are dead as we speak. They hacked a colleague Jackop on parade with an axe in front of hundreds of ZANLA cadres. The heavy axe remained stuck on his head as he slowly died. ZPRA guerrillas died needlessly in the hands of ZANLA and no one was able to question or challenge it.

According to John Nyampikidza who survived the ordeal, other comrades were asked to be scouts on entry into Rhodesia and they were shot from behind at close range.

It is in such cases that Mangena told Rex Nhongo in front of President Samora Machel that he would shoot him if the body of the deceased comrades were not delivered to him.  By then the supposedly dead comrades were a few miles inside Gonarezhou National Park in Rhodesia. Serious things were happening as confusion reigned while ZANLA took over and completely ignored ZPRA including its command. This infuriated Mangena who went into every ZANLA and FRELIMO camp searching for his soldiers.

He had as ZPRA commander invested many years and months into training his comrades in various fields of expertise in military knowledge and here he was with no soldier. I also recall a senior ZPRA who had been a diplomat in Cuba and had been made a Deputy Regional Commander in one front whose name was Zwangami Col. Joseph Dube. He entered the ZANLA camp not knowing what to expect. They jumped on him and soon took sticks and shoved them through his backside. He was said to be hiding some documents in his stomach since he had a big body.

How primitive they were and by the way, the Zanla High Command had been given orders to Kill all Machua-chua at the earliest possible time before or on entering Rhodesia. ZPRA and its high command were so naive that they did not question or think of the consequences of joining forces with organisations which had different ideologies.  

Brigadier Abel Mazinyane, Ishmael Gondo (Tshaloba) late Major Ndlovu, John Chirodza had to run away on foot from Tete Town, and province towards Malawi before they turned west heading for Zambia through national parks with just one gun which had a few bullets. They ended up in a Zambian prison as ZPRA had no recognised bases in Zambia. They were lucky because the Zambian government became sympathetic after they wrote a strong report; not forgetting that we had no rights to operate as a guerrilla force from Zambia anymore.   

Others were thrown into prisons in Mozambique and were rescued by none other than the commander Alfred Nikita Mangena who went picking them one by one and across the country.    

It is the determination of these cadres including their commanders who went to Mozambique and offered ZPRA a lifeline. Otherwise, the group of 137 and 800 would not have survived in an untrained army like ZANLA and it must also be understood that the late Alfred Nikita Magena’s determination to see that his force was extracted from the political quandary.  Nikita tried all his best to give every cadre he came across $20 or $30 Rhodesian Dollars.

In topography, all ZPRA guerrillas were taught what “Azimuth” meant so Mangena’s code was Azimuth which meant reverse angle in map reading. Therefore, we all understood what the signal meant; that we should revert to Zambia. As we did operations became intensive after all we had lost time in engaging in Julius Nyerere’s ploy of trying to destroy ZPRA.

We started fighting the Rhodesian forces in our small units of two to five and depending on how big the group was from Mozambique. ZPRA crisscrossed the country from east to west and south to north in 1976 struggling to head north into Zambia without adequate ammunition. These are my heroes that defied all odds.

This can also be read in the book published in 2018, (Nation Born of Violence.) by Irvine J Sibhona.            

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  1. As an ex-Rhodesian soldier, your article fully supports what I heard at first hand from a captured (Zapu) guerilla in 1976.. He recounted many shocking incidents in Mozambique such as the ones you have described; beatings, food depravation – even public executions. He claimed a comrade of his was firstly accused of some transgression, then forced to dig a large hole in the parade ground. Finally, he was forced into it and buried alive standing upright in his own grave. Everyone present was then ordered to march over the spot singing chimurenga songs. Considering the extremity of the abuse that Zanla and their Chinese instructors handed out in those camps, it is surprising that so little of it is mentioned today. Thank you for bringing it out into the open.

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