The gods of liberation

The imperative to tell the untold stories of Zimbabwean freedom fighters during that country’s liberation war, especially their engagement with spirituality.

Image credit Steffen Dobbert via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Zimbabwe’s liberation war from 1964 to 1980 occurred within, and in part owing to, a global historical nexus of shifting political and ideological alliances. It rode the swelling wave of colonial independence movements across the continent, and occurred under the umbrella of the Cold War, as the Soviet Union and China backed liberation movements across the African continent.

My research on education during the war led me to interview veterans of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), one of the two main independence movements, who were trained by the Soviet Union and its African and European allies. While previous academic literature has described such training as merely military or as “political indoctrination,” the veterans of the independence struggle whom I interviewed demonstrated a critical, creative, and sophisticated engagement with and integration of the various ideologies and traditions (Indigenous African, Christian, capitalist, socialist) to which they had been exposed.

ZAPU was founded in December, 1961 after its party precursor, the National Democratic Party (NDP) was banned by the Rhodesian government. While the party remained at the forefront of the liberation struggle, in 1963 it split and the offshoot, the Zimbabwean African National Union  (ZANU) remained a rival opposition party throughout the war and eventually came to power, led by Robert Mugable. ZANU aligned itself with Maoist China and was based out of Mozambique, dominating the guerrilla fighting along the eastern border of the country, while ZAPU recruits traveled to Botswana and were flown to Zambia, where their refugee camps, ad hoc schools, and military training bases were set up. The relationships formed between ZAPU’s president, Joshua Nkomo, and anti-apartheid leaders during his years studying in South Africa, the shared anti-apartheid goals of the parties, and the geographic proximity of the countries that shared a border meant that ZAPU aligned with South Africa’s African National Congress and often co-trained with its fighters.

Owing to ZANU’s confiscation of ZAPU documents shortly after independence, it is difficult to estimate the number of ZAPU fighters active in its military wing, the Zimbabwean People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA). However, declassified US intelligence documents note that in 1977 there were 2000 ZAPU guerrillas training in the USSR and 1000 in Cuba, notwithstanding that Zambia held their primary bases and guerrillas also trained in Angola and Tanzania.

Because ZAPU and its military wing, the Zimbabwean People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) did not engage in overtly religious rituals, the spiritual and ideological dimensions of the movement have long been ignored by historians, whereas the ritual and ideological aspects of the Chinese-backed Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) party and movement have been better studied. This is due in part to the targeting of ZAPU veterans post-independence, as the post-independence election winner, Robert Mugabe, belonged to the rival ZANU party and viewed ZAPU as a threat.

All ZAPU party documents were confiscated, and veterans were individually targeted and disappeared through an infamous campaign known as Gukurahundi between 1983 and 1987, in which a North Korean-trained army razed the southern region, killing thousands of veterans and civilians. Many veterans were and remain too afraid of the government to share their stories. The campaign ended when Robert Mugabe offered exiled former ZAPU president Joshua Nkomo the former President of ZAPU, the Vice Presidency as part of the 1987 Unity Accord  Agreement which merged the two parties under ZANU-PF.

The narratives of ZAPU and ZIPRA fighters, which I briefly recount here, are significant in three ways: First, they challenge the present historical narratives about ZAPU’s movement which have underplayed or even denied the significance of ideology and religion in ZAPU’s war-time operations. Second, by ignoring these stories, we deprive ourselves of the wisdom and hard-won relevant experience of these veterans, who in many ways are engaged in the same fights we are today. Our communities and countries are still fighting the same exploitative systems of global racial capitalism, injustices, and persecution which they fought decades ago. For example, the Rhodesian state has been adopted as a symbol and model by the white supremacist groups globally—the US gunman Dylan Roof, who shot and killed nine people in a black church, ran a website entitled The Last Rhodesian and wore a Rhodesian flag on his social media profile pictures. Third, these veterans’ narratives are valuable for their own sake, tracing distinct and divergent paths to a common end: taking up arms to fight for freedom. Their life-histories offer their answers to humanity’s most significant questions: how do we define freedom, life, or death? What does it mean to live life meaningfully; what is worth dying for, or killing for?

Despite all attending Christian missionary schools and self-identifying as Christian when they joined the revolutionary struggle, each of the veterans had distinct religious and intellectual journeys over the course of the liberation struggle. Josiah Batiswayi Dube, a self-proclaimed “recovering socialist” was one of a handful of Africans to complete his studies at the University of Rhodesia in 1970. He worked at an insurance company while moonlighting as a ZAPU political officer before ZAPU offered him an opportunity to study in the Soviet Union. There he studied dialectical materialism and socialist political philosophy, shed his Christian upbringing and became an atheist.

After his return to ZAPU’s training camp in Zambia, he was one of three writers composing lectures on Marxism and scientific socialism to be taught to the party. In 1978, the Rhodesian air force infamously bombed a ZAPU Camp in Zambia, where he was stationed. After his miraculous survival, Dube re-embraced Christianity. This conversion led to an unease with the atheist assumptions of dialectical materialism, so he requested a transfer to work in the ZAPU administration where he remained until the country’s independence in 1979. He is presently a prominent member of a religious board in Bulawayo.

Mr. JG, “the ZimRussian,” while keenly aware of the inseparability of the colonial enterprise and missionaries, carried his Christian Bible on him all the way to the Soviet Union’s military academy in Solnechnogrosk, where he engaged in heated conversations with chief instructors of scientific socialism who were eager to hear from a Zimbabwean Christian. He spoke to me of the similarities between “African Traditional Religious” concepts of the supreme God, Mwali, and the Christian God, and the racial and political lenses that shape individual understandings of each. He remembered his time in Russia fondly, quoting phrases in Russian and highlighting how, for those who had gone through training in socialist political philosophy, the old ZAPU leadership were not “revolutionary enough” to carry out what needed to be done to build a true socialist or democratic state that did not replicate the structural problems of the Rhodesian regime.

When I met “the reluctant Christian,” Colonel Baster Magwizi, in his home, he was flanked on one side by textbooks he was reading for his Master’s degree in conflict resolution, and on the other by his wife, whom he said was “trying to convince him of Christianity.” As an official in ZAPU’s military wing, ZIPRA, he recounted how he took part in a traditional African religious ritual during which he ascended a mountain and disappeared for two weeks. He woke up with little recollection of what had happened to him, but was surrounded by sacred cows, which he brought down from the mountain top. He remarked that descendants of those cows are still in that same village and credits this ritual with his survival in several battles. His story is unique in that there is only one other published account of ZAPU and ZIPRA using traditional African shrines and rituals during the war, as the party is often represented as a-religious.

Despite the lack of overt “religion” in ZAPU’s camps, religion played an important role in the ideological and personal evolution of ZAPU and ZIPA activists and fighters as they struggled to bring down the racist regime of Rhodesia. These veterans, like us, are the products of social, political and religious historical forces before them, but their stories exemplify the significance of individual and collective intellectual, ideological, and religious agency in shaping our inner and outer worlds.

It is said that when an African elder dies, it is a library that burns down. It is imperative that we record these narratives before these men and women who fought for the liberation of our countries pass on, taking their libraries of knowledge and experience with them.

Further Reading