Fresh details have emerged on how the Zanu PF government plotted to kill the late Vice-President Joshua Nkomo at his house in Bulawayo, as authorities escalated the Gukurahundi massacres, newly-released documents, seen by NewsDay, reveal
Nkomo survived a mass shooting at his house in Pelandaba, where two of his aides were killed, a clear indication that the government wanted him dead.
By Staff Reporter
A diplomatic despatch from Harare to Pretoria dated March 9, 1983 reveals in intimate detail an attack on Nkomo’s Pelandaba home in Bulawayo.
“(About) last week’s shooting incident at Nkomo’s house,” the previously secret cable reads.
“Local sources say two persons were killed and Nkomo’s driver was in fact shot dead in his bed and had not, as reported by local media, shot at members of ZNA (Zimbabwe National Army) first.
“The incident is regarded as an attempt on Nkomo’s life and he only survived it because he had received information and fled.
“He is currently strictly guarded.”
This corroborates an account in Nkomo’s 1983 autobiography and also dovetails with a recording of then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe’s statements that to kill a snake, you must strike and crush its head, largely believed to be inferring to how to destroy Nkomo and Zapu.
As the Gukurahundi massacres morphed into genocide, the despatches reveal that four Zapu officials were shot at pointblank range in Plumtree by members of the Fifth Brigade.
“Meanwhile, ministers hold rallies in certain parts of Matabeleland in order to incite the population against Zapu and the dissidents,” the South African diplomatic cable continues. In Binga (Maurice) Nyagumbo said the government will possibly ban Zapu. He labelled the party ‘subversive’, saying it is bent upon rejecting the government’s attempts at reconciliation.”
The despatch also reveals that South African authorities learnt that Nkomo had crossed into Botswana through “clandestine” means, an issue that is covered in depth in the late Vice-President’s autobiography, Story of My Life.
In the wake of such attempts on Nkomo’s life, the late Vice-President went into hiding and former Midlands governor Cephas Msipa feared the Zanu PF government would take advantage of the ambiguous situation and kill him.
Msipa took advantage of Mugabe’s absence from the country, to beg the then acting Prime Minister Simon Muzenda to ensure Nkomo’s safety as it was clear that the Zapu leader’s life was in danger.
“Msipa said he was concerned that if Nkomo remained in hiding with a relative or friend in Bulawayo, as has been reported, then the authorities might feel no responsibility for him,” an Australian Foreign Affairs diplomatic despatch dated March 8, 1983 reads.
“Msipa said he thought Muzenda would be sympathetic.
“Msipa had judged Muzenda not to be in accord with the policy being followed in Matabeleland.”
The former Midlands governor then planned to meet – together with other Zapu ministers – Mugabe when he returned from India on March 11, 1983.
Msipa is said to have told Australian diplomats that Mugabe had agreed to have political discussions with him after he returned from India.
“Msipa said that he believed that the Prime Minister (Mugabe) was right behind what was happening in Matabeleland,” the cables say.
The Australian officials noted Msipa’s “understandable concern for Nkomo’s safety”, but were sceptical if this would lead to anything, as they also feared the late Vice-President would be suspicious of any security arrangement provided to him by the government – were Muzenda to offer anything.
At the time, then Zipra commanders Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Masuku were on trial for allegedly caching arms, and South African officials feared that if they were sentenced to death – coupled with Nkomo’s absence – this could lead to a significant change in Matabeleland.
“We have just been informed that Nkomo left Zimbabwe in a clandestine manner yesterday,” the despatch reads.
“He is currently in Botswana. This may cause the situation in Matabeleland to change.
“Zapu supporters may be incited into action if Dabengwa and Masuku, whose trial is under way, receive death sentences or even life sentences.”
While the Gukurahundi massacres are widely known, documentary evidence is limited and the government has often dismissed the killings, now classified as genocide, as “disturbances”.
It is often claimed that apartheid South Africa – and recently appointed Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko said the West – was responsible for the dissident menace, but another South African cable from April 5, 1984 reiterates that it would be incredulous to assume Mugabe was not aware of what was happening.
“It is difficult to believe that Mugabe and his key advisers are not aware of implications to send 5 Brigade in, given experience of last year (1983) and they are certainly now aware of what is happening,” reads the despatch.
“It is not clear how far government intends to carry out intended policy, [but] our considered view is policy is not working whether militarily or politically.”
South Africa was particularly worried on whose decision it was to send in the Fifth Brigade to Matabeleland and who had made the decision to starve and beat up the people of the region, although fingers were pointed clearly at the Zanu PF central committee.
However, US diplomatic sources are said to have believed that a smaller group, rather than the Zanu PF central committee, had made the decision and left operations to security forces.
Former army commander, the late Solomon Mujuru and former Zanu secretary-general Edgar Tekere are said to have been directly responsible for atrocities in Matabeleland North, with an overt political agenda.
Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa features in the despatches, although there is no consensus on his role, as the Fifth Brigade had a “weak command structure and reporting, and a chaotic decision-making process”.
On Sunday, Msipa declined comment, saying Gukurahundi was a sensitive matter, which affected many people.
Contacted for comment yesterday, Zanu PF spokesperson Simon Khaya Moyo said: Why don’t you ask those mentioned in it? I didn’t read that cable.”