Joshua Mqabuko Nyongolo Nkomo was the leader and founder of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union and a member of the Ndebele people.
1960-61 President, NDP.
1961-62 President, ZAPU.
1975 (Sept.) President, African National Council (Nkomo).
Joshua Mqabuko Nyongolo Nkomo was born in June 1917, in the Semokwe Reserve, Matabeleland.
He was the third child, a sister having been born in 1910 and a brother in 1913.
His parents worked for the London Missionary Society: his father as a driver (and
later as a teacher) and his mother, who came from the Nguni group, as a cook.
He received his primary education at Tjolotjo School, after which he worked as a
driver, in business with his brother; as a ‘delivery boy’ for Osborn’s Bakery in
Bulawayo, owned by Mr (later Sir) Donald Macintyre; and as a carpenter at Kezi
In 1941, having saved enough money for a single year of secondary education,
he traveled by train to Durban, South Africa, where he enrolled at Adams
College. Being many years older than his fellow students he found it
embarrassing “to have to squeeze [his] large adult frame into desks designed
for children, and to compete in the classroom with them”. It was only the
encouragement of a Mrs Hoskins (a clerk at the school who employed him in his
spare time as her driver and who paid his school fees after the first year)
that persuaded him to remain.
In 1944 he enrolled at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Science in
Johannesburg where his fees for a three-year, course of study had been
paid by Mrs Hoskins. Here he completed his matriculation and obtained his
Diploma. While in Johannesburg he came under the influence of Dr Zuma and
Lembede, two of the leaders of the African National Congress in South Africa,
although he took little part in the political discussions that absorbed many
of his fellow-students.
In 1947 he returned to Rhodesia and was employed by Rhodesia Railways as a
social worker – the first African to be given such a post. During the next
two years he continued with his studies for an external degree with the
University of South Africa and graduated Bachelor of Arts in Economics and
His work as a welfare officer among the African staff of Rhodesia Railways led
to his appointment, in 1951, as Secretary of the Railway Workers’ Association
(later the RAWU). At that time the Association, although powerful, was poorly
organised, and he succeeded, within the space of a year, in building up its
membership to a new record level and in creating many new branches.
Through the influence of Enoch Dumbutshena he moved into the political sphere
and in 1952 he was elected President of the ANCongress. Greatly influenced at
this time by Moral Re-Armament he tried, in conjunction with leaders in Northern
Rhodesia and elsewhere, to unite all African organisations in the All-African
People’s Convention. The attempt was not successful and the Convention
disbanded in 1954. In 1952 he accepted an invitation from Sir Godfrey Huggins,
then Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia, to represent African opinion at the
London Conference on the proposed federation of the two Rhodesias and
Nyasaland. He returned from London bitterly opposed to the proposals, but
could make no impression in the face of overwhelming European support for the
federal concept. In January 1954 he stood in the first Federal Election as an
independent candidate for the African seat of Matabeleland but was heavily
defeated by Mike Hove, the UFP candidate.
During this same year he resigned from Rhodesia Railways, and started his own
business in Bulawayo as an auctioneer and insurance agent. He retained the
leadership of the Southern Rhodesia ANCongress but the movement attracted
little support in the changed environment brought about by Federation, and
only the Bulawayo branch remained active during the next few years.
In 1957, however, the Youth League (ANYL), founded in Salisbury two years
earlier by George Nyandoro, James Chikerema and Edson Sithole, joined
together with the Bulawayo branch of the old ANCongress and on 12 September
Joshua Nkomo was elected President of the re-formed African National Congress1 During the next year and a half the Congress campaigned vigorously
against the new Land Husbandry Act, and its success in getting certain
convictions set aside in the Court of Appeal led to the emergence of Joshua
Nkomo and his colleagues as popular heroes.
In December 1958 Joshua Nkomo travelled to Accra for the first All—African
People’s Conference, and thence to Cairo. While he was still in Egypt a
State of Emergency was declared in Southern Rhodesia (26 February 1959) and
500 members of the ANCongress were detained. He was, he says, dissuaded by
Egyptian friends from returning home, and was advised instead to set up an
external office with the object of gaining support throughout the world for
the objectives of the ANCongress. This he did, at Golders Green, London,
and from this base he travelled widely during the next During this period the
NDP was formed (1 January 1960). Michael Mawema was elected President of
the new party, but it was understood that his appointment was only temporary
pending the return to Salisbury of Joshua Nkomo.
Following riots in Salisbury in July 1960, and the arrest of some of the
NDP leaders, Nkomo joined with Garfield Todd, former Prime Minister, in
calling on the British Government to suspend the Southern Rhodesian
Constitution. In September he addressed the UN Committee on Colonialism2
On 28 November 1960 the inaugural congress of the NDP was held in Salisbury.
The election of a president was its prime task and there was no lack of
candidates. Leopold Takawira, Moton Malianga, Ndabaningi
Sithole and Michael Mawema each pressed his case but the delegates eventually decided in favour of Joshua Nkomo. It has been suggested in certain
quarters that this was a compromise decision. Other commentators believe that
a warrant had been issued for Nkomo’s arrest, and argue that his election was a
deliberate attempt to provoke a head-on clash with the Government3
Joshua Nkomo returned to Salisbury a few days later. The Federal Review and
the Southern Rhodesia Conference were due to start almost immediately in
London. In recognition of Joshua Nkomo’s leadership of the Nationalist
movement, he was given an invitation by Sir Edgar Whitehead, then Prime
Minister of Southern Rhodesia, to attend as the NDP’s representative. He
Within a few days of the start of the Conference, Nkomo followed Kenneth
Kaunda (Northern Rhodesia) and Dr Banda (Nyasaland) who had walked out of
a session as a sign of protest. Sir Edgar Whitehead reacted by saying that
he would not allow Nkomo to attend the imminent conference on Southern
Rhodesia’s own Constitution, unless he attended both conferences and also
condemned violence. Finally, a face-saving formula was worked out. The
Southern Rhodesian conference was re-convened in Salisbury in the middle
of January 1961 with Sir Edgar in the chair 4Joshua Nkomo was present,
supported by George Silundika, Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole and Herbert
On 7 February, agreement on the main issues was reached.5 The proposed
parliamentary structure was a highly complex one, with provision for 50
‘A’ Roll and 15 ‘B’ Roll seats, together with a cross-voting system which
would allow each roll to have a 25 per cent influence on the other.6
There was immediate adverse reaction to the agreement from leaders who were
not at the Conference. A heated session of the NDP executive unanimously
rejected the franchise and representation proposals. Nkomo, although at
first stoutly defending his action and that of his fellow-delegates, soon
came to realise the strength of the opposition. He found his stance further
weakened by the arrival of a telegram from Leopold Takawira, in London, in which such phrases as ‘diabolical and disastrous’, ‘treacherous to three million Africans’ and ‘untold suffering` were employed.
On the following day Nkomo flew to London. After discussions with Duncan
Sandys, Takawira and Enoch Dumbutshena he issued a statement to the Press
in which he repudiated the constitutional agreement. In explaining his change
of attitude he remarked that “a leader is he who expresses the wishes of his
followers; no sane leader can disregard the voice of his people and
1961 was a year of growing tension between the NDP and the authorities. After
much civil unrest, the party was banned by the Government on 10 December.
ZAPU, successor to the NDP, was formed on 18 December 1961, and Joshua
Nkomo was elected its first president. Throughout the first eight months of
1962, the new party followed a policy identical to the NDP but with even
greater militancy. A boycott of Sir Edgar Whitehead’s ‘Build a Nation’
campaign8 was the precursor to a wave of sabotage, burnings and
stone-throwing. On 20 September 1962 ZAPU, too, was banned by the
Government, and most of its leaders were restricted for three months to the
area surrounding their home villages.
Joshua Nkomo was in Lusaka when ZAPU was banned. He states that after
some days of thought he came to the conclusion that the time had passed
when anything useful could be achieved by party action within Southern
Rhodesia. Two of his parties had been banned, and their assets
confiscated, within a matter of nine months. Any further creations
would, he believed, be similarly handled. The answer, he concluded,
lay in setting—up a ‘government—in-exile’ which, by freely bringing
pressure to bear on the UN, the OAU and other sympathetic bodies, would
stimulate international action to effect political change at home.
He called a meeting of the executive in Dar-es-Salaam to discuss the
matter. On arrival there, however,9 he came under strong pressure from
Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, Enoch Dumbutshena and President Nyerere —
all of whom felt that he should return to Salisbury and suffer the same
restraints as the other leaders.10 He followed this advice, and on his arrival back in Southern Rhodesia was restricted for three months to Kezi, south
He had not, however, abandoned his belief that the nationalist cause
could best be furthered at that stage by activity from outside the
country. On his release from restriction he travelled to New York,
where he addressed the UN Committee of 24 on 23 March 1963. Soon
after his return to Southern Rhodesia he called a meeting of the
national executive for early April in Dar-es-Salaam. By this time he
was, he says, convinced that Southern Rhodesia would receive
independence as part of a ‘package deal’ to end the Federation11 and he
wanted to ensure that a powerful nationalist organisation outside the
country was in existence before that event occurred.
When the members of the national executive gathered in Dar-es-Salaam on
12 April disputes soon arose. President Nyerere made it clear that
neither he nor other African Heads of State favoured a ‘government-in-
exile’, believing that the only place to achieve ‘victory’ was inside
Rhodesia. In this atmosphere the criticism of Joshua Nkomo’s leadership
of the movement, which had been simmering since the previous year,
This criticism took several forms: there were those who favoured a policy
of ‘confrontation’ with the Government, whatever the consequences; those
who believed that it was essential to form a new political party to
replace the banned ZAPU; and those who felt that Joshua Nkomo had become
too accustomed to the ‘fleshpots’ of international travel and was,
therefore, unwilling to suffer personal hardship. There were also some,
perhaps, whose ambition to lead the movement was greater than their
loyalty to the cause, and who saw a chance to advance their positions.
Joshua Nkomo returned to Salisbury on 2 July 1963.12 After his
departure the majority of those members of the executive in Dar-es-Salaam,
headed by Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, voted to depose him from the
leadership. Nkomo maintains that immediate action was essential;
He sent telegrams to various dissidents — notably Rev. Sithole and Robert
Mugabe — informing them that as ‘rebels’ they had been ‘suspended’ from the
movement. In early August he called a mass meeting at Cold Comfort Farm,
seven miles outside Salisbury. Here Nkomo initiated a new organisation to
replace ZAPU. To avoid the risk of further banning action he called it the
People’s Caretaker Council. The new body was, however, ZAPU (without its
pro-Sithole defectors) in all but name. Many of the leading officials in
the former party moved across into the same posts. At the same time Nkomo
took steps to consolidate his hold on the masses before any rival movement
set up by the ‘rebels’ could get off the ground. He re-formed the party
structure, creating a large number of new, smaller branches to replace the
somewhat unwieldy, over-centralised arrangements which had existed
previously. Realising that confrontation with the Government was inevitable
sooner or later, he appointed several of his top lieutenants as ‘external
representatives`13 hoping thereby to ensure that the movement would continue even if all the leaders inside Southern Rhodesia were detained or restricted.
With the formation, on 8 August, of ZANU (under the presidency of Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole), the stage A was set for a major clash. During the next six months there was violent strife between the supporters of the two groups
as each sought to control the masses.14 When the Government decided,
in February 1964, to introduce school fees for all African pupils in urban schools,
the PCC mounted a strong resistance. On 16 April Joshua Nkomo was arrested,
and restricted for a period of one year to the new Gonakudzingwa Camp in the
south—eastern border area. His appeal against this restriction order, in June,
was successful on a technicality15 but was countered by a further
order which removed the previous illegality, but left his physical situation unchanged.
He remained under restriction for ten and a half years, although not always in
the same place or in the same conditions. In 1966, together with two others,
he was confined to Camp 5, Gonakudzingwa, where there was no contact with
other human beings other than occasional officials.16 For a period of
one year he was removed to Gwelo Prison to serve a sentence for a subversive
statement in a speech he had made at an earlier date. From 1969 onwards he
was permitted three-monthly visits from his wife and such of his children
as were under 14 years of age. In June 1974, as a consequence of the coup
in Portugal, he was transferred to Buffalo Range Prison (near Triangle) for greater security17
During these ten years he came before the public eye on only three occasions:
firstly, when he was flown to Salisbury on 29 October 1965 to discuss the
situation with Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister of Britain, during the
latter’s pre-UDI visit to Salisbury. The second occasion was in November 1968
when he was summoned to Salisbury to meet George Thompson, the
Commonwealth Secretary, and Maurice Foley, in the course of the further
negotiations that followed the HMS Fearless talks between Harold Wilson and
Ian Smith, the Rhodesian Prime Minister. His last emergence was on 10
February 1972 when he was interviewed by members of the Pearce Commission
Joshua Nkomo says that during his long period in restriction he thought deeply
on the future course of Nationalism. In one respect his attitude, if anything,
hardened. On the question of ‘majority rule’ he became unwilling to accept any
compromise. As he said later: “I would be silly to get anything short of majority
rule after suffering all those years.”18 He maintains that he also considered carefully the question of unity.19 In early 1970 he smuggled out a message to
James Chikerema in Lusaka. In this message he emphasised the need to end the history of disunity among the “Zimbabwe peop1e”. “This,” he wrote, “has created an international atmosphere that is not favourable to our cause,
especially since the rival groups are in reality fighting for the same thing. The
only difference has been personalities.”20
In November 1974 he was flown without warning to Salisbury where he was
informed by Mark Chona, President Kuanda’s envoy, that he was to travel
to Lusaka in the very near future. He says that at first he found the news
hard to grasp, but with that mental resilience and tenacity of purpose
that is a surprising hall—mark of so many of the long-detained nationalists,
he soon adjusted to the fact that he was back in the political arena. During
his visit to Lusaka the grouping of the various nationalist movements under
the banner of the ANC took place in December. Joshua Nkomo was a signatory
to the document that gave effect to this merger,21 and he was appointed a member of the Central Committee of the Council.
During the early months of 1975 he maintained a ‘low profile’, and refused
to be drawn when journalists asked him to comment on his own plans in the
light of the growing disunity in the ANC. He frequently stressed the need
for a common front,22 and the importance of holding an early congress
(as required by the Lusaka Declaration) to settle the question of leadership.
It was evident to all, however, that the rift was growing, and the
circulation by Dr Edson Sithole and Moton Malianga, in June, of a paper accusing Joshua Nkomo of ‘doing a deal’ with Ian Smith was a sure pointer to the
final split in the ANC.
He attended the Victoria Falls talks on 25 and 26 August 1975 as a leading
member of the ANC delegation. When, on 2 September, the appointment of
Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole and others to the ZLC was announced in Lusaka, he protested vigorously at what he maintained was an attempt “to usurp the powers
of the National Executive Committee”23 Following an emergency meeting of the National Executive Committee in Salisbury on 7 September — which passed
a resolution calling on Bishop Muzorewa to return to Rhodesia, and which called for a congress on 27 September — he was ‘expelled’ from the ANC by the
Bishop, an action which he described as “unconstitutional”. At the congress held
at Gwanzura Stadium, Highfield, on 27-28 September he was elected unopposed to the post of President of the ANC.
He visited Lusaka on 26 October to acquaint President Kaunda with the latest
developments in Rhodesia, and paid a similar visit to Dr Banda in Malawi on 5
November. On 13 November he left Salisbury for Dar-es-Salaam to have
discussions with President Nyerere. Following his return to Salisbury he
travelled to Maputo (formerly Lourenco Marques) on 25 November to meet
President Samora Machel.24 Towards the end of October 1975 he
started a series of meetings with Ian Smith designed to prepare the
ground for a full constitutional conference. On 9 November he presided over
a meeting of the National Executive at which recent outbreaks of violence in
townships in Salisbury and Bulawayo were condemned.
On 1 December he and Ian Smith signed in Salisbury a ‘Declaration of Intent’
to hold a constitutional conference with the minimum of delay. On 15
December he led a large ANC delegation to the first session of the conference.
During December he visited both President Amin and President Kenyatta, and
reported at a Press Conference in Highfield on 20 December that he had been
well received by both.
In early February 1976 he travelled to London where he had talks with James
Callaghan, then Foreign Secretary. On 27 February, when the talks in Salisbury
had reached what he described as “a crucial stage”, he met Lord Greenfield,
who had been sent out from London to gain first-hand knowledge of the
situation. It was at this time that he admitted that the nationalist
movement was receiving aid from eastern countries, because “the western
countries wouldn’t agree to help”. When the talks with Ian Smith collapsed on
19 March, Joshua Nkomo said that the breakdown had been on “the single and
fundamental issue of majority rule now”.25 He called for an interim government leading to majority rule in 12 months.
On 16 April he refused an invitation to go to Lusaka to attend talks called
for by Bishop Muzorewa in a bid to attain unity in the movement.
Ten days later, however, he was in Zambia for a round of talks with Dr Henry
Kissinger, the American Secretary of State. It was during this visit that it was announced that ZIPA — Zimbabwe People’s Army — rejected Nkomo as leader of the army.26
On 28 June a statement by Joshua Nkomo, claiming leadership of the ANC and
of ZIPA was read out at the OAU Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Port Louis,
Mauritius. In this statement Nkomo also said that the ANC was “determined to
maintain and escalate the fighting in Rhodesia”.27
On 12 July he released a statement in London to the effect that it was futile
to talk to the RF except ‘to discuss the mechanics of an immediate transfer
of political power to the majority’.28
During June, July and August 1976 he travelled widely outside Rhodesia, his
principal aim being to secure recognition of the ANC, under his leadership,
as the voice of the African people of Rhodesia. On 6 September he was present
at the summit conference called in Dar-es-Salaam by the Presidents of
Tanzania, Zambia, Mocambique, Angola and Botswana. At this conference,
which was attended by other Rhodesian nationalist leaders, much pressure
was applied by the Presidents for a unification of the various factions of
the ANC. Although the moves were unsuccessful, Nkomo said in Lusaka live
days later that he was prepared to talk “with whoever the ZANU faction
chooses as its leader in an attempt to remove the image of disunity”.29
Following Ian Smith’s acceptance of the principle of Majority Rule on 24
September 1976, Joshua Nkomo returned at once to Rhodesia to prepare his
ground for the conferences that lay ahead. He met Bishop Muzorewa on 2 October but the two men found it impossible to reach agreement on unity. A few
days later he flew to Maputo and Dar-es-Salaam, where he had discussions with
Robert Mugabe. On 9 October the two men announced the formation of a
Patriotic Front, and said in a joint statement that they “totally rejected”
the Kissinger proposals as a basis for discussion. They maintained that the
conference should be ‘chaired’ by a British Minister, and that Ian Smith
should only attend “as an extension of the United Kingdom delegation.” They
also called for the release of all political prisoners, the lifting of the
state of emergency and the abolition of all restrictions on political
activity — as the only means of creating “the necessary atmosphere for the
conference”.30 On his return to Rhodesia, however, Nkomo
made it clear that this statement was not to be construed as a refusal by
himself to attend the conference called for 25 October (at Geneva) with the
aim of setting up an interim government.
On 13 October Nkomo announced the names of 29 members of his group who
would accompany him to the Geneva talks as delegates, legal advisers,
political advisers, etc.31 Following the breakdown of the Geneva
Conference in December 1976, Nkomo remained outside Rhodesia. Reports
were received of visits made by him to a number of countries in Europe
Joshua Nkomo possesses the ability to inspire great loyalty and devotion
among his followers32 — a fact which even his political
enemies admit. His close associates say that the secret lies in his
‘common touch’, his capacity for talking to all types of men in a language
they can understand. This quality is apparent at his public meetings, where
he gives a very convincing portrayal of a politician who feels deeply for
the people he seeks to lead. His long service to the nationalist cause,33
and his recurrent ability to climb out of situations of near-defeat, have
enabled him to sustain a leading role in the political arena of his country.
Joshua Nkomo married in 1949. His wife, Johanna, comes from his own
birthplace in the Semokwe Reserve, and is a daughter of Chief Fuyane
and a granddaughter of Magwegwe, the chief councillor of Lobengula. His
eldest daughter, Thandiwe, who was born in 1954, is in Long Island, New
York, studying to be a pathologist. The second child, Tutani, who. was
born on 11 November 1955, has been in Budapest since 1973 studying
engineering. Sibangalizwe (“He who fights for his country” ) is 19
years old and is at present at college in Minnesota. The youngest child,
Sehlule, was born in 1964 after her father had been restricted. She is
a pupil at a Catholic mission in the Gwaai area.
1 One reason for his election was the hope that he would bring with him the
support of the majority of Ndebele.
2 This was the high point of Nkomo’s campaign to bring the Rhodesian issue
into the international arena. Nkomo has frequently been criticised for
remaining outside Rhodesia for prolonged periods, but his reply would be
that, until he started his overseas campaign, few people outside Africa
realised the special circumstances pertaining to Rhodesia. The vast majority
thought Britain would handle the issue in the same way as it had handled
Ghana and Nigeria.
3 See A Decade of Crisis by Morris Hirsch for details.
4 The Commonwealth Secretary, Duncan Sandys, took over towards the end
of the month.
5 The NDP’s Press Statement read: “We feel that the new provisions have
given us a certain amount of assurance that the country will not persue
policies which mean that Africans would be perpetually unable to control
their country . . . Above all, we are to have a new Constitution which is an
achievement resulting from the pressure of the NDP, a thing never before
thought of in this country.” (8 February 1961.)
6 See A Decade Crisis by Morris Hirsch for details.
7 Quoted in Crisis in Rhodesia by Nathan Shamuyarira.
8 The objective of which was to persuade Africans to register as voters under
the new Constitution.
9 According to Nathan Shamuyarira.
10 It is interesting to note that the arguments between those favouring the
maximum presence and effort within Rhodesia, and those believing that
“salvation” can only come from external action, still continue in the 1970s —
although in 1975-76 it was Joshua Nkomo who was operating from within
11 The “break-up” Conference was scheduled to start at the Victoria Falls in
12 Calling in at the Federal Dissolution Conference at the Victoria Falls on the
13 It is interesting to note that by himself remaining in the country, he virtually
ensured his own detention – a fate which his critics had often said he was anxious to avoid.
14 See A Decade of Crisis, p. 43 for full details.
15 The Appeal Court ruled that the Minister could not legally place people in
restriction in a place surrounded by a “protected area” (as was the case at
Gonakudzingwa). The Minister dealt with the problem by revoking the
order which had proclaimed the surrounding country a “protected area”.
16 His companions were Joseph Msika and Lazarus Nkala (killed in a road
accident in December 1975), both of whom have supported Nkomo’s
assertions about the group’s almost total isolation.
17 Gonakudzingwa is close to the Mocambique border.
18 The Rhodesia Herald, 28 November 1975. In discussing the question of a
“transition period” he made it clear that this should be no longer than the
time required to bring a new constitution into effect- “preparations for
elections, delimitations, and so on…”
19 See entry on Josiah Chinamano for similar thinking.
20 The Guardian, 12 January 1971. Nkomo‘s message led directly
to the formation of FROLIZI.
21The Agreement was signed by four members from each of the three
nationalist organisations (ZAPU, ZANU, FROLIZI).
22 Attending the OAU Conference at Dar-es-Salaam on 6 April as part of an
apparently harmonious delegation comprising Bishop Muzorewa, Rev. N. Sithole and James Chikerema.
23 The Executive Committee had been most anxious (ever since the Lusaka
Declaration of December 1974) that the political and militant wings of the
movement should be kept separate, and that no person should hold office in
24 For fuller details of his travelling during November 1975 see entry on Amon
25 Herald, 20 March 1976.
26 The Rhodesia Herald, 24 April 1976.
27 The Rhodesia Herald, 29 June 1976.
28 The Rhodesia Herald, 13 July 1976.
29 The Rhodesia Herald. 12 September 1976.
30 The Observer, 10 October 1976.
31 The Rhodesia Herald, 14 October 1976.
32 Members of various tribes have told the authors that Joshua Nkomo has
consistently worked to overcome tribalism in the movement.
33 It is interesting to note that Joshua Nkomo and Ian Smith have been active
in politics for a longer period than any other person — black or white —
now in the country.