General Tongo and the Millennial Disconnect


Today Josiah Magama Tongogara, the notable guerilla, who died on the doorstep of independent Zimbabwe, occasionally lands cameo roles in the showbiz circuit.

Around this time last year, Zanla’s foremost strategist was commandeered for effect in Junior Brown’s “Tongogara,” although only the soldier’s bloodshot eyes make it into the rapper’s bars.

Andy Brown’s “Tongogara” has been the default vote-counting soundtrack since 2002, making it potentially the most hypertensive file in ZBC’s drawers.

It is not just the Browns who compulsively salute Zimbabwe’s Che Guevara.

Mbira and sungura artistes have also foregrounded the Zanla chief of defence in their Chimurenga homages.

General Tongo’s shelf life in youth culture goes decades before his celebrity avatar on Harare’s hit parade, especially since his most recurring speech burns with urgency to secure the future for young people’s ambitions.

“I am dying to see a change in the system, that’s all. I will like to see the youths — black, white — enjoying together, that’s all,” the Zanla commander stutters through his television interview.

Although this is probably obscured by his military deportment, complete with a mane that threatens to leave a steel comb gap-toothed, Cde Tongo is a youth icon, who made his political debut in his early 20s and assumed the leadership of the war at 29.

He is, therefore, a ringing indictment on youths who outsource political responsibility to the elders, blind to the fact that Zimbabwe was founded by young people, especially for young people.

He stood up to Frantz Fanon’s challenge for every generation to discover and fulfil its purpose, out of relative obscurity, and stands to troubleshoot the post-nationalist, lumpen proletariat tendencies that spread behind the excuse of age.

This Independence, Literature Today claims Cde Tongo back to the league of young achievers in special correspondence with his posthumous memoir, “Tongogara in His Own Words.”

The inestimable trove, almost entirely the words of Zanla’s chief of defence, was published in 2015 by the African Publishing Group in support of the Josiah Magama Tongogara Legacy Foundation, and carries a foreword by President Robert Mugabe.

It shores up Tongogara material in the public record, hitherto mainly comprising scattered references in books and few full-length videos, and sets forth his nationalist vision and title role in the liberation struggle.

General Tongo was fired up by the need to dismantle the structural barriers stacked against the youths in his time. The alienation of blacks from educational and professional spaces fast-tracked his civic engagement and ideological maturation.

His revolutionary story begins with his inability to pursue secondary education in Rhodesia despite passing his Standard 6 examination, apparently because the schools inspector found his views distinctly anti-European during a public debate.

The inspector was not just opposed to academic freedom, but was also bent to keep the majority of Africans out of the classroom, thereby greasing the rungs to upward mobility and economic equality.

“There was nothing peculiar or extraordinary about the problems of schooling which I had to face. Most African boys and girls who grew up in colonial Rhodesia at this time faced the same problem.

“Only 1 out of 100 children who entered school were able to continue in school after the first five years; only one in 1 000 were able to enter secondary school,” he says.

General Tongo observes that the bottleneck was designed to create a large number of literate labourers with a maximum of five years in school, with survivors of the system mostly assigned to the civil service.

Having been shut out of school, without requisite papers to obtain an education north of the border, young Josiah perches on a coal train from Hwange, and dusts up for a new life in Lusaka.

Thousands of youths similarly denied breath by Rhodesia’s white supremacist regime would readily join the liberation movement across the border and claim back their rights and prospects.

There are starkly contrasting narratives on the kind of leader General Tongo was, with some characterising him as a ruthless commander, who could not countenance dissent and objectified female comrades, while others are partial to his military prowess and statecraft.

The intellectual record of the revolution must be progressively updated as these varied perspectives will humanise national heroes and equip future leaders to learn more gainfully from the past without the mythic veil that so often drapes it.

General Tongo is often described as a commanding presence at the Lancaster House negotiating table. He died less than a week after the signing of the agreement which effected ceasefire and inaugurated the transition to independent Zimbabwe.

He called the conference a second front brought about by the liberation forces who buried racial supremacy and assured a proud and free future for the people of Zimbabwe. Like Moses, he would only see the land of the fathers from a distance.

Tongogara is said to have surprised Smith on the first day of the negotiations with a childhood anecdote about the latter’s mother. “If I get home and the old lady is still alive, that would be one of the greatest things for me — to say hello, ask her about the sweets and whether she has still got some for me.”

In the memoir, he recalls visiting his uncle who worked at the Smith family’s general store and being lavished with sweets and biscuits by the matron. But it was not enough to wash away the sour taste of imperialism. Principles ran deeper than personalities as Tongogara’s military leadership razed down the racist system presided over by Smith.

The land and education were travesties that occurred to him bitterly and he took it upon himself to reverse the wrong done to his parents and to his people. “Land, land, education, land,” would be his ringing demand for a dispossessed future.

“My grievances were more based on the question of oppression which I mainly had seen from my own parents, from my own people, particularly in the deprivation of land. I used to listen to my parents talking about it.

“And also, even my elder brother failed to get a place for school, and we used to talk about this, not only my brother but even other friends. And this is the education side, and the land,” he tells David Martin on the sidelines of the Lancaster House negotiations.

President Mugabe believes Tongogara would take pride in the majority Government’s accomplishments in the areas of education, skills development, health, infrastructural development and the land reform programme.

As the journey continues in the 21st century, the young people of Zimbabwe must assume a title role in statecraft and economic development, guided by stellar accomplishments of youth icons like Josiah Magama Tongogara. We must troubleshoot the millennial disconnect.

Happy Independence!

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