COMRADE Elson Mupamawonde (born 1950 in Bikita), whose first Chimurenga name was Cde Dhuurani before it was changed to Cde Soft Magarasadza, went to school up to Standard Six at Mupamawonde High School. Later he moved to Salisbury after securing a job as a “spanner boy”. While in Harare he joined ZAPU and ZANU youths who were being led by Cde Munodawafa (ZAPU) and Cde Edson Sithole (ZANU) to campaign for the “No” vote as Smith plotted to impose a fake government comprising few blacks in Parliament.
In this interview with our Deputy Editor Munyaradzi Huni (MH), Cde Magarasadza narrates his journey to Morogoro in 1972 where he received military training. Later he was sent to Russia for further military training. On their return from Russia they arrived in Mozambique to join the Zimbabwe People’s Army (ZIPA), but this idea by the Frontline States failed to work. Read on to understand why . . .
MH: Comrade, can you briefly tell us why and how you joined the liberation struggle?
Cde Soft Magarasadza: I was working in Salisbury as a spanner boy and all the mechanics were white. As I was working, there were elections, I think in 1971 that we called “Yes” or “No” elections. As people prepared for those elections, youths from ZAPU and ZANU came together to incite people to vote no. I joined these youths and we went on several strikes in protesting against the colonial regime. The Smith regime wanted to give us fake freedom and so we wanted people to vote against this fake government. In this fake government, Smith had put a few blacks for example from my home area, a businessman called Makaya was already in Parliament but this was all to make it appear as if Smith was giving blacks some power.
MH: You are saying youths from ZAPU and ZANU joined hands in this fight against the “Yes” vote. Who are some of the leaders who were coordinating this resistance?
Cde Magarasadza: There was Cde Munodawafa from ZAPU and Cde Edson Sithole from ZANU. During this time, we were operating as one and so I can’t say I was ZAPU or ZANU by this time. Other leaders were still in prison and so Cde Munodawafa and Cde Edson Sithole were our leaders in coordinating this resistance.
MH: So eventually, how did you join the liberation struggle?
Cde Magarasadza: After these strikes and sabotage around Salisbury, police got our names and started looking for us. We were advised by someone called Hlongwane, who used to work at Snake Park Hotel. He told us to urgently leave Salisbury and go to Bulawayo to see some contact person in Tshabalala. We left Salisbury and went to Bulawayo but we didn’t get to Tshabalala. Soon after disembarking from the train, we were ordered to follow some comrade. This contact person already knew that we were coming and he had made arrangements. This comrade advised us to go to Dunlop and get a lift to Plumtree. We did as was instructed and in no time we were on our way to Plumtree. In Plumtree, we disembarked from the vehicle and walked in the forest until we crossed into Botswana.
MH: Who were you with?
Cde Magarasadza: I was with my brother called Goronga, who later died in Zambia, there was also Chikono from Bikita and I think two or three others. Once we got into Botswana we went to Francistown. Before we left Bulawayo, we had been told that ZAPU and ZANU were united in Botswana. We were told to look for an office where they were taking recruits from Rhodesia. When we got to Francistown, we were surprised that ZAPU and ZANU were operating separately. There was a Botswana policeman recruiting ZAPU comrades and another Botswana policeman recruiting ZANU comrades. Their job was to record the recruits as they arrived. And so when we arrived, the policeman recording ZANU recruits was not there. This policeman recording ZAPU recruits actually told us that ZANU yakafa kudhara, join ZAPU. After this he recorded our names and all our details. This was in 1972.
After this, the then ZAPU representative in Francistown, Cde Dumiso Dabengwa came. When he arrived he said to us; “feel at home comrades”. That was my first time to hear the word comrade. We actually had to search in the dictionary what the word meant. Dabengwa then went and organised tickets for us to fly to Zambia. He bought us some suits to put on and he gave us briefcases written “UNESCO”. We were supposed to appear like students because we were going to use a commercial flight to Lusaka, Zambia. I need to tell you that when we got to Bulawayo and were told that we were to walk for about 20 km in Plumtree, two recruits decided to go back to Salisbury.
So we got into this commercial flight and went to Lusaka. We were welcomed at Lusaka International Airport by Elliot Masengo, who was the chief of reconnaissance in ZAPU by that time. He was from Mhondoro. Elliot Masengo was his Chimurenga name. After welcoming us we were taken to Mwembeshi which was a transit camp in Zambia. We were given uniforms.
MH: There is always this talk about ZAPU being for Ndebeles and ZANU for Shonas, was this prevalent during this time?
Cde Magarasadza: You know from Bikita our family later relocated to Muzarabani and I knew that ZANU by this time was already fighting the Rhodesians in Muzarabani. And, yes, the talk about ZAPU being for Ndebeles and ZANU for Shonas was already there. By this time ZAPU was already fighting the colonial regime in Victoria Falls and so on. But the war by this time was still restricted mainly along the Zambezi Valley. As you may know, the Zambezi River was under South African police. They are the ones who used to patrol along the river. The Rhodesians, you could find them on the Rhodesian side.
MH: Let’s go back to your journey when you got to Mwembeshi.
Cde Magarasadza: Later we were taken for training at Morogoro. Our training went on for nine months. Some of our instructors included Sam Fakazi, who was the camp commander; Jevan Maseko, was the Chief of Staff, Kgagisa in medicine; Dhubu, who taught us topography; Jack Mpofu, who taught us military tactics; Sigoge, who taught us physical fitness together with Mike Reynolds, who was Coloured. Rodwell became an instructor soon after his training.
So we got training in all these areas including political orientation. The leader of these comrades was Major Dakho from Ghana. He had been seconded by the OAU Liberation Committee led by Hashim Mbita from Tanzania.
MH: In terms of political orientation, what exactly did they teach you?
Cde Magarasadza: They told us that the world is divided into two parallel lines which will never meet – East and West. In the Eastern world, there is means of production to the majority whilst the Western world says means of production to the minority. Eastern world we are talking of Russia and China and the West we are talking of Europe and the US. I vividly remember these teachings because the instructors told us that we need to free Zimbabwe so that the means of production is for the majority and not minority. The British through companies like Lonrho were saying means of production to the minority in Rhodesia.
MH: By this time you were not able to speak Ndebele. Didn’t you face any challenges due to the language barrier?
Cde Magarasadza: No, not at all. The system was that if you are in a group comprising mainly Shona comrades you were supposed to speak Shona but if you in group with many Ndebeles, you were supposed to speak Ndebele. This is how the leadership ensured that we quickly learnt Ndebele. You were supposed kudzidzira zviripo ipapo and indeed, in no time I was able to speak Ndebele and up to this day I can speak fluent Ndebele.
MH: You also told me that the ZAPU leadership at that time comprised many Shonas?
Cde Magarasadza: As you may know, ZAPU was formed by Shona people. People like (Samuel Tichafa) Parirenyatwa, (James) Dambaza Chikerema, Willie Musarurwa, (Daniel) Madzimbamuto and many others. This was before the split of ZAPU. The British then came with their divide and rule tactics. Joshua Nkomo was the leader of ZAPU and after the split, Ndabaningi Sithole took over as the leader of ZANU. Ndabaningi himself was also ZAPU in the beginning. The split was engineered by the British policy of divide and rule.
What I can tell you is that as Shonas in ZAPU we were treated fairly. You know Nikita Mangena was from Mberengwa? He was a Shona. He was even related to Josiah Tongogara. He was Tongogara’s muzukuru. Mangena was among the intelligent and brave comrades in the leadership of ZAPU. He could speak English zvekuti munosara matsvaga dictionary. He was the overall commander of ZIPRA – Alfred Nikita Mangena- what a commander! The political commissar was another intelligent commander, Lookout Masuku. Chief of Training was Ambrose Mutinhiri. Chief of Artillery was Cde Conary – he is still alive and was related to former president Mugabe. Chief of Engineering was Cde Mathe, the one who was with Mangena during that landmine explosion. He is blind but still alive. Chief of Transport was Erick Nyawera from Mutare. If you remember when he died, Joshua Nkomo went to his funeral. He was known as Colonel Nyawera. You can see most of these leaders were Shona. Valerio Sibanda was the deputy in reconnaissance. Dabengwa was then the Chief of Intelligence – the Black Russian – KGB.
So our training took nine months. At Morogoro, like I told, you we were taught everything including administration. We were trained to be leaders. We were using small rifles – AK-47 and LMG. We also received training in using bazookas, 82mm mortar and 60mm mortar.
MH: So you can operate all these weapons?
Cde Magarasadza: Yes, up to this day. I later specialised in Grad-P in Moscow, Russia. Ask those who know they will tell you that the Grad-P was deadly. You can hit Chitungwiza from Harare using this weapon. In Moscow there was a section of artillery, engineering, anti-air craft and medicine. I was in the artillery section, that’s why I specialised in Grad-P, B10, Gun 75 and so on.
After training in Morogoro that is when we were sent to Russia. This was now 1974 during time of détente. During this time, the war had stopped and so our leaders said we should take the opportunity to go for further training. During this détente, the war had stopped because there were efforts to ensure that ZIPRA and ZANLA fight the liberation struggle as one team. This later led to the formation of ZIPA in 1976. ZIPA was a combination of ZIPRA and ZANLA but as I will tell you, it never worked for long. The commander of ZIPA was Rex Nhongo, deputised by Nikita Mangena.
MH: We will get to this ZIPA narrative later. Tell us more about this détente.
Cde Magarasadza: The détente was the idea of the Frontline States. They wanted ZAPU and ZANU to fight the war together. That is the time we were sent to Moscow for further military training. My specialty was artillery from B10 to Grad-P. In my section we were 10 – there was Bartholomew Gutu, Dry Pershia or Chizema from Mhondoro. He now lives in Highfield. Simangaliso, who later remained in ZANLA after the failure of ZIPA, Chimbambaira also remained in ZANLA and others I can’t remember their names. During training, Bartholomew Gutu was the leader. He now owns a farm kwaRoy – turn-off Zaka and Bikita. I once visited him after he invited me there recently. Our trainer was a Russian called Mayoror Kubiski. He would speak Russian and our translator from Egypt would translate into English. There were other English-speaking liberation movements from Yemen, Namibia, then Arab-speaking movements from Palestine, then Portuguese-speaking movements from Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique. We were all at the same training centre but doing our things differently. There were other Spanish-speaking movements from Venezuela. Our training centre was in Ukraine near the Black Sea.
MH: Tell us a bit more about this Grad-P.
Cde Magarasadza: This Grad-P you can put it into 16 barrels or eight barrels and you can trigger it from 50 metres away. You can hit Chitungwiza with maximum effect from Harare. It can destroy a building with eight floors to the ground. It can hit the roof top of the eight-floor building and drill down to the ground floor and then explode. It can crack several concrete floor then explode. You can put it on concussion charge. There is the normal charge that once it comes into contact with something it explodes then concussion charge that allows it to drill down before exploding. This weapon is massive and can cause total destruction. You know if you fire it from Harare to Chitungwiza, as they fly, anoridza muridzo such that those living along the way will know pane something big chapfuura pano.
The training in Russia was from mid-1974 up to December 1975. We flew back to Dar es Salaam. By this time my Ndebele was now fluent. We were then flown to Chingodzi Airport in Mozambique. We were a contingent of 60 comrades with Bartholomew Gutu as our commander. Gutu, myself and six others we were selected to go and join instructors at Tembwe One. This was during ZIPA but after some challenges, we were taken to Barrage Camp still in Mozambique.
MH: Can you tell us a bit more about this ZIPA?
Cde Magarasadza: The ZIPA structure resembled the style adopted by Samora (Machel) following the death of (Eduardo) Mondlane. We were saying “pasi nemapoliticians and pamberi neHigh Command”. ZIPA, as I told you, was headed by Rex Nhongo, deputised by Nikita Mangena, Chief of Operations was Cde Elias Hondo, deputised by Jevan Maseko, Chief of Training was Ambrose Mutinhiri, deputised by someone from ZANLA, Chief of Logistics was Report Mphoko deputised by someone from ZANLA and so on.
MH: Why were you saying “pasi nemapoliticians?”
Cde Magarasadza: The politicians were causing a lot of problems. You see the Frontline States wanted us to work together, I mean ZIPRA and ZANLA, but the problems were coming from the politicians. As the fighting forces we didn’t have a problem working together. ZIPA was a very good idea and even Tongogara accepted it. We were supposed to be united. The politicians were causing divisions and I think the Scotland Yard in Britain fuelled the divisions.
MH: Can you tell us your operations under ZIPA?
Cde Magarasadza: We operated under ZIPA with the leader being Cde Makasha in Gaza. His deputy was Cde Stopper. These were our commanders at the war front. The problems started at the war front because the ZIPRA and ZANLA tactics were different. ZANLA wanted to walk in group and as ZIPRA we thought that was dangerous because the Rhodesians would easily track us. Also, ZANLA, maybe due to confidence, didn’t believe much in reconnaissance. No wonder why ZIPA didn’t last long and I will tell you why. Nikita Mangena and Rex Nhongo went to China to source for weapons. When they got there, China said we don’t know this ZIPA, we know ZANLA. Nikita then said “Ok, kwako Rex kuChina zvaramba, let’s go kwedu kuRussia”. They went to Russia and Russia said we know ZIPRA and not ZIPA. They all refused to give ZIPA weapons. We got stuck. From this trip, Nikita came to Maputo and without wasting time went back to Dar es Salaam. He was abandoning ZIPA. That is when we discovered that ZIPA was not going to work. Jevan Maseko left and went to Lusaka through Tete.
About 40 of us from ZIPRA were later disarmed and we were kept at some farm called Mapai. Frelimo was guarding us as if we were under arrest.
MH: Before it got to all this, tell us briefly a bit more about your operations under ZIPA. Did you actually manage to wage some battles together?
Cde Magarasadza: We had very few battles because the Rhodesian helicopters quickly spotted us and they were all over the place. They managed to displace us. We went in different directions. From there the divisions between ZIPRA and ZANLA became well pronounced. We failed to agree on quite a number of issues with our ZANLA comrades. That’s when we were disarmed and taken to this Mapai farm. While at the farm, our leaders came and briefed us that ZIPA had failed to get support from China and Russia. I remember one night Ambrose Mutinhiri came and gave us weapons. The Frelimo comrades didn’t see what was happening. They just thought he had come to brief us. He came with the weapons in a Land Rover as the Chief of Training. So he armed us during the night. The next morning when Frelimo saw that we were now armed, they ran away. We had been given a password “Sporo Njanji” to use as we walked from Mozambique to Botswana. Bartholomew Gutu commandeered us as we left Mozambique. We crossed to Matipi No. 1, Matipi No. 2, Libix Farm until we got to Beitbridge somewhere near Vice-President Mohadi’s home area. This journey from Mozambique to Botswana took us two months.