Joshua Nkomo
Joshua Nkomo; drawing by David Levine

Here is a guess at the denouement of the Rhodesian saga. Sometime next year, after a scrappy general election with a 10 percent turnout, formal power will fall officially into the hands of Bishop Abel Muzorewa. He will “inherit” what was once Ian Smith’s army, replete with the Selous Scouts, the mixed-race tracker elite upon whom the bishop was once happy to lay automatic blame for any atrocity perpetrated, in battle. But the bishop will fall to control the war. Young white servicemen will begin to leave en bloc. It will be politically impossible for the bishop to rely on whites serving in the armed forces or the new black government while plans to conscripts blacks will be met with widespread resistance.

More damaging for Muzorewa: senior white officers will begin to leave: a weakening command structure will compound the problem of the white manpower shortage. The single black regiment, the Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR), will be unable to remain a coherent force in the absence of the old white command. The guerrillas, whose success has hitherto been strictly limited to the domination of the black civilian population but whose attempts to confront the Rhodesian army militarily have been remarkably ineffective, will begin at last to fill the power vaccum.

The next stage of the hypothesis is perhaps more alarming. There is no certainty that the two guerrilla armies that make up the Patriotic Front will agree to share power or to carve up territory. The two forces—ZANLA, the armed wing of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU, which has it’s haven in Mozambique, to the east; and Joshua Nkomo’s ZIPRA, the military branch of ZAPU, which infiltrates from camps in Zambia in the north and sometimes cuts down through Botswana in the west—are totally separate. The guerrilla armies may well fight each other, Muzoreqa and his RAR can try to hold the ring around the, two main towns but will probably find it more sensible to arrange an accommodation—because ethnic considerations outweigh ideology—with Mugabe. Some of the RAR will go to Nkomo, but most will join Mugabe.

The nature of the war could the alter sharply and Nkomo prove far better equipped to prosecute a conventional campaign. While Mugabe’s estimated 6,000 troops inside Rhodesia—the number could be as high as 9,000—were exhausted. Nkomo, who committed a mere 1,000 to the guerrilla war against fresh fighters into the battle—following the mass departure of whites. It is true that Nkomo represents a distinct minority so far as his ethnic ties, the territory he controls, and his personal popularity are concerned—although his national executive and central committee have a broad multiregional base. But, more to the point, the training of his forces has differed sharply from that or Mugabe’s. The Nkomo men are less committed ideologically than Mugabe’s, but more skillful and aggressive millitarily. Above all, they are far better equipped for a conventional, more mobile form of war. If, between January and March 1979, there is a rapid breakdown of law and order, Nkomo will probably make a push for the two main towns, Salisbury and Bulawayo.

It is worth recalling that in Angola none of the three movements—which had more or less developed their skills in guerrilla war—was well equipped for the small-scale conventional conflict which characterized the post-independence quarrel after the Portuguese army disappeared. But Agostinho Neto’s MPLA, largely urban-based, and a clear minority ethnically, with its rural support confined mainly to the Kimbundu people in the hinterland east of the capital of Luanda, had Cuban armored vehicles and tanks. Once the South Africans—whose small but highly mobile armored columns proved very effective—had turned tall. MPLA sensibly went for the towns, which, once taken, rapidly earned the movement OAU, UN, and general international recognition.

If Nkomo—with his stronger economic and diplomatic connections with the Western powers—holds the towns, it might not matter that Mugabe’s men control the majority in the countryside (who are, unlike most of Nkomo’s supporters, Shona-speaking people). In Angola, Savimbi’s UNITA, after all, seems to have retained the support of much of the largest tribal bloc, the Ovimbundu. But Angola’s neighbors Zaire and Namibia, along with Zambia, are ditching Savimbi by denying him supplies and a safe haven. Certainly Zambia’s Kaunda and possibly Mozambique’s Machel could do the same to Mugabe. The British and Americans, having wrong their hands during the Zimbabwean civil war, would probably recognize Nkomo’s government. His own entrepreneurial penchant and his links with such multinational operators as Tiny Rowland of the powerful Lonrho conglomerate would be emphasized. There would be a great influx of aid to “woo him away from his Soviet armorers.” The patrician Nkomo would magnanimously invite whites to return “to help rebuild Zimbabwe.”


All that, of course, is conjecture—though I believe it could turn out to be fact. The outside world may prevent Mugabe and Muzorewa from being suffocated. Perhaps the Patriotic Front will stick together—though Nkomo’s secret meeting with Smith in August drove an even sharper wedge between the PF allies. But one thing is clear. The chief issue in Zimbabwe will not be the problem of removing Ian Smith. It will be how to reconcile the blacks. As a political force—if not yet as a military one—the whites will probably slide inexorably out of the picture. At least four main black movements would be left behind—five if you count Smith’s friend Chief Chirau and probably nine if you include factions, some of which have been isolated or purged, within the parties of Muzorewa, Nkomo, and Mugabe.

Zimbabwean factionalism has been inspired by the mixed-up pressures of ethnicity, ideology, tactics, and personality. Despite the fiercely held convictions of Senator Jesse Helms and others in the West, ideology is the least potent of the four. It is true that at Mugabe’s ZANU Congress, held in Chimnio. Mozambique, last September, the party adopted “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung Thought” as the official doctrine, Mugabe has publicly expoused the single-party state as the “correct” model for Zimbabwe. There is little doubt, also, that Mugabe’s ZANU does embrace the largest contingent of Marxist supporters—almost all of whom, incidentally, look to China, not to the USSR, both as their material helper and moral guide. (The Sino-Soviet conflict is, however, yet another source of functionalism within the party.) Though Mugabe declares he wishes to preserve white skills in the new state, his emphasis on the radical redistribution of land and wealth and the destruction of existing institutions is hardly compatible with the aspirations of the average white.

But aside from rhetoric neither Mugabe nor any of his black rivals has spelled out even the vaguest sort of blueprint for future policy. Despite Soviet backing that has been far superior to any help Mugabe has won from Russia or from China, Nkomo and his senior men have consistently enjoyed excellent relations with multinationals such as Lonrho. Many of Nkomo’s national executive are conservative by any criterion. Now that they are allies of Smith, Muzorewa and the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole are naturally currying favor with whites inside Rhodesia, because the “internal” black leaders know that maintaining white morale and the readiness of young whites to fight for a “moderate” black government is vital.

Muzorewa’s party has no ideology. It has a sort of decent, plodding churchy flavor but it also manages to embrace members who call themselves Marxists. As with politicians throughout Africa, Muzorewa’s people have little aversion to the USSR for ideological or moral reasons, though the growing Russian presence on the continent may not be welcome. A senior Muzorewa official once told me how much he despised Solzhenitsyn—“because he is a traitor.” If Muzorewa and Sithole currently propagate a multiparty system it is largely for tactical reasons—to enlist the support of whites who have economic and military skills.

Ideological labels have a bizarre habit of switching from one nationalist uniform to another. Two years ago, Nkomo was in white eyes “the black you can talk to, a fat capitalist at heart”; Muzorewa, “the militant bishop,” was “the unwitting tool of Communist expansion”; while Sithole, “the fanatic who tried to assassinate Smith,” was beyond the ideological pale altogether. Now the whites pin those labels in exactly the reverse order. Though Mugabe comes closest to being an ideologue, each group is quite evidently prepared to embrace whatever “ideology” might—at a given tactical moment—help produce the fruits of power.

In the absence of long-term policies and ideologies, the personality of the lender has done much to create the distinctive tone of each party. Nkomo’s closest disciples are characterized by their total loyalty to him, the unquestioned founding father of black nationalism. His imposing size, his mixture of avuncular shrewdness and ruthlessness, his stubbornness tempered with pragmatism (his opponents call it opportunism), mark him as the most adaptable leader, who has conscientiously succeeded in maintaining the widest network of economic and diplomatic contacts, which spans every sort of lobby and ideology in East and West.

His flexibility, along with his undisputed headship of an important ethnic bloc (albeit a minority one), in contrast to the fickle support that the other three leaders have enjoyed among the majority tribes, ensures that Nkomo will remain the man that everybody—from Smith, to Mugnbe, from the US to the USSR—wishes to have as an ally and can have—if the gods are smiling. The shooting down of a civilian Air Rhodesia Viscount and the slaughter of survivors by Nkomo guerrillas have outraged the whites against Nkomo. But it is a fair bet—despite current white fury and the government’s promise of tougher action and lower words—that Smith will make sure his channels of communication with Nkomo are kept open.


But Nkomo’s autocratic style of leadership, his early choice to carry on politics from exile, and his “softness” toward the whites (he almost signed a deal with them in 1961 that not even Chirnu would contemplate today) brought about the first major nationalist split in 1963, when Sithole—accompanied by Mugabe, soon to be secretary-general—broke away and formed ZANU.

The manner in which Mugabe later ousted Sithole from the ZANU leadership in 1970 epltomizes the confused, conspiratorial, personality-conscious nature of Zimbabwean politics. What happened was a coup engineered by a four-strong minority of the ZANU central committee who happened to be incarcerated together with Sithole in a Rhodesian prison. Mugabe and three allies voted against Sithole and one disciple. It took another four years of bitter acrimony among assorted interested parties—the rest of ZANU, the guerrillas, the “front-line presidents” of Zambia and Tanzania—to establish a consensus that Mugabe was the new leader. In essence, Sithole fell because three of his fellow prisoners decided that his personality had lost its cutting edge. Friends say that on his release Sithole was devastated by the discovery that his wife had left him for another man. But his ambition has not been blunted, as his vehement rivalry with Muzorewn within the interim government has shown.

Mugabe is the angriest of the leaders and the quickest-witted. He was in prison for ten years, as were Nkomo and Sithole. Perhaps ill health and a tragedy in his private life—the refusal of the Rhodesian authorities to release him from detention in order first to visit his dying son, his only child, then to attend the funeral—have given his public voice a tinge of venom that is markedly lacking in his rivals. If his guerrillas are victorious. no doubt the image he once projected of a gentle Roman Catholic village schoolmaster will be repolished. But when he calls for Smith “and his fellow fascist murderers and black puppets” to be tried by people’s tribunals and hanged, many young blacks believe him—and they like it, too.

Muzorewa’s obvious and (to his friends) often embarrassing lack of intellectual glitter and political craft has paradoxically been one of his greatest assets. There is no contesting that in the last fifteen years he has come nearest to uniting the black people of Zimbabwe. when he conducted the 1972 campaign to say Kwetel (Not) to the joint proposals of lan Smith and Alec Douglas-Home for an exceedingly gradual erosion of white power—proposals whose popularity in Rhodesia was tested and found wanting by the Pearce Commission. Muzorewa was chosen as the figurehead leader precisely because he was not a politician. People despaired of ZANU-ZAPU factionalism, which they blamed on the established leaders. Muzorewa was, and by many people still is, accepted as the man of peace, the man of unity, and the man of the church—standing above the squabbles. His glow has begun to fade as his awkward alliance with Smith has shown him inept at wrenching real power for the blacks and at ending the war.

Sithole no longer knows exactly what part he is trying to play. The most crudile of the leaders and a respected contributor to the philosophy of black nationalism, he has surrendered his status as polemicisl to Mugabe; as a man of God, he must bow to Muzorewa; for the factionalism that has dogged the nationalist movement, he and Nkomo are generally held largely responsible: he has lost his guns to the Patrlotic Front. His claims to control the Vakomana, the “boys in the bush,” seem an empty boast.

No one can make any more than an informed guess at the respective sizes of the popular followings enjoyed by the various factions. But there is no doubt that personality and ideology shrivel into inxignificance as the tribal factor grows by the day. All the leaders have at one time striven to transcend ethnic differences. All have falled. The key reason is that, through geographical circumstance, the extensive efforts to recruit guerrillas have created two distinct tribal armles. That is one of the most alarming of all the ugly phenomena of the Rhodesian war.

The settlers have their own version of tribal history in which the warrior Ndebele people, the descendants of the Zulu, ravaged the country and carried off the women of the cleverer (“tricky,” “cheeky,” etc.) Shona-speaking tribes. This is of course a crude oversimplification. The tribal tensions are more complex but no less fierce. “Shona” is a linguistic term encompassing five main groups, which together make up nearly three-quarters of the black populace. The 1969 census finds the Shona-speaking people divided as follows: Karanga make up 25 percent of the entire black population; Zezuru 21 percent; Manyika 11 percent: Ndau 6 percent; and Korekore 5 percent. When we add others who say they are simply Shona, the Shona-speaking total rises to 75 percent of Rhodesian blacks. All these various Shona-speaking groups can be described as collections of fairly autonomous chieftainships.

The Ndebele, who speak their own quite distinct language, make up only 14 percent. But the Kalanga, originally a Shona group but one that was isolated from the parent body and has been largely absorbed within the Ndebele society, add another 7 percent. Ndebele chiefs were traditionally far more autocratic and held much greater power than their Shona counterparts, and Ndebele society has a more disciplined, rigid structure. Modern ZAPU and ZANU reflect these differences. The roots of ZAPU are sunk deep into the Ndebele-Kalanga minority, although Nkomo, who is a Kalanga, has assiduously maintained a broad transtribal national executive, on which a good three-quarters of the members are Shona. But it is the Ndebele-Kalanga who have solidly supported him through thick and thin.

In the last three years, intensive recruitment has sharpened the ethnic identities of the two guerrilla armies, Nkomo’s guerrilla and refugee camps are mainly in Zambia (another 3,000 men are being trained in Angola). During the last two years, since he ceased parleying with Smith, probably more than 20,000 blacks, mainly men of fighting age, have been recruited by Nkomo—almost entirely from the west of Rhodesia, where the Ndebele and Kalanga live. Similarly at least 95 percent of the 25,000 or so young men who are in Mugabe’s camps in Mozambique and Tanzania and originally crossed the eastern border into Mozambique are Shona-speakers. Nkomo’s army has a slightly richer tribal mix: perhaps 10 percent of his fighters act Shona, including his late guerrilla chief Alfred “Nikita” Mangena, who survived an assassination attempt from within the party in March and was blown up a few months later by a Rhodesian-planted land mine in Zambia, Mugabe has almost no Ndebele representation whatever among his military or his political leaders.

Past attempts to set up a joint command of the two armies have failed completely—often violently, inside Rhodesia there has been a growing number of small-scale clashes. Long before the secret Smith-Nkomo meeting in August, some of Mugabe’s ZANLA troops had been shouting Past Nkomol (Down with Nkomol) and had been accusing him of planning clandestine negotiations with the white leader. More striking still is the extent, over the last year, to which the ZANLA and Nkomo’s ZIPRA armies have overlapped territorially, each marching more than a hundred miles into the other’s traditional “territory,” which has been based mainly on tribe. Mugabe’s forces have come within thirty miles of Bulzwayo, the traditional headquarters of the Ndebele and of Nkomo; while Nkomo’s men have infiltrated Salisbury itself, the traditional Shona center (though both towns contain wide variety of ethnic groups). Both sides seem determined to stake out territorial claims before an Angola-like day of reckoning in 1979.

Nkomo’s ZAPU has benefited from greater unity and discipline than Mugabe’s ZANU, Nevertheless, there have been internal rivalries leading to shoot, outs. The killing in January 1977 of Nkomo’s then No. 2 man, Jason Z. Moyo, by a parcel-bomb is reckoned by most ZAPU supporters to have been “an inside job.” In ZAPU as in all the other parties, the guerrillas often resent the political bosses. And if Nkomo shows too great an eagerness to look both West and East, it is thought the Soviets may yet attempt to replace him with a more mallcable candidate. But his ZAPU fighters appear less fractious than ZANU’s men, and enjoy heavier Soviet-supplied firepower, greater mobility, and greater discipline. It is arguable that consistently heavy losses and unending infighting have made ZANU the weaker force, even though it derives from the majority Shona people.

By far the most important event in the history of ZANU was not the ousting of Sithole but the assassination of the party’s national chairman, the able lawyer Herbert Chitepo, on March 18, 1975, in Lusaka. A wave of disorder swept over ZANU. It has never recovered. An official Zambian report whose general conclusions seem irrefutable even though the report is flawed and its impartiality questionable, declared that the chief organizer of the assassination was Mugabe’s current commander in chief Josiah Tongogara, abetted by most of the ZANU guerrilla high command. Tongogara was locked up by the Zambian government along with about sixty senior ZANU cadres until just before the 1976 Geneva Conference. At least two hundred ZANU people were killed during infighting that accompanied Chitepo’s assassination. Some ZANU members who were involved put the figure as high as four hundred—far more, incidentally, than the total number of white troops killed by guerrillas in Rhodesia since Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence in 1965 (UDI). The Tongogara group, which opposed the 1974 “detente”—the attempt by Vorster and Kaunda to start a dialogue and to impose a ceasefire on Rhodesia—claims Chitepo was on its side, and that Kaunda and ZANU “reactionaries” killed him.

The result, in any case, was a major ZANU split—along mainly tribal lines. Tongogara’s group is largely Karanga and has long dominated Mugabe’s guerrilla leadership, though Mugabe himself is a Zezuru. Much of ZANU’s Manyiku contingent were ousted. Many joined Muzorewa, who is a Manyika, an was Herbert Chitepo. A few switched to Sithole, whose mother was Ndebele and father an Ndau, infighting has dogged ZANU ever since Chitepo died. Sithole claims that another 372 guerrillas were killed in Tanzanian camps in January 1977. Though Mugabe himself has sought to steer clear of tribal politics, factionalism within his party, based on the usual combination of tribe, ideology, and personality, has continued. In January 1977 he detained some one hundred cadres in Mozambique. A year later, the group imprisoned along with Tongogara in Zambia suffered its own split: another one hundred or so cadres, including Mugabe’s foreign secretary, his information secretary, his manpower secretary, as well as several lending political commissars and guerrilla leaders, were also detained in Mozambique.

It is this appalling record of violence and repression inside ZANU that makes other black Rhodesian groups (forget the whites) reluctant or afraid to accept. Mugabe as a negotiator. Mugabe’s supposed ideology does not particularly frighten Zimbabweans. It is simply that men who hold power within the party by the gun will be expected to rule Zimbabwe by the gun. Any delicate plan mooted by the Anglo-Americans appears to depend on a measure of mildness, good will, and a disavowal of force by parties who have little of mutual concern to unite them. Mildness has never been Tongogara’s forte.

The assertion by British and American rightwingers that Muzorewa and Slthole are the harbingers of “multiracial democracy” seems native. Whatever forms of government any faction may argue for, the bishop has the best record of tolerance, while Nkomo wins on discipline. Muzorewa’s ponderous method of taking decisions by consensus is both a strength and a weakness, just as Nkomo’s shrewd autocracy and pragmatism cuts both ways. The British have long hoped for an alliance of the two as the perfect formula: but their personalities seem incompatible, and Nkomo fears he would lose if there were a nationwide free vote.

The views of black Rhodesians, however, appear to count for less and less. There is little doubt, all the same, that Mugabe has been winning people over to him, as his guerrillas roam the countryside repeating the gospel of revolution. The people are mercilessly battered both by Smith’s security forces and by the guerrillas. They have been so deprived of rights to free political expression and organization that it is presumptuous to claim to know what they “really” want. I suspect from my own years in Rhodesla that most blacks would still prefer an entrepreneurial, more conservative mode of life closer to that of, say, Kenya, than to the austere “new” societies being built in Tanzania and Mozambique, where the historical influences are quite different. If the Rhodesian blacks are to take over Rhodesia’s powerful financial, agricultural, and mining institutions without destroying them, change will probably have to be evolutionary. It is an awkward fact that any change of that sort is likely to require the cooperation of Ian Smith as agent.

Despite the reservoir of hatred and racial antagonism that Smith’s legislation has filled during the past fifteen years, if the old white party machine had wholeheartedly committed itself to black rule after March 3—even allowing for the disproportionately favorable treatment offered to whites under the proposed new voting plan—there was a high chance the “internal” scheme could have worked. “I thought they’d pulled the rug from under our feet,” one of the State Department’s wisest Rhodesian experts confessed. “But there has been a total failure of imagination.”

That, of course, is what racism is all about. After years of fighting for white supremacy, the white machine, having expressed an official desire to engineer a total volte-face, finds it does not have the will to achieve it. Bishop Muzorewa lacks the force of personality to drag the party machine along. The whites still cannot understand the fundamental paradox; that only a real transfer of power to the blacks can allow the whites to retain a measure of influence and prosperity.

If Smith will not be the instrument of evolutionary change, what can be done? If the struggle means on, there is little chance that Mugabe’s or Nkomo’s troops, whichever win the day either separately or in tandem, will hold free elections. So long as Zambia and Mozambique support guerrillas, there is little chance the Smith-Muzorewa-Sithole alliance will control the country for long. All Zimbabwe is left with is the Anglo-American plan for a mutually agreed settlement. But whether or not there is an all-party conference under the aegis of Britain and the US, by the time Smith is ready to make serious concessions to the guerrillas, the guerrillas will consider themselves ready for total military victory. There are too many factions for a cozy accommodation which ultimately depends, like the Anglo-American plan, on the “good will” of incompatible partners to share power. Even if the warring groups accept the principle of a “neutral ring-holding force” supplied by the UN, it is understood these forces will fight “only in self-defense”—whatever that means. The ring cannot in that manner be held.

One solution would require a unilateral decision by the British, whether Smith. Mororewa or Mugabe like it or not, to stage what amounts to a preemptive coup: a forced reimposition of Britain upon Salisbury and a reinstatement of the primacy of the British crown, which after all set the entire problem in motion in 1923 when it granted “self-government” in what was then Southern Rhodesia to its tiny white settler minority—then only about 20,000 strong. The British, before they departed from their possessions, have previously insisted on some show of democratic elections. To do this in Rhodesia, a ring-holding force would first have to fight to reimpose British authority. A large part of the force would have to be British, with a substantial Common-wealth contingent.

Zambia’s Kaunda would accept this plan; so, therefore, would Nkomo. Smith is too weak to complain. If Mugabe prevailed upon Machel to assist him further he would have to be met with force. But I doubt Machel, beset by his own problems in Mozambique, would back Mugabe forever. Nor do I believe he would call for Cuban or Soviet succor. It would then be up to the British to attempt what might be impossible: the rebuilding of a national Zimbabwean army whose leaders might be prepared to back a civilian government elected by the free vote of the people.

Of course that will not happen. Neither a Labour nor a Conservative government would risk a single soldier in Rhodesia. Diplomacy is ultimately no substitute for naked power.

This Issue

October 26, 1978