What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part III: Too late for change

The third instalment in this series on the left in Zimbabwe looks at Wilfred Mhanda, the Vashandi and political education.

In his novel Amulet, Robert Bolaño wrote: “The birth of history can’t wait. If we arrive late you won’t see anything, only ruins and smoke, an empty landscape, and you’ll be alone again forever…”
The family, upbringing and education of Wilfred Mhanda, who went under the alias Dzinashe Machingura, meant that he was fated not to be the manonoko about whom Bolano writes. “Manonoko” is Shona for a person who arrives late, and the name sometimes given to babies not born on time, those who linger in their mothers’ wombs for longer than expected.

Mhanda was born in 1950, and so belongs to the same generation as the Tsvangirai. But unlike the trade unionist, Mhanda is one of the thousands of brave young men and women who didn’t stand idle while history happened, people who, square mile by square mile, pushed back white Rhodesia until Ian Smith had no choice but to negotiate majority rule, something he had said would never happen, not in a thousand years, not in his lifetime. 

Mhanda’s political education began early. In his autobiography, Dzino: Memories of a Freedom Fighter, he recounts the occasion when, in 1957, his father – a man with a “keen interest in politics” – brought home posters of Kwame Nkrumah with the inscription “The Gold Coast Becomes Ghana” and pinned them up in the family lounge. When Mhanda grew older, his father gave him African Nationalism, the celebrated but banned book by founding Zimbabwean nationalist Ndabaningi Sithole. 

Part of Mhanda’s primary education was at Dadaya Mission, a school founded in 1934 by liberal missionary and educator Garfield Todd, a New Zealand immigrant to Southern Rhodesia. The man was so progressive that Mhanda remembers him being “lifted shoulder high by the students to the chants of ‘mwana wevhu’, ‘son of the soil,’ the rallying cry of African nationalism”.

Even though Ishe Komborera Africa, the Shona rendition of Enoch Sontonga’s anthemic hymn Nkosi Sikelela Africa, was banned, it was a school playlist. Another popular song at the school had the refrain, “Zimbabwe must be saved, Zimbabwe must be saved, the Holy Spirit must come down, and Zimbabwe must be saved”.  

Mhanda was stirred. “We were being taught defiance: to sing banned songs and refer to Rhodesia as Zimbabwe. Few other schools can have done the same.”

By the time he finished high school, Mhanda was thoroughly politicised. In March 1970, when Smith declared Rhodesia a republic, Mhanda joined the protests, attracting the attention of the Special Branch of the British South African Police. “I trace my active political involvement back to this protest,” he writes.   

No sooner had he enrolled as a natural sciences student at the University College of Rhodesia (now the University of Zimbabwe) than he had joined Zanu’s underground cell and, after a demonstration, he was arrested. He skipped bail and fled to Botswana before ending up in Tanzania for military training. 

What happened next propelled Mhanda and his comrades to the centre of Zimbabwe’s only ever viable socialist utopia. In March 1975, Herbert Chitepo, the national chairman of Zanu, was killed in a car bombing.

Some claimed it was a hit by the Central Intelligence Organisation, Zimbabwe’s ‘secret police’, but former Zambia’s president Kenneth Kaunda attributed it to Zanu’s internal struggles. Kaunda’s police arrested Josiah Magama Tongogara, Zanu’s secretary for defence, and about a 1 000 other fighters. 


It was Tongogara’s absence that allowed Mhanda, Sam Geza and other Marxist intellectuals to take control of the military and refugee camps in Tanzania and Mozambique, and establish Vashandi (Shona for “workers”), an idealistic workers’ movement that thrived in the mid-1970s.  

In some ways, as some have argued, the members of Vashandi were the sons and daughters of the workers, trade union organisers of the 1940s and 1950s, people such as Charles Mzingeli, Reuben Jamela, Benjamin Burombo and Joshua Nkomo, who fought for the rights of workers and decent houses. 

Most of the Vashandi had graduated from high school, some had enrolled at university and later abandoned their undergraduate studies, and a few had graduate qualifications, like the movement’s co-founder, Geza, who had a masters degree in economics from Oxford. These guerilla intellectuals studied the works of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong.

The paid scant regard to Shona metaphysics, which they dismissed as “superstition”. They introduced, in the words of Geza, “scientific war”. 

Pedagogue and war veteran Fay Chung, who was in the same camps as these guerrillas, wrote in her struggle memoir, Re-living the Second Chimurenga: “This younger group of military leaders had been influenced by the ideas of Marx and Lenin, and sincerely believed themselves to be participating in a revolution that would overthrow not only colonialism, but also the bourgeois capitalist form of government.

This was quite a different objective from that of the old nationalists of the 1950s and 1960s who had wanted African representation, but without major changes in the form of government.” 

When New Frame interviewed Geza, he broke down the ideological void of African nationalism in the years before Vashandi took control of the guerilla movement. “We were in agreement about removing the whites, but we weren’t sure what we do next.  [We had not answered questions like] when we are free, what do we next; when we have state power, what do we do with it. But we thought, as long we remove the whites, that should be sufficient.” 

Before the assumption of “scientific war”, military tactics and strategies were mediated by masvikiro, spirit mediums, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Often when guerrillas arrived in an operational area, they first consulted with the local spirit medium. The medium, as the district’s tutelary spirits, would give permission and then offer general and logistical advice.

The medium might warn of a police post nearby, a cave that could be used as a hideout, or a particularly racist farmer who might make their tour of duty difficult.  

When the Rhodesian Front cottoned on to this, it paid the mediums to reveal the guerillas’ hideouts, how many of them there were, the calibre of their weaponry, their modus operandi. This made operations suicidal. Geza explained: “The Vashandi then said, ‘We don’t want hondo yemasvikiro, [the spirit mediums’ war]. We want a scientific war.’

As soon as we took out the svikiro element, things started succeeding. The enemy then didn’t have the initiative – the offensive was with us.”

It was not just Vashandi’s approach to chimurenga – Shona for revolutionary struggle – that made the movement admirable, but its leadership model was intrinsically democratic, with little trace of the hierarchical fastidiousness preferred by the old nationalist guard. During the Vashandi era, in a radical rupture from the practice of the old nationalists, women could train as fighters. Gone was the time when the military patriarchy saw them only as porters, beasts of burden, carrying guns and ammunition to the front, or, as concubines, carrying their sagging tummies at night.

The Vashandi, anticipating feminism in Africa, said women were to be trained and deployed to the front as fighters, placing them on par with their male counterparts. 

Political education

All of this wouldn’t have been possible without a school, the Whampoa Ideological College, named after the military academy in China where Tongogara and Mhanda had trained. “We said, let’s teach our soldiers about the society we want to achieve. We are fighting a war for social transformation.

This is where ideology comes in. We were not fighting a war to replace a white oppressor with a black oppressor,” explained Geza. Every guerrilla, regardless of rank, was required to attend classes. The courses sometimes ran for up to four months, but could be truncated to three weeks to enable people to be deployed to the front. 

As all of this was going on, Robert Mugabe, who had been let out of prison, was already in Quelimane, a small town on the Mozambican coast, where he was under unofficial house arrest. Mozambican president Samora Machel didn’t trust the bespectacled nationalist, especially the way he had assumed leadership of Zanu in one of Ian Smith’s jails. Thousands of kilometres away, in Zambia, Tongogara was also in prison, still being held for Chitepo’s assassination. Both were conservative, old-style nationalists, and the two would collaborate in the crushing of Zimbabwe’s socialist idyll.

In time, Mugabe consolidated his hold over the movement and helped secure Tongogara’s release from Kaunda’s jail. These two would connive in snuffing out Vashandi’s revolutionary impulses.

After the Geneva Conference of 1976, which revealed the extent of the decline of the organisation’s relationship with both Mugabe and Tongogara, Vashandi met with the latter in Beira. According to Chung, “the place had already been surrounded by Tongogara’s soldiers, and the Vashandi were captured and imprisoned”. Gone was their promise.

This is part three of a five-part series through our northern neighbour’s tradition of leftist politics, from pre-independence to the rising tide of neoliberalism in the post-Mugabe era.

Read more:
– What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part I
– What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part II: Less than conscientised
What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part IV: Mugabe’s only constant
What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part V: The struggle dreams in mbira

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.