Joshua Mqabuko Nyongolo Nkomo (June 19, 1917 – July 1, 1999) was the leader and founder of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union from the Ndebele tribe. He was affectionately known in Zimbabwe as Father Zimbabwe, Umdala Wethu, Umafukufuku, or Chibwechitedza (“the slippery rock”) and is widely recognized as the first black leader in what became Zimbabwe. Educated in South Africa where he befriended Nelson Mandela, he returned to what was then Rhodesia in 1948, as an official with the railway union. He founded a series of freedom movements, culminating in the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) in 1962. All were banned by the colonial authorities. A split the following year with fellow revolutionary, Robert Mugabe, led to years of bitter rivalry between these two men. Both spent most of the next decade in prison. Released due to pressure from South Africa in 1974, Nkomo led his supporters in the Rhodesian Bush War against the illegal white-minority government that had declared unilateral independence in 1956. Nkomo was assisted by the Soviet Union. Mugabe, also a leader of the independence movement, looked to China for support.
In 1980, both Nkomo and Mugabe took part in the Lancaster House talks that brought the war to an end and established Zimbabwe as a majority-led state. In the subsequent election, Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) took 57 seats to ZAPU’s 20. Nkomo joined a coalition government as Minister for Home Affairs but was dismissed and placed under house arrest in 1982, accused of plotting against Mugabe. Following several years of civil strife during which Mugabe used troops to crush opposition in Nkomo’s native Matabeleland, he agreed to become Vice-President in 1987. This supposedly reconciled the two men, but Nkomo’s own supporters saw this as a sell-out because effectively ZAPU ceased to exist. Although the vice-presidency was a powerless post, Nkomo was declared a national hero after his death in 1999, in recognition of his leading role in the freedom struggle. Reluctant to turn to violence, Nkomo was instinctively a builder of bridges, not of barriers. In a world where too often race, ethnicity, or religion is used to drive people apart, more bridge-builders like Nkomo are needed if global justice, peace, and prosperity for all is to be achieved.
Nkomo was born in Semokwe Reserve, Matabeleland, in 1917, and was one of eight children. (His BBC obituary in 1999 stated he was born in 1918). His father (Thomas Nyongolo Letswansto Nkomo) worked as a preacher and a cattle rancher and worked for the London Missionary Society. After completing his primary education in Rhodesia, he took a carpentry course at the Tsholotsho Government Industrial School and studied there for a year before becoming a driver. He later tried animal husbandry before becoming a schoolteacher specializing in carpentry at Manyame School in Kezi. In 1942, aged 25 and during his occupation as a teacher, he decided that he should go to South Africa to further his education. He attended Adams College and the Jan Hofmeyer School of Social Work in South Africa. There he met Nelson Mandela and other regional nationalist leaders at the University of Fort Hare. He later spoke of how he had to squeeze his large body into seats designed for children as he first completed his high school diploma. However, he did not attend university at Fort Hare University. It was at the Jan Hofmeyr School that he was awarded a B.A. Degree in Social Science in 1952. Nkomo married his wife Johanna MaFuyana on October 1, 1949.
After returning to Bulawayo in 1947, he became a trade unionist for black railway workers and rose to the leadership of the Railway Workers Union and then to leadership of the African National Congress in 1952. After a visit to England in 1952, where he was impressed by the pride the English take in preserving their history, he founded a society to “preserve all the African cultures and heroes.” Culture became for him a source of pride and also a weapon against colonial exploitation, “Treated as less than human” by whites, culture reminded him that he “had value and that” his “culture had value too.” In 1960, he became president of the National Democratic Party which was later banned by the Rhodesian government. He also became one of Rhodesia’s wealthiest self-made entrepreneurs.
Nkomo was detained by Ian Smith’s government in 1964, with fellow revolutionaries Ndabaningi Sithole, Edgar Tekere, Maurice Nyagumbo, and Robert Mugabe, until 1974, when they were released due to pressure from South African president B. J. Vorster. Following Nkomo’s release, he went to Zambia to continue the liberation struggle through the dual process of armed conflict and negotiation. Unlike ZANU’s armed wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, ZAPU’s armed wing, the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, was dedicated to both guerrilla warfare and conventional warfare. At the time of independence ZIPRA had a modern military stationed in Zambia and Angola, consisting of Soviet-made Mikoyan fighters, tanks, and armored personnel carriers, as well as a well-trained artillery units.
Joshua Nkomo was the target of two attempted assassinations. The first one, in Zambia, by the Selous Scouts, a pseudo-team. But the mission was finally aborted, and attempted again, unsuccessfully, by the Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS).
ZAPU forces committed many acts of violence during their war to overthrow the Rhodesian government. The most widely reported and possibly most notorious were when his troops shot down two Air Rhodesia Vickers Viscount civilian passenger planes with surface-to-air missiles. The first, on September 3, 1978, killed 38 out of 56 in the crash, with a further 10 survivors (including children) shot by ZIPRA ground troops dispatched to inspect the burned-out wreckage. The eight remaining survivors managed to elude the guerrillas and walked 20 km into Kariba from where the flight had taken off (it was headed for Salisbury, Rhodesia’s capital, now renamed Harare). Some of the passengers had serious injuries, and were picked up by local police and debriefed by the Rhodesian army. The second shootdown, on February 12, 1979, killed all 59 on board. The real target of the second shootdown was General Peter Walls, head of the COMOPS (Commander, Combined Operations), in charge of the Special Forces, including the SAS and the Selous Scouts. Due to the large number of tourists returning to Salisbury, a second flight had been dispatched. General Walls received a boarding card for the second flight which departed Kariba 15 minutes after the doomed aircraft. No one has been brought to trial or charged with shooting down the aircraft due to amnesty laws passed by both Smith and Mugabe. In a televised interview not long after the first shootdown, Nkomo laughed and joked about the incident while admitting ZAPU had indeed been responsible for the attack on the civilian aircraft. In his memoirs, Story of My Life, published in 1985, Nkomo expressed regret for the shooting down of both planes.
Nkomo founded the National Democratic Party (NDP), and in 1960, the year British prime minister Harold Macmillan spoke of the “wind of change” blowing through Africa, Robert Mugabe joined him. The NDP was banned by Smith’s white minority government, and it was subsequently replaced by the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU), also founded by Nkomo and Mugabe, in 1962, itself immediately banned. ZAPU split in 1963 and while some have claimed this split was due to ethnic tensions, more accurately the split was motivated by the failure of Sithole, Mugabe, Takawira and Malianga to wrest control of ZAPU from Nkomo. ZAPU would remain a multi-ethnic party right up until independence.
An unpopular government called Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, led by Abel Muzorewa, was formed in 1979, between Ian Smith and Ndabaningi Sithole’s ZANU, which by then had also split from Mugabe’s more militant ZANU faction. However, the civil war waged by Nkomo and Mugabe continued unabated, and Britain and the U.S. did not lift sanctions on the country. Britain persuaded all parties to come to Lancaster House, in September 1979, to work out a constitution and the basis for fresh elections. Mugabe and Nkomo shared a delegation, called the Patriotic Front (PF), at the negotiations chaired by Lord Carrington. Elections were held in 1980, and to most observers’ surprise Nkomo’s ZAPU lost in a landslide to Mugabe’s ZANU. The effects of this election would make both ZAPU and ZANU into tribally-based parties, ZANU with backing from the Shona majority, and ZAPU the Ndebele minority. Nkomo was offered the ceremonial post of President, but declined. Mugabe was Prime Minister and the ceremonial presidency was held by Canaan Banana.
Despite reaching their ultimate goal, overthrowing Ian Smith and the minority white Rhodesian Front party, Mugabe and Nkomo never did get along. Nkomo was always trying to improve relationships between the two parties but Mugabe never responded as he believed that ZAPU were more interested in overthrowing ZANU. Allegedly, when Julius Nyerere summoned the two to a meeting to improve relations between the two party leaders, they entered Nyerere’s office separately, first Nkomo, then Mugabe. When Mugabe was offered a seat, he refused and instead went up close to Nyerere’s face and told him, “If you think I’m going to sit right where that fat bastard just sat, you’ll have to think again.” As a result of this strained relationship, fighting between ZANLA and ZIPRA soldiers increased and widened the gap between the two men.
Finally after much debate and refusals, Nkomo was appointed to the cabinet, but in 1982, was accused of plotting a coup d’état after South African double agents in Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organization, attempting to cause distrust between ZAPU and ZANU, planted arms on ZAPU owned farms, and then tipped Mugabe off to their existence.
In a public statement Mugabe said, “ZAPU and its leader, Dr. Joshua Nkomo, are like a cobra in a house. The only way to deal effectively with a snake is to strike and destroy its head.” He unleashed the Fifth Brigade upon Nkomo’s Matabeleland homeland in Operation Gukurahundi, killing more than 20,000 Ndebele civilians in an attempt to destroy ZAPU and create a one-party state.
Nkomo fled to London to a self-imposed exile. Mugabe’s government claimed that he had “illegally” left dressed as a woman. “Nothing in my life,” wrote Nkomo, “had prepared me for persecution at the hands of a government led by black Africans.” In the The Story of My Life, Nkomo ridiculed the suggestion that he escaped dressed as a woman. “I expected they would invent stupid stories about my flight…. People will believe anything if they believe that.”
After the Gukurahundi massacres, in 1987 Nkomo consented to the absorption of ZAPU into ZANU, resulting in a unified party called ZANU-PF, leaving Zimbabwe as effectively a one-party state, and leading some Ndebeles to accuse Nkomo of selling out. These Ndebele individuals were, however, in such a minority that they did not constitute a meaningful power base within the cross-section of ZAPU. The post of Prime Minister was abolished; Mugabe assumed the office of executive president with two Vice-Presidents, Nkomo and Simon Vengai Muzenda (who remained in office until his death in 2003). In a powerless post, and with his health failing, his influence declined. He would later be criticized for “his attacks on whites for not becoming assimilated as ‘true Zimbabweans’” and for failing to respond to those women who were “seeking equality in a traditional African society.” Mugabe is said to have bullied the older, less charismatic leader. In some respects, Nkomo may have been out-of-touch. On the other hand, his vision for Zimbabwe was as a common home for all citizens, not as a place where some enjoyed privileges over others.
When asked, late in his life, why he agreed to what was effectively the end of his party, he said that he did it to stop the murder of the Ndebele (who supported his party) and of the ZAPU politicians and organizers who had been targeted by Zimbabwe’s security forces since 1982.
Nkomo had been an inactive member of the Missionary Church for most of his life. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1999, shortly before he died of prostate cancer on July 1 at the age of 82 in Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare. “Speaking at the ceremony, President Robert Mugabe described Mr. Nkomo as the founder of the nation” according to the BBC.
Letters allegedly written by Nkomo to the prime minister Robert Mugabe while in exile in the United Kingdom began to resurface following his death in 1999. In the letters he argues against his persecution and accused the government of cracking down on opposition.
National Hero status
In 1999, Nkomo was declared a National Hero and is buried in the National Heroes Acre in Harare.
On June 27, 2000, a set of four postage stamps were released by the Post and Telecommunications Corporation of Zimbabwe featuring Joshua Nkomo. They had denominations of ZW$2.00, $9.10, $12.00, and $16.00 and were designed by Cedric D. Herbert.
Nkomo is remembered for what has been described as his “common touch” and for inspiring “love and respect from his people.” He liked to achieve consensus and consulted widely. Internationally, he gained “respect as an analytic politician.” He was, however, critical of the United Nations as too dominated by Western powers although during the Rhodesian Bush War, he continually brought the issue of Zimbabwe to the attention of both the UN and the Organization of African Unity. Sibanda says that Nkomo’s deep Christian beliefs meant that he was reluctant to turn to violence in the struggle for freedom and only did so after deep thought when he “realized that violence … was inevitable.”
He was critical of whites for failing to integrate. However, he wanted Zimbabwe to be a common home for all her people. He was opposed to substituting white domination for that of any other group, such as the Shona. He was interested in building bridges not barriers, which is why he was willing to attempt reconciliation with Mugabe. His legacy remains significant for Zimbabwe, where bridges need to be built between competing communities, and in a world where people too often use ethnicity, race, or religion as an excuse to dominate others or to claim social and political privileges. Nelson Mandela described Nkomo as “one of those freedom fighters who stood up for justice at the most difficult time in the course of our struggle.”