By Miles Tendi
Major General Paradzai Willings Zimondi, who has died aged 73, had multiple identities.
There was the young Zimondi who in 1974 left his wife and seven month old baby in Rhodesia to join the ZANLA liberation army at Chifombo camp in independent Zambia. At the time, Chifombo was ZANLA’s main launch pad for the carrying of guns and ammunition into Rhodesia in an evolving guerrilla war.
“It was mostly women comrades who carried logistical supplies. Men were there to guard them with guns,” Zimondi said about one of the sundry gendered practices in the liberation war.
At Chifombo, Zimondi took on a new identity. Zimondi was assigned the nom de guerre Tonderai Nyika, and in January 1975 he trained at Mgagao military training camp in Tanzania. Subsequently, there was Nyika the Deputy Commander of Chaminuka company in Tanzania. Nyika the ZIPA cadre in Gaza province. Nyika the ZANLA Chief Provincial Intelligence Officer in Manica province. Nyika the ZANLA Commander of Manica Province. Nyika the ZANLA High Command member.
In independent Zimbabwe, there was Zimondi, Colonel General Staff directing ZNA operations. Zimondi the Commander of 1 Infantry Brigade. Zimondi the Director of Military Intelligence. Zimondi the Presidential Guard commander. Zimondi the retired ZNA Major General. Zimondi the Prisons and Correctional Services Commissioner General. In these and other roles, Zimondi had significant triumphs and failings. Saints are far-fetched human beings.
Here, I want to remember Zimondi as Nyika the commander of ZANLA at Foxtrot Assembly Point (Dzapasi) in the 1979-80 Rhodesia ceasefire, an oft-overlooked identity.
The Rhodesia ceasefire came into force on 29 December 1979 and it was monitored by a Commonwealth Monitoring Force dominated by British soldiers. For a week after 29 December, armed ZANLA and ZIPRA freedom fighters entered the closest of 16 Assembly Points in Rhodesia. Foxtrot Assembly Point was reachable via several Rendezvous Points. It was a sprawling makeshift camp located near a school and communal villages. Foxtrot contained 6000 armed ZANLA freedom fighters, making it the largest Assembly Point in the ceasefire.
Before ZANLA accessed the Rendezvous Points, Nyika and his deputy commander Gibson Gumbo made initial contact with the Commonwealth monitors, led by Timothy Purdon of the Irish Guards, in charge of Foxtrot Assembly Point. There were 50 monitors at Foxtrot, drawn from the Irish Guards, Royal Green Jackets, Coldstream Guards, Royal Signals, Royal Engineers, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.
Nyika remembered feeling panicky: “Many comrades had died in bogus ceasefires, so I was worried Purdon was a Rhodesian waiting to kill us”.
“By New Year’s Eve, you will be dead…you cannot trust Africans.”
Purdon was equally unnerved. Before being deployed to Assembly Points, Rhodesians had targeted the monitors with propaganda in Salisbury about murderous ‘gooks’ and ‘terrorists’. Salutations such as ‘oh, you are going down there! Well, so nice to see you. By New Year’s Eve you will be dead because you cannot trust Africans’, extended the monitors’ dread of freedom fighters.
Purdon and some of the monitors under his command went out to meet Nyika with cigarettes and an offer to come in for tea and to discuss the freedom fighters’ safe entry to Foxtrot. The icebreaker worked. Armed ZANLA soon began entering Foxtrot and Purdon and his monitors were burdened with a logistical nightmare when 6000 freedom fighters – not 1000 to 2500 as he had been told to expect – turned up.
In truth many of the 6000, the early entrants especially, were not trained freedom fighters, which was a violation of the ceasefire agreement. Nyika explained that “we did not believe the ceasefire initially, so I called many mujibas, gave them old guns and said here are our soldiers at Foxtrot. Our real soldiers began to come in later when we knew the Commonwealth was genuine”.
Trained freedom fighters who remained outside Foxtrot flouted the ceasefire terms in another way: they drummed up support for ZANU PF in communal areas by persuasion and intimidation in the run up to the February 1980 independence election.
Nyika regarded commanding ZANLA at Foxtrot as his most demanding assignment of the liberation struggle. As Nyika put it: “If I had been commanding 6000 real soldiers it would have been easier because they know about discipline and order, but there were many untrained people who had come from Mozambique. I am sure the Rhodesians also sent people to Foxtrot for spying and to divide us”.
Nyika and Purdon agreed a camp perimeter that ZANLA freedom fighters were prohibited from crossing. But many ZANLA inhabitants of Foxtrot frequently left the camp in search of entertainment, women and alcohol.
Dozens of skirmishes occurred at Foxtrot, which Purdon and his monitors defused, with Nyika’s cooperation. Foxtrot was vulnerable to Rhodesian air attacks. Fear of aerial bombardment encouraged some freedom fighters to abscond. Certainly, sections of the Rhodesian Security Forces were bent on provoking ZANLA and ZIPRA to breach the ceasefire irreparably.
Thus, Rhodesian aircraft and police occasionally conducted ‘patrols’ in close proximity to Foxtrot in order to prompt major firefights that would collapse the ceasefire.
Moreover, tempers often frayed between armed freedom fighters frustrated by months of confinement at Foxtrot. Many freedom fighters distrusted ‘the white man in Rhodesia’ hence they often refused to cooperate with the monitors. Allegations of perceived racist comments or acts by the monitors towards ZANLA regularly accompanied interactions.
“They loved their drink, so we gave them quite a lot of beer…”
For instance, the counting of freedom fighters by monitors to ascertain how many were breaking bounds was seen by some ZANLA as akin to treating them as animals or slaves being tallied by racist white enslavers. When food and water rations were in short supply freedom fighters threatened to attack the monitors or to leave Foxtrot for good.
Nyika and Purdon’s relationship was uneasy, even as they cooperated in maintaining stability at Foxtrot. As Purdon recalled: “I invited the leaders for a Europeanised meal and a film in our mess tent. We ate. They loved their drink so we gave them quite a lot of beer. We also gave them an Irish Guards shield. I gave a speech and they went off howling drunk. It was a success. We congratulated ourselves. By chance, however, one of them left a report to Rex Nhongo [in Salisbury] lying around. We picked it up and it said, ‘the British invitation had some sort of psychological warfare in it as is the case with imperialists. They use everything at their disposal to try and benefit from it. As far as the invitation was concerned, the British pretended to be friendly, taking it as a means of investigating us. They thought by giving us beer we would be easy targets for investigation but it was in vain. Wherever and whenever we will be vigilant and disciplined. Imperialism does not surrender until its final doom, until it is finally crushed. ZANU will win! Pamberi ne ZANU! Pamberi naPresident Robert Mugabe!’ So much for my efforts to be friendly. That is what they thought about it.”
Nyika concurred with Purdon’s summation of the apprehensive relations between ZANLA and the monitors. According to Nyika: “The monitoring force was very afraid of us especially when the (independence) election was near. They thought we would kill them if ZANU PF lost. I was sure we would win because ZANLA controlled more operational areas than ZIPRA. I said to them, when the results are out I will be with you. No one will kill you. Can you just buy some whisky so that we can celebrate the result together? So we were sitting in a classroom at Dzapasi when the result was announced. ZANLA started firing their guns in the air. The whole area was filled with gunfire. The monitoring force guys said to me we are going to die here! I said no they are just happy. Relax. Let us enjoy together.”
About 400 women in uniform were based at Foxtrot. They resided in accommodation detached from that for men. Nyika had told Purdon “it was a ZANLA ruling that there was no sex between comrades on active service”. However, after the election result was announced, the women’s camp was found deserted and all the women had paired up with male freedom fighters in their quarters.
Foxtrot’s legacy in independent Zimbabwe is Janus-faced. Proximate to the independence election, 600 ZANLA and 600 ZIPRA freedom fighters came out of Assembly Points Foxtrot and Lima respectively and went into conventional army training camps jointly administered by the monitoring force and Rhodesian army. This initiative was “a psychological gesture because the guerrillas who went to the camps laid down their arms and for the first time thus expressed their trust in the Rhodesian army” and it laid the foundation for the post-independence formal integration of ZANLA, ZIPRA and the Rhodesian army by the British Military Advisory and Training Team (BMATT). Paradoxically, the rump of Foxtrot contributed many soldiers to the infamous 5 Brigade, which carried out killings and violence in Midlands and Matabeleland against ZAPU and its supporters.
Reflecting on why the oversized and turbulent Foxtrot ultimately held together in the ceasefire, Nyika opined: “It was a collective effort between Purdon and his commanders and all the ZANLA commanders at Foxtrot. To be a good commander is a collective effort. There is no commander who can say that he can command effectively alone.”
Blessing-Miles Tendi is Associate Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford. His most recent book, The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe: Mujuru, the Liberation Fighter and Kingmaker, is available in Zimbabwe at Innov8 book stores, Weaver Press, Exclusive Books in South Africa, and Cambridge Press South Africa