The art of intelligence | In his words, Dumiso Dabengwa on the making of ZAPU’s spy unit

Dumiso Dabengwa

War hero Dumiso Dabengwa, who died at 79 on May 23, played a central role in the building the intelligence unit of ZAPU. He was also central in determining how ZPRA, the pioneering military wing of ZAPU, structured its military approach to the struggle.

Below are extracts from a 2015 article he wrote in the Journal of Southern African Studies. We have extracted excerpts detailing his rise to be intelligence chief of ZAPU, his training in the USSR, his views on military strategy, and his passion for freedom.

Grenades: Dabengwa on his role in trafficking arms

After ZAPU was banned in 1962, the People’s Caretaker Council was formed to continue both covert underground and open resistance activities. Some of us had already gained experience in underground activities such as arson on white-owned farms and factories and bringing down telegraph poles and electricity transmission pylons. In 1962, our western region operations were co-ordinated under the command of Findo Mpofu, who was one of those who had received basic training in Ghana during the time of the National Democratic Party, ZAPU’s predecessor.

One incident that I recall quite vividly was when I was sent to transport from Lusaka some sabotage material that had been bought in the Congo after the Katanga war. After it had been explained to me that the two suitcases contained mainly highly explosive, powerful hand grenades, I persuaded S.K. Moyo, who had procured them, to show me how to use them. We drove out on the Great East Road to an old, abandoned, derelict farm homestead.

S.K. opened a small parcel with two hand grenades, which he said were similar to the ones he had trained on in Ghana. He proceeded to give a live demonstration, lobbing one – aiming at the wall of the homestead – and simultaneously taking cover to avoid the splinters and other rubble from the blast. The device hit the wall with a thud but no blast. We tried again, several times, with the same result.

Then he unscrewed one hand grenade where the primer fits in, and tossed it against the wall: still no explosion. Finally, giving up, he said that another trained contact, who was already inside the country, would know better. He would get to teach the operatives, not me – my duty was to transport by train and deliver the merchandise.

Naturally, I was disappointed. When I got home, I duly delivered the two suitcases – but not after nicking two grenades for our group to carry out further tests on how to explode them. Unfortunately, before I could get the opportunity to explore them further, I had to leave for the Soviet Union, and it was only then that I got to know that you need a primer to make it explode.

A warm reception in Russia

It was precisely this background – the ability to carry two full suitcases of grenades inside a passenger train and land them at a siding before Nyamandlovu station without detection – that qualified me for selection for training in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

At the beginning of September (1964) we were separated into three groups. Akim Ndlovu led a team to undergo military training in the Soviet Union. Luke Mhlanga was deployed for military training in China, and I led five others (three from Harare and two from Bulawayo) for military intelligence training in Moscow. So the six of us flew from Dar es Salaam to Khartoum, and from Khartoum to Moscow. It was our first experience flying and it was at once exciting and overwhelming.

Once we arrived in Moscow, we literally received a warm welcome.

Coming from the savannah climate as we were, we were all ill-prepared for the Russian weather, and so, when we were provided with warm clothing as soon as we arrived at the airport, we were very grateful for the hospitality and foresight of our hosts.

We were then taken to the training centre, where we received thorough medical check-ups to ensure that we did not have any communicable diseases, after which we began our training. Although none of us had ever had the opportunity to undergo medical check-ups in our lives, we were very happy to go through this exercise – free of charge. If I remember well, we arrived on a Thursday and had the medical check-ups completed over the weekend, in time for us to start our training the following Monday.

I remember that on Sunday we went to the big department store, GUM, opposite the Red Square to purchase (through a voucher signed by our liaison officer) all the warm clothing we would require, as winter was about to set in. We were assisted by our course liaison officer on what to select for indoor and outdoor conditions and sportswear.

“Socialism became a way of governing that we could use in the new country that we were fighting for”

Our medical results were given to us first thing on Monday morning before we started our first lesson: ‘introduction to our training course’. We discussed this subject openly and aired our views on what we considered as the priority for the execution of our armed struggle. Our training consisted of political lessons, military training, and training in intelligence and counterintelligence tactics. Our political lessons were based on the theory of socialism and the history of the USSR, especially Russia’s role in the Second World War and the tactics it had used.

While we did not believe that the final stage of communism envisaged by the USSR could be realised, we found the theory of socialism akin to the way most African communities set up their social structures and mores, and therefore in keeping with our traditions and customs.

Consequently, socialism became a way of governing that we could use in the new country that we were fighting for. Perhaps most instructive and ultimately beneficial to us were the instructions on guerrilla tactics, which included sabotage and the manufacture and use of our own explosives.

“Very rigorous indeed”: Dabengwa’s Intelligence training

Dabengwa’s intelligence training became key in his central role in forging a united army post-1980

Our intelligence training focused on major disciplines of intelligence collection techniques. Our counter-intelligence training concentrated on efforts to prevent hostile organisations from gathering intelligence against our organisation, so that we could simply nip any plans against us in the bud. In other words, our counter-intelligence focused on knowing our enemies – what resources they had, what they knew about us, and so on.

Our training was very rigorous indeed, with very little time for relaxation – Monday to Saturday from 08h00 to 18h00 with a one-hour lunch break, if attending classes. Sometimes lessons went on until we were interrupted by the head of catering, so supper could be served at 20h00.

There were instances where extra lessons were organised, sometimes even on Sundays, in order to enhance the level of comprehension. Lessons were also repeated to ensure understanding of concepts. Dinner times afforded us time to discuss the daily lessons. We would thereafter play indoor games such as table tennis or chess. Others preferred to watch TV or read some reference books.

“this initial training gave us an ideal framework for setting up the party’s intelligence wing”

The Russian method of instruction was not a top-down approach; we had a lot of input and there was much exchange of ideas. The main purpose in training was initially to enable the party to produce a group of men who would be the vanguard of a guerrilla army – well-trained and self-sufficient, with no troop back-up at the rear. These groups would train intelligence and small guerrilla units inside Rhodesia to lay the groundwork for larger, platoon-size guerrilla units and later for a regular army.

From my point of view, this initial training gave us an ideal framework for setting up the party’s intelligence wing. This assisted us in planning and executing military operations within the country. It also equipped us with sufficient basic understanding of what to expect from the Rhodesians, who already had an unfair advantage over us as they were being supplied with intelligence by the west – the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) bloc.

Return to Zambia: Building ZAPU’s Military Wing

ZIPRA fighters getting gun stripping lessons (Picture by Zenzo Nkobi)

After this initial six months’ training, we returned to Zambia at the end of 1964 and met with other groups who had undergone military training in other parts of the Soviet Union (for example, the Crimea), China, North Korea, Cuba and Egypt (there were over 100 individuals altogether).

We were instructed by James Chikerema (then head of Special Affairs) to discuss and agree on the establishment of a formal ZAPU military wing, which would utilise the different approaches to warfare that we had gained in the countries that we had trained in. We spent two weeks engaged in daily, highly charged debates amongst ourselves, with each group making its presentation and recommendations on what approach to use in initiating our armed struggle against the repressive Smith regime.

If there was anything that kept us going no matter how hard things were, it was the unflinching determination for freedom, and, looking back, that was a seed that was planted early on in my life of taking the issue of freedom personally enough to fight for it. It is interesting to note that the ability to articulate their thoughts clearly and the ability to maintain calmness when everyone else was getting emotional and even, at times, aggressive and violent, all sprouted and indeed paved the way for the leadership role for those who were finally selected as commanders.

Arguments varied from strategies and ideologies used mainly in the Chinese, Cuban and North Korean revolutions based on the experiences of Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and Kim Il Sung. An interesting fissure from the debates was the near splitting of us, in the heated debates, into the brave on the one side and the cowardly on the other. Conflict arose due to the different points of view expressed on the way in which the armed struggle had to be set in motion.

“ became second nature, a conditioning as it were, never simply to follow some of the ambitious and extreme examples of revolutionary conduct…”

There was consensus on the need to have in place a command structure, but some suggested that this structure should dwell on the idea of entering into the country to establish a base for conducting operations – the Che Guevara style. Those who argued that this would be suicidal, as the base was likely to be a priority target for attack by Rhodesians, were labelled cowards.

Zapu Revolution Council members, Lusaka, 1977; among them Joshua Nkomo, J.L Nkomo, D. Dabengwa, Musarurwa, Jane Ngwenya, G. Silundika, F. Makonese and P. Makoni (picture by Zenzo Nkobi)

Later on, as part of military intelligence, it became second nature, a conditioning as it were, never simply to follow some of the ambitious and extreme examples of revolutionary conduct just like that, but to rather adopt a calculated, step-by-step and responsive approach until we gained a foothold in the country.

Otherwise we could be annihilated, considering the strength, resources and control enjoyed by our enemy. After all the exhaustive arguments, we compromised somehow as comrades in the struggle for freedom and settled down to a sober and mature start to our armed resolve to free our land.

At the beginning of 1965, we produced the structure of the first military wing of ZAPU, and had the first commanders appointed to lead that structure. Once a consensus was reached on the structure and recommended approach to commence operations, leaders of all the groups travelled to head office in Lusaka to submit their planned strategy.

Appointments were later made by comrades J.R.D. Chikerema and J.Z. Moyo to forge alliances. I became the Chief of Intelligence, with the responsibility for reconnaissance and infiltration of personnel to establish contacts for small guerrilla units.

Regional struggle: Dabengwa on working with the ANC’s MK

Allies: Oliver Tambo and Joshua Nkomo in Zambia, 1978 (pic by Zenzo Nkobi)

In 1966, the African African National Congress (ANC) and its armed wing, uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), approached us for a logical working alliance that would allow us to operate together and with common purpose and understanding whenever MK might wish to deploy their guerrilla units through Rhodesia.

The first contact was between MK commander Joe Modise and Akim Ndlovu of ZAPU’s military wing. After Akim had presented his brief for discussion within the military command, a decision was made to second the Chief of Intelligence to attend subsequent meetings. Modise also seconded his Chief of Intelligence, Chris Hani.

“…we could not imagine MK finding their way solo through Rhodesia, fighting both the Rhodesian Army and South African border patrols…If we said ‘no’, they would go it alone”

The ANC–MK had immense pressure from trained, itching, ready cadres sitting impatiently in the camps, who wanted to be deployed to battle in South Africa. Attempts to use Botswana were frustrating, as they always backfired and the operatives were under strict instruction not to fight back but to surrender, go through the courts system, and eventually get deported back to Zambia, back to square one. The fact that Rhodesia was not free meant that they could fight their way to South Africa, and an alliance with ZAPU therefore made perfect sense to facilitate their passage to their enemy fronts.

At this time, we had barely started our operations with small units to pave the way and get to know how the Rhodesian forces operated. The negotiations with MK were very difficult and tempting for us, being cognisant of the arguments we went through in mapping out our strategy in 1964, when we established the military wing of ZAPU. On the other hand, we could not imagine MK finding their way solo through Rhodesia, fighting both the Rhodesian Army and South African border patrols in their attempts just to cross towards the Limpopo and get into their destination for insurgent guerrilla activity. If we said ‘no’, they would go it alone.

Finally, after the intervention of O.R. Tambo, leading the ANC, and J.R.D. Chikerema, leading ZAPU, we reached a consensus and agreed on preparations which would lead to the Hwange and Sipolilo (ZAPU military wing–ANC-MK) operations. In spite of all the criticisms expressed from different quarters within the joint MK/ZAPU military-wing operations, there were important experiences and lessons learnt. Some referred back to the arguments raised in the initial stages, when ZAPU’s military wing was formed.

Both we and MK followed the events of the battles: we monitored the reports of our captured fighters and the survivors who withdrew to Botswana. The intelligence received most of the reports from established contacts, especially in the Hwange region. Those in Sinoia covered the Sipolilo sector. This went on until the end of 1968.

Refugees board a plane from Botswana to Lusaka, 1978 (pic Zenzo Nkobi)

At this time, a number of volunteers came through Botswana, and the party in Lusaka had also gone through a massive recruitment exercise. Many recruits were sent overseas for training again in the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Algeria, and a training camp was opened in Tanzania. Our new operations strategy was to revert to our initial position – that is, to deploy small groups of only a section’s strength into the country to carry out further investigations on the plight of the Hwange/Sipolilo battle survivors, as well as to recruit and carry out basic training where possible.

They were also to use their discretion to determine whether it was possible to carry out some limited sabotage activities. The majority of these units comprised mainly those who had trained in military intelligence. One important event during this period was the vital information received from the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), who informed us that they had come across survivors of the Sipolilo operation in the Mkumbura areas. They informed us that they were still anxious to continue with the fighting but had run out of ammunition. A pact was formed with Frelimo, in which we would assist them in opening the Tete front. In return, they would endeavour to make contact with the survivors of the Sipolilo operations.

Dabengwa on rebuilding after a split

Chikerema and Nyandoro formed the Front for the Liberation of Zimbabwe (Frolizi), together with Nathan Shamuyarira.  After consultations, J.Z. Moyo, who was now acting leader of the party, convened a conference of all fighters at this new camp to discuss the split and to map out a way forward. It was decided at this conference that the new external leadership of the party would be the ZAPU Revolutionary Council, to be headed by J.Z. Moyo.

The Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZPRA) became its new military wing, under the command of Nikita Mangena. I was then appointed Head of Intelligence to oversee military and civil operations, and went on to establish the National Security Organ (NSO) of the party.

“ZPRA confidently declared the border as no-go areas for the Rhodesian forces…”

The military wing, now ZPRA, was completely transformed as its new commander and his men plotted the new strategy. During this crisis, Robson Manyika, who had been Akim’s chief of staff, defected to ZANU, and so did Rex Nhongo. Later, when Nkomo took over from J.Z. Moyo, who was assassinated by a parcel bomb in 1977, he established another organ under the Revolutionary Council named the War Council, where he was the Commander-in-Chief, deputised by Samuel Munodawafa. I became the Secretary. Other members of the War Council were the ZPRA Commander Mangena, his deputy, chief of staff and commissar.

ZPRA’s initial thrust was to deny the Rhodesian forces free patrols along the Zambezi border. Both anti-personnel and anti-armoured-vehicle land mines were planted, and ambushes were carried out at random once the Rhodesian security forces were spotted.

The Rhodesians learnt a lesson after suffering heavy casualties from these operations. ZPRA confidently declared the border as no-go areas for the Rhodesian forces except for aircraft. While taking control of the border zones, ZPRA also randomly deployed some small units into the interior of the country to carry out offensives against enemy camps and infrastructure.


Extracted from “Relations between ZAPU and the USSR, 1960s–1970s: A Personal View” by Dumiso Dabengwa, published in The Journal of African Studies, 2015

Images by Zenzo Nkobi published on SAHA. Click here to read more on Nkobi and see how he fought the struggle via his lens.