Letter From The North
The late Joshua Nkomo is the sort of personality to which the world is exposed only once in a thousand years. A familiar figure in Accra in the early Sixties, when President Kwame Nkrumah was helping Africans everywhere to organise resistance against white rule, Nkomo could easily have passed for a figure of fun.
Nkomo, who died of prostate cancer on July 1, astounded us with his sheer size. He stood more than 1,8m tall and looked as if he could outweigh an adolescent elephant. How could such a man be “fighting” for the independence of Southern Rhodesia? It was part of the mystique that surrounded him.
Years before fake African nationalists like Mobutu Sese Seko discovered leopard-skin caps, Nkomo was sporting one – and seemed completely oblivious to the fact that it might jar with the Western suits that he invariably wore.
Nkomo was geniality itself. He had a very wide smile, but this was deceptive, for his smallish eyes could narrow dangerously if he was crossed when talking about Rhodesia. He was politics personified: he was peripatetic and therefore ubiquitous. He would talk to anybody, anywhere, if he felt it would bring Zimbabwe’s independence closer.
Nkomo’s favourite haunt in Accra was the Lido night club. This was a spacious, open air dance hall, with a live band and plenty of personable hookers. The glorious West African “high-life” and the Caribbean calypso were its main fare, with the occasional rock’n’roll number thrown in. If you can imagine a shebeen of the Fifties and Sixties as big as a minor sports stadium, but with no policeman in sight, you’ve got the picture. Indeed, the Lido was so popular with diplomats and businessmen unwinding from countries that repressed their penchant for inter-racial sex that it was called “The United Nations”.
Apart from enjoying life to the full, Joshua Nkomo was a very shrewd politician. In the Sixties, there was a terrible row between the Russians and the Chinese which spilt over into the African liberation movements. Lazy Western reporters shamelessly peddled the cliche of “pro-Russian” or “pro-Chinese” to describe Nkomo’s Zapu (pro-Russian) and Mugabe’s Zanu (pro- Chinese).
From this, the inference was meant to be drawn that Nkomo was some sort of Communist. But Nkomo only wanted support for himself and Zapu, and he took it wherever he could get it. In November to December 1976, while his country’s liberation movements were in Geneva conferring with the British and the Ian Smith government on Zimbabwe’s independence, many delegations were holed up in dingy bed-and-breakfast establishments because hotels in Geneva were so expensive.
Guess where Nkomo was installed? In a suite in the ruinously expensive Geneva Intercontinental. And who was picking up the tab? Tiny Rowland of Lonrho! Meanwhile, the silly Rhodesian and South African correspondents kept regaling their readers with stories about the “pro-Russian” Nkomo!
I was present in Geneva when Nkomo and Robert Mugabe appeared together at a press conference as “The Patriotic Front”. One of the reporters present was the late Justin Nyoka, then a stringer in Salisbury for the BBC. When the two leaders attacked the Western media for misrepresenting them, Nyoka got up to say that the BBC had been fair to them!
Nkomo looked at Nyoka and spat out: “Defender of the BBC!” The sarcastic tone in which Nkomo said this was like a father expressing disappointment-plus-anger-plus- disgust at a child of whom he expected something better. I think Nyoka reassessed his position from that moment, and shortly afterwards, “disappeared” from Salisbury, amidst great publicity. He re-emerged in Maputo (where ZANU was based) and became a Zimbabwe government spokesman after independence.
That Nkomo lived to the ripe old age of 82 was a wonder in itself.
I remember going with a friend to see him at the Geneva Intercontinental, and him trying to get up from his chair to greet us. It was pathetic to see his huge figure unable to quite get up from the chair. I pencilled him down in my mind as a guy who wouldn’t be with us for very long. But typically, he outlived my prediction by a good 23 years!
When Mugabe described Nkomo, in his tribute, as “the founder” of Zimbabwe, he was acknowledging a fact. It was on Nkomo’s return from his studies in South Africa in 1948 that the real struggle for Zimbabwe’s independence took off.
Nkomo, as a trade unionist, was a master of organisation. He would form a party; the racist regime in Salisbury would ban it; but Nkomo would immediately register a new party, using the same executive members as before! He never gave up, and eventually, the racists couldn’t stand his legal savvy and bunged him into detention. They tried to destroy him by supplying him with a bottle of whisky per day. But he wasn’t built like an ox for nothing, and survived.
In his lifetime, Nkomo came across a lot of opposition from his own “side”. Indeed, Mugabe was once Nkomo’s publicity secretary! But the Zimbabwean Minister of Agriculture Joseph Masika, who was in the same prison cell with Nkomo for many years, says Nkomo learnt to be “a follower as well as a leader”. This is proved by the fact that he was able to reconcile with Mugabe in 1988, despite the terrible row between them shortly after independence in 1980, when Nkomo was sacked as a minister after a cache of arms was discovered in Matabeleland. Mugabe believed the arms were to have been used for a coup.
The repression that occurred in Matabeleland after that arms discovery was totally abysmal. Yet both parties managed to effect a rapprochement that enabled Nkomo to die as vice-president of Zimbabwe.
It would be a fitting legacy to Nkomo’s memory if political differences in Zimbabwe could, henceforth, be purged of ethnic undertone