Interview: Wilfred Mhanda, former freedom fighter

As a senior commander in Zimbabwe's armed movement, Mhanda helped Robert Mugabe come to power, a move he soon regretted. Trained by the Chinese, he was jailed in Mozambique, then blocked from jobs in his own country.

How did you come to be a Zanla guerrilla?
My father was always a keen African nationalist and by the time I was 11 in 1961 I knew all about Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and other liberation heroes. Our maths teacher at school was arrested by the white minority regime and another of my teachers was banned, so politics strongly affected my schooling. But I had no party affiliation: I just wanted freedom.

I attended a mission school at Zvishavane where Garfield Todd, the former liberal prime minister, had taught. He had founded the school and was still chairman of the school board and had a lot of influence there. He often used to come to the school and hold a seminar on current affairs with us. I would walk five kilometres each way to school to talk to him and I thought a great deal of him. Judith Todd, his daughter, also played a role in my life and once arranged for me to go on a scholarship to Manchester University, though I never got there because of the struggle.

Garfield Todd used to deliver milk to the school and sometimes the pupils would carry him shoulder high, particularly after he was restricted to his farm at UDI and became a martyr under the Smith regime. Another great figure for us was Todd's friend, Leo Barron, the liberal lawyer who also used to come to the school sometimes. By the time I did my A-levels in 1970 I was already in trouble with the police. We organised a demonstration against Smith's unilateral declaration of independence in 1969 and also against the Land Tenure Act, so I had to report to the police at very regular intervals. I would spend from 7am to 5pm at the police station, sitting there working at my school books. In 1971 I went to the University of Rhodesia in Salisbury. Really I wanted to study pharmacy in Manchester.

Was there much anti-Smith activity at the university?
I was doing a BSc in chemistry, zoology and botany but political work took up much of my time. I joined Zanu, which was led by Ndabaningi Sithole. Like Joshua Nkomo's rival Zapu, it was banned. We had a cell of ten and our main aim was to recruit students for the armed struggle. They would pretend to be going on holiday with the Student Christian Movement but would slip into Botswana and on to Zambia for basic military training. I was arrested in May 1971. Rhodesian intelligence tipped us off that one of our group was an agent: they had known about us all along. It was time to get out. Five of us skipped bail and fled to Botswana. I am the only survivor of that group. Two, Celestine Dembure, who was my very close friend, and Dzinoruwa Chirau, died at the hands of the liberation movement. One was killed in action and the fourth died for reasons that still remain unclear. I am certainly lucky to be alive.

And in Tanzania you did military training?
I became a military instructor, and was promoted to a political commissar and then a Zanla commander. In 1975 I joined the Zanla high command and was in charge of both political and military training. Our military trainers were Chinese and I was chosen for three-months advanced strategic training in China. The Chinese said that I was far too precious to be sent to the front to fight and I must be kept back as an instructor. Nonetheless I did fight at the front in north-eastern Rhodesia in 1974 and for three months in 1976. I saw plenty of action.

How did you like China?
The training was very good. I studied under a Chinese lieutenant-general and we studied the Chinese revolution, its guerrilla tactics and battles against Japan and the Kuomintang. But they didn't teach us Marxism-Leninism. They didn't really trust us because we weren't all communists. We had to go out and buy Marxist classics for ourselves. China was a very closed and strange society. The Chinese themselves were essentially racist. Crowds would form and stare at us if we appeared in the street.

By this time wasn't there a difficult situation over the leadership of Zanu?
While Ndabaningi Sithole was in detention for ten years in Salisbury, Herbert Chitepo led the party from its base in Zambia. But Chitepo was murdered in Lusaka in March 1975. The next day the Zambian government closed our camps and took everybody to a remote area. Zambia's president, Kenneth Kaunda, had decided that Zanu and Zanla were a hopeless lot and that it would be far better if we were united under Joshua Nkomo's control. Kaunda and Nkomo got on well and it was no secret that Kaunda wanted to see Nkomo win the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe so as to maximise his own influence there. We managed to foil his attempt to put us under Nkomo but it didn't endear us to Kaunda. He accused us of being "anti-unity" and of responsibility for Chitepo's death.

How did Kaunda try to get you to join up with Nkomo?
It was pretty ruthless. There were 1,200 Zanla people under arrest in that remote camp, including nearly 500 women, children and old people. There were only 300 or 400 real fighters among us and another 300 raw recruits. The Zambians said that we all had to join Zapu's military wing, Zipra, and they starved us all - even the women and children - of rations, soap and other necessities to try to force us to do so. In the end about a hundred people did join Zipra. But most of us wanted to consult Sithole on the issue and had to pretend to go on hunger strike before the Zambians allowed us to do so.

What had been happening with Sithole?
Robert Mugabe and his followers had staged a coup against Sithole while they were all in prison. Smith released Mugabe, who then led a Zanu delegation to meet with the leaders of the front line states - Agostino Neto, Julius Nyerere, Samora Machel and Kenneth Kaunda. They were surprised and horrified to see Mugabe leading the delegation and asked how on earth he could stage a coup inside an enemy prison against the properly elected leader of the movement. They suspected the prison authorities had helped Mugabe. Indeed, Nyerere was so angry that he refused to accept Mugabe as leader and demanded that delegation return to Rhodesia and come back with Sithole. In the end this is what happened and Sithole, who had been released in December 1974, helped to negotiate the December 1975 unity accord with Zapu and two smaller movements. This was very much what the front-line leaders wanted. Two months later Sithole was rearrested. This was just one of a number of openings that Smith created for Mugabe. Looking back it is difficult not to believe that Smith wanted to help promote Mugabe as the leader of Zanu.

How did Mugabe emerge as a rival to Sithole?
Mugabe wanted to build a following among the refugees in Mozambique. At that time there were only 300 Zanla fighters in Mozambique but many more Rhodesian refugees. However, President Machel would not allow him into the country, so he sat for three months on the border. The border was always alive with Rhodesian agents and later we wondered whether Mugabe had been in touch with them then. He finally slipped into Mozambique disguised as a refugee, but Machel put him under house arrest far away from the refugee camps.

What was your attitude to all this?
Like most of the Zanla fighters I still considered Sithole our leader. When we got to know him, it was a disillusioning experience. We quickly discovered that Sithole was very keen to talk to Smith, whereas we wanted to fight him. Sithole believed that we were very close to an independence deal with Smith and everything he did was based on that. I will never forget the way he turned to us fighters and said, "I can certainly talk to Ian Smith but as for you, my children, I don't know what's going to become of you." When the Zambians shot and killed ten Zanu fighters, we expected Sithole to protest but he simply didn't want to know about it. He didn't even want to let us go to their funerals or to visit the wounded in hospital. We were beyond the pale. It made your blood run cold. Sithole knew that we were resentful and he formed an alliance with the Zambians against us. His idea was to arrest the fighters at one of the memorial services. But we realised what was going on and escaped into Tanzania, where we decided to depose Sithole and back Mugabe instead. With Sithole out and Chitepo dead he was the obvious person, but we didn't really know what he was like.

The front-line states continued to agitate for unity and so they sent both Zanla and Zipra commanders to Mozambique saying "You must unite and fight." We agreed with this and the result was that we united as the Zimbabwe People's Army (Zipa), under the leadership of Rex Nhongo. I was number two to Nhongo on the Zanla side and thus number three in Zipa as a whole. We sat down and worked out our war strategy and in January 1976 we resumed military operations together.
However Machel was worried about continuing trouble in the military camps and wanted Zanu leaders to balance the Zapu leaders. We suggested Mugabe or Josiah Tongogara. Machel didn't like or trust Mugabe. He was quite adamant about this and said we must find somebody else. But we weren't very keen on Tongogara and in the end Machel accepted him as leader.

What was Robert Mugabe like?
Gradually, of course, we realised that we had made a terrible mistake. I now greatly regret it, as do the other members of the Zimbabwe Liberators' Platform. He was arrogant, paranoid, secretive and only interested in power. And he didn't want unity at all since he was scared that Nkomo, as the senior African nationalist, would take over a united movement. He dissolved Zipa and abolished all the joint organisations between the liberation movements, which was very upsetting for those of us who had worked hard for unity. When Mugabe asked me to join his Zanu delegation to the Geneva negotiations on the country's future in 1976 I refused, saying that I only wanted to go under a Patriotic Front banner uniting the Zapu and Zanu forces.

How did Samora Machel react?
The irony was that Machel had finally become reconciled to the idea of Mugabe as Zanu leader. Just as Kaunda supported Nkomo as future president of Zimbabwe, Machel now backed Mugabe, who he thought would be his client in turn. When Mugabe came back from the Geneva negotiations having received international publicity, Machel decided it was time to really get behind him. Knowing that many Zanla fighters were extremely critical of him, Mugabe persuaded Machel to arrest us in order to head off a military rebellion. I was arrested along with some 600 fighters and the 50 top commanders. Some of the fighters were released but the commanders stayed in jail for three years.

What was your prison experience like?
It was the worst part of my whole life; even now it is dreadful to recall. We were packed like sardines into converted offices that were our cells. We were naked and slept on cement floors. There was nowhere to go to the toilet so we simply had to defecate and pass water onto the floor and eat our meals amid that filthy mess. The cells were only cleaned once a month. We were infested with lice and we were also starving. We had to go through winter without blankets and there was so little food that we often used to eat rice mixed with sand. Naturally we fell ill with fevers, malaria and so on. I have read about conditions on the slave ships and our conditions were virtually identical. One of the holocaust survivors wrote, "He who has not experienced it cannot believe it. He who has experienced it can't understand it," and that is exactly how I felt about conditions in that jail. The nightmare went on for six months and only stopped because Nyerere persuaded Machel to relax conditions. We were moved to a remote former Portuguese military camp, called Balama, where we spent two years and planted our own crops. We were finally released after a representative of British Labour Party took up our case with the foreign secretary Lord Carrington. Our release was part of the whole independence deal.

What happened to you after independence in 1980?
Mugabe did not want us and used his casting vote to stop us being re-integrated into Zanu. By this time there were 64 of us; 27 aligned ourselves with the Patriotic Front, while others rejoined Sithole and some followed Bishop Muzorewa. Luckily, joining the Patriotic Front gave us the protection of Joshua Nkomo, who was minister of home affairs. We really needed it: as soon as Mugabe was elected he arrested all 27 of us. We spent ten days in the cells, the last five of them on hunger strike. Nkomo got us out, but it was clear that Mugabe had marked us as enemies. With the president himself against us it proved virtually impossible to get work. In 1981 the man in charge of the president's personal security told me, "You're mad hanging around here. You're only looking for trouble and you will get it if you stay." I managed to get a scholarship to West Germany and went off with no intention of ever coming back.

Why did you come back?
I had to. I did an MSc in chemical biotechnology and was then offered a lectureship at the Technical University of Berlin. I was very keen to take it, particularly since I had a German girlfriend by that time, but Zimbabwean intelligence told the German government that I was a communist, so the job offer was withdrawn. After that I tried to settle in France, but after much shuttling to and fro, it became clear that neither country would have me and I would have to return.

When I came back in 1988 I found that people like myself were blacklisted for all jobs. As soon as anyone offered us a job the Central Intelligence Organisation would make sure the offer was withdrawn. In the end a friendly personnel officer arranged a deal whereby we were allowed back into the labour market if we agreed to have nothing to do with politics. Today I work as a quality control manager.

Despite all this aren't you are one of the men who put Robert Mugabe where he is?
Yes, I'm afraid so. I now greatly regret it, as do the other members of the Zimbabwe Liberators' Platform (ZLP). We have come together because we are so shocked at the present situation in Zimbabwe. We are the real war vets. The people who are now describing themselves as war vets and invading white farms are not really war vets at all. Often they are just thugs. We fought for freedom and democracy in this country and what they are doing is quite the opposite. We would like to see a united front with the farmers against what is happening now. After all, today's white farmers all want to be Zimbabweans and are contributing to the country. We plan to go to the farms and tell the so-called war vets that what they are doing is completely at variance with everything the liberation movement stood for. We can't afford to be neutral. What we say is "Don't sit on the fence, because the fence is electrified."

What do you feel about the way Mugabe's regime has turned out?
We knew what he was like even before independence and are in no way surprised by what has happened. For a long time we kept our opinion to ourselves but now others have come round to our point of view. The vast majority of people in the Zimbabwe Liberators' Platform - its members range from company directors, to magistrates, to high-ups in the army and the police - are now sympathetic to the Movement for Democratic Change. Mugabe is only interested in power. It's not even true that he is a racist. He is just making quite cynical use of racism as a means of staying in power. The truth is that he has always wanted to be an English gentlemen, dresses like one, makes much of his love of cricket and so on. Indeed Samora Machel said to him in 1976, "If you want to fight the British, why do you always choose to go through London when you travel?" Machel was very suspicious of him.

Do you feel that Josiah Tongogara would have been a better leader?
No. He would have been at least as bad as Mugabe, probably worse. The only man that we now think would have made a really good president of Zimbabwe was Herbert Chitepo, who was really our Mandela, and just possibly Jason Moyo. Unhappily both of them are dead. Chitepo's death remains a mystery to this day. There are those who think that Mugabe had him killed, but they have no proof of that. We are inclined to feel that the Smith forces did it, though with inside help. Many people whom we knew perfectly well were Smith agents were later recruited into the upper ranks of Zanu-PF by Mugabe.

How did you know that?
In the camp in Tanzania we would question the new recruits and found there were always a considerable number acting as agents of Smith. We would gradually uncover them and then unravel their networks. Our policy was not to victimise them but to turn them into our people so that they could feed false information back to Smith. Some later attained very high positions. But their presence was always a risk - some must have carried on working for Smith. It's possible that Smith may have ordered the murder of Chitepo to help clear the way for Mugabe

Are you scared about coming out in such open opposition to Mugabe?
We have decided that it's high time to do so. We are not scared because we trained the heads of the air force, the army, the police and many others. We have supporters even within the intelligence services. No one dares to attack our credentials. We can expose Mugabe and ask people in power who are you, what did you do for liberation? No one has done more than the people in the ZLP to liberate this country. Now that other people recognise the truth about Robert Mugabe, which we have known for so long, it is time for us to tell our story at last. We will never regret our struggle for liberation. We made great sacrifices and now we want respect as the real war veterans. We do not want to see our name dragged through the mud by the criminals who are occupying farms.

Have you all joined the MDC?
No, we are sympathetic to it, but the answer does not lie in another almighty party. While we would like to see the MDC defeat Zanu-PF, we do not want it to become too powerful either. It will need a strong opposition, but we do not want that opposition to be Zanu-PF. Most of all we need the restoration of the rule of law and a multi- party system with a proper democratic Constitution.