Joshua Nkomo

In 1949 a meeting was held at the Recreation Hall in Salisbury at which a new president was elected for the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress. This introduced to the centre stage of local politics the founding father of black nationalism and the first authentic voice of the people of Southern Rhodesia. The event within itself did not mean a great deal, since at that stage Congress still held its position as a somewhat elitist and conformist organisation that did not compete in any way with such wider reaching organisations as the Voice, and Nkomo himself, then a 32 year old social worker and trade unionist, was hardly a leader of the kind of national stature as Benjamin Burombo. However this was the beginning. The formative years of the struggle had run their course, the organisation teeth of the black body politic had been cut, and it was time to shed the compliance of the first half of the century and adopt a more aggressive approach to the revolution.

Joshua Mqabuko Nyongolo Nkomo was born in June 1917 in the Semokwe Native Reserve in Matabeleland. He was a native of Matabeleland, was a siNdebele speaker, but owed his origins to the Kalanga group which existed in the south-western quadrant of Matabeleland prior to the arrival of the amaNdebele in the 1930s, and so he could not claim the august lineage of abaZanzi in the rigid and complex caste system of the amaNdebele. However the days of dynastic leadership were over, and Nkomo grew up in a relatively liberated environment stamped by the administration of Native Department officials and free of the constraints of a society dominated by a minority class of aristocrats.

In every other respect Nkomo would have had a childhood typical of his times, enjoying the last fruits of an unspoilt land in a native reserve that offered time and space for the last vestige of a tribal existence. Nkomo’s parents were both employed by the London Missionary Society, and thanks to this connection he was amble to accumulate a higher degree of education than most, but still not a great deal. The Christian Missions in Southern Rhodesia at that time were sub-divided into many different denominations and had proliferated in the wake of the Rebellions. Most had also been welcomed by the Company, with upwards of 400 000 acres of land being granted to a variety of missionary organizations by 1925. Along with this general encouragement was given to the missions to remove from among the Company’s many development responsibilities the question of native education.

It was not a perfect system of education, however, and certainly it was inferior in terms of funding and projection to white education, which at that time was undergoing a parallel and significantly more energised development. However it did provide limited opportunity for a relatively small number of promising individuals to gain some of the benefits of modernization. Of the 60 or more men and women, such as Nkomo himself, who drove forward the nationalist movements of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, 48 received at least their early education from missionary schools, and 18 were born to parents who were either black evangelists or missionary schoolteachers themselves.[i]

In his autobiography, The Story of my Life, Nkomo records that his parents were born in the early 1880s into what was by then orthodox amaNdebele society. His father was a teacher so the credo of education was introduced early into his life, and with a little more disposable income than most Nkomo and most of his brothers and sisters were able to attend school. Nkomo describes his Christian Methodist upbringing fondly, but perhaps in respect to a nationalist audience he makes the point that this was deliberately to the exclusion of traditional forms of veneration, with his mother forbidding him to eat food with his friends that had any ritual suggestion about it. This then led a reflective Nkomo towards an exploration of his traditional roots, not to the exclusion of Christianity, which remained his core belief, but as a means to identify himself with his origins and ancestral heritage. In secret he took part in the ceremonies of his non-Christian neighbours, and, as he himself recorded, as the ‘…spirit of Zimbabwean nationalism came to the fore again in the early 1950s, I examined for myself the power of the traditional faith of my people, and visited the shrine where Mwali resides in the Matopo hills.[ii]

The story, which is probably a great deal more myth than fact, continues with Nkomo and a group of friends approaching the shrine of the oracle where Nkomo made the request that the land of the nation be returned to its children. The oracle replied from within the rocks that what Lobengula had been told by the Mlimo not to do – that is to not fight the whites who had come into the country, or the men without knees as those who wore long trousers in the days of the occupation were known – is what he had done, and had as a consequence the amaNdebele had lost the nation. If its was to be recovered it would be only after 30 years, and after a great war had been fought. Furthermore the nation of Bechuanaland would be recovered to its people sooner since Sikhume Khama had heeded the advice given to him, and avoided war with the whites. It was also revealed to Nkomo that the rebirth of the nation of Zimbabwe would be traumatic, and hugely costly in the lives and welfare of the people.

In view of the intense struggle throughout the late 1950 and 1960s among the new generation of educated elite this type of anointing could not have hurt Nkomo. More importantly than this, in fact, and proving perhaps that Nkomo’s revelation was written more in retrospect than as a genuine fact of his autobiography, was the vital link that traditional spirituality forged between the rebels of the future, and those of the past, and indeed between pre-colonial history of the country and events that would bring about and succeed the end of colonialism. There are very few histories written about this period by its participants that do not suffer from a political interpretation of the facts, and the likelihood that no such encountered ever happened is very high. Zimbabwean author Eliakim Sibanda, whose history of ZAPU (Zimbabwe African Peoples Union), the definitive amaNdebele political party, is a case in point.

It was no co-incidence therefore that Nkomo went to the Ilitshe in Dula to receive his commission from uMlimo. According to Zimangele Mpofu, the Ilitshe at Dula had a historical connection with war. She told of how in 1896 the spirit of the Dula Ilitshe which was known as Ihloka Elibomvu (The Red Axe),possessed Mtuwane Dhlodlho, one of the leading Ndebele commanders. Zimangele said that the Ihloka Elibomvu gave Dhlodlho the power to wage war, which was known in Matabeleland and the war of Ihloka Elibomvu, and when it was over the power to negotiate.[iii]

This was clearly a mandate to wage war, but more importantly an anointing under the model of the Great Indabas, defining Joshua Nkomo as a de facto Induna of the amaNdebele nation, and the Southern Rhodesian Government as a latter day manifestation of the British South Africa Company with the ghost of Cecil John Rhodes very present.

At a more fundamental level this sort of thing makes for a convenient mythology for a man who was by no means the most augustly educated of his peers, but Nkomo also happened to be shrewd enough to recognise that university degrees alone would not motivate the masses to form around any particular leadership. Reference to the exceptionality of black culture, and the reconstruction of black tradition alongside the more dominant institutions of modern life, would be the vital soil in which any mass nationalist movement would take root.

Meanwhile Nkomo’s education temporal continued. His primary education began at one of two experimental facilities set up by the government at that times, the principal being the Domboshawa Government Industrial School just outside the capital city of Salisbury, and the second being the Tsholotsho Industrial School just outside Bulawayo which catered mainly to amaNdebele youth. The vision behind these two institutions was not dissimilar to that expounded in an earlier generation by African American educationalist Booker T Washington, central to whose philosophy was the idea that it was of greater value to an emerging nation to be given the tools of skilled labour the intellectual reason, and that the downfall of the blacks of the southern states at that times was an overwhelming desire to achieve intellectual eminence before any of the fundamental foundations of society had been laid. This certainly had time and again been proved to be the case in Africa, with many of the early intellectual leader alienating themselves from grassroots support thanks to an acceleration of their own sense of superiority.

Nkomo did not particularly enjoy his experience at industrial school, but it proved to be of enormous value to him in his later ability to relate to working men and woman. He received five years of mainly artisan training as a builder and carpenter before moving to Bulawayo, as many other were at that time, where he found employment as a delivery driver with the Osborne Bakery. This was the concern of local councillor Donald MacIntyre who would in 1953 be appointed Minister of Finance for the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

It was here that Nkomo encountered for the first time the strange conventions of race in Southern Rhodesia. He was the only black driver, and as a consequence he earned £4 a month, £8 less that his coloured colleagues who were doing the same job. He took the matter up with his employer who explained to him that as a native his needs were fewer than the coloured who were closer in status to whites and as such required more in terms of the basic accoutrements of civilisation such as knives, forks, plates, beds and wheat bread etc. Nkomo replied that if he was paid £12 a month he would be very happy to adopt all of those things, for which candour he was promptly fired.

Thereafter Nkomo took the by then well travelled route across the Limpopo to South Africa where in 1941 he enrolled in the primarily black institution of Adams College in Amanzimtoti just south of Durban. After three years of secondary education he continued on to the Jan H Hofmeyr School of Social Work in Johannesburg where he studied social work and later emerged with a diploma certificate. It was also during his years in Johannesburg that his exposure to the underground strata of black politics began in earnest. His interest in this was accelerated also by the exposure he was given of urban conditions of black workers in Johannesburg amongst whom his academic field work was conducted. Conditions for blacks in South Africa were in general decline as the stranglehold of increasingly restrictive legislation proscribed many of their basic liberties, and urban conditions particularly so, as was the case in Southern Rhodesia as both countries grew in industrial capacity with its consequent demand for cheap black labour. ‘But,’ he wrote, ‘I had to understand that social workers can only patch the holes in society. They cannot prevent the fabric being weak. Only the government could do that, and the government of South Africa was not governing for the people, but against them.’[iv]

It was inevitable that a man like Nkomo would begin to react to the limitations of his role and begin to explore the potential for a more forceful, political approach to solving the problems he was beginning to realise were symptoms of a huge political failure. The main political issue in South Africa at the time was the removal in the Cape of the coloured franchise, which energised political meetings and underground rallies that Nkomo attended. By the mid 1940 tangible change was underway in South African society which came to a head in the 1948 victory at the polls of the South African Nationalist Party which ushered in the system of apartheid and the almost total dispossession of blacks in South Africa.

It was therefore a highly politicised Joshua Nkomo that returned to Southern Rhodesia and took employment with the newly formed department of African Affairs in the monolithic Rhodesia Railways that had its main engineering headquarters in Bulawayo. There Nkomo quickly began to lay down the groundwork of organisation among black railways workers, soon being elected to the position of President of the African Railway Employees Association, the de facto black rail workers union that at that point could not exist as such. The organisation had been founded prior to the 1946 strike, but had been largely inactive since with little in the way of expertise or experience, a role into which Nkomo very easily stepped.

     As we have seen in an earlier chapter this was a period of quickening political activity among blacks, particularly among those energised by exposure to the industrial centre of Bulawayo, and in this environment Nkomo’s subtle politicisation and his friendly but nonetheless determined resistance to many of the petty but yet deeply ingrained barbs of racism that characterised his day to day working life did not sit well with his superior. However this was also a time of change in white society. Many newcomers to the colony who found their way into the civil service where not inherently racist, with many having emerged from the defeat of German totalitarianism with little appetite to repeat the phenomenon in Africa, and with yet others keen to assist black organisation and to advance the development of black political expression. On the whole it was among those working class whites whose jobs, social institutions and schools where directly threatened by black encroachment that unrestrained racism existed, and it tended not to be these that occupied the judiciary, the civil service and the police. So although the ‘union’ was unrecognised and unregistered, it was not illegal, and thus was permitted to continue its existence and activities.

By the time of Nkomo’s election to the presidency of the Southern Rhodesian he had established himself as a strong organisational figure in the union movement of Bulawayo, and along with many others of his generation who were emerging into positions of leadership, he had began to conclude that passive residence and partial reform were never likely to set matters right. ‘All we could do about peoples grievances’, he wrote about this period, ‘was to find out what they were and formulate them, writing things down for the first time, organising petitions and complaining about what was wrong.’[v] Alongside many others across the race divide he had begun to realise that a far more aggressive style of political attitude and organisation would be required to promote change, although neither he nor anyone else at that time could have perceived exactly how determined to change the entrenched institutions would be.

Nkomo recognised when he accepted the presidency of Congress that the organisation was moribund and largely irrelevant, and he was supported by people as Benjamin Burombo himself, and many others, in stressing the need for unity, and for a single organisation to be formed that could unite all the many voices, ethnicities and political opinions across the spectrum of black politics. This would of course be easier said than done, but it quickly became the defining objective of all shades of opinion, even if many of these could agree on little else. It therefore took almost three years before the many threads of interest in the formation of a national organisation began to form into a single bond. On May 28 1952 a meeting was held in Salisbury of representatives of some 31 000 union and organisation members to discuss the practicalities of setting up an umbrella body to represent all other black political, social and economic organisation sin the country. A definitive resolution remained elusive thanks to disagreement over an appropriate name for such an organisation, but an interim committee was set up began the grassroots organisation of some ten separate bodies representing about 50 000 fee paying members.[vi]

A few months later a second attempt was made, which resulted in the formation of the Southern Rhodesia All African Convention. Nkomo was elected a committee member, as was Charles Mzingeli, assisted by Benjamin Burmobo, whose closing contribution to the liberation struggle was his support of the formation of a national organisation, and his willingness to bring the curtain down on the South Rhodesian Bantu Voice Association in order to add momentum to this. A weakness of the organisation was its continuing constitution as a federation and not a unified movement, and ongoing suspicion disunity between the individual organisation members themselves.

    As these movements were underway in black politics, in white politics a union of far greater magnitude was under way in the successful federation of the two Rhodesias and Nyasaland into the vast Central African Federation that would endure for a decade and both add to and diminish the cause of the liberation struggle. In essence this was a manifestation of the post World War I proclamation by the Imperial Government that in matters of future governance in Africa the interests of the native would necessarily supersede the interests of the settlers. A warning had been struck that white rule in Africa was finite and that colonial governments, be they gubernatorial as was the case in Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, or self governing as was the case in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa.

What was initially mooted by populations of nervous settlers across the spectrum was a vast marriage of convenience between all the settled colonies of east, central and southern Africa. This, it was hoped, would make up for in size what was clearly lacking in all of these territories in numbers. Security of government was what was most sought by the settlers, and a reluctant Imperial Government appointed a commission of inquiry to establish the feasibility of this. It took another quarter of a century, and another global war before the grand amalgamation of British colonies was diminished to an east African common Market at the Central African federation, essentially the brainchild of Southern Rhodesian prime Minister Sir Godfrey Huggins, and leader of the Northern Rhodesia Legislature Sir Roy Welensky.

The blacks of all three colonies were united in their resistance to the formation of the Federation. The reasons for this were many – in the more liberally governed north fears of being drawn into the more restrictive race laws of the south were paramount, in the south fears of an entrenchment of white rule likewise – and in Southern Rhodesia the issue superseded the Land Husbandry Act and the forced removals as an effective focus for general discontent and political protest. This wave of black expression would be a great deal more forceful than anything hitherto seen, but likewise the internal divisions and contradictions within the combined black liberation movement would also magnify, ultimately to be manifest in violence.

A major starting point for internal discord within the black liberation movement was a decision made by Joshua Nkomo, and a fellow activist and journalist Jasper Savanhu, to attend the formative conferences of the Central African Federation as delegate invited by the Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister Sir Godfrey Huggins. On the one hand this invitation – reluctantly offered by Godfrey Huggins on the insistence of the Imperial Government – authenticated Nkomo’s pre-eminence as a popular leader since it was he who was chosen by a prime minister who had to choose someone, but at the same time it was decried by the increasing vocal hard-line element of black resistance that saw this as yet more evidence of the Southern Rhodesia Bantu Congress supplicating itself to white leadership and collaborating with white political manoeuvre. This would be the first of many such questions asked about the solidity of Nkomo’s commitment to the struggle, and would moreover set the tone for a more divisive internal struggle as he sought to strike a balance between the increasingly bitter demands of the revolution and the price this would exact on the common man.

Nonetheless these were early days, and Nkomo travelled to London in the company of Savanhu to lend his weight to a conference that, on the official Rhodesian side at least, would rather that he had stayed at home. This was evident in the rather disparaging assessment of his presence by Sir Roy Welensky who remarked in his own autobiography: ‘Huggins invited two Africans, Mr. Jasper Savanhu, a journalist, and Mr. Joshua Nkomo, a social worker, to be members of the Southern Rhodesian delegation.[vii] Of course Nkomo was no more a social worker than Welensky was a railway locomotive driver, as he had been before the medium of the White Railway Workers Union projected him to a higher strata of national politics. An incident also not without irony was the fact that Nkomo was seated on the flight beside Donald Macintyre, now Minister of Finance, who had, according to Nkomo at least, fired him for presuming to aspire to a white lifestyle.

However the affair was viewed on each side of the race divide, Nkomo’s attendance of the Federation Conference in London that summer represented the first appearance of a Southern Rhodesian black at the centre of British imperial politics, and the highest point yet reached by any non-white of the colony. It is not difficult to imagine that his performance would have been stumbling and indecisive, exacerbated by audible talk behind his back among liberal elements of the British establishment, reflecting perhaps also a strong sector of opinion at home, that he and Savanhu were white ‘stooges’. His position was undermined even further by the last minute refusal of the invited black delegates from Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland to attend the conference, which made a belated and rather stage managed walk out by he and Savanhu seem hollow.

In the end, however, Nkomo appears to have won the grudging respect of Sir Roy Welensky, who wrote after the conclusion of the conference: ‘Mr. Savanhu and Mr. Nkomo made it clear, the moment that the London conference was over, that they had committed themselves to nothing. They said they wanted a real scheme of partnership between Europeans and Africans in Southern Rhodesia, and this they said had to precede any consideration of a closer association in Central Africa.’[viii] And as far as Huggins was concerned, Nkomo concluded that he had done the SRANC leader a great service by catapulting his name to the forefront of black consciousness. Upon arrival at Bulawayo Airport on his return from London Nkomo was surprised and gratified to be met by a large assembly of journalists and curious blacks eager to catch a glimpse of the man who had spoken on their behalf in an international forum, and elevated their position to one of national, indeed international importance. He then set the tone for the future of Southern Rhodesian race relation when asked what he would do if the Federation went ahead: ‘If the whites persist in handling us the way they are doing,’ he said, ‘they must not be surprised if one day we pay them back in their own coin.’[ix] The comment created a stir, but nonetheless added greatly to Nkomo’s celebrity.

Early in 1953 Nkomo travelled again to London, this time uninvited, to lobby forcefully against the Federation at a second London conference. This time he was armed with more authenticity, and succeeded in establishing contacts many in the liberal political establishment to further cement his position as the principal spokesman for black opinion in Southern Rhodesia. When the Federation came into being later that year he stood in the first Federal election for one of the token black seats reserved for natives of each colony, and was beaten. Soon afterwards he resigned his job with the Rhodesia Railways and began to apply himself full time to the struggle.

Meanwhile, and according to his biography, it was Benjamin Burombo who too the struggle back to Bulawayo, and from the venerable position of elder statesman appealed to the various factions divided by Nkomo and Savanhu, their decision to attend the Federal Conference and Nkomo’s perceived tendency towards collaboration. A series of meeting were held in Bulawayo that pressed forward the difficult gestation of a national organisation. The Federation catalysed many of these difficulties, with the general consensus to tolerate no involvement with the Federation undermined by influential individuals, Nkomo among them, choosing to compete for the black seats in the Federal Parliament. According to Professor Ngwabi Bhebe, author of Benjamin Burombo’s biography: ‘That confused everybody and there was mud-slinging in the press. Unity could not be born under such and atmosphere. Burombo, along with many others retreated into the background for a while to watch the avaricious educated people educated people jostle with each other for whatever crumbs fell from the white man’s sumptuously supplied Federal table.’ It was not until as late as 1957 that, as Prof Bhebe again puts it, that ‘…some of the educated people had been outdone by more unscrupulous but astute ones, that they decided to come back to their organisation.’ [x]

By then the only surviving cell of the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress was the Bulawayo Branch, although the African National Youth League, a grassroots organisation then taking form in Salisbury, had begun to emerge as the only truly influential native organisation in existence. The movement had been founded by, among others, firebrand nationalists James Chikerema, Edson Sithole and George Nyandoro who collective wrested the union movement away from Charles Mzingeli who like most of his generation was regarded as being too conciliatory and compliant. The principal action of the Youth League was a successful bus boycott organised in Salisbury in August 1956 that confirmed the organisation as an authentic mass movement, paving the way for an invitation to the Bulawayo branch of the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress for a merger. This was as much as anything because, although suffering a crisis of legitimacy, the SRANC had leadership of men with a far longer history of organisation and resistance than any other, among whom was Joshua Nkomo who duly resigned from the presidency of the SRANC, with the intellectually limited but emotionally aggressive James Chikerema as his deputy. Other founding members of the executive included names that would have significant future resonance such as Jason Moyo, George Nyandoror, and Joseph Msika. There was a distinct multi-ethnicity in the make of of the executive, illustrating an early commitment to the pan-tribalism of the struggle.

On the 12 of Sept the ‘New’ ANC was formed out of the two organisations – the ostensibly multi-ethnic SRANC and the largely mono-ethnic ANYL, with Nkomo, and amaNdebele/Kalanga as its first president. This was immediately a much more aggressive manifestation of the old organisation, and any organisation so far, and was inspired much more by the militant attitudes of the African National Youth league than the old SRANC and the many organisations that had preceded it. The most potent evidence of this fact was its date of launch, in white mythology it was ‘Pioneer Day’, the most important day on the white Rhodesian commemorative calendar, and the 67th anniversary of the arrival of the pioneer column in Mashonaland. In this way was born the first mass movement political party in Southern Rhodesia.


[i] Baxter, Peter. Rhodesia: The Last Outpost of the British Empire: Rhodesia 1890 to 1980, (Galago Press, Johannesburg 2009)

[ii] Nkomo, Joshua. The Story of My Life, (Methuen, London, 1984) p13

[iii] Zimangele Mpofu, quoted: Sibanda, Eliakim M, The Zimbabwe African National Union 1961-87, (Africa World Press, Trenton NJ, 2005) p9

[iv] Nkomo, Joshua. The Story of My Life, (Methuen, London, 1984) p36

[v] Nkomo, Joshua. The Story of My Life, (Methuen, London, 1984) p46

[vi] Bhebe, Ngwabe. Benjamin Burombo, (College Press, Harare, 1989) p110

[vii] Welensky, Sir Roy. 4000 Days, (Collins, London 1964) p51/2

[viii] Welensky, Sir Roy. 4000 Days, (Collins, London 1964) p54

[ix] Nkomo, Joshua. The Story of My Life, (Methuen, London, 1984) p55

[x] Bhebe, Ngwabe. Benjamin Burombo, (College Press, Harare, 1989) p113