ZAPU in the Zimbabwe Liberation Struggle

As the armed wing of ZAPU withdrew to ponder lessons learned, the detained leadership within Rhodesia settled into what seemed likely to be a sustained period of restriction. For Joshua Nkomo the prospect was particularly dreary. Somewhere between the claims of his apologists of untainted zealotry, and his protagonists insistence on his innate corruptibility, lies the truth of what motivated Nkomo. At the very least he was a comfort loving soul. He was not a flint hard, ascetic ideologue like Robert Mugabe, nor a spiritually driven humanitarian like Ndabaningi Sithole, and for him to be transported with the rudiments of life to an isolated location on the fringes of Gonarezou National Park, and there left to ponder nothing but the bland landscape and the unchanging faces of his party executive, was cruel indeed. It seems that he tried to make the best of it, but his memoirs are richly imbibed with the lengthy tedium of it all. He was preoccupied with his ballooning weight, which according to historian Peter Stiff was exacerbated by Rhodesian security officials feeding him choice fare to try if possible to induce a heart attack, and his doctor supplying him with weight loss pills that kept him restless and awake.

Matters at that time were in the hands of his deputy, James Chikerema, then leading the party from Lusaka, a complex and conflicted character in his own right, and perhaps not the best captain of a drifting ship. At that time a strong residue of the old elitist view of leadership lingered in the party, and Chikerema was not a particularly well educated man. It has been suggested that he was chosen by Nkomo as his deputy on the terms that many deputies are chosen, that is to lack either the intelligence or the charisma to seriously challenge the leadership. Upon Nkomo’s detention, however, the leadership fell into his hands, and surrounded by men of genuine merit and education, he was at a disadvantage. To this he responded with churlishness, intransigence and an imperfect understanding of committee leadership.

George Silundika may have lacked a finished education, but this more as a consequence of funding than merit, and he was a highly politicised, highly motivated and accomplished man, and as Publicity Secretary a leading light on the executive committee. Not least of his advantages, however, was the fact that he was a Kalanga, born near Plumtree, in a region of the country that had produced quite a number of accomplished amaNdebele leaders of late. One of these was Bulawayo trade unionist, veteran of the 1959 detentions and Nkomo loyalist Jason Moyo. Moyo was precisely the kind of deputy a man like Chikerema would rather not have. He was firmly built, handsome and charming, all in stark contrast to Chikerema’s faux bookishness, his wiry appearance and snappish over-sensitivity. In a meritocracy Moyo certainly had superior credentials, and in response to this it was Chikerema tendency to, on the one hand, stress that he alone held Joshua Nkomo’s powers in trust, and on the other to act frequently over the heads of other members the External Committee.

Chikerema was a Mashona, and drew his support primarily from George Nyandoro, a Mashona aristocrat whose father had been deposed as chief by the colonial authorities, which at that time was as clear a statement of nationalist sympathy as might ever be needed. His defining comment was that, in the aftermath of World War II, black ex-servicemen had been given bicycles while white ex-servicemen had been given farms. [i] George Nyandoro himself was an intractable nationalist, one of the early hard-liners, and known to maintain an ethnocentric view of the struggle. It was felt in certain quarters overlapping party lines that the amaNdebele sought to dominate the Liberation Struggle. In amaNdebele circles (although in fact Moyo and Silundika were Kalangas, a small group living on either side of the Botswana border in the region of Plumtree) that Chikerema, far from acting under the authority of Joshua Nkomo (also a Kalanga), Chikerema had spuriously usurped Nkomo’s authority, using it in a manner that Nkomo himself would not have, nor approved of, which undermined the integrity and authority of the External Committee.

So it went. The main policy preoccupation at that time was the necessity to examine recent military and party failures, and at the same time re-examine overall strategy, but in particular to the prosecution of the war, and Chikerema, it seemed to many, had lost sight of this in his naval gazing obsession with the distribution of authority. Thus Moyo, Silundika, and a third amaNdebele committee member Edward Ndlovu, a pure blood amaNdebele and member of the exulted abeZanzi class, as aristocratic in his own way as Nyandoro, undertook to conduct an assessment and produce a report. On 25 February 1970 a document appeared in circulation entitled ‘Observations on our Struggle’ which was a thoughtful assessment of the current status, with equally thoughtful suggests for future strategy. It also was not uncritical of Chikerema, and in particular an ill considered granting of permission to a foreign film crew to take footage of guerrillas shortly to depart to Rhodesia. This action was difficult to comprehend for two reasons: most importantly in exposed combatants to recognition by an extremely vigilant Rhodesian intelligence service, and secondly it embarrassed Kenneth Kaunda who had consistently denied that any guerrilla bases or staging points existe don his territory.

The document was signed my Moyo, Silundika and Ndlovu, and whatever its merits, it prompted a brief war of documents that saw the almost immediate publication of a rebuttal from Chikerema and Nyandoro entitled ‘Reply to Observations on our Struggle’. In essence Chikerema objected to the political leadership responding to military matters which were his responsibility alone as head of ZAPU’s Special Affairs. This document unfortunately carried no hint of the forward thinking strategic planning that had the original document, but was a self orientated confirmation of his own leadership destiny from Chikerema, based on an indisputable anointing by Nkomo, who was revealed by the document to suffer a debilitating dependence of Chikerema for basic advice, guidance and planning. The document concluded with Chikerema assuming personal and absolute authority over the party in the name of Life President Joshua Nkomo.

By degrees James Chikerema and his largely Mashona faction began to lose ground which resulted in Chikerema leading a ZAPU faction in forming the breakaway Front for the Liberation of Zimbabwe, or FROLIZI. The political manoeuvre behind this was an ostensible quest for unity between the two major liberation movement that had, and remained in bitter opposition, a state of affairs that the Organisation of African Unity and the leaders of the Frontline States deplored. Ignorant of the deep personal and political fissures that existed between the founding leaders of ZAPU and ZANU, both the OAU and the Frontline States demanded that the combined Zimbabwean liberation movement bury its differences and jointly challenge imperialism as a united front. FROLIZI in the eyes of many represented this, and in this respect Chikerema succeeded, but in reality FROLIZI remained a splinter group, never achieving what might be regarded as a mass following, and never managing to field an army or armed wing of any particular consequence.

This version of events is once again a course charted between the absolutely contradictory versions offered by allied students of the affair and surviving participants, but in fact it is hardly relevant. The split that followed ran along tribal lines, and any proclamation that tribalism played no part in it is clearly faulty. James Chikerema and George Silundika went one way and Jason Moyo and his peers another, and with them went their rank and file divided along similar lines. The facts of the situation as it played out are simply that a split occurred, resulting in shots being fired, unconstitutional arrests and sides drawn in the guerrilla camps. Kenneth Kaunda, never a wholly committed patron of the revolution, was once again unnerved by the proliferation of non-aligned military forced on his territory. He moved to quell the civil war, and largely did so, but the real damage of the feud was felt less at the core than on the fringes.

 ZAPU’s Military Re-organisation

Of deep significance to ZAPU’s military command capacity was the frustrated defection to ZANU of some key figures of the armed wing – most notably Rex Nhongo who was destined to play a leading role in ZANU’s eventual seizure of the Zimbabwe laurels, and Robson Manyika, ZAPU Chief of Staff who, along with Nhongo took with them operational information and many individual cadré, both of which were of great value to ZANU. This dramatically altered the balance of power in the liberation movement, prejudicing ZAPU to a degree that arguably it would not recover from.

However perhaps the most important military and political reverse felt as a consequence of this implosion was the loss of respect and political leverage available to ZAPU along the north-eastern frontier of Rhodesia as the Mozambique liberation movement FRELIMO (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique) continued to make territorial gains in its war against the Portuguese colonial occupation. By 1970 these gains were significant, pressing south against the natural barrier of the Zambezi River, and confronting the Portuguese with the possibility of a vast new front opening up in Tete Province bordering Rhodesia in the northwest. Logistically this would represent a breakthrough for any group able to access the region in the wake of FRELIMO advances. Prior to this any incursion into Rhodesia required first to cross the easily defendable line of the Zambezi, but if FRELIMO were in occupation of Tete Province then manifestly operations against Rhodesia could be mounted from rear bases within Mozambique along a front that would increase in length and effectiveness as the Portuguese retreated south.

Initially this advantage belonged to ZAPU. ZAPU retained the pedigree of a fully constituted political party while in the Diaspora ZANU existed under a cloud of suspicion as a disruptive splinter movement unnecessarily dividing the Struggle. As a consequence charismatic revolutionary and leader of FRELIMO Samora Machel, a man with unimpeachable revolutionary credentials and a leader of the Frontline States even if his state had yet to be wholly conquered, was determined that no ZANU military activity would take place in his territory, and held out for ZAPU to resolve its internal contradictions in order that it could make use of the Mozambique front.

This did not happen, and the vacuum was in due course filled by ZANU and its armed win ZANLA. In the meanwhile Jason Moyo and his clique assumed leadership of ZAPU in exile after which both parties experience a moribund period as the ramifications of the split affected each. Both had been forced to take a step back from the active prosecution of the war in order to re-examine tactics. Both did this, and although certain common conclusions were reached – most notably the obvious fact that the education and politicisation of the masses was vital as a precursor to any level of armed incursion –quite variant attitudes to the armed struggle developed which further underlined the tactical differences between the two armed groups.

Immediately after the split Jason Moyo convened a week-long consultative meeting during which the entire party structure was reviewed. A Revolutionary Council was formed as the main body of ZAPU outside of Rhodesia with a separate but subordinate military command structure developing under the Zimbabwe Peoples Revolutions Army, or ZIPRA. The seats of the Revolutionary Council were occupied by members of the National Executive Committee, heads of departments and military leaders and was an advance on the improvised exiled leadership structure established under Chikerema. It was able to function as a more broadly based provisional party executive committee. A subordinate organ to the Revolutionary Council that linked it to the party workers and general membership was the Congress of Militants, an ad hoc party congress with limited powers.[ii] Charged with the function of conducting the war on a localised level was the War Council, also subordinate to the Revolutionary Council, but arguably the most powerful and significant organ of the party during the war years. The War Council comprised five permanent members including:

  • President of ZAPU Joshua Nkomo
  • Party Commissar, Samuel Munodawafa
  • Secretary for Defence Akim Ndlovu
  • The Commander of ZIPRA, Lookout Msuku
  • Head of the National Security Organisation (NSO) Dumiso Dabengwa

The National Security Organisation, or NSO, was the internal security and intelligence arm and was headed by Dumiso Dabengwa, an impressive 32 year old ex-guerrilla who was one of the first to receive foreign military training. The role of the NSO, besides its security and intelligence functions, was o keep the War Council up to date with intelligence and research briefings and to present strategic option proposals for the consideration of the War Council.

Overall responsibility for military policy and administration was the Secretary for Deference, while command functions were carried out by the High Command headed by ZIPRA commander, a contemporary of Dumiso Dabengwa, Lookout Masuku, a 31-year old foreign trained veteran and charismatic and intuitive military commander. Masuku headed the ZIPRA high command which comprised he and his deputies, other chiefs and deputies of departments including artillery, communications, logistics, medical services, operations, personnel and training, reconnaissance and transport. Immediately below these were frontline commanders and their deputies, rear camp commanders and their deputies, and of course the NSO structure itself.

Conduct of the war was carefully organised through a highly inclusive process of meetings and consultation which in due course resulted in far more intelligent view of the war and a far more comprehensive response to it. Gone where the large, self-contained deployments which to amateurs might have seemed at the time the logical way to fight war, but which were easily identified and neutralised by the Rhodesian Security Forces. The period between 1972 and 1974 saw a vastly increased use of hit and run, ambush and landmine tactics which were deployed in a successful campaign to make large areas of the operational zones virtually inaccessible to the Rhodesian Security forces. In particular along access roads to the South African camps, which all in all served to seriously impede the mobility of the security forces and was moreover deadly against civilians of the local farming communities.

Civilians and military personnel would in due course be protected by a series of state-of-the-art mine protected vehicles designed and manufactured locally that would to some degree neutralise the threat of landmines and roadside ambushes, but for the time being vehicles were sandbagged to limit the impact of mines and vehicles moved cautiously and in convoy, and heavily armed through the operation areas of the northeast. South African positions, meanwhile, were frequently targeted and a number of SAP details were killed by landmine blasts on or around the access roads to their camps. In May 1973 a South African policeman suffered a mental breakdown after surviving his third landmine blast in a single day travelling between Mount Darwin and Mukumbura. Vehicle ambushes similarly harrowed troops plying the isolated rural roads, with an incident recorded of a convoy of South African policemen travelling in the Kandeya Tribal Trust Land in the northeast coming under brief attack, after which a deeply distressed detailed fired randomly on a group of civilians standing along the roadside before suffering a mental collapse. He was promptly casualty evacuated back to South Africa.[iii]

While this new offensive program was underway ZIPRA also busied itself with establishing a coherent structure of support on the ground in order to facilitate a more comprehensive merger between cadré and civilians in the operational theatre. This involved the establishment of arms caches and subversive cells throughout the Matabeleland Tribal Trust lands using Russian trained agents infiltrating the country from bases in Botswana.[iv] These were very well planned and executed operations, known as the 3-2-3 network, that worked very closely with locally established imijhiba [v] networks of local contact men and embedded operatives. A series of secret communications and signals were devised to allow one person to recognise the next member in the chain. It was a ‘cut-out’ system, the idea of which was to ensure that if one man was captured and compromised the extent of his knowledge would necessarily be too limited for his interrogation to reveal much beyond his own immediate responsibility.

The objective of establishing widely dispersed arms caches was two-fold: in the first instance the intention was to make arms and ordinance available to locals, and in particular landmines which were widely used and deployed by locally trained imijhiba, a group that increasingly began to assume responsibility for local cell organisation, courier duties and limited military operations such as vehicle ambushes; and secondly it was necessary to pre-plan the re-arming of trained ZIPRA cadré operating large distances away from rear bases either in Zambia or Botswana.

Much more during this period than at any time hitherto ZAPU organisation took into account the necessity for, not only the acceptance, but the active involvement of as wide a swathe of the local population as possible. This ran true to the Maoist doctrine of guerrilla war that ‘guerrilla war basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and cooperation’.[vi] It was also means of confirmation that the days of elitist involvement in the struggle were over, and that the war was a project undertaken by the people for the people, serving also to underline the fact that the enemy forces, isolated not only by colour but by cultural fraternity, were alien and had no place in the land of ancestral black heritage.

As carefully planned and executed as it was, however, the organisers and operatives were pitted against a formidable enemy. Despite the alienation of the mass of the white population from the underground black psyche the success of Rhodesian intelligence was then, as it had earlier been, extraordinarily successful. A Russian trained agent was captured in Bulawayo and from that root of information an effective attack was launched against the network, with many key individuals detained and much of the network compromised. However the weight of public opinion now lay with the guerrillas. Rhodesian intelligence had in the past been able to rely on a perplexed population uncertain what to make of strange talking and strange looking menfolk appearing armed and menacing in their areas. Now the people understood precisely what was afoot, and more importantly they supported the movement more than they did not. Reverses were suffered, no doubt, but the momentum had been established, and if one step was taken back, usually two steps were taken forward.

There was a third and alternative aspect to the strategy of arms cache deployment, which was probably more speculative at that stage than actual, but concerned the notion that upon the outbreak of conventional war, codenamed Zero Hour, the arms secreted throughout the countryside would be activated by civilians in support of an invasion launched across the Zambezi.

In the meanwhile ZANLA, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, the armed wing of ZANU, had completed its own strategic revaluation and was gradually peeling open an extended front along the eastern border of Rhodesia and Mozambique. The Rhodesian Security Forces reacted in a pro-active manner, as was to be expected, but found the radically increased area of operations taxing on its manpower reserves, as had been hoped would be the case by Herbert Chitepo among others in the formulation of revise military strategies across the board. The territorial influence of ZIPRA was felt mainly in the west of the country and along the north-eastern border with Zambia and ZANLA mainly along the eastern border. As 1970s progressed ZIPRA operational areas extended across the entire western portion of the country and most of the midlands. The Rhodesian army was stretched to maximum capacity with demands for military manpower for the first time conflicting with the needs of industry and commerce. This was a critical point in the Rhodesian rebellion, and the moment of her most bitter political disappointment.

Each of the separate protagonist of the war – ZANU, ZAPU and the Rhodesian Government – enjoyed and suffered the patronage and interference of a proxy power. Each of these supported their ideological allies while recognising and making known the unacceptable political, economic and human cost to the region of the current military solution. The ongoing support of military action by proxy powers was done so only to reinforce the respective negotiating positions in exploring the options for a political solution. The black nationalists were supported regionally by the Organisation of African Unity and the Frontline states. The ongoing mantra of both of these organisations was Unity! A divided nationalist movement played into the hands of a fiercely united white Rhodesia, diminishing the potential for an end to war and at the same time raising the spectre of immediate tribal/civil war upon the eventual achievement of majority rule.

If the OAU and the Frontline States were the patrons of the Liberation Struggle, meanwhile, then the Portuguese and the South Africans were the patrons of Rhodesian resistance. Of greatest importance to Rhodesia from a military and logistical point of view was South Africa. Much has been made in nationalist circles of the military and political alliance between South Africa and Rhodesia while the supply and financing of the Rhodesian war effort by South Africa has always been assumed to have been a case of South Africa defining its own security interests by proxy. ZAPU particularly has been guilty of over-emphasising this fiction, mainly in defence of its much criticised strategy to authorise an alliance between itself and the South African ANC. However from the onset the Rhodesian and South African political alliance had always been more theoretical and than actual, and was never absolute.

The real history of Rhodesia/South African alliance had tended to be punctuated with more incidences of acrimony and misalignment than co-operation. The Boer Republic of Transvaal had been thwarted in its efforts to acquire the territory of Matabeleland in the late 19th century by Cecil John Rhodes, and later it was insulted by Rhodes and Jameson when both attempted to pre-empt an uprising, and were then wholly dispossessed by the Anglo/Boer War of 1899 that followed largely as a consequence. In 1924 the hand of unity was offered to Rhodesia by the Union of South Africa and was rejected, leaving just the finest thread of racial fraternity to carry the two neighbours into and beyond the new age of African liberation.

In Southern Africa this new age was manifest first by the collapse of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, driving the line of white control south across the Zambezi, and then in a faltering guerrilla war, fought, and increasingly lost, by the Portuguese in Mozambique and Angola. For Rhodesia the threat of a Portuguese defeat in Mozambique opened up the awful possibility of a massively increased war front running the length of their common border which would immediately cut off vital international supply links and allow a far greater scope of access into the country by aggressive forces. For South Africa a Portuguese withdrawal from Southern Africa would bring the frontline of African nationalism to its own borders, both directly along its own eastern border with Mozambique, but also indirectly on the border between Angola and Namibia, then the South African territory of South West Africa.

Then in April of 1974 a left leaning military coup in Portugal ousted the right wing civilian government of Prime Minister Mercelo Caetano. Under Caetano the Portuguese had largely defied international sanctions against Rhodesia and had maintained throughout a defiant if quixotic determination to maintain her own African overseas territories in the face of an increasing obviously military incapacity. It was the bleeding wars in Mozambique and Angola that largely precipitated the coup, and implicit was the fact that some sort of a political settlement in both territories would be sought as a matter of urgency. The end of four centuries of Portuguese occupation of the east coast of Africa was imminent. This was a sobering moment for white Rhodesia, but it was initially greeted more with optimism than despair, since it was widely assumed that now years of faltering cooperation in mutual security between South Africa and Rhodesia would be washed away, and South Africa would have no choice but to weigh in with the full force of her mighty army to halt the southward march of black nationalism once and for all.

But alas this did tak eplace. Instead South Africa, under the leadership of Prime Minister John Vorster, sought rapprochement in the region, using Zambia and the moderate black president Kenneth Kaunda as a bridge, and its influence over the future political direction of white Rhodesia as inducement.

John Vorster believed in part that South Africa’s significant economic muscle would be a greater force for the long term security of itself in the region than her equally significant military might. It was Vorster’s rather forlorn conviction that an African common market, led by South African capital and economic expertise, would be enough to overcome the obvious anomalies of South Africa’s own warped racial politics in the minds of his fellow African leaders. This in particular would be the case if Rhodesia could be wrested from white control and guided towards a negotiated handover to one or other, or ideally a unified combination of all the Zimbabwean liberation movements.

The process was called détente, and indeed it would seem that John Vorster’s overtures towards mutual co-operation and peace were indeed met with approval in certain quarters of Africa, Malawi being one of these, to a degree Zambia another, and others being Côte d’Ivoire under Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Liberia under William Tolbert and Zaire under Mobuto Sese Seko. In Tanzania and in the Mozambique liberation fraternity it was positively received only insofar as it promised liberation for Rhodesia and not for any forgiveness of South Africa or any future economic cooperation. Nonetheless it renewed in the minds of all on the Frontline the urgency of bringing together the nationalist leaders into a united front. Pressure was brought to bear against Ian Smith by the South Africa to release the detained nationalists in order that they could gather in Lusaka for talks on Unity.

ZAPU had by then recovered from its own internal contradictions and had no particular interest in unity at that point, and there was certainly no strategic advantage in ending the war just as momentum was being re-established and the Rhodesian Security Forces were clearly under enormous pressure to cover the massively increased war zone. It was in fact more or less at this point that it began to become clear to many in Rhodesia that the chances of a military victory had diminished to zero, leaving only the possibility of some sort of a political solution emerging out of the chaos of war. This was still not commonly felt among a white population buoyed up by the jingoistic propaganda of an increasingly worried government. As Central Intelligence organisation supremo ken Flower observed: ‘Government propaganda had long since prevailed over fact and no one in authority was prepared to encourage disillusionment or mention the possibility of defeat in a game which had taken a new and serious turn.’[vii]

Ken Flower was in fact one of a small handful of white officials fully cognisant of the perilous state of vulnerability of a white population increasingly overwhelmed by security demands and haemorrhaging from a steady exodus of manpower as the future of minority rule grew daily more tenuous. He was in fact on one of the last international flights out of Lisbon in April 1974 as the coup took place. Up until the last he had been urging a tripartite security response to the overwhelming tide of black nationalism. To Flower it seemed that each of the white leadership camps were in their own way fiddling while Rome was aflame, and a solution no less quixotic than any other was the madcap pursuit of détente. On August I 1975 South Africa officially withdrew its armed presence from Rhodesia as a gesture of good faith and as a quid pro quo for cooperation from Zambia in the advance of détente. However this did not include the removal of helicopters, pilots and ground support crew who remained in the country on loan.

Meanwhile military activity was ostensibly suspended across the board in respect of a ceasefire agreement prior to all party negotiations. This was ostensible because in fact low key guerrilla activity continued in both nationalist camps, and violations of the ceasefire were common and ongoing. Nkomo’s release from detention also catalysed, or perhaps simply coincided with, massively accelerated response to recruitment, with a rate suggestion by nationalist historian Eliakim Sibanda at some 3000 individuals leaving the country for foreign guerrilla camps each month. This coincided with the arrival in a liberated Angola of large numbers of Cuban and Soviet personnel presenting the opportunity for the effective training of raw recruits much closer at hand.

Despite all these advantages the period of 1975/6 represented a lull in military activity across the board and much of the ground gained during the earlier landmine and ambush phase of the war were gradually lost as Rhodesian forces consolidated during the lull. The Rhodesians however enjoyed absolutely no political legitimacy in the rural areas and Tribal Trust Lands of the country, and while the regime was able to regain some ground lost, political activity, not covered by the moratorium on military activity, continued unabated in ZAPU areas of the country, as it did countrywide. By the mid-1970s, even if little was then visible above the surface, the roots of the Armed Struggle in the rural areas ran deep. In the rural areas in particular, which had increasingly become the focus of the struggle, the urban areas being generally quiet, war had by then become the only generally accepted avenue towards liberation.

The main vehicle for the dissemination of political ideas and revolutionary philosophy throughout Matabeleland south and north was the Ibandla leZintandane, or the Church of Orphans, which was an organisation that had begun as an underground thread of the banned Peoples Caretaker Council, itself an administrative organ of ZAPU, and which evolved into a multi-faceted and far reaching organisational tool in the dissemination of information, the provision of free political space for speeches and sermons and for the wider organisation of communication networks and supply logistics. Renewed political organisation manifest itself in the disruption of local rural administration and the undermining of and non-cooperation with African Councils, the smallest state organisational units at grassroots level. The clear loss on the part of the Rhodesian Government of the war for the hearts and minds of the people was being felt in a gradual loss of administrative control over the more remote regions. Administrative facilities, dips, schools, clinics and missions in the rural areas were closed, a trend that would continue and gather force as the war intensified. Black government, police and civil service staff were harassed and often killed, while the selective killing of individuals known to be or suspected of selling out tended to be high profile, demonstratively horrific and usually highly salutary.

To combat such effective subliminal influences on a population at times caught between the excesses of the Security Forces by day and the retaliatory excesses of the guerrillas at night the government opted for a strategy pioneered elsewhere in the empire to varying degrees of success. Across large swathes of the north and northeast of the country a system of concentration or containment was put in place along the model of Portuguese aldeamentos in Mozambique, but also following a similar system used in locations as diverse as Kenya and Malaya during similar outbreaks of colonial insurrection. In Rhodesia the system was benignly labelled the Protected Village program, and in essence involved the mass concentration of rural population into fortified settlements that were in theory carefully regulated and heavily controlled. The idea was obviously to isolate the guerrillas from a rural population from which they drew recruits, physical succour and logistical support.

This kind of activity was clear admission on the part of the Rhodesian government that it enjoyed no loyalty or meaningful support among the rural black populations of the country, and that the only means remaining of controlling their actions and behaviour was coercive. The Protected Village program was couched in terms of protecting innocent civilians from the predations of gangster guerrillas, but so despised was the protected Village system that it was viewed as, and largely was, a kind of subtle, and at times rather overt form of collective punishment.

Another tactic drawn from earlier colonial wars was introduced in Rhodesia. Experiments with pseudo operations in Rhodesia were initially carried out under the aegis of Special Branch, but were in due course taken over by the army which gave rise to the famous, and perhaps infamous, Selous Scouts Regiment, named after the legendary scout and hunter of an earlier generation, and charged with the responsibility of penetration, reconnaissance, intelligence and subversion. The Selous Scouts were a typical special forces regiment, made up of men of intelligence, physical endurance and loyalty, and as intelligence supremo Ken Flower, who more than anybody was responsible for the formation of the unit, ruefully commented, attracted its fair share of ‘vainglorious extroverts and psychopathic killers’.[viii]

The Selous Scouts began along the simple principal of white special forces operatives dressing up as blacks and attempting, with varying degrees of success, to penetrate guerrilla networks with a view either to gaining intelligence, guiding in pinpoint Fireforce attacks, or both. The limitations of the unit lay in the inherent unreliability of white men dressed up as black, and increasingly captured guerrillas were turned, bleached of information and released back into the field to operate with the Selous Scouts as pseudo guerrillas. So successful did the unit eventually become that it became the scourge of internal guerrilla groups, accounting for a great many successful Fireforce operations, and at times merging a little too closely with guerrilla enforcement tactics and perpetrating many of its own wanton atrocities against civilians in the ongoing war for hearts and minds, now subverted largely to a contest in the application of terror.

1975 saw the handover of Mozambique to the liberation forces of FELIMO. By 1976 the first attacks along the exposed mountainous east of Rhodesia were being felt. It was in 1976 also that the Rhodesian Security Forces effected a revised strategy and began to stage cross border raids against mixed targets mainly in Mozambique. One of the defining actions of the Selous Scout as an attack force was the raid on Nydzonia Base in August of that year that saw a large but indeterminate death toll inflicted on what the Rhodesian Government insisted was a constituted guerrilla base, and what the ZANU insisted was a refugee emplacement. This was a new and aggressive phase of the war that for ZANLA was fought more or less on the Chinese model of human wave, while ZIPRA opted for a more methodical and conventional approach to its participation in The Struggle.


[i] Cary, Robert. Mitchell, Diana. African Nationalists in Rhodesia: Who’s Who, (Books of Rhodesia, Bulawayo, 1977) p41

[ii] Jeremy Brickhill: Daring to Storm the Heavens: The Military Strategy of ZAPU 1976-1979. Contributor: Bhebe, Ngwabi. Ranger, Terence. Soldiers in Zimbabwe’s Liberation War. (UZ, Harare. Heinemann, Portsmouth N.H., James Curry, London) p54

[iii] Ellert, Henrik. The Rhodesian Front War, (Mambo Press, Gweru, 1993) p119

[iv] Cole, Barbara, The Elite: The Story of the Rhodesian Special Air Services. (The Knights, Amanzimtoti, 1985) p66

[v] Sibanda, Eliakim M, The Zimbabwe African National Union 1961-87, (Africa World Press, Trenton NJ, 2005) p161

[vi] Hennessy, Michael A. Strategy in Vietnam: The Marines and Revolutionary Warfare in I Corps, 1965-1972. ( Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT.,1997), p50

[vii] Flower, Ken. Serving Secretly. (John Murry, London 1984) p120

[viii] Flower, Ken. Serving Secretly. (John Murry, London 1984) 124