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Gen Mujuru’s mystery death: A conversation with author Miles Tendi

The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe: Mujuru, the Liberation Fighter and Kingmaker is the first full-length biography of General Solomon Mujuru, also known as Rex Nhongo.

Blessing-Miles Tendi spends years interviewing scores of sources, from Rex Nhongo’s war comrades to enemy combatants, family and business associates. The result is a layered, full-colour portrait of Rex Nhongo; we discover a complex man with as much consistency as he had contradictions.

Through Tendi’s research, we follow Rex from the small family hut in Chikomba and his rootless teen years in poverty. We see him through early political consciousness and how he joins the struggle. We then see how he grows into a revered liberation army general, and, later, a political kingmaker and businessman.

There is Rex the philanderer, and also Rex the family man. There’s Rex the businessman who favoured free markets and wasn’t hung up on Marxist and Socialist theories, but also Rex the farm grabber.

The book climaxes at Rex Nhongo’s tragic death, whose circumstances Tendi tackles in new, if not disturbing, detail.

Here, we are in conversation with Tendi on the patience of constructing such a complex book. He also speaks on his views on the art of writing autobiographies. We discuss the book itself, and hear what Tendi is writing next.

_________

First off, Miles, take us back to the time you decided, ‘I want to write a book about Rex’. Why Rex?

Blessing-Miles Tendi: When did it all start? It started when I still had something of the innocence of childhood – 2010! At the time, my research interest was shifting from intellectuals and politics, which is what my first book, Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: Politics, Intellectuals and the Media, is about. I was, more and more, being drawn to the subject of civil-military relations.

Rex was the first black commander of independent Zimbabwe’s national army and ZANLA’s chief of operations when the liberation war ended. All this made him a military figure of interest to me, as well as the fact that he was a public private man.

He was a public figure, I knew he was significant, yet so little about Rex the man was actually known. So I decided to write a biography.

It looks like the book took years to build. There are interviews here spanning over a period of almost a decade. Just how long did this take?

I began seriously researching Rex’s life in early 2011. I knew then that it was not going to be easy because he was notoriously private. His dramatic and mysterious death in August of the same year deepened my resolve to tell his story.

One factor that’s remarkable is the number, and diversity, of voices that you pack into the book. Show us through the process; how do you bring all these people together?

Writing biography requires great perseverance and meticulousness. Robert Caro is probably the greatest biographer alive today. His four exceptional biographies of former American president Lyndon Johnson, each took him ten plus years to write. That is forty years on a single life. So you have got to be able to hang in there for the long haul and win the trust of people who know about your subject.

You try to interview anybody who knew him. Some agree to talk, others decline. And as you go, you try to make sense of the information you are getting. What are the recurring themes and why, what are the silences, what can and cannot be corroborated.

But how did you manage to gain the trust of the people that spoke here, especially on the most sensitive matters? We know how paranoid people can get in Zimbabwe. How does a writer gain the trust of sources to the extent that you did?

The first thing is giving your interviewees the distinct impression you are a Robert Caro type of biographer (laughs)!

That you are serious about the subject and in it for the long haul. I also read everything that had been written about Rex. There was not very much but that little information helped me show my interviewees that I was knowledgeable about him.

If they agree to talk, never interview them once. Interview them repeatedly across several months. You build understanding and trust this way and then, as was often the case, they start to tell you the secrets, what you really need to know. But it was not just what I did to win trust. The manner of Rex’s death helped me a lot in the sense that there were many people who felt his memory needed to be recovered.

Some people would phone me out of the blue and say ‘I heard you are writing about Rex Nhongo. There is something you must know that I did with Rex Nhongo in the liberation war. Can you come to my farm this weekend?’

Why do you think many politicians involved in the struggle do not want to write books?

There was a strong security culture in the liberation struggle because the context was war and the Rhodesian state was prodigious at infiltrating liberation movements. So a lot of the liberation war time figures learned to be guarded, constantly on the lookout for spies. That security culture never went away.

It accompanied them when they came home from Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, for independence and it has inhibited many from writing. Rex was a product of that security culture. It is partly why he was very secretive. But as I show in the biography, whilst the liberation struggle had a noble cause, a lot of disagreeable things happened in the course of the struggle.

There were controversial killings of the Nhari mutineers in 1974, women were abused, and war degrades humanity. Many just do not want to remember some of these horrors, and others fear besmirching the nobleness of the liberation struggle, if they write about it honestly.

‘Fireborn’: Tendi relates several fire incidents in Mujuru’s life, including this incident in Geneva, 1976, when his hotel room caught fire (AP)

Now, let’s get into the book itself. One of the most complex areas of Rex’s legacy is around his role on Gukurahundi. We know Mugabe’s role.

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In your book, we meet Emile Munemo, a deputy commander of the 5 Brigade. He says this: “We used to drive to Harare on weekends to Mugabe’s house, so that we could brief him on operations. When others in the army [ZNA] saw this, they started asking, ‘Who are these guys who go straight to the prime minister?’ They started to fear us.’”

And then there’s Rex himself; you quote various voices saying he knew what was happening, the atrocities and murder, but didn’t support them. Some might read this to mean you’re absolving Rex of a role in these crimes. Yet, throughout the book, he’s a man who could use violence when he wanted to. You write that, even at this time, Rex was a “god of violence” who was ruthlessly putting down the dissidents.

In the book I quote various figures close to the operations at the time as saying Rex knew about the human rights abuses in Matabeleland and Midlands but he was not responsible for them all.

There were two operations in Midlands and Matabeleland. One involved Rex’s ZNA against dissidents and another one saw CIO, 5 Brigade, PISI and the ZANU PF aligned People’s Militia going after ZAPU structures. The ZNA committed grave human rights violations in Matabeleland and Midlands, which I describe in the book. I write, categorically, that all human rights abuses carried out by the ZNA in Midlands and Matabeleland should be placed at Rex’s doorstep.

He was the ZNA commander. Many ZIPRA cadres were also persecuted inside the ZNA. Those abuses in the ZNA should also be laid at Rex’s doorstep. But I also write that the abuses by 5 Brigade, for instance, go back to Mugabe who had direct control of 5 Brigade. You mentioned Munemo who would drive to Harare on weekends to discuss operations with Mugabe, not Rex. Rex was a ZAPU cadre before he was ZANLA.

As I show in the book, this meant he faced unique constraints. Those constraints, like past friendships in ZAPU, made him less gung-ho than others in going after ZAPU. Rex also had a particular makeup. In the book we see him protect certain ZIPA cadres from being purged in 1977 because he appreciated their war expertise and wanted to retain it.

We see him do the same with some ZIPRAs. He protected some for their expertise. ZIPRA had a better signals unit than ZANLA in the liberation war. So who gets to dominate the ZNA signals department after the liberation war? ZIPRA cadres like Tshinga Dube, Fakazi Mleya and others. All that was Rex’s doing.

Your book gives accounts of the brutal way in which ZANLA dealt with internal disputes; the Nhari rebellion, for example. We see senior figures directly involved in killings. For example, Rugare Gumbo tells you about the time Robson Manyika himself shoots Nhari, Mataure and the others involved in the Nhari rebellion.

He says: “I was later told by witnesses that Manyika would say ‘bugger you’ before shooting each one. ‘Bugger you’, then shoots.” There’s Augustine Chihuri, aka Cde Chocha, who in your interview with him blames Mnangagwa for his arrest in 1978. Do you think that we are still paying, today, for some of these old grudges? Did Zanu ever learn any other way of dealing with conflict?

I have to be careful not to leapfrog legacies here. Just because ZANU behaved in the way you describe at point A does not fully explain what it is at point C, which is the present. ZANU passed through point B before it got to point C. Changes, lessons good and bad, were learned along the way.

Take for instance ZANU’s inheritance of the highly coercive and effective Rhodesian security apparatus in 1980. The Rhodesian security apparatus was a master of assassinations, it formed the RENAMO rebel movement and brutalised black Africans for supporting liberation movements.

So it would be misleading to see ZANU’s behaviours today as simply a legacy of the liberation war but yes, there are some striking continuities from the liberation war. One thing Chihuri and Nhari have in common is that they were both found guilty of attempting to overthrow the leadership, partly based on highly politicised intelligence and deeply personal differences.

We saw Joice Mujuru lose the vice presidency in 2014 based on politicised intelligence. We were told there was intelligence that showed she was a sell-out, a witch and planning to overthrow the leadership. Now that is a continuity. The lasting uses of politicised intelligence to settle internal power and personal disputes.

The liberation struggle matters to its participants...”

We really enjoyed your portrayal of the Mavonde battle. This is where we see Rex in action, right at the war front. This is war, of course, serious business. But you can’t help but find it amusing how this general goes around with a whip, beating any comrade that’s not firing his gun at the Rhodesian soldiers.

You have one of his comrades saying of Nhongo: “Rex had this intuition. A sixth sense for survival.” Then there’s also the dramatic incident as Rex and others retreated to the rear via Mwenezi. He steps on a trip-wire but it doesn’t go off. If he had, “he would have had to leave his leg there.” How much did all this action shape his views of comrades who didn’t actually see action the way he did? We learn, for example, that he thought very little of Mnangagwa’s role in the struggle.

You left out something important in those stories of Rex’s audaciousness and brushes with danger. It is that by the time the war ends, Rex had become quite dependent on alcohol to mask the horrors of war.

At one of the battles you mention, a ZANLA cadre remembers Rex giving out marijuana to calm their nerves before renewed Rhodesian bombardment in the morning. Rex was certainly an innately brave person but his life also shows the extent to which soldiering can be pharmacological.

He was not superhuman. Rex rarely discussed, in public, his exploits in the war but in private he could be quite scathing and dismissive of people he thought never distinguished themselves in the liberation war. As you say correctly, he thought little of Mnangagwa’s role in the liberation struggle. But its not just Rex. One of the reasons there was a coup in Zimbabwe in 2017 is that liberation struggle participants would not allow those who did not take part in the struggle, the so called G40, to govern Zimbabwe in their lifetimes.

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The liberation struggle matters to its participants. It helps determine who is who and after determining who is who, some have more authority or legitimacy in ZANU than others.

Mujuru Mnangagwa
Tendi: “In the independence years, Nhongo privately used the little known history of Mnangagwa’s coming to Mozambique, in his attempts to undermine Mnangagwa’s standing in ZANU”

Let’s talk about the 2008 and Simba Makoni. Mugabe has held on to power at the 2007 congress and there are moves to push Makoni as an alternative to Mugabe. You tell us that Mujuru gives only veiled support to Makoni, even privately, even though he funds Makoni. But things don’t go as planned.

First, there’s the interesting story about Zvinavashe initially backing Makoni but then, rather literally, shutting him out. Rex does the same, on the eve of elections. So, here was a brave guy who fought the war, stood up to the likes of Samora Machel when the Mozambican leader was opposed to Mugabe. Rex was never one to stand down from a challenge. Yet, he ditches Simba at the last minute. Cowardice, or a clever politician preserving himself as he’d always done?

Definitely not cowardice. Zvinavashe’s changed stance had an impact on Rex. When he saw Zvinavashe snub Makoni, he suspected he was about to be played out politically. I think it is also helpful to point out, as I do in the book, that Rex and Zvinavashe were never that close.

They clashed over appointments in the ZNA for example. Rex did not fully trust Zvinavashe politically so when a person he did not trust entirely suddenly withdrew from a political arrangement, the calculating Rex also pulled back to live and fight another day.

I should also say that the book makes clear that in the course of the presidential election campaign Rex developed doubts that Makoni could win the election.

Rex Nhongo (left) and Dumiso Dabengwa (right) waiting to board a helicopter to an Assembly Point during the 1979–80 ceasefire

Just after Makoni announced his candidacy, Dumiso Dabengwa said that he and Rex had tried to meet Mugabe over ZanuPF divisions, but that Mugabe had refused. In your book, you reveal that, on the eve of elections, Rex did then meet Mugabe, alone. Nobody knows what they agreed, but we know that Rex then withdrew his support for Makoni. Did he sell out?

That is a great question. I thought a lot about that private meeting when I was writing the book. I kept asking his closest political allies if they knew what was discussed at that meeting, if Rex had let on.

I also asked some people around Mugabe and got nothing. Nobody had a clear answer. So I have nothing to say about the actual discussion points in that private meeting. One thing is certain though. Mugabe knew Rex was involved in Mavambo. Mugabe blamed Rex for his defeat in the March 2008 presidential election, so Rex could not have sold Mugabe a dummy at that meeting.

So, does this all put paid to the theory that Makoni was just some ploy to prevent Morgan Tsvangirai from winning an outright majority?

As I write about in the book, a political ally goes to see Rex at his farm when the March 2008 presidential election result is being withheld by ZEC. This particular chap is worried that Makoni has not made it and Tsvangirai has won the election. What does Rex say? He says worry not, Tsv-tsv-tsv-tsvangirai ano tonga ka! Rex wanted Mugabe out of the presidential office more than he sought to prevent a Tsvangirai presidency.

As Dzino (Wilfred Mhanda, aka Dzinashe Machingura) tells it in his own book, when Mugabe was taken into the camps, he went about trying to find out each commander’s ethnicity. That, says Dzino, was one of the earliest signs that Mugabe would be a divisive leader post-independence.

We know now that Dzino and others were right. Ethnicity was a big part of Mugabe’s rule. Your rebuttal of some of the findings in the official report into the Chitepo assassination gives us interesting revelations about Mugabe’s own roots. We also learn something new about Tongo’s ethnicity. Obviously, tribe was a big deal in the war, and remains so to date in ZanuPF politics. How much of a big deal was ethnic identity to Rex’s politics?

Ethnicity mattered to Rex, particularly in so far as it is one of the reasons he forged a supportive alliance with Mugabe in the mid 1970s. Still, Rex was a complicated political operator.

He was not overdetermined by ethnicity. In the book I write about his support for Herbert Chitepo in the leadership election in Zambia in the early 1970s. Yet Chitepo was Manyika and Rex a Zezuru. Rex would also never have backed Simba Makoni, another Manyika, if ethnicity was that big a deal to him.

There’s this line in the book: “We probably will never know who killed Chitepo.” Will we ever know just what happened to Rex Nhongo on that night in August 2011?

The million dollar question! I wondered when that was coming. In the book I also write that ‘we will never know the difference Tongogara might have made in independent Zimbabwe had he survived the December 1979 car accident’. That is History for you. So many unknowns. What ifs. Counterfactuals.

So what’s next? What’s your next book?

I began falling in love with civil-military relations in 2010. I have not fallen out of love yet and the elephant in the room is without doubt Zimbabwe’s 2017 coup. I have started writing a book about that.

___

The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe: Mujuru, the Liberation Fighter and Kingmaker, is available in Zimbabwe at Innov8 book stores, Weaver Press, Exclusive Books in South Africa, and Cambridge Press South Africa.

  • Blessing-Miles Tendi is Associate Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford.

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