IN this wide-ranging interview with Baffour Ankomah, Editor at Large of the London-based New African magazine, Vice President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, talks broadly about his past, the liberation struggle, the long years he has been with President Robert Mugabe, the current goings-on in Zimbabwe and in zanu-pf, what the future holds for the country, and why those who think he is the leading candidate to succeed President Mugabe are wrong.
Q: You were born on 15 September 1946 . . .
A: Incorrect. I was born on 15 September 1942. The Press has been saying 1946 but it is incorrect.
Q: So you will be 73 in September. You have been in Government for 35 of those 73 years, serving in various portfolios. For the past six months, you have been Vice President. Have you enjoyed the past six months?
A: Haah, it’s been six months of hard work, really applying oneself more than before. Remember that I still carry the responsibilities of Minister of Justice, and we are currently in the middle of realigning our laws with the new Constitution. It is quite a burden, especially coming on top of my new responsibilities as Vice President. Being a new position, I am learning the ropes to assist the President in running the country. Yes, it has been joyful to work but it has been hard work.
Q: Talking about assisting the President, I saw a TV clip the other day of the famous pre-independence rally at the Zimbabwe Grounds where President Mugabe spoke to a million or so people after returning from exile in Mozambique. I saw you and someone I thought was General Mujuru leading the President to the podium. You have been with him for a long time. What have you learned from your journey with him?
A: You can do the arithmetic. I have been with the president since 1963. We have been working together since then, first in Tanganyika and thereafter we were in prison together; he did 11 years and I did 10 years. The difference was that he was detained and I was in prison, so we couldn’t communicate under the circumstances. After that we were together in Mozambique for the entire period of the armed struggle, and at the Lancaster House Conference in London in 1979, and through 35 years of independence. So all together, we have been together for 52 years.
Q: That is really a long time, but you were quite young in 1963; what were you doing at that age?
A: Well, I was expelled from the Hodgson Technical College in Lusaka, Zambia, in 1960 when I was a youth leader and activist. UNIP [President Kenneth Kaunda’s United National Independence Party] had been formed in 1959 and one of their officials, Nalumini Mundia, recruited us at the college into the UNIP Youth League which was then under Dingisiwayo Banda. And we burnt down Mr Smith’s house. He was one of the instructors at the college. So we were expelled from school.
Q: Why did you burn down the house?
A: It was during the period of nationalism in 1960. We were very radical young students at the college, so we agreed to burn down Mr Smith’s house because he was a racist white lecturer. He had gone on holiday in England, so we agreed to burn his house while he was away.
But we were found out and expelled because the authorities tricked us. At the hostel, I was staying in Maybin House Wing C. We didn’t know that the authorities had brought young people from the Police Special Branch to live on campus to investigate the burning of the house. They put one in each room where we were sleeping. We thought they were young people from other trade schools and technical colleges from across Northern Rhodesia who had come on a visit. So our committee agreed that we would influence these young people to go and burn down their schools. We didn’t know they were CIDs.
So we agreed that after lights out at 10pm, members of our committee would go and speak to these newcomers. I was responsible for Wing C in Maybin House. So during the night the guy came to me trying to be friendly, and I told him: “This is what we do here. We burn things.” In every other wing of the hostel, somebody from our committee was speaking to these guys. So we were all trapped.
One morning when we went for breakfast, we were inside the dining hall when suddenly we were surrounded by the police from the CID whose commanders were whites. Inside the hall, we prayed silently: “Oh God, bless our food and chase away the policemen who are outside.” Of course God did not do it.
Then the whistle was blown and we assembled at the parade grounds. Our names were read out. To the man, the correct committee was read out. We thought we were speaking to students, but they were now standing with the police. We were then about 17 or 18 years old. So we were expelled. That was when I fully joined UNIP in Lusaka and became its youth secretary.
Q: And from there?
A: From there, despite the fact that I had done much of my primary education in Northern Rhodesia, I was still a Zimbabwean. But my father had been forced by the Southern Rhodesian authorities to move to Northern Rhodesia in 1954. And this is what happened: In our home village at Shabane, the whites were destocking cattle. They did that from time to time. Normally there would be a dip tank in the village where the villagers would bring their cattle to be destocked. They would be given a card on which the number of their cattle would be written.
In our village my grandfather was the chief and my father was in the chief’s council. It happened that when the destocking exercise was going on, a woman who had five cattle written on her card was told by the young white land development officer, we called them LDOs, to sell two of her five cattle and be left with three. My father opposed it, saying: “How can she survive on three cattle. It is better she has five so that she can milk some and use some for ploughing.” But the young LDO arrogantly told my father: “No, no, I am the boss, this old woman will remain with three cattle.”
My father allowed the LDO to have his way, but he and his brothers – he was the eldest – went and removed one wheel from the LDO’s Landrover, put the car on stones, and took the wheel up the hill. At 4pm when the LDO finished the destocking, he found his Landrover now had only three wheels. He asked what had happened. My father told him: “You said the old woman could live on three cattle. Now you go back to town on three wheels.” The LDO was not amused, but as he could not go back on three wheels, he slept at the village.
Q: Sure, they did not give him back the wheel?
A: No, he slept at the dip tank. At the time, my grandfather, the chief, was old and wizened by age. So he called his sons and said: “You don’t fight the white people in this way. You can’t fight them alone. If you want to fight the white people, you must come together and do it collectively, not individually. So you must return the wheel.”
The next morning, my father and his brothers told the women in the village to go and sell eggs to the white man, so he could have some breakfast. “But don’t give the eggs for free, he must pay for them,” my father told the women. Later my father returned the wheel to him.
Two days later, the police came and beat up my father for what he had done. They took him away to Shabani town and locked him up. The following day, my father’s brothers took many people with them – because we were a big clan – and went to Shabani to confront the police. I was a little 12-year-old boy at the time but they took me along. They put me on a bike and tied my legs to the bike so I wouldn’t fall.
When we arrived at Shabani town, we saw many people with axes, spears and so forth. The district commissioner, seeing the foul mood of the people, addressed them saying: “No, we are releasing your brother but he mustn’t do it again.” So we went back home with my father. But two weeks later, the police asked my father to come to Shabani. So he went with the chief’s council and other villagers, and was promptly arrested.
Now, here was the district commissioner again, standing proudly there in front of a parade of soldiers from the Rhodesian African Rifles whose commander was a white man. The commissioner said to my father: “Mnangagwa, the last time you came here, you had your people armed with axes and spears. Now I am here with my African Rifles, we shall see who is who.”
Now, with the troops behind him, the commissioner was in his element, but my father and his brothers didn’t talk. After some time and much display of power, the commissioner then said my father would not be put behind bars, but he would have to leave the country with his family. He must go to Northern Rhodesia, because the authorities in Southern Rhodesia did not want people to disobey public officials or public orders. This is how my father was kicked out of his own country in 1954. He went alone at first, but in 1955 my mother and the rest of the family followed him. We only came back to live in Zimbabwe in 1981 or 82, after independence.
Q: I will take you back to Zambia later, but for now I want you to talk about your time with President Mugabe. What do you think has made him to withstand the assault on him by the combined might of the Western world? He is, by far, the only leader in pre-and post-African independence history standing after being assailed by the West. What is the secret?
A: I will tell you a little story. In 1980, just after the elections in Zimbabwe, but before Mugabe who was the Prime Minister-elect was inaugurated, we were at a place in Mount Pleasant in Harare when Mugabe said he wanted to talk to Ian Smith, the outgoing prime minister, and the generals. I was then Mugabe’s personal assistant and head of security.
So I used an intermediary who happened to be Ian Smith’s stepson to ask him and his deputy to come to Mount Pleasant at about 7pm. I told the intermediary: “We want to be on our own. We would be only two on our side, Mugabe and myself; and Mr Smith and his deputy would be two on their side.” Our security people did not think Ian Smith would come. But I said, “No, I don’t think Ian Smith would be afraid to come.” So they came.
Once inside the room, Ian Smith said: “Mr Mugabe, before you speak, I want to say something.” Mugabe said, “OK, go on”. Then Ian Smith said: “Mr Mugabe, do you know why you won this election?” Mugabe said why? Smith said: “Me as Ian Smith, I represent white interests and I have been championing white interests. But I have been able to call other African leaders to discuss issues with them. People like Chikerema, Joshua Nkomo, Ndabaningi Sithole, Chief Chirau of Zvimba and others. All these have lost the election because the African people of this country have realised that these leaders do not only stand for the interests of the black people, they can also be swayed by me to represent white interests. But you have not met me. You have refused to meet me. So the people know that you are the only one who represents their interests. So Mr Mugabe you should be grateful to me for not having met me.”
We laughed. And Mugabe said, “Ah, Mr Smith, I have called you here for serious business and you are telling me jokes”. You see, I am telling you this story to say that President Mugabe has survived because he is a principled leader. He makes sure he champions the interests of his people. So his people, the majority in this country, stand with him in good or bad times, and he does not desert his people. This is why he has survived. That is the secret.
Q: Is it correct also to say that the President’s strength is partly due to the calibre of the colleagues, like you and others, that he has worked with?
A: I wouldn’t say so. I think the reverse is true. We have survived because we have had a leader of his calibre, not the other way round. We have benefited from his clarity of vision. He has been very clear and very principled. We have benefited from the way he deals with issues, how he interrogates issues, and how he fights for the best interests of our people. He is a lawyer, so he has an interrogative mind. So I think I will be safe to say that most of us, and I in particular, have benefited from his interrogative mind on national issues.
Q: Having fought a good fight, President Mugabe himself now talks about the twilight years. He is in the evening of his rule and life. His shoes will be difficult to fill, isn’t it?
A: No doubt about that. I don’t think the next generation will be able to produce a person like him. I don’t think we can get a person even in our generation who can fill his shoes to the extent that he has been able to remain an intellectual giant in leading our people and charting a course for the African people of this region, perhaps even continentally.
The other leaders of the same calibre I can think of are Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, and Modibo Keita who in the 1950s and 60s spoke about a vision for African unity. Now those leaders are gone. Within the current African leadership, I don’t see many who fit the shoes of the founding fathers. The only one I know, without thinking much, is President Mugabe.
It will take a long time for this country to produce a man of his calibre, if at all we can. A man who would stand whatever pressure, who would stand the pressures of the West and not sacrifice what is correct for expediency, just to say for now I will forgo what is right for my people in order to be comfortable. No, Mugabe doesn’t do that. And I don’t see anybody in our region of that calibre, let alone among ourselves as Zimbabweans. We don’t have that calibre yet.
But, having worked with him for all this time, there are so many cadres who are now solid. But they are not of the same vision, character, and intellectual mettle of Mugabe. We shall miss him dearly. He is an outstanding leader and human being.