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Dabengwa: A colossus of our struggle for freedom

By Pathisa Nyathi

The light of the armed liberation struggle icon has been extinguished. Dr Dumiso Dabengwa, affectionately known as DD, is no more.

Dumiso Dabengwa
Dumiso Dabengwa

He died in Nairobi, Kenya on his way back home from medical treatment in India.

He was 79.

Born on 6 December 1939, Dabengwa grew up at Ntabazinduna and went to Tegwane Secondary School. The school belonged to the Wesleyan Methodist Church; and there, he was with colleagues that included Dr Eddison Zvobgo and Kotsho Dube.

His work, after Tegwane, got him in touch with the political prisoners at Khami Prison who had been incarcerated following the February 1959 Emergency Regulations. That experience was to shape his career in the struggle for Zimbabwe’s independence.

For some time he worked in the banking sector. His career in the liberation struggle dates to the days of the National Democratic Party (NDP) when he was a member of the Youth Wing.

He carved his mark at the time as a youth in Bulawayo where he led the Zhi-i Campaign, which was characterised by, among other things, arson.

That was the beginning of the violent campaign to bring about political change, a struggle whose fruition was only realised in 1980, following a protracted and bloody war, which cost several lives. Once the Zhi-i Campaign was over, the Sabotage Campaign ensued.

Dabengwa was actively involved in it.

At that time, he came into contact with trained personnel coming from Egypt and China. Trained personnel at the time included the likes of Misheck Velaphi Ncube, John Maluzo Ndlovu, Clark Mpofu, Luke Mhlanga and Joseph Zwangami Dube (Cuban trained), Amon Ndukwana Ncube, inter alia.

As a member of Mpopoma Branch, he worked closely with the likes of Ethan Dube, Abel Siwela, Thomas Ngwenya, Bobbylock Manyonga, Stephen Jeqe Nkomo and Findo Mpofu.

Their role was to receive war material and get it distributed throughout the country. Bulawayo was the national receiving point for arms coming into the country via Zambia from Tanganyika.

Even before receiving military training, Dabengwa had travelled to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) where he took delivery of a consignment of hand grenades. He got these onto the train and offloaded them at Nyamandlovu Railway Station and was nearly caught transporting the contraband in a car.

Formal military training still beckoned. That opportunity came following the banned ZAPU’s Cold Comfort Farm meeting on 10 August 1963 when a decision was taken to have some people leave the country for military training and to establish presence outside Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

Initially, ZAPU based in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and later, when Zambia was on the verge of attaining her independence, ZAPU’s external offices relocated to Lusaka. The likes of Luke Mhlanga and Joseph Zwangami Dube were already in Zambia together with James Chikerema (uPhongo), George Silundika, George Nyandoro (uMagigwana), Jason Ziyaphapha Moyo, among others.

Dabengwa and other ZAPU cadres began their trip to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) from Lusaka.

They travelled to Dar-es-Salaam from where they proceeded to Sudan en route to the Soviet Union. Their hosts awaited them with warm coats at the airport. There were two groups in 1964 that went to train in the Soviet Union.

Amongst the members of the two groups were Robson Manyika, Ambrose Mutinhiri, Akim Ndlovu, Ethan Dube, Retired Colonel Tshinga Dube, Roger Matshimini Ncube and Report Phelekezela Mphoko.

While in the Soviet Union the ZAPU cadres trained in various fields.

Dabengwa was trained by the KGB in intelligence. They were afforded a chance to say what they wished to see included in their military curriculum. They indicated they wanted everything including anti-air guns.

They did not forget sabotage, which they had engaged in prior to military training. It was this training in intelligence that would, in later years, lead Dabengwa being referred to as the “Black Russian” and “Intelligence Supremo.”

The following year, in 1965, the first personnel to train in the Soviet Union went back to Lusaka where a small High Command was created.

Akim Ndlovu was the Commander with Dabengwa in charge of Intelligence and Reconnaissance. Manyika was the Chief of Staff, while Mphoko was in charge of Logistics. Roma Nyathi was Political Commissar with Abraham Dumezweni Nkiwane in charge of Personnel and Training.

Many ZAPU cadres had, by that time, undergone military training and were being infiltrated into Southern Rhodesia in small numbers, mainly to carry out recruitment, politicisation and caching of arms. Engagement with the Rhodesian military was avoided in those early days of the armed struggle.

By 1966, a deal had been struck with the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) for the two armies (ZAPU cadres then fell under Special Affairs) to launch a joint incursion. As a result, an advance reconnaissance party led by Roger Matshimini Ncube was launched.

Assisted by Peter Mackay, the group, which included Retired Colonel Tshinga Dube and David Mongwa “Sharpshoot” Moyo crossed at Kazungula. Indeed, the following year, 1967, the Luthuli Detachment was put together to launch the joint infiltration.

The Algerian-trained John Dube (JD, real name Tjakalisa Ngwenya from Zimnyama in Plumtree) commanded the contingent. The ZAPU contingent, then falling under the Special Affairs headed by James Chikerema had 60 members while MK had 30 fighters. Chris Hani was the Chief of Staff.

Both Chikerema and Oliver Tambo of the ANC were present alongside the military leaders of both parties.

Dabengwa, together with Joe Modise, was also present. Crossing was done at Chisuma, downstream of the Victoria Falls.

The first to go down the roles was Hani. The nocturnal crossing saw Dabengwa sustain a cut on his head during the hazardous crossing which was completed at daybreak.

The choice of the crossing point was occasioned by the desire to quickly get to a settled area where the group was expected to quickly melt into the community and, at the same time, get logistics.

It was a place the enemy would least expect the group to cross.

Dabengwa and the rest of the High Command returned to Lusaka in Zambia once the group was on its way towards Wankie.

Another joint incursion was planned for the end of 1967 and the beginning of 1968.

This joint group was named the Pyramid Detachment and its crossing was far to the east and the route was to pass through Chipuriro, then Sipolilo.

The joint group was led by Moffat Hadebe who, as leader of a six-men group is credited with firing the first shots in the armed liberation struggle at Zidube Ranch in September 1964.

This time, there were several groups crossing at different times.

The dinghies were not in use then. Rafts made of drums were used.

Dabengwa, together with Nkiwane, Modise and others members of the High Command crossed into Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

The reconnaissance party had reported the presence of a road not far from the river.

According to Hadebe, intelligence given to them was inaccurate.

The road was far away at Angwa, prompting the members of the High Command who had crossed into Rhodesia to go back to Lusaka as there was no road nearby.

Dabengwa was among the returnees.

By 1969 ZAPU’s armed wing faced a crisis which culminated in a split in 1971.

With ZAPU obtaining war material from the Soviet Union, ZAPU’s struggle was viewed against cold war interests.

Soon, some intelligence agencies working against the Soviet Union fomented internal strife.

Dabengwa and colleagues were waylaid on their way to the Zimbabwe House.

Disgruntled members of the March 11 Group including Livingstone Mashengele, Cain Mathema, Owen Tshabangu, Joshua Mahlathini Mpofu, Zwelibanzi Mzilethi, Philemon Mabuza, Bhezuzulu Khumalo and Eli Mthethwa rounded up the ZAPU leadership and took them to Nkomo Camp where some, including Dabengwa, were assaulted.

The crisis had been heightened by JZ Moyo’s stinging document titled “Observations on Our Struggle.” Chikerema had responded through his own document titled “Reply to Observations on Our Struggle.” ZAPU split into three. Dabengwa went along with the JZ group.

Aaron Milner, Minister of Home Affairs raised by the Dominican Sister at the Catholic Embakwe Mission for Coloureds, had tried to bring the warring groups together at Mboroma.

There was no success. Members of the March 11 Movement were thrown into prisons in Zambia. Chikerema and JZ groups went together to Chakwenga where they too split.

Dabengwa, with Jack Makethe Ndebele had reconnoitred the area and found a good place with water. They went to report to the rest of their group which included Aaron Ndlovu and Stephen Jeqe Nkomo. The place was near an MK military camp.

ZPRA’s Mwembeshi Camp was established later in the same location.

Some of the ZAPU cadres, including Nicholas Nkomo were sacrificed and surrendered to the Smith regime. Nkomo did find his way back to Zambia.

It was time to go back, re-strategise and revamp ZAPU’s armed wing.

Dabengwa was among those who undertook a week-long meeting which was attended by, inter alia, Silundika, JZ, Edward Ndlovu, Nkomo and Jane Ngwenya. ZAPU was reorganised.

A Revolutionary Council was created with groups affiliated to it.

That was the time when the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) was created with Alfred Nikita Mangena as Chief of Staff, effectively the commander.

Dabengwa became the Secretary of the Revolutionary Council and was no longer directly involved with the military outfit.

Ethan Dube had been in charge of party intelligence.

The army had its own military intelligence unit which, at different times, was headed by Gordon Mnyanyi “Terror Man” Tapson Sibanda, Dingani Mlilo and Retired Brigadier Abel Mazinyane.

Following the capture and murder of Ethan Dube it became necessary to reorganise intelligence.

The National Security Organisation (NSO) was created in 1978 with Dabengwa as its Director.

His Deputy was now Vice-President Kembo DC Mohadi who, upon his capture in Gabella’s car in Bulawayo, Swazini Ndlovu took over the post.

Dabengwa headed NSO until independence.

An incident is reported where Dabengwa was nearly captured by the Rhodesians.

They had captured Tjilisi Booker Mnyamana “Black Swine” at Pandamatenga.

Black Swine, who served under Dabengwa, was travelling to Francistown to take delivery of three vehicles intended for the NSO.

Ethan had been captured by McGuiness, an Irish mercenary working for the Selous Scouts.

It is thought that he was, after interrogation, either thrown into concentrated sulphuric acid or some disused mine shaft.

One day Dabengwa was in an aircraft from Francistown to Lusaka.

The pilot received a signal to land in Salisbury (now Harare).

Dabengwa quietly went to the pilot. It is not clear what he said or did to the pilot, save to say that the aircraft proceeded to land in Lusaka as planned.

It seems that Dabengwa did sneak into Bulawayo during the struggle where, under disguise, lived with a party sympathiser working for the Bulawayo City Council.

ZIPRA had advanced urban guerrilla units, especially both in Bulawayo and Harare.

He attended the Lancaster House Conference talks in 1979 and returned home to effect the brokered ceasefire.

It was Dabengwa who pacified Entumbane clashes and went on to disarm the former ZIPRA cadres at Gwayi River Mine Assembly Point where the ZIPRA weapons from Zambia had been offloaded from the trains