‘We were sold out by fellow comrades’
TODAY we continue our interview with Cde Joko Thodlana pseudonym Hughes Mhondoro, a former Highlanders Football Club junior player who left the field of play to join the armed struggle and operated in the Southern Front 3 (SF3) that covered Mangwe, Kezi, Gwanda, Beitbridge and Filabusi districts. Cde Thodlana operated in Gwanda from 1977 up to the ceasefire in 1979. Below are excerpts of the interview with Assistant Editor Mkhululi Sibanda (MS).
MS: After your brief stay in Francistown, you said you were taken to Lusaka and then driven to Nampundwe Transit Camp. How long were you there?
Cde Thodlana: We were there for a long time, in fact I can say we were forgotten as we stayed without being visited by the Zapu leadership, resulting in our personal situation deteriorating. Although there was no problem of food, we had no clothes, people were dressed in tatters. There was no washing and bathing soap, we turned to inkuzane and those who smoked turned to the leaves of trees, it was unbearable, abantu baphenduka baba ngokunye. There was also the issue of the liberation movements fighting over recruits, while there, people from the Bishop Abel Muzorewa side were coming trying to entice us to their side. Those from the Muzorewa side at the camp numbered about 60 while us the Zapu cadres we were about 400. In fact the issue of fighting over the recruits started while we were still in Botswana. I think it is important that I go back and relate what happened in Botswana before we got to Zambia.
MS: Go ahead about the Botswana events.
Cde Thodlana: Okay. It went like this, while we were still in Gaborone at Broadest Farm we would go and report daily to the Special Branch. Then one day our representatives from Zapu, Mthuthuki and Mukwilibindi took us to the President Hotel where we met Dr Joshua Nkomo who was in the company of John Nkomo. Dr Joshua Nkomo greeted us and that motivated us a lot, we felt the urge to go and fight. After that John Nkomo spoke to us, he told us that transport would be provided to take us to Francistown to join others who were there en-route to Zambia. As for the issue of fighting over recruits, there was Saunyama and Parerwa from the Muzorewa side who tried to take us to their side, but we refused. They even gave us some money, which could have been between 15 and 16 Pula, but we stood our ground. In fact we were advised to take the money by Dumiso Dabengwa who came to see us there in Gaborone. DD told us to take the money and ignore their overtures. Even when we were at Nampundwe, Saunyama kept on coming, but he failed in his mission.
MS: You were still talking about the dire situation at Nampundwe, how was the issue resolved?
Cde Thodlana: Like I said the situation was not good although there was plenty of food. We would eat together with our colleagues from the Muzorewa side. There were also Zambian soldiers there, but as for the food I think it was provided for by the United Nations. At times those Zambian soldiers were rough as they punished us heavily, I think they thought we were trained personnel. That did not go down well with us. As for the problem of clothing, there was a house within the camp, where we discovered that there were bales and bales of clothes. So comrades started secretly going to retrieve the clothes.
MS: In other words you are saying you were stealing.
Cde Thodlana: (laughs). Sasingathini sihamba nqunu, of course we stole from there. Myself, I got a nice black and white t-shirt and a Lee corduroy. Some of course were afraid, but angifuni ukuthi ngithi babengo bhare. They just did not do it. It was while we were still at Nampundwe that Simon, my friend whom we had left the country together crossed over to the Muzorewa group. Again Saunyama and his group would visit their people and bring them logistics while we from Zapu were wallowing in poverty.
MS: I think you might have regretted leaving the country to join the war?
Cde Thodlana: Not all. Those conditions in fact hardened us. You know mosquitos and intwala (lice) became our comrades. During our stay there, there was a man whom I believe was a Selous Scout, while all of us were suffering, we would hear of stories that he had been seen driving a car and was always smart. He even used to boast to us that what was left was for him to fly an aircraft, he had a lot of information about everything. However, finally the Zapu leadership came and everything improved, we got soap, Soviet cigarettes, Novasta, whose smell does not go far. We were also joined by some recruits who had been at Mboroma where they shared a camp with Zanla. Our number then grew to more than 800, that is how our group became known as the Group of 800. Among us we had the first women, in fact girls to train as guerillas under Zipra, I am talking about Jane, Audrey, Grace Noko, Toriso Phiri or Vhundzayi and Belinda. It should be noted that during our stay at Nampundwe we were introduced to the military exercises by a Mozambican, Humpty Good. As for political lessons while we were still in Botswana we had them through an Umkhonto WeSizwe cadre, a Ndlovu. So from Nampundwe we moved to Mwembeshi, our group was the first to open that training camp, the structures there were put by us. We built it from scratch. The camp commander there was Sam Madondo and chief of staff, Stanley Gagisa. Among the instructors were Emmanuel, Todd Mpisi, Billy Mzamo, Busobenyoka, Phinda, Thodlana (Tshaka Moyo), Boston, Ndumba and Lemmy.
MS: How was the introduction to real military life like?
Cde Thodlana: That training yayinga yenzi, very tough but the morale was high among us. Obstacle crossings were tough. However, we did not stay long there as one day we were visited by Cdes Edward Ndlovu, Cephas Cele and others. Edward Ndlovu told us that we were being moved to Tanzania to join Zanla at Mgagao. It was during the formation of Zipra, a development that was supported by the Frontline States, so we had to go there. Mgagao was a Zanla camp while Morogoro belonged to Zipra. So our group moved to Mgagao while some cadres were sent to Morogoro to join Zipra. In his address Edward Ndlovu told us that
they were surrendering the party to us, he said we were the ones who would protect Zapu and see to it that it grew. Those were touching words. So we moved to Mgagao, the 800 of us including the eight girls. We also moved with Sam Madondo, Gagisa and all our instructors. When we got to Mgagao we were greeted by our Zanla colleagues singing Chimurenga songs. However, we settled there, but we could not finish the training as there were serious ideological problems and misunderstandings, which when one looks at now were supposed to be minor and could have been resolved amicably. At times we would fight over cooking duties, there were lot of suspicions and we failed to co-exist. Then there were clashes, which resulted in us losing some of our comrades including our instructors Lemmy and Ndumba. After that we moved to Morogoro where we completed our training. However, our instructors from Mwembeshi were taken back to Zambia, so we found ourselves under the mentorship of Sam Mfakazi, who was the camp commander deputised by Dubhu (Tshile Nleya) who was the chief of staff, others were Eddie Sigoge, Dry Phetsheya, Richard Dube (Gedi), Kenneth Chitambo, whose family ran a businesses here in Bulawayo under the name Goveya and Malandu. Also there was now General PV Sibanda, Rodwell Nyika and Jack Mpofu (Daki). Our group received commando training, taught the use of many weapons including the Gun-75 as well as mortar 82 mm. After the training we moved from Morogoro in small groups back to Zambia, then to forward bases near the Zambezi River. Others like Andrew “Volunteer” Ndlovu were sent to the Soviet Union and other countries for further training.
MS: Then tell us about your deployment to the front. Cde Thodlana: At first I was deployed in a unit of just eight comrades and we were supposed to operate in the Hwange area and that was early in 1977, soon after completing our training at Morogoro. However, we did not go far after crossing the Zambezi River as we had a contact with the Rhodesian forces. The Rhodesians used ground and air attacks, a situation that left us in disarray. We scattered and lost each other. We had no choice but to cross back to Zambia. We ended up at Nampundwe where we assisted the instructors in carrying out exercises for the recruits. I was later sent to Freedom Camp (FC), which was under the command of Tendereka that time. It was during that period where the first group sent to Angola was there, it was a big number of 2 000 or so. Then while I was at FC I looked for my sister, Ruth and her husband, Patrick Matika and managed to visit them there. They were running a successful business, which was assisting Zapu in many ways.
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Cde Joko Thodlana