‘It all started in Makokoba’
WE CONTINUE to chronicle Cde Jane Ngwenya’s political life as she narrates it in a conversation with The Sunday Mail Deputy News Editor Levi Mukarati in Bulawayo. This week, Cde Ngwenya reveals how she was blacklisted as a teacher and the “Zhii” era of Bulawayo. Q: After the meeting addressed by Cde Burombo in 1953, what did you do next? A: The people at the gathering dispersed and I left for home. My husband was not around because he would travel outside the country. He was a truck driver. When he returned, I told him that I had attended a meeting addressed by Burombo and was impressed by how people at the meeting spoke against unfair labour practices at the hands of their white bosses, as well as against ill treatment of our people in the rural areas. I didn’t know that my husband actually knew Burombo. He told me he was aware of the meetings and supported the cause. From time to time when my husband was around, we would go together to these meetings and when he was at work I would go alone. The meetings became frequent as other unions also held theirs. The situation at that time was that people would just go to these trade union meetings even if they were not employed in the sectors they represented. As a result, I ended up also going to meetings addressed by Jason Ziyapapa Moyo and Joseph Msika, which were for builders. These trade unionists were united and they would invite members of others unions to their meetings. You see, these were all-black with the same agenda, and there was no way they would be individualism because our interests were similar. These were the meetings that I attended which, if I reflect now, marked my entry into active politics. The meetings discussed politics and they later gave birth to the political parties. It is from there that I was sharpened. That is where I got the definition of “politically-minded”, which I had been labelled as in school. Q: Before you go on, you mention these meetings for employees; were you employed that time? A: Yes, I was a teacher. But I was to be recommended for blacklisting as a teacher. This was after I had caused problems at work, just like I did in school when I was accused of being politically-minded. I was a teacher in Kwekwe and during that time we had the African Teachers Association and our president was Gideon Mhlanga. In 1959, we had our association’s conference in Gweru, where we were told that the wife of Humphrey Gibbs was going to visit schools. I am not sure of the month. Gibbs was not yet Governor of Southern Rhodesia, he was to assume the post in December that same year. We had white education inspector Mr McHugh, who was greatly feared because he was very strict and short-tempered. He is the one who wanted us to prepare for Mrs Gibbs visit, so the message was relayed at the conference. At the conference we had teachers like James Basopo, Tsotai Katsere and VaMukonoweshuro. The president of ATA, Mr Mhlanga, asked the female teachers to make preparations to welcome Mrs Gibbs. These included logistics for teas, flowers, décor and food. At that meeting I stood up and said; “I don’t want to provide anything or commit myself to providing anything.” Mr Mhlanga asked me why I was saying that. I said, “Mrs Gibbs is wife to an influential person. She knows that African lady teachers do not get a huge income compared to their male counterparts. As such, asking me to take money from my meagre earnings to contribute towards welcoming her is something I cannot afford. “For me to take two pound ten, three pound seventeen and six to buy a cloth to lay on the table for the Mrs Gibbs is asking too much of me.” My statement was first greeted with silence, then some murmurs from other conference delegates and later outbursts. Some teachers said I was out of my mind while others said I was right. The conference became charged as we were arguing on how we were going to receive Mrs Gibbs in our schools. The likes of Basopo, Mukonoweshuro and Katsere were on my side and said they agreed with me in total. At that stage, I realised Mr Mhlanga was getting agitated because of the challenge. He told me that I risked being blacklisted as a teacher for trying to incite others not to make any donations towards welcoming Mrs Gibbs. I said to him if it meant being blacklisted, let it be so because I personally was not contributing anything. It was then that most of the female teachers who were at the conference joined in and said they were also not contributing anything towards a person who was already enjoying life with huge wealth. Mr Mhlanga recommended I be blacklisted and that was it. I left teaching. I think I was too stubborn and had these controversies. Remember the Reverend Mupantsi issue and then my refusal to contribute towards Mrs Gibbs visit? After that, I continued with my political activities. This time we were now going into various
areas mobilising the people. Before Independence and even before the real armed struggle, there were wider consultations among our people. We would travel the length and breadth of this country addressing people and mobilising them to support our cause and also inform them that the problems we had were collective ones. The whites had given the blacks a torrid time to a point it was unanimous we needed to take action against their continued rule. That is why we had people rallying behind
us. We were addressing meetings in areas where we were unknown. We would be stung by various insects such as tsetse flies and other blood-suckling pests like chicken mites as we mobilised the masses. But I should say, people were very welcoming and the way we were received in the villages was just amazing. We were strangers but in most cases we
would get a place to sleep and the villagers gave us food. They were very accommodative. The National Democratic Party was to be formed in 1960 led by Joshua Nkomo and it was followed by the Zhii era. We were the leaders and we had our youths strategising various sabotage acts.
Q: Can you narrate the events that led to Zhii?
A: What I want to make clear is that the 1950s era was a period of trade unionism which was against the white oppression, especially of workers. Since those people who were being treated unfairly had their roots in rural areas, the message against whites naturally found its way there. Politics was strengthened by the works of the trade unions. The trade unions were then to mutate into fully-fledged political parties. Then in 1960 there was a meeting here in Bulawayo at Stanley Hall in Makokoba. The meeting saw James Chikerema and George Nyandoro who were nationalist leaders in Harare being invited. Here in Bulawayo we had leaders like
Joshua Nkomo and Joseph Msika. At the meeting John Stonehouse, a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party in London was also invited. The Labour party back then supported the blacks in Southern Africa, they understood our cause. I went to that meeting in February and
it was all fire. We had addresses by seasoned politicians like Nkomo, Chikerema, Nyandoro and Msika. This meeting had few women and I remember I was there with three other women, I don’t remember their full names, but one stands outs and we used to call her aunty MaNyathi. John Stonehouse made his address when people in the meeting were already fully-charged, determined and destined to win their cause. Stonehouse said: “Do not fear and do not be intimidated. If it means you will be arrested, then let it be so. If it means they will kill you, then the world will see that you are being killed for seeking your rights.” People at that meeting seemed to have
been filled by the same spirit of determination to fight collectively for their rights. At the end of the meeting, as people were going out of the hall, something happened. We had a man in that meeting called Benjamin Madlela. Madlela, from nowhere and with deep emotional tone, started to sing “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica.” The response was something else. Even up to this day, I fail to understand it. You can imagine that after such a meeting people will be talking as they are going out. But when the Madlela started to sing it seemed as if something swept inside everyone and all of a sudden there was a dead silence with this man’s voice being the only sound remaining. As soon as he finished singing the first “... iAfrica” everyone joined to sing the second line. The singing was low, but when we got to the third line, we all increased our voices and it you could feel people were singing from the bottom of their hearts as we moved out. We got out of the hall and to the street as we sang. You could see people coming out of their homes to join us. I remember we passed through a beer-hall and people left their drinks to join us. It was a rare moment where I saw people identifying with each other and quick to understand our mission without even getting a brief from anyone. As I say this, I am getting goosebumps. The whole of Makokoba suburb came together. Women, men, boys and girls joined what was now a marching party. There was a sea of people and I can vividly visualise the day as it was around 4pm, a few hours before sunset. But whenever there is such a grouping, there are those who take advantage to engage in illegal activities. What had started as a passionate march, turned otherwise after some people began to loot things, destroy property and barricade roads. Since we had been the ones whose meeting had spilled into the streets resulting in violence, little did I know we had crossed the white government’s line. That marked the beginning of troubles in my life and the police were always on my trail.