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Dabengwa, one of the last of a dying breed

WHEN the news of Dumiso Dabengwa’s death filtered in, a colleague asked that I write an obituary, an offer I turned down politely because I hardly knew the former Home Affairs minister and our encounters were fleetingly few and far between for me to do justice to such a write-up.

Candour: Nqaba Matshazi

WHEN the news of Dumiso Dabengwa’s death filtered in, a colleague asked that I write an obituary, an offer I turned down politely because I hardly knew the former Home Affairs minister and our encounters were fleetingly few and far between for me to do justice to such a write-up. But on second thoughts, I thought maybe I could write something and reflect on a person I have always admired, but at times, I have had mixed feelings over his legacy.

My first “encounter” with Dabengwa was in the year 2000. I put the term in quotation marks because I did not meet him at the time but he was quite a topical subject then. Then Vice-President Joshua Nkomo had just died and had been replaced by Joseph Msika, yet many were convinced Dabengwa should have been elevated to that post. The choice of Msika was thus baffling. A fete was organised to celebrate Msika’s ascension, which Dabengwa did not attend.

The consensus was that Dabengwa was sulking, while others dared say he was a sore loser, and that he should have been man enough to accept that he was not the chosen one. That same year, war veterans invaded farms and a wave of lawlessness gripped the country, with those involved in this political violence seeming to get a free pass.

A woman, whose name I do not recall, approached the late Nkomo’s wife, Johanna and told her she had been assaulted by Zanu PF thugs.

Johanna, or MaFuyane, as she was affectionately known, immediately rang Dabengwa to understand what was happening and asked him to come to the stricken woman’s rescue.

Dabengwa offered the most incredulous response that day, claiming MDC members had taken to wearing Zanu PF T-shirts over their party regalia, before going out to unleash mayhem. I found the response bizarre and so, I was not totally shocked when Dabengwa lost his parliamentary seat that same year to a political upstart. Later, I was to learn of his role in the promulgation of the Public Order and Security Act and was even happier he was losing his political clout.

Fast forward to 2007, I had joined Zimpapers in Bulawayo as an intern and my interactions with Dabengwa became more frequent.

Around that time, the government resolved that all councils in Zimbabwe must hand over water reticulation to the Zimbabwe National Water Authority, a massively unpopular decision in Bulawayo.

In a very uncharacteristic move, Zanu PF Bulawayo province led the way in defying the directive, with Dabengwa, Effort Nkomo and McLeod Tshawe leading the resistance. I remember the water shortages that followed that year and then governor of the province Cain Mathema suggesting Bulawayo draw water from Khami Dam.

Dabengwa shot back and said anyone who was advocating that the city should draw water from that dam, which was long condemned, should take their cup to Khami and drink water from that dam and we would see how long they would live. I remember telling my editor, the late Paul Mambo, what Dabengwa had said and he lit-up. He could not hide his excitement and the following day, that was the lead story. The easy thing was for Dabengwa to toe the party line and push Zanu PF and the government’s directive, but he did not and for many people, more so the young ones like me, who hardly knew him, it was a moment of pride. We had a senior person who understood our frustrations and decided to stand with us, at much risk to his political standing. Later that year, Zanu PF held its conference and Jabulani Sibanda, then leader of the war veterans, was due to give a solidarity speech, a move that was very unpopular with the former Zapu guys in the ruling party. Sibanda was considered an upstart and his political style quite abrasive, but he was popular.

An orator of note, Sibanda was a popular choice as speaker, but the Zapu contingent disliked him as they thought he was doing former President Robert Mugabe’s bidding and was sent to undermine them. As Sibanda made his way to the podium, tensions arose and John Nkomo, who was the Zanu PF chairman, stood from his chair.

The late Sikhanyiso Ndlovu also did the same; matters were about to get to a head. Sensing that things were about to get nasty, the master of ceremonies said Sibanda’s speech had been cancelled due to inadequate time and tempers cooled. At the Press club later that month, I asked Dabengwa what would have happened had Sibanda been allowed to speak and he said that was going to be the end of the Unity Accord, as the senior Zapu contingent was ready to walk out and embarrass Mugabe. I asked him about Gukurahundi, his feelings towards his tormentors-now-turned-colleagues, and his response was that some of them had apologised to him and he was happy to forgive and move on. He singled out Solomon Mujuru, whom he still referred to as Rex, as one of the people who was contrite and had asked for forgiveness. But with such boldness, Dabengwa was now in Mugabe’s crosshairs and a plot to push him out of Zanu PF soon went into full swing.

I remember at the funeral of Isaac Nyathi, Msika took to the podium and said there were some people burning the midnight oil to have Dabengwa fired from Zanu PF. He said he had the minutes and venues of some of those meetings and he would take them on, as no one in Zanu PF, bar a few, had enough political standing to stand up to Dabengwa.

A few weeks later, Msika held a campaign rally in Nkayi and again he said there were people trying to fix Dabengwa, but again he would resist any move to kick him out of Zanu PF. I excitedly wrote that story, but lo and behold, the editors chose a different angle.

The late Freedom Moyo, who was a close friend and was covering the rally with me for ZBC, approached one of the editors at Sunday News and asked him why they had changed the angle of the story.

The editor responded that he was tired of being shouted at by a senior government official over Dabengwa stories and he had chosen to take the safe route out.

Obviously, this was frustrating, as the Dabengwa story was quite interesting because here was a Zanu PF person with the guts to stand up to Mugabe.

A few weeks later, I stood at the City Hall in awe as Dabengwa and Simba Makoni announced they were moving out of Zanu PF to head Mavambo.

The legend of Dabengwa was at that moment forever etched in the hearts of people, particularly those who were too young to have a meaningful memory of the liberation struggle nor the Gukurahundi massacres that followed, his transgressions of the past or at least the feelings of antipathy I had against him had also long evaporated.

Here was a man, brave enough and willing to take on Zanu PF that was certainly something to admire.

An alliance was soon cobbled up between MDC and Mavambo, with the latter performing well in the elections particularly in Matabeleland, a feat some say was thanks to Dabengwa’s clout.

His political career in opposition did not quite take off, but that did not diminish his stature, he was respected both in the ruling party and the opposition.

Along the way, I read up a bit about Dabengwa, his role in Zapu, his arrest by Zanu PF and the Unity Accord.

I read how, while in jail, he rejected overtures, apparently from then State Security minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, that if he ditched Zapu and joined Zanu, he would be freed. Dabengwa spent four years in gaol, but he refused to join Zanu PF to earn his freedom.

When he was freed, legend says he refused to join the party still, in spite of the Unity Accord and it had to take Nkomo to convince him to stand as a Zanu PF candidate in Nkulumane. Such a principled stand made me admire Dabengwa even more and in my head at least, he had reached legend status.

I could go on and on, but my point is that Dabengwa, like all of us, had his flaws, but he more than made up by being a principled man, who could have taken the easy way out and conformed to Zanu PF dictates.

When it mattered the most, when the odds were heavily stacked against him and when he stood to lose the most, he chose to stand with the people and for that history will be kind to him. He was one of the last of a dying breed.