Mashudu Netsianda, Senior Reporter
HE endured two weeks of emotional and physical torture at gunpoint as police from the Rhodesian Special Branch interrogated him over the dramatic escape of four political prisoners from Bulawayo’s Grey Street Remand Prison (now Bulawayo Prison) in January 1965.
Despite a pistol pointing to his head, Cde Phillip Mabhena then 30 years old, the man who undertook the risky mission of driving the four escapees to Plumtree Border Post before they skipped the border to Botswana, stood his ground.
He gazed into the distance and visibly shivered as he relived the memory.
“The white officers were so angry they changed colour to a beetroot red. They would hit me all over the body and took smoking breaks while I stuck to my story. They took me to a bush around Maphane Turn-off near Gwanda where they blindfolded me and assaulted me severely. They were becoming frustrated and desperate,” said the light-skinned old man, now 86 years old.
He refused to be cowed into submission by Rhodesian security agents who sought to trick him into admitting that his car was used to transport the four jailbreakers.
Cde Mabhena was picked by police who subsequently detained him at Bulawayo Central Police Station for 14 days on suspicion that his car, a Zephyr Zodiac 1959 model, was used as a getaway car by Cdes Moffat Hadebe, Keyi Nkala, Elliot Ngwabi and Clark Ngiyo Mpofu who is now late, upon escaping from Grey Street Prison.
The quartet made headlines following their dramatic jailbreak with Rhodesia authorities dangling a reward of £250 for information leading to their capture.
Cdes Hadebe, Nkala, Ngwabi and Mpofu had initially planned to escape from Gwanda Remand Prison where they were first detained before they were later transferred to Grey Street Prison.
The pioneer freedom fighters were in remand pending trial on charges of alleged sabotage after they took up arms in resistance against colonial oppression.
Cdes Hadebe, Nkala and Ngwabi were detained for attacking Zidube Ranch in Kezi, Matobo District in Matabeleland South in 1964.
The property belonged to Bulawayo senior magistrate, Mr Francis Fairwell Roberts, who was part of the judiciary that oppressed black people by issuing out detention orders to the nationalists without any justification.
The Zidube Ranch attack was their first target in the country upon deployment to Rhodesia.
The late Cde Mpofu’s offence was in connection with an explosive attack on Wilkie’s Circus, Tredgold Building and the Post Office. The attacks were carried out between August and September in 1964.
Ntsu, as Cde Mabhena was affectionately known during the liberation struggle, yesterday gave a detailed account of how they jointly executed the dicey assignment of transporting the fugitives to Plumtree in the company of the late liberation stalwart Cde Joshua Mahlathini Mpofu.
Cde Mabhena said he got the name “Ntsu” because he conducted most of his tasks under the cover of darkness.
The secret mission dubbed “pick up landing astronauts” was prudently planned by the Zapu’s Makokoba branch to assist the four freedom fighters detained at Grey Prison, to escape.
“As a member of the Zapu structures in Makokoba, we came up with a grandiose secret campaign to facilitate the escape of our members who were detained in remand prison. The plan entailed excluding all those whom we suspected of passing valuable information to the Rhodesian Special Branch,” said Cde Mabhena.
He said the escape of Cdes Hadebe, Nkala and Ngwabi was part of the mission carried out by their branch with late Cde Mahlathini Mpofu being the coordinator.
The other plotters included the late Cdes John Mkandla and Daniel Ndlela.
“Our plan was that once Cdes Hadebe, Mpofu, Nkala and Ngwabi had escaped from Grey Prison, Cde Mahlathini Mpofu and I, would wait for them at a site near United College of Education (UCE) at 11pm. From there we would then drive through Victoria Falls Road and branch off at Mpilo Central Hospital turn off and then proceed to Khami road,” said Cde Mabhena.
“We would then go via Rangemore before joining Plumtree Road. We then carried out our reconnaissance operations on the pickup point including the ‘drop and make U-turn point’ in Plumtree.”
Cde Mabhena said during the operation, they established a watertight communication channel between themselves and their comrades in prison without being detected or raising suspicion and it worked.
He said the prison officer whom they bribed to smuggle the tools that were used to destroy the ceiling board at Grey Prison resulting in the escape of Cdes Hadebe, Mpofu, Nkala and Ngwabi, was given a pseudonym “Sigonki”.
Cde Mabhena said on the evening of the chosen day for the jailbreak, they drove to the designated pick-up point along Old Victoria Falls Road.
According to their plan, the time for escaping was supposed to be 10pm, but the prisoners whom they termed “astronauts” failed to “land” until it was 3am.
“We went back to our houses to sleep. At 4am one of our colleagues, Cde Dan Ngwenya went to Cde Mahlathini Mpofu’s house and ordered him to dress up before they came to my house and woke me up,” said Cde Mabhena.
He said they got into his Zephyr Zodiac and drove to Ngwenya’s house in Tshabalala where they met Cdes Hadebe, Nkala, Mpofu and Ngwabi.
“Cdes Hadebe, Nkala, Mpofu and Ngwabi decided to abandon the route to the designated pick-up point to avoid street lighting. Instead, they manoeuvered all the way from Grey Prison to Tshabalala where we found them waiting for us,” said Cde Mabhena.
He said the original plan was to drive the four escapees up to a five-kilometre peg from the Botswana border.
“Since we were already behind schedule because it was already dawn, I drove at racing speed, arriving in Plumtree just before sunrise.
“We dropped the four men before we immediately made a U-turn and drove back to Bulawayo,” said Cde Mabhena.
He said Cdes Hadebe, Nkala, Mpofu and Ngwabi trudged through the bush and successfully crossed the border to Botswana.
Cde Mabhena said on the same day at around 8am, police had launched a manhunt for the four prisoners using helicopters.
The following day, the Chronicle carried a screaming headline “MASSIVE AIR AND POLICE HUNT FOR 4 ESCAPERS”
The subhead read: “THREE OF THE JAILBREAKERS FACE CHARGES INVOLVING MACHINEGUN ATTACK ON RANCH”.
Cde Mabhena said a few days later, two white police detectives visited his home and conducted a search before they seized his car and drove away.
“The following day, they returned and took me to the police station. Upon arrival at the police station, I was interrogated and tortured.
“I was suspended upside down, they covered my head with a sack and interrogated me as they accused me of transporting my comrades,” said Cde Mabhena.
He said after a week in detention at Bulawayo Central Police Station, police blindfolded him and drove with him to Gwanda Prison where they further interrogated him.
“While in Gwanda, two white detectives took me to a bushy area where they took turns to assault me as they threatened to shoot me, but I didn’t change my story because I didn’t want to betray the liberation struggle,” said Cde Mabhena.
He was later taken back to Bulawayo where police released him without any charges but he never got his car back. — @mashnets