Nduduzo Tshuma, Political Editor
“One of the most important experiences of the armed struggle was contained in the Wankie/Sipolilo campaigns of 1967 and 1968. Using the experiences of the 1960s these became the first large scale operations ever launched in Zimbabwe, which involved several men. These campaigns were planned and jointly led by ZPRA and MK commanders.
“Their full history is yet to be told like so much of our rich history of the liberation struggle. But we would like to mention two important aspects of these campaigns. In the first place, because of the scale of the fighting and the outstanding courage of our fighters, these battles had a profound effect on the people of Zimbabwe.
“They showed that it was possible to tackle the enemy on our own soil with modern weapons and inflict serious damage on the regime. They showed that the racists were not as invincible as they claimed. In the second place, these military campaigns provided invaluable lessons for the future conduct of the armed struggle and gave us concrete experience of battle conditions in our country. This experience was analysed by our military commanders and political leadership and provided basis for the new strategies and tactics which we then adopted.”
These are the words of Zapu President Dr Joshua Nkomo contained in the Zapu report of the Central Committee to the 1984 Congress of 12 to 15 October. He was describing the success of the 1967 Wankie and 1968 Sipolilo Campaigns, a joint operation between the Zapu and ANC military wings ZPRA and Umkhonto We Sizwe that shook the colonial governments of Rhodesia and South Africa.
In a paper by the late national Hero Cde Dumiso Dabengwa for South Africa’s The Thinker, Volume 80 of 2019, titled, “The Impeccable Zapu and ANC Alliance in Retrospect: The 1967 Wankie and 1968 Sipolilo Campaigns”, the former Zapu intelligence supremo said the operations marked a watershed moment for Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle.
“The 1967 Wankie campaigns signaled to the International Community the magnitude of the strengthened military and combat capacities of ZIPRA and MK in Rhodesia and South Africa whose geo-strategic position for the West meant they could not be allowed to fall into ‘Communist’ hands,” said Dr Dabengwa.
In the preparatory stages of the campaigns during reconnaissance in the eastern front, a Zapu and ANC team stumbled on another team of the Zanla forces, the armed wing of Zanu led by the late national hero Cde Josiah Magama Tongogara.
A former Zapu intelligence commander Cde Gibson Mayisa recalls: “My first operation was reconnaissance in the eastern front. I was with Mbhejelwa Moyo and an ANC person called Steve. We would go all the way to Feira doing reconnaissance. We went for a number of rounds and at one point we met the group of Tongogara and John Mataure who were also doing reconnaissance,” said Cde Mayisa.
“When we met them, we combined and went together. In one of the missions we stumbled on the Zambian soldiers who caught us and took us to their camp. They said ‘we are not arresting you but we want to protect you because the Rhodesians are here across the Zambezi river. We want to avoid a disaster so we will keep you over night and then you will go to Lusaka the following day’.”
Dr Dabengwa said Apartheid South Africa had sought to enter Zambia to gather intelligence that would be shared with Rhodesia for military raids and it became necessary for Zapu and ANC to cooperate.
“It became necessary that the ZAPU and ANC forces worked together to both dismantle colonial Rhodesia impunity that was supported by Apartheid RSA. As such, the ANC had to create chapters in Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland which were established in the 1950s. These chapters were banned in 1959. In the end, the NDP was formed in 1960 and facilitated the ANC cadres who came through Rhodesia to cross the border into Zambia.
“Later in 1962, when ZAPU decided to engage in the armed struggle, it established an external office in Zambia. By this time, the ANC had already established an office in Lusaka and this was as a result of the relationship of both parties that the heads of the military wings of ZAPU and ANC got to engage each other. First, they held a number of exploratory meetings where they discussed their strategies. The ZPRA (then known as the ZAPU Military Wing) was represented by its Commander Akim Ndlovu and Chief of Reconnaissance Dumiso Dabengwa, plus, whenever necessary, by other relevant command staff,” said Dr Dabengwa.
“The ANC military wing MK (uMkhonto weSizwe) was represented by its Commander Joe Modise, Chris Hani, Zola Zembe plus others in the command structure where necessary. During these interactions, the ANC explained its main obstacles in the deployment of its cadres for operations in South Africa. They told of their limited choice through Botswana and how in most cases their cadres were intercepted by police, arrested and sent to prison before they were deported back to Zambia. ZPRA on the other hand felt uncomfortable about the extent of this co-operation, taking into consideration that their military wing had only been established in 1965 and had started with small scale deployments into Rhodesia.”
Dr Dabengwa said while ZPRA was still testing the ground, the MK had been on the ground for some time and their cadres in Tanzania were eager to be deployed.
“The main topic therefore became the need for cooperation between the two military wings that is to use Zimbabwe instead of Botswana for significant deployment of their cadres. It was then recommended that the leadership of the two parties be briefed before they could be any concrete suggestions on the extent of the cooperation.
“After each side had briefed its party leadership, the leaders approved the idea and suggested that the military should come up with firm proposals on how they would implement this cooperation. At this stage the two commanders then set out to establish relevant sub committees to plan and submit their recommendations. The sub committees made their reports which included a full operations plan with Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns earmarked to kick-start the cooperation. This operations report was later presented to a combined meeting of the two parties and their military wings. In this meeting the ANC was represented by Oliver R Tambo and Thomas Nkobi while ZAPU was represented by James R Chikerema and Jason Z Moyo,” said Dr Dabengwa.
“At the end of this meeting the military wings were given the go ahead to work out the details of this implementation and to report back to another combined meeting. All the relevant military departments such as Reconnaissance, Logistics, Training and Operations were assigned to study their roles and ensure that they would fit into the broad operational plans of the two campaigns. Initially, it had been suggested to undertake the two campaigns simultaneously through Wankie and Sipolilo but later on account of logistical problems, it was agreed to start with Wankie.”
Dr Dabengwa said the Wankie campaign For ZPRA the battle of Wankie marked a turning point in Zimbabwe and South Africa’s armed liberation struggles.
He said on 13 August the Luthuli Detachment commanded by John Dube (Sotsha Ngwenya) deputised by Chris Hani, who was also the commissar, had an encounter with the Rhodesian forces, comprising a platoon made up of BSAP and RAR in Inyantuwe.
He said after Inyantuwe the detachment also had major battles at Sinamathela, Tsholotsho and along the Natha and Tekwane river areas before they retreated into Botswana.
“The Luthuli detachment’s indomitable fighters proved the lie of invincibility of the Rhodesian and South African racist and apartheid regimes. Chris Hani as commissar of the combined forces in the Luthuli detachment commented on the battle of Inyantuwe thus, ‘It was one of the battles they were engaged in that will probably go down in the history of MK military operations as one of the most heroic. Displaying outstanding heroism and sacrifice, they fought like lions and actually kept Smith’s forces pinned down for the better part of the day’,” said Dr Dabengwa.
He said after the Wankie campaign, the joint ZPRA/MK command and its sub committees started to prepare for the Sipolilo (present day Guruve) campaign.
“The Reconnaissance team had recommended a crossing point where the Zambezi River is flat and wide between after the Manna Pools area and Feira, near where the Chewore River on the Rhodesian side flows in,” said Dr Dabengwa.
“About 10 days after our departure, the detachment had their first contact with the Rhodesian forces. For about a week, our people back home had witnessed an unprecedented call-up by the Smith regime of all members of their security forces and their reserve, with orders to report at their brigade headquarters.
Meanwhile the detachment had also noted the frequent spotter plane flights above their area. As a result, they took a decision to evacuate their headquarters shelters and move to an area where they would be better placed to defend themselves.”
Dr Dabengwa quoted OR Tambo as having said of the Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns: “How the enemy were rendered panic stricken by the relentless courage of our combined forces, who on the banks of the Zambezi before they marched into the hostile Rhodesia, were armed in memory of our great leader, the late President General of the ANC-Chief Albert Luthuli; and who are known since then and for all posterity as the Luthuli Detachment.
“In battle after battle, the racist forces were overwhelmed by the courage and fire power of our gallant fighters instance after instance, the coward enemy broke ranks and fled, abandoning weapons, their injured and dead. Many members of that indomitable detachment fell in battle in Wankie and on the Eastern front.
Their names are inscribed in the roll call of honour of our revolution. On this day every year, we pay special tribute to those illustrious combatants who fell on sacred fields of Zimbabwe with the warrior cry ‘Victory or Death!’ on their lips.”