Mashudu Netsianda, Senior Reporter
ON January 7, 1965, 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.”
This was after four brave young political prisoners who were detained at Bulawayo’s Grey Street Remand Prison, now Bulawayo Prison for fighting injustice and oppression against blacks by the Rhodesian government, had dramatically escaped from the facility.
The four, Cdes Moffat Hadebe, Keyi Nkala, Elliot Ngwabi and Clark Ngiyo Mpofu who is now late, 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.
A Chronicle news crew yesterday visited two of the pioneer freedom fighters, Cdes Hadebe and Ngwabi and the freedom fighters shared their tales on how they escaped from Grey Street Prison including their first failed attempt at Gwanda Prison following their arrest over the Zidube Ranch attack.
“Following our capture during the Zidube Ranch attack, Cde Hadebe and myself were taken to Gwanda and locked up. We were later joined in by Keyi Nkala who had also been arrested in his home area. In fact, there was bad blood between Nkala and Chief Mzimuni whom we suspect betrayed him,” said Cde Ngwabi.
Cde Hadebe said they were later taken to court where charges were read to them but they were not asked to plead.
“We were, as expected, remanded in custody. We were later transferred to Grey Prison in Bulawayo and it could have been motivated by the fact that we were planning to stage a mutiny at Gwanda Prison and break free on Saturday since most of the prison officers were off duty on weekends,” he said.
Cde Ngwabi said they suspect that prison authorities got wind of their plans to escape from Gwanda Prison resulting in them being transferred to Grey Prison.
“We suspect one of the prisoners who was facing murder charges after killing his wife could be the one who leaked the information to prison authorities about our planned jail break in Gwanda resulting in us being transferred to Grey Prison,” he said.
Cde Ngwabi said their transfer to Grey Prison turned out to be a blessing in disguise as they managed to use their political connections to plot the escape.
“Since I was in the Zapu structures in Makokoba before I left for military training outside the country, it became easier for me to reconnect with party members upon being transferred to Bulawayo. They found a prison guard called Joseph Hleza whom they bribed so that he could smuggle tools that we then used to damage the ceiling in the cell,” he said.
Cde Ngwabi said they used hacksaws and pairs of pliers and scissors to destroy the ceiling board and create an opening through which they escaped from the cell.
Cde Hadebe who was the tallest of the four men, was used as a ladder by his colleagues to reach the ceiling.
“After destroying the ceiling board, we managed to get inside the roof and walked through the trusses until we reached a section where there was the prison superintendent’s house.
“Luckily on that particularly night, there was a party at his (superintendent’s) house and they were busy drinking while we were hiding over their heads waiting for an opportunity to escape,” he said.
“After the party at around midnight, they were drunk and they got into their houses and switched off the lights. There was a prison officer who was conducting night patrols and we kept monitoring his movements.”
Cde Ngwabi said the moment the prison officer went to the other side of the building, they immediately jumped off and dashed for the gate to the superintendent’s house and bolted out and melted into the darkness.
“We walked through the empty streets and headed towards Khumalo suburb. It was a risky exercise because we were clad in prison garb and therefore had to make sure no one noticed us,” he said.
“We went to a house we thought we would find a friend where we would change the prison garb but he was not there.”
He said they then proceeded to Belmont industrial site and walked all the way to a house in Tshabalala where a car was organised to carry them to Plumtree border post.
Rhodesian security forces had to seal all the border posts following the escape of the four men.
Cde Ngwabi said soon after crossing into Botswana through Ramokgwebana Border Post, they arrived at a nearby village where they made a stopover at a shop belonging to an Indian.
“The Indian shop owner lured us under the guise that he was attending a Botswana People’s Party (BPP) meeting in Francistown and offered us a lift. Little did we know that he had already made an arrangement with police to lay an ambush,” he said.
Cde Hadebe said while on board the Indian businessman’s truck, a vehicle belonging to the army was following them.
“I was the first to notice the military truck following us and I sensed danger after spotting a soldier carrying a rifle and I immediately jumped off our moving truck and took to my heels.
“My fellow comrades tried to also jump off, but it was too late and they managed to catch up with them as they were fleeing,” he said.
Cde Hadebe said he heard gunshots as they launched a manhunt for him, but fortunately, he made off.
“I stayed in Botswana while hiding before I later left that country for Zambia. I later went for further military training in various countries overseas
Cdes Nkala, Mpofu and Ngwabi were rearrested and taken back to Rhodesia.
The four freedom fighters later met in 1972 at Khami Prison after Cde Hadebe was also arrested in Mozambique during a raid.
They were freed from prison after the country gained independence in 1980. — @mashnets