Obituaries usually mean the last story on the life of the person who has been laid to rest. In other words they ought to capture the main events in the person's life such that those who come across them get as complete a picture as possible of what the person did and the circumstances or environment in which they made their mark. In this case as in many others a key factor in the choice of hero and narrative is affected by whether one was in ZANU or in ZAPU during the struggle for independence before or in the prosecution of the armed struggle. The trend has been that those who were in the ZAPU side of the liberation movement get their due recognition if they are acceptable to the ruling ZANU party. That goes with a selective story that fits into the myth of unity between ZAPU and ZANU through the 1987 "Unity Accord" in which Dr. Joshua Nkomo was coerced into an unequal incorporation in the current ruling party in order to stop the killing of party members and innocent civilians in Matebeleland and the Ndebele-speaking parts of the Midlands in the genocidal "Gukurahundi" military campaign. In these circumstances key events in the lives of heroes from the ZAPU side of history are not put in their context, if they are known at all by those who shape the official narrative. For instance when Velaphi passed away there was a comic and unseemly confusion on whether he merited a hero status because some who make these decisions in the ruling party were from the ZANU side of history and did not "know" him.
The National Democratic Party (NDP) marked a watershed
The life of Misheck Velaphi Ncube in the independence struggle mirrors the main events in the nationalist movement. Many people we spoke to were themselves first-hand activists and organizers in the twilight of the African National Congress (ANC) of Zimbabwe as it was banned in 1959 and quickly replaced successively by the National Democratic Party (NDP) and then the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU). What is significant is that the banning of the NDP in 1960 and of ZAPU in 1961 marked an intensification of political agitation and rapid radicalization of the nationalist movement in which Velaphi and younger colleagues bore the brunt of repression by the white minority racist state machinery.
Sustaining and nourishing the resistance through mobilization
It is easy to take for granted that movements managed to regroup after unrelenting attacks by the Rhodesian police state, complete with a draconian legal system. This is because the use of banning orders and targeted restriction and detention without trial happened so often but failed to dampen the fire of the political resistance. The capacity of the movement to go underground and resurface at opportune moments is therefore one of its greatest achievements. The key to this success was mobilization and confidence that victory would be attained. One of the most influential structures during the NDP was the Bulawayo one. It produced many familiar names that shaped the transition from mass agitation to tighter units better prepared for direct action against state institutions. These NDP main and youth branches, five in all, were key to operations which the likes of Velaphi organised and carried out. Enumerated separately but not necessarily ranked they were: first the BAT branch (Bulawayo African Townships) Mzilikazi, Babourfields and Nguboyenja; among the many prominent names in this robust structure were Abednico Tshongwe, Velaphi himself, Samuel Ndebele, Sipho Ndebele, Naison Khutshwekhaya Ndlovu, C. C. Ngcebetsha, James Chitagwe, Akim Ndlovu (erroneously referred to as Ngwenya in the official tribute), Ethan Dube, Artwell Bokwe, Clark Mpofu, Joshua Mahlathini Mpofu, Phil Mabhena, and Joburg Zwelibanzi Mzilethi among many others. Second there was Mpopoma, which boasted the likes of Dumiso Dabengwa, Philani Ndebele, Christopher Mkhwananzi, Rodgers Ngugama, Charles Mazibisa, Cleopas Mazibisa, Benson G. Maphosa and Abel Siwela. Thirdly there was Njube, which had the likes of Kenneth Fanyana Ndlovu, Norman Mabhena, Mordecai Mlotshwa, Abenezier Nxumalo and Tirivangani Mhongo. Fourthly there was the "Impi" Branch (grouping the townships of Iminyela, Mabuthweni and Pelandaba).This had the likes of Booysen Mguni, Stephen "Jeqe" Nkomo, Albert Nxele, Amos Todd Msongelwa, Daud Mabusa, Zephania Sihwa, Abeniar A.Boshi, Mzingeli, John Roberts Mzimela and many others who became influential in the whole city under ZAPU. Fifth, there was the Central Branch which boasted the likes of Bernard Mutumwa, Jason Ziyapapa Moyo and Lazarus Mavava Nkala. This snippet of political activists that includes later national luminaries is the network in which Velaphi worked and got support at critical turns of the struggle. When the NDP was banned in 1961 and succeeded by ZAPU before the latter was in turn banned in 1962, the big cluster branches were broken up into smaller ones built around individual townships but with a strong Bulawayo District coordinating executive. This tighter organization coincided with the beginning of sabotage training and attacks on the colonial state institutions, where Velaphi was among the earliest trainees and operators.
Imprisonment, torture and humiliation fail to stop direct action
The white racist state of Rhodesia covered its reliance on force by using the figment of legality. The notorious Law and Order Maintenance Act (LOMA) allowed the proscription of meetings and gatherings, while the use of the "state of emergency" facilitated detention without trial. Incidentally this repressive law was kept unchanged for a decade after independence and replaced with an identical one, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) under which Velaphi and others were once more imprisoned.
As mentioned earlier, Velaphi was among the first ZAPU cadres to receive military training. He took part in clandestine military operations. Their brief was to lay the ground work for military operations including shipment of weapons for ZAPU cadres. It was one of these assignments which led to his arrest by the colonial regime. He was arraigned before the courts and was convicted to ten years imprisonment. He served his sentence at Khami Prison where he met other unheralded struggle icons like Daud Mabusa who was serving a three year prison term, German Tshokwana, Tayami Ndlovu, Jomo Maphosa and others.
When Velaphi was imprisoned in Khami it was a time when convicted political prisoners (as opposed to detainees) were few. The harsh prison regime brought out the tough character and determination of Velaphi and his comrades. They had to deal with both hostile officers and hard core criminals who were left to bully and sexually abuse young inmates. The criminal bullies wanted to extend their terror and sexual abuse to political prisoners as well. Daud Mabusa recounted a disturbing account of how one criminal attempted to sexually abuse him, leading to a ferocious fight between them that fuelled tension between criminal gangs and the ZAPU prisoners. In this escalating conflict Velaphi exhibited his formidable fighting spirit against victimization and moral decay. The few political inmates organised themselves and fought this moral decay. What is disturbing is that when political prisoners fought against sexual abuse the prison warders stood on the side of the criminal elements. Mabusa recounts an incident in which a prison warder missed Velaphi by a bullet and killed a convicted criminal prisoner called Robert instead. The incident occurred at a dam construction site where conflict erupted. As if this was not enough, violence broke out between common prisoners and political prisoners which escalated into a full scale riot. Prison warders failed to quell the riot by other methods and resorted to firearms and live bullets to put down that riot. Mabusa said eight inmates were shot dead. After the riot had subsided only political prisoners, Misheck Velaphi Ncube, Daud Mabusa and others were arrested and slapped with charges of prison mutiny and treason. They were placed on remand and arraigned before the High Court Judge Justice Dandy Young. The trial went on for several months but Velaphi and his comrades were eventually acquitted of all charges, and they then went back to serve their original prison sentences.Political activism of these great liberators was never cut out by the prison walls. The ZAPU political prisoners started to mobilise common law criminal prisoners into politicians. Velaphi became a branch chair for ZAPU within prison walls while Daud Mabusa became youth chair. This was primarily to stimulate political enthusiasm and also to prevent them from engaging in immoral activities. The prison authorities must have been incensed by this information and it probably motivated them to use disproportionate force to quell that riot which resulted in the deaths of those inmates. One of the convicted criminal murderers called Mkhwananzi became sympathetic to political prisoners and gave them tools to use as weapons to fend off an attack by common law criminal prisoners. This stabilized the security of political prisoners because they proved capable of self-defence against physical attacks. Velaphi served his term and was released from prison, leaving a changed environment for future prisoners. This, however, did not lead to a peaceful life outside prison because the system would not leave him alone.
Political detention and the struggle for educational self-improvement
After they completed their terms as convicted political prisoners, Velaphi and Daud Mabusa were in and out of prison confinement as detainees. Some of the prisons in which they were incarcerated were Whawha and Marondera (formerly Marandellas). This time they were detained under the draconian Law and Order Maintenance Act (LOMA) which allowed detention without trial for long periods of politicians and activists. Velaphi was also detained at Connemara Prison. While in detention he pursued studies and helped others who were also studying various courses, particularly commercial subjects such as accounts, commerce, and economics. It was common practice that those who had passed certain courses taught those who were pursuing the same courses. The courses ranged from primary school courses from Grades 1-7 and secondary school courses from Junior Certificate (Form 2)to the University of London General Certificate of Education(GCE)Ordinary and Advanced levels. Illiteracy was never entertained in detention among ZAPU cadres. At secondary school (GCE Levels) apart from English Language, detainees studied subjects like Accounts, British Constitution, Commerce, Economics and other subjects. It was emphasized that blacks should prepare to take over the country and it was necessary to have slight rudiments in those areas that are required for running the country. Velaphi played his part in these programs and helped many to upgrade their knowledge and skills. He met up with old friends and made new ones among the detainees. There were younger people like Sigangatsha, Luke Ncube, Ernest Malandu, and Vivian Siziba, as well as old hands like Sydney Malunga, Welshman Mabhena, Abel Siwela, Norman Mabhena, Johnson Mnkandla, Enos Mdlongwa, Mordecai Mlotshwa and others.
Velaphi and many other detainees were released after the Lancaster House Agreement in 1979 which ushered in an interim government led by Lord Soames and also the ceasefire which brought to an end the war between on one hand the Rhodesian army and on the other hand ZIPRA and ZANLA forces. Sadly enough, when Velaphi thought he was now finally rid of prisons, he was arrested by ZANU PF Government under the same piece of legislation on spurious and false treason charges. This harassment only ceased to be a continuous threat after the signing of the nefarious "Unity Accord" in which Velaphi and other politicians were incorporated into ZANU-PF when Joshua Nkomo was compelled to sign away ZAPU.
The ZANU "use and dump" approach to ZAPU politicians
At the top of this obituary it was mentioned that the ruling party initially dithered when the issue of Velaphi's hero status was considered. That there were many who did not know his inestimable contribution to the struggle pales beside the neglect he went through in his personal life. His home is Mtshelanyemba was well below what should have been done for someone of his statue and sacrifice. He has left a modest homestead, to put it mildly. Similarly his urban dwelling in Lobengula West in Bulawayo was now building a durawall. This is a far cry from what should be the circumstances of someone who has been fished into national lime-light and belatedly recognized in what one would be excused to see as a propaganda ploy to use dumped heroes for political propaganda. It is not the end of the story because there are many who remain at the "bus stop" where Joshua Nkomo left them under the "Unity Accord".
May His Soul Rest in Peace!
And may his lasting contribution and tradition that made it possible never die.
18 May 2019
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