Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
12 April 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 12:01pm

This man has been called Zimbabwe’s Che Guevara. Did Mugabe have him murdered?

In a divided land, Josiah Tongogara is a hero claimed by both sides. Mark Olden traces an inspiratio

By Mark Olden

You have probably never heard of Josiah Magama Tongogara, but he is Zimbabwe’s Che Guevara, a liberation icon with streets named after him in almost every town in the country. Tall, bearded and charismatic, it was he who, as commander of the guerrilla army Zanla, towered over the Lancaster House conference that led to Zimbabwe’s independence and the end of white minority rule. Many expected him to be the first president of the free Zimbabwe, with Robert Mugabe, head of Zanla’s political wing, Zanu, as prime minister.

But six days after the Lancaster House agreement was signed, Mugabe, on the Voice of Zimbabwe radio station, conveyed “an extremely sad message” to “all the fighting people of Zimbabwe”: the 41-year-old Tongogara was dead, killed in a car accident in Mozambique on Christmas Day 1979.

Two questions have haunted Zimbabwe ever since. How different would the nation have been had Tongogara lived? And did Mugabe have him murdered?

As a child, Tongogara worked on the farm owned by the parents of Ian Smith, Rhodesia’s last prime minister and the man whose racist regime he took up arms against. When he couldn’t get a secondary school place, he left for neighbouring Zambia, where he later abandoned his job as bar manager at a white amateur dramatics club to join the struggle. His people’s need for “land, land, education, land” was what drove him, he said in his last interview. In 1966, he led a group to China for military training.

Zanla’s first Rhodesian prisoner of war, Gerald Hawksworth, said after he was released that Tongogara was always smiling, referred to him as “Comrade Hawksworth” and plied him with cigarettes during his captivity. He was fighting the system, he told Hawksworth, not a racial war.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

In Harare last month, I met Wilfred Mhanda, a former high-ranking Zanla commander who knew Tongogara and who today heads the Zimbabwe Liberators’ Platform (ZLP), a group of ex-guerrillas who claim that the struggle’s ideals have been betrayed. Tongogara, he says, was “a very strong charismatic leader” and “the epitome of a freedom fighter, with all the recruits aspiring to be like him. You felt safe and secure under his command. He believed in the empowerment of his junior officers, and allowed them to implement policy as they saw fit.”

He was also highly ambitious. “By the eve of independence, he’d manoeuvred himself into a very powerful strategic position, where he could say: ‘This is what the fighters want’ to the Zanu leadership and ‘This is what the leadership want’ to the fighters. He had the best of both worlds and took advantage of it.”

At Lancaster House, Tongogara was a crucial “moderating” force, according to Lord Carrington, the then British foreign secretary, who chaired the talks. On the first day of the conference, he surprised Ian Smith by revealing how Smith’s mother gave him sweets on their family farm as a child. “If I get home and the old lady is still alive that would be one of the greatest things for me – to say hello, ask her about the sweets and whether she has still got some for me,” he later told an interviewer. And at a press conference when the taciturn Mugabe started telling Carrington to “go to hell”, Tongogara reached over and calmed his diminutive colleague down.

By then, Tongogara was openly favouring unity between Zanu and Zimbabwe’s other nationalist movement, Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu. He reportedly had private meetings with Nkomo during the conference. But Mugabe was opposed. “[Mugabe] referred to unity with Zapu as sharing the spoils with those who had not shouldered the burden of fighting,” says Mhanda. As Lancaster House concluded, Tongo-gara returned to Mozambique, where Zanla was based, to inform his soldiers of the ceasefire.

Margaret Dongo was among them. At 15, she had crossed into Mozambique to join the guerrillas, adopting the chimurenga (liberation war) name of Tichaona Muhondo (“prepared to face trouble”). Once a ruling Zanu-PF MP, she later became disillusioned with the party. Now she is president of the small opposition Zimbabwe Union of Democrats and a thorn in the sides of her erstwhile comrades. “Tongogara was principled,” she says. “He was unwavering in knowing what he was fighting for and could not easily be driven into corruption. I believed in him.”

Dongo was one of the last people to see him alive. “We were 18 girls who were having a function and he came to say a few words to bless the occasion.”

But did Tongogara die as Mugabe claimed? There are several mysteries. He actually died on 26 December, not 25 December. His body took two days to reach a mortuary. And though Zanu released an undertaker’s statement saying his injuries were consistent with a road accident, no autopsy results or pictures have ever been released.

The CIA and US State Department reports from the time, which I obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act, add to the doubts. “There will inevitably be speculation that Tongogara was killed either by enemies within Zanu or by the Rhodesian security forces,” states the CIA intelligence briefing of 28 December. “In addition to [Tongogara’s] military command, he was a political force behind the scenes and a potential political rival to Mugabe because of his ambition, popularity and decisive style.” On the same day, the US embassy in Zambia reported: “Almost no one in Lusaka accepts Mugabe’s assurance that Tongogara died accidentally. When the ambassador told the Soviet ambassador the news . . . yesterday evening, the surprised Soviet immediately charged ‘inside job’. His capsule reaction parallels the opinions of the great majority of the diplomatic corps.”

Ian Smith, admittedly hardly an impartial source, also insisted in his memoirs that Tongogara’s “own people” killed him, and that he had disclosed at Lancaster House that Tongogara was under threat. “I made a point of discussing his death with our police commissioner and head of special branch, and both assured me that Tongogara had been assassinated,” Smith wrote. Then there are the claims that surfaced in the Zimbabwean magazine Moto a few years ago. Four of Tongogara’s former bodyguards had died in suspicious circumstances since independence, it alleged. One was said to have been hit by a car outside a Harare hotel after telling friends that when he retired from the army he would “sell the BBC the true story of Tongogara’s death”.

One woman professes to know the truth: Oppah Muchinguri, a former cabinet minister in Mugabe’s government, whose close relationship with him – and fractious relationship with his wife Grace – has long been the subject of local rumour. She was a 21-year-old Zanu secretary when Tongogara died, and it was only years later that she announced – not entirely convincingly – that she’d been in the car with him when it had crashed into the back of a truck. I called her. “I don’t give interviews to UK journalists,” she said. “Tongogara is a Zimbabwean and as a Zimbabwean I am not interested in colonialists.” Then she hung up.

But while the facts of Tongogara’s death remain obscure, its meaning in present-day Zimbabwe is clear, with both the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and ruling Zanu-PF claiming his legacy, and legitimacy, for themselves.

Three years ago a report claimed that Mugabe believed he was being haunted in his presidential home by an angry Tongogara, who berated him for destroying the revolution. As in Macbeth, the popular (in Tongogara’s case, future) king had been supplanted by his killer, who became steeped in greater bloodshed as he rose to power, and was now haunted by the ghost of his deeds. Mugabe, it was said, had even taken to having a place laid for Tongogara at his dinner table.

In the poor township of Mabvuku East, ten miles from Harare and surrounded by lush countryside dotted with spectacular granite rocks, they sing: “Tongogara is dead/Don’t cry/You killed him.” Tonde, a local MDC activist who has been arrested 19 times and tortured three times, says: “We call Mabvuku a liberated zone because we’ve got networks in every corner. As soon as the police arrive, the people inform us and we can move.” Liberated zones were part of Tongogara’s strategy. “He was the true leader,” says Tonde. “The current ones are thieves.”

Meanwhile, almost every hour on ZBC, the government-owned, propaganda-swamped television station, a different story is being pumped out under the slogan: “The land is our prosperity.” Footage of Zimbabwe’s great heroes, Mugabe and Tongogara, is intercut with joyful people dancing on their newly acquired land and pictures of the country’s enemies, Tony Blair and the MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. The message is that Zanu-PF is the true custodian of Zimbabwe’s sovereignty and revolution. Churchill High School in Harare was recently renamed Josiah Tongogara High. War veterans who invaded a farm on the edge of Harare renamed it Tongogara.

Maybe Tongogara was not quite the paragon that many now believe: as Mhanda acknowledges, he was ruthless at settling internal disputes. But he is a symbol for both sides in Zimbabwe’s struggle. “We got hold of political power,” says Mhanda. “But we failed to transform the instruments of power to serve the people rather than the elite.”