Forty years ago in Mozambique – a death that changed the face of post-Independence Zimbabwe

Posted: 24 December, 2019 | Category: Uncategorized




Forty years ago on December 26 the man who led the forces of ZANLA throughout Chimurenga Two never made it home from exile.

At the end of the Lancaster House Conference in London, Josiah Tongogara was charged with the hard task of telling his commanders and soldiers in the field that ceasefire arrangements were in place.

He flew back to Maputo from London and as he was rushing to Chimoio the vehicle in which he was travelling rammed into the back of a FRELIMO lorry it was trying to overtake. He was sitting in the front passenger seat and was crushed in the ensuing collision.

In their book The Struggle for Zimbabwe (Faber and Faber, London 1981) David Martin and Phyllis Johnson said that given  the timing of the accident and that he was perhaps the man Zimbabwe could least afford to lose at that moment there were inevitable questions about his death.

The authors said: ”The Mozambique government, shattered by the loss of a comrade-in-arms they had come to regard so highly, launched an inquiry; the ZANU leadership, numb and immobile, held their own inquiry. Both came to the same conclusion as did the reputable mortician summoned from Salisbury by the British Embassy to embalm the body. ‘The injuries are consistent with a car accident,’ said Ken Stokes of Mashford and Son. ‘There is no doubt in my mind that there was no foul play.’ There were no bullet holes – as a deliberately planted Salisbury rumour was later to suggest.”

At the time of Tongogara’s death, all Salisbury and Bulawayo- based newspapers were under the control of white editors or white owners.

Their immediate response was that Tongogara’s death was organized, with the National Observer asserting that Tongogara’s death was the result of feuds between the Makaranga, Zezuru and Manyika factions of ZANLA.

Tongogara was a Karanga.

The outgoing UANC Minister of Foreign Affairs (in Bishop Abel Muzorewa’s short-lived government of National Unity) said (un-named) sources told him Tongogara was killed by ZANU forces who were dissatisfied with the settlement reached in London, a settlement shaped by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government.

Mukome said: “The untimely death in suspicious circumstances of Tongogara, who demonstrated at Lancaster House his genuine dedication to a settlement of this country’s problems, maybe the clearest manifestation yet that there may now be a Trojan horse in our midst.”

On September 27, 1979 The Herald carried a story written in London that quoted Tongogara saying that he was ready to work “in any capacity “ with Salisbury’s top military man Lieut-General Peter Walls under a peace settlement.

In his book The Great Betrayal (Blake, 1997) the ex-Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith spoke highly of Tongogara.

Clearly, the head of the Rhodesian CIO, Ken Flower, had a soft spot for the man. After Tongogara’s death the Mozambicans invited him and Lieut-General Walls to check the facts surrounding his death “and we were satisfied that there had been no foul play.”

After the assassination of Herbert Chitepo in March 1975 in Lusaka, Flower flew to Lusaka to prepare the ground for talks between Johsua Nkomo and Ian Smith.

While waiting to see Kaunda in the East Wing of State House next to Kaunda’s nine hole golf course a senior lawyer walked by.

Flower told the story in his book Serving Secretly (John Murray, 1987) –

“Under his arm he carried the findings of the Chitepo Commission. He was bubbling over the information. ’As a Rhodesian you might like to know that we have resolved all the confusion over Chitepo’s death!’ “

Flower told the man that he was tremendously interested and asked if those inquiring into the murder that neutralized ZANU and brought the war against white rule almost to a standstill and the detention of hundreds of senior ZANLA fighters had found the guilty party.”

Flower wrote: “He then read something to the effect that the decision to kill Chitepo had been taken by the ZANLA High Command, under the chairmanship of Tongogara.”

Flower wrote: “Suddenly, I got the hell in me – Chitepo was dead and Tongogara had suffered enough, so surely Rhodesia could afford to be magnanimous. I said: ‘What would you say if I were to tell you that your precious findings are not worth the paper they are printed on? Tongogara had nothing whatsoever to do with Chitepo’s death.’”

But why the head of the Rhodesian secret service should want to see his country’s most formidable military threat released from a Zambian prison is a question that has never been answered mainly because it has never been asked.

At that time it was not widely known that Flower was a double agent working for M16.

In 1975 not only Ken Flower was a regular visitor to State House in Lusaka where he held talks with Kaunda and the president’s main adviser, Mark Chona.

General Henrik van den Bergh, the founder of BOSS in 1969, was also a visitor who held talks with high ranking Zambian officials.

Robert Mugabe

Robert Mugabe. He rose to supreme power in ZANU after the murder of Herbert Chitepo and the death of Josiah Tongogara (Picture: Trevor Grundy)


Accident or part of an organized plot?

Forty years after the road death that secured Robert Mugabe’s ascent to the top of the Zimbabwean ladder the questions won’t go away.

Last year, a Zimbabwean minister who witnessed Tongogara’s death dismissed reports on social media that she killed Tongogara.

According to the state-controlled Herald, Defence Minister and war veteran Oppah Muchinguri Kashiri told Tongogara’s family at the laying of wreaths at the National Heroes Acre in Harare to mark the 39th year of his death that Tongogara died in a road accident.

How widely known is it that at the Lancaster House Conference, Tongogara told various  British officials that not only was he ready to work with the Rhodesian military but he  also wanted to see the ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo lead the Patriotic Front (PF) which was supposed to contest the forthcoming election as an united  movement.

Immediately after Chitepo’s death, the FROLIZI leader James Chikerema told me that the man who seemed destined to be Zimbabwe’s first freely elected Prime Minister or executive President, had been killed by Josiah Tongogara who was acting, said Chikerema, in the interests of “the Karanga Mafia.”

Chikerema has never been forgiven for making that claim.

Even now – so long after Chitepo’s murder -Emmerson Mnangagwa and the Karanga political elite in charge of so much of Zimbabwe, refuse to recognise Chikerema as a National Hero.

But as time goes by, old accusations based on new fears raise their heads.

Years ago, the historian Terence Ranger said the Mugabe Government allowed him to go to any school he wanted to go to and listen to the opinions of children of all ages.

Later, he told me at his home in Oxford that when he was in Manicaland the first question asked by children was “Who killed Herbert Chitepo?”

Forty years down the road more and more questions about the birth of Zimbabwe will be asked and hopefully answered by those the young can trust.

What really happened to Josiah Tongorara might well be one of them.