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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Zimbabwe's Che Guevara-Josiah Magama Tongogara

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.

The future of at least one African nation might have been different.