ZAPU—Secretary of Administration Minister of Local Government and Rural Development
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Harare on 21 July 1995.
Tor Sellström: You led a ZAPU delegation to talks with Sweden in 1979. Was that your first contact with the Nordic countries?
John Nkomo: No, that was not my first contact. Over the years of our struggle—before the Lancaster House Conference in 1979—I worked very closely with the Nordic countries, particularly with SIDA in terms of the annual review of the assistance that we were getting from Sweden. It was, of course, humanitarian assistance, not military. As our numbers began to grow in the camps in Zambia it was very convenient to ask Sweden to assist us with the logistics, such as food, transportation and any other assistance that would enable us to handle the thousands of refugees that had come there.
We were always under attack and at times we would have everything destroyed. But we understood why Sweden could not go beyond humanitarian assistance. There was the Cold War divide between the East and the West and we understood that the Nordic countries had taken a neutral position. The ideological thrust coming from the East had a bearing on us. It created a situation that gave us the impetus to get going and we tended to develop a much firmer leaning to the East than to the West. In the West, we only had contacts with solidarity groups that were collecting clothes and other items. People who were disseminating our propaganda. But in the East, and in the Eastern-inclined countries, we were actually getting arms. In between, you had the Nordic countries. We really appreciated their assistance, because it enabled us to move around.
Tor Sellström: Did you not find that strange, with Denmark and Norway being members of NATO?
John Nkomo: Well, there was not so much involvement by Denmark and Norway. They were not very supportive of the liberation struggle as such. They supported on humanitarian grounds. I recall that ZAPU once used the services of a Danish airline, ferrying refugees from Botswana across to Zambia because the camps in Botswana could not accommodate any more people. That exercise only stopped when the Rhodesians threatened to shoot down the plane. Of course, the cargo—which was supposed to be refugees—was also a potential army for our war. The Danes were members of NATO. They were not dealing in arms, but assisting on humanitarian grounds. It was different with Sweden, which is why we also had a ZAPU mission there. From Sweden it was easy to reach all sides, even the Soviet bloc. Preferably we would, of course, have liked the majority of the countries to be on our side.
Tor Sellström: The first ZAPU mission in Sweden was, I think, headed by Dr. Makhurane, who was based at the University of Uppsala?
John Nkomo: Yes, and later on we had people like Canaan Moyo and Isaac Nyathi, who is now an MP here.
Tor Sellström: Nyathi was heading the ZAPU research department in Lusaka, which also received support from SAREC, the Swedish Agency for Research Cooperation with Developing Countries?
John Nkomo: Yes, that was very important for us. Also the training aspect was very important. Although we were fighting a war, we wanted to make sure that we would be ready to take over the administration in Zimbabwe. So, we spread our wings to cover as much as we could.
Tor Sellström: What do you think made the Nordic societies, and Sweden in particular, involved with ZAPU and ZANU? Did it partly have to do with old links through the missions?
John Nkomo: I think that what encouraged Sweden to really come out in full force was the exodus of the population in Mberengwa and Gwanda, which is predominantly Lutheran. What they did later on was to try and provide as much comfort as possible to the people that they regarded as part of their community. However, I think that Sweden also had a much wider focus. They were really looking at the future, preparing for a time when Zimbabwe would be independent. It was important for them that their support programmes were implemented. It had nothing to do with our struggle. They were implementing them in the districts that we mentioned, Mberengwa and Gwanda, through the involvement with the missions there.
Tor Sellström: I think that Edward Ndlovu, ZAPU’s General Secretary at the beginning of the 1970s came from that area?
John Nkomo: Yes, he had that background.
Tor Sellström: And on the ZANU side, people like Richard Hove also had a background in the Church of Sweden Mission schools?
John Nkomo: Yes, Richard Hove comes from the Mnene mission in Mberengwa. There was that influence.
As I said, I think that Sweden was looking at the future and how they could expand their involvement in this part of the world. They saw that the resolution of our problem had the potential for a more stable environment. That is why they cooperated with both ZANU and ZAPU. Theirs was not an ideological influence, as opposed to those countries that supported the two parties separately. You had the Soviet Union supporting ZAPU and China supporting ZANU. Their support was based on an ideological orientation. For Sweden, it was more of a social, or humanitarian, approach than an ideological approach.
Tor Sellström: Do you think that the late Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, played a part in this?
John Nkomo: He played a very important part in this. I also think that his orientation was more supportive of the liberation struggle, although he could not give us arms. But his orientation was more in support of the liberation struggle.
Tor Sellström: In international fora, such as the United Nations, did you feel that you had support from the Nordic group?
John Nkomo: Yes, the Nordic countries always played a sort of catalytic role. Their support was not based on any ideology, be it socialism or capitalism. It was a mixture of both, which was useful for the purpose. They were very supportive of our diplomatic efforts. There they could not be accused of being militarily involved. That was a role they could play without risking any condemnation. The other countries, particularly in the West, felt that they could scale down their diplomatic support. The Nordic countries did not do so, because I think that they also were convinced that our struggle was just.
Had it been today, I am sure that we would not have had any problems, because now there is so much emphasis on democracy and human rights. And here was a situation where human rights were being down-trodden. Democracy in Rhodesia was based on qualifications. You had to qualify to enjoy democratic rights.
Tor Sellström: I think that the Nordic involvement to a large extent was a question of human rights.
John Nkomo: Yes, and that is what we enjoyed, because we knew that although they would not give us arms, they were giving us diplomatic support. And the struggle was multi-pronged.
Tor Sellström: On the other hand, in the United Nations the Nordic countries could not support resolutions advocating armed struggle. Did you understand that position?
John Nkomo: Obviously, there were times when we were disappointed, but we felt that this was not an issue to be pushed, because we knew
that they were with us in the diplomatic field. We appreciated their position. If they had taken another stand, we would probably have lost diplomatic leverage. We understood that. And, as I said, they continued to support us and that support encouraged us to move forward. They had a rather important role to play. It was not by choice that we went military. When our initial diplomatic approach failed, it had to be militarily supported. But we were always convinced that it was not the military that was important. It was diplomacy. The military effort was simply a tool to pressurize the others to come to the table and talk. That is how we went to Geneva in 1976, to Malta in 1977, to Dar es Salaam in 1977 and to Lancaster House in 1979. It was because we used the military struggle to pressurize the other party to come to the talks.
Tor Sellström: Sweden gave equal amounts of humanitarian assistance to ZAPU and ZANU. You had a relationship based on trust with SIDA and your colleagues in ZANU—with whom you were competing for resources—also had this relationship of trust. Was that difficult?
John Nkomo: We had a project department, headed by Edward Ndlovu, which was intimately involved with the Swedish embassy in Lusaka. There were other supporting agencies with SIDA in Zambia with whom we discussed our problems. We were not making any comparison with what was going on with ZANU in Mozambique. Later, we became the Patriotic Front. We were then able to send joint missions to make life easier for those who were supporting us. As to the amounts of support given to the individual movements, there was no jealousy at all. We would, of course, have preferred to get more, but since the Nordic countries, or Sweden specifically, were in support of the Zimbabwean struggle, it was only right to accept that we should share whatever there was. You say that ‘beggars may not be choosers’.
Tor Sellström: The closest to any military involvement by Sweden was, I guess, when the Swedish Air Force delivered a mobile field hospital after the Rhodesian attacks on the ZAPU camps in Zambia in 1978?
John Nkomo: Yes, I received that hospital at the Lusaka International Airport, with the jeeps and so on.
Tor Sellström: There were rumours that the Rhodesians might sabotage the operation?
John Nkomo: Yes. In a war, there are military casualties, but the camps that were attacked were refugee camps. Our argument with those who wanted to accuse us—or accuse Sweden for supporting us—was that the poor children there were not suffering by choice. They should look at the situation as a symptom of something wrong. What was wrong was inside Rhodesia. Those who supported the casualties of this violence were doing it on humanitarian grounds. What we had to deal with was to correct the situation inside the country, and that became our diplomatic message.
Zambia had to suffer for accommodating us and we had to sacrifice so much, trying to put a situation right. You could say that you can do that by talking, but we tried to talk. We went to Geneva, but it failed. We went to Malta, it failed again. Certainly, there had to be other methods. To those who were saying that we should talk, we said that they must put pressure on Smith. I recall when Kissinger was running around. In October 1976, I was in Botswana when suddenly we were told that they had cornered Smith with Vorster and that we were going for talks. We felt that maybe it would bring about a solution, but once Smith said ‘not interested’, we said: ‘That is it.’ I also recall the Victoria Falls meeting in 1975. I was heading the secretariat on the bridge. I was responsible for assuring that half of the train was on this side and half on that side! They said: ‘Fine, that is an effort!’ Kaunda was staking his reputation and credibility as a political leader by saying: ‘Right, I am going to join Vorster. I am getting the two parties to meet.’ All those efforts. If we had gone for the military, we would have said: ‘No talks!’ But we knew that those who were supporting us could not let Smith win the game by saying: ‘Look, they just do not want to talk.’
The Swedish assistance at the time when our camps were being bombed and children were dying was a humanitarian act. But we had to carry out a night operation in order to avoid detection or even destruction of the mobile clinic.
Tor Sellström: Later on you moved that clinic to the ZAPU camp in Solwezi?
John Nkomo: Yes, we moved it to Solwezi, because life had become very difficult there with malaria and so on. It was very useful as it had its own generators. It was really a fully-fledged hospital. Fully equipped, which was very useful. These are some of the things that a lot of people do not know.
Tor Sellström: What happened with the clinic?
John Nkomo: We took it home to Zimbabwe, but as time went on it failed. After independence there was more focus on what was readily available, which is a pity. Some of our equipment was, of course, donated to Zambia. They had sacrificed so much.
Tor Sellström: What happened with your farm outside Lusaka?
John Nkomo: We handed it over to Zambia. In fact, we had taken it over from FRELIMO. When FRELIMO left I think that initially SWAPO was going to take it over, but eventually it was sold to a fellow who used to be a minister in Kaunda’s time. When I later went to Zambia to arrange for the fencing of the mass graves, he had already put up the fence himself.