I FIRST came across Nikita Mangena at Mgagao in Tanzania around May and June 1976 during the Joint Military Command which was called Zimbabwe People’s Army (Zipa).
I still remember as it was on a Saturday, he had arrived at the camp with Rex Nhongo (Solomon Mujuru) to address us about the purpose of joining the forces, that’s Zanla and ZIPRA, for training. It was my first time meeting and hearing him talk. His address was mainly about defining the colonial system and the reason that had made the two forces unite.
I was impressed by his eloquence and the fact that he was able to inspire. He emphasised the idea that all recruits needed to train hard and fight easily at the front. The second encounter was when we were now at Morogoro. It was after the Joint Military Command that happened at Mgagao Camp under ZIPA, (which was short-lived).
ZIPRA decided to continue its training at Morogoro without cadres from Zanla. At Morogoro we would wake up early in the morning for physical exercises, which involved long runs, and at one time it so happened that I had a running stomach. While we were running I got discomfort in my stomach, and I decided to relieve myself at a nearby bush which was along the road. I just simply came out from the run.
Shortly when I came out from the bush I bumped into Nikita Mangena and Ambrose Mutinhiri who were also running from the back following us. I was just absent-minded, and it was Mutinhiri who shouted and said: “Iwe urikuita nezwei (Hey, you, who are you and what are you doing there).”
While I was trying to explain myself, Nikita responded and said, “Mfana gijima khathesi ubambe abanye njalo asifuni kukuthola ngoba kungabakubi (Young man run and join others, we do not want to catch up with you because if do, you will be in for it).”
I ran very fast as I knew that if those two managed to run and arrive before me at the parade square, I was going to be beaten and punished. What made it worse was that they had said so. You know how it is when you are told by your commander what to do. To tell you what, I got to the parade square shortly before they arrived. I think they realised that I had arrived and just looked at me and ignored me.
On the third encounter, it was when Nikita had visited us at the front a month before his sudden death. He was in a happy mood asking us questions about operations and I realised that he was a hands-on commander who always wanted to understand how his troops were managing at the front.
He was someone who would ask about your challenge and require one to be having a solution to it rather than simply stating a problem. During that visit, he showed us his finger that was shot at the Freedom Camp. What amazed us was the fact that he was making a joke about his finger but warned that it could happen to anyone as we were at war.
He underscored the fact that they would be visiting cadres at the front from Mashonaland Central to Victoria Falls. The last and final encounter was during his death. I happened to be the person who witnessed his death as he died in my arms after we had rescued him.
It so happened that I was in Zambia to collect supplies to take them back to my operational area in Lupane. On our return to collect supplies, we were deployed about 40km from the Zambezi River by Cde Matshiya. However, let me not get into too much detail about that operation lest I go off-topic.
Within that operation, I found myself in a situation that resulted in the death of many comrades who were commanded by Assaf Ndinda (Herbert Mutema). An ambush was laid by the Rhodesians. He and others were caught up in that ambush as Assaf was on his way to hand over troops to Ananias Gwenzi (General Philip Valerio Sibanda). Gwenzi was meant to receive the troops and further deploy them in areas such as Gokwe. However, that did not happen.
The next morning at around 4am, while trying to figure out what was to be done to clear the remains of the comrades, we noticed people along the road in the direction of Kabanga Mission. I was now on high alert for anything. Quickly, I instructed my troops who were deployed on my (extreme) right to let the men come, pass the middle of the deployment where I was.
The idea was to round up the men for attack. Luckily, when they were about to pass my position I noticed Eddie Sigoge, Enoch Tshangane, and Commander Mangena. I stood up, approached them for a salute, greeting and for some briefing. Mangena took charge of the situation as the commander and ordered me and my troops to clear the road towards the ambush area. I had 20 men and Mangena gave me more troops who were almost 20 as well. We quickly moved to the area that needed to be cleared with 40 troops.
By 12 noon we were done with clearing the area, but the surprising thing was that the Rhodesians were still within the vicinity. We were sure of that as we kept smelling the cigarette smoke. Upon completing the task, we called the command group to inspect.
The next task was to clear the bodies for possible booby traps before burying the remains. That took us the whole afternoon into midnight. It was a taxing process, but it needed to be done. After the process, we started marching along the road north of the Kabanga Mission. We moved either side of the road while the command element was in the middle of the formation.
As we had moved about 6km, Commander Mangena ordered Cde Donki to instruct the signal man to call the vehicles to pick them up. The commander was now complaining of the pains that he was now feeling from his leg and hand following his attack at Freedom Camp. We pleaded with Donki that it was not in the best interest to call the vehicles as the Rhodesians were in the vicinity and anything was possible.
I remember Cde Jack Daki Mpofu also refused. Donki then advised the commander of the volatility of calling the vehicles. Mangena gave in and consented to our plea of not to use the vehicles. We feared being ambushed. We continued to march and after 30 minutes, Mangena requested some time to rest as his knee was now giving him a hard time.
I think after 10 minutes we continued with the march and after a while the commander requested once more that the vehicles be brought in to pick them up. We all resisted and still we were citing the same reasons. Cde Donki stood his ground and resisted.
We continued with the march for about 5km. While moving another halt was called once more. This time Mangena ignored Donki and instructed the signalman to call the vehicle. In his words, he said, “Zwanini bizani izimota sengikhathele, kulezinto ezinengi okumele zenziwe”(Listen, I order the vehicles to come here, I am now very tired. We are in a rush for other pressing things).”
There was nothing Cde Donki or anyone could do now that the commander had spoken assertively. The commander had given the instruction. No one could oppose that order. The vehicles came as instructed from the northern side along the road.
Unfortunately, I think we were only left with 3km to reach the place where the command group had left their Land Rovers. We were told to embark on the vehicles. I still remember Daki Mpofu and some that I seem to forget refused to board the vehicles and said they will proceed on foot. I was also very tired, imagine having spent two days in an operation and burying our comrades.
I quickly jumped into the vehicle and sat on the front seat next to the driver. The rest of the command group had gone in except for Enoch Tshangane and Commander Nikita Mangena.
Tshangane ordered me out of the front seat. In his words he said, “Kanti wena mfana wahlala endaweni kaCommander uyahlanya kanti. Phanga uphume. (Young man why are you seated at the seat that is meant for the commander? Please vacate the place).”
I obliged as ordered by the senior commander. I then went to the back, but I found no space. I couldn’t walk as I was so tired. I had to then cling onto the vehicle step and held the top bar pole. In other words, I was standing on the step and balanced with the top pole. I gave the signal that I had boarded, and the vehicle moved.
Within 80 metres distance, and the car had only changed two gears, the Land Rover detonated the landmine and exploded. It threw me a stone’s throw away from where it overturned. The first thing I looked for after I woke up was my AK-47. I could not find it.
There was confusion all over. Those that refused to board the vehicle came running to rescue some comrades. Suddenly, we heard a very loud cry for help in the vehicle. Donki who was now on his feet called me and the other two to check who was yelling for help and trapped by the vehicle. We lifted the car and we found Commander Nikita Mangena. The iron bar pole of the vehicle had broken and lay on his back. No one said anything. We just took him to the roadside and laid him there.
He looked like someone who was in pain. While we were now at the roadside he continued crying and saying, “Kanti kwenzakalani, vele kanti ngifelani.” (What is happening, why do I have to die).”
Donki and I tried to calm him by assuring him that he was not dying. I then left Donki and the other two attending to the commander while I joined other comrades who were still searching for casualties and rescuing comrades.
During the search, we discovered two dead bodies. One was called Pressman and the other one I seem to have forgotten the name. Meanwhile, on the other side, Daki Mpofu was rescuing Sigoge, Bella and Tshangane. Tshangane seemed so confused and all over the place. Daki ordered that they take the gun from Tshangane as he was almost losing his mind. We had to disarm him for safety reasons. I got relieved when I found my AK-47. I ran back to where the commander was lying to guard as instructed by Donki.
While with the commander he was more in need of lying with the other side which was his left. I had to lift him to help him to be comfortable while others were still busy rescuing and helping other comrades. Mangena had a deep cut on his back. Suddenly, machine gun fire came from the ridge on the right side of the road. Cadres fired back and there was a deep exchange of gunfire which injured Daki Mpofu on his left leg.
I could not run to Daki as I was still holding the commander. Others rushed and took Daki on a stretcher bed. While I was still holding Mangena, he just gasped and breathed his last breath in my arms. Mangena had died.
Most comrades realised it when I had to lay him down and salute. They realised that when I saluted that the commander had gone. It was a painful moment. At that time I thought of what ZIPRA would be without a hands-on commander.
Donki ordered that I run and brief Cde Richard Gedi of what had happened. Gedi was left with other vehicles when the command group came through the day to bury Assaf and the crew. Quickly, Gedi came through and as the most senior he took over the command and orders were made. Casualties were taken to the Zambian Army bases while the dead were to be camouflaged in the nearby stream.
Shortly before the remains of Mangena were taken up by the Zambian government, we feared the worst that the Rhodesians might ambush us once more and take hold of the remains. So, when we saw helicopters hovering around, we took it to the stream together with some others to camouflage it. We took his remains into the stream and held it firm so that he was not to be swept away with water current. Later, Zambians took charge and the remains of Mangena were flown to Lusaka for burial proceedings. This is how far I get in narrating my interaction with the late ZIPRA Commander. May His Soul continue to rest in peace.
■ Lt-Col Moyo operated in Binga, Lupane and Nkayi districts under the pseudonym Cde Lloyd Zvananewako or Mabhikwa. This narration was extracted from a book written in tribute to Cde Mangena and was edited by historian Methembe Hillary Hadebe.
— Sunday News