The First Split in Zimbabwe’s Anti – Colonial Struggle Continues to Cast Shadows Over Contemporary Politics

The First Split in Zimbabwe’s Anti – Colonial Struggle Continues to Cast Shadows Over Contemporary Politics by Brooks Marmon

On June 10, 1961, the first political party in the colony of Southern Rhodesia to use the word ‘Zimbabwe’ in its name attempted to hold a press conference to announce its formation.  Patrick Matimba and Michael Mawema, the President and Secretary – General of the new Zimbabwe National Party (ZNP) were violently confronted by partisans of the predominant liberation movement, the National Democratic Party (NDP), and were forced to cancel the event.  They fled their own launch in the refuge of a police vehicle.

It quickly became clear that the ZNP would not supplant the NDP as the primary liberation movement in colonial Zimbabwe.  However, the short-lived struggle in the third quarter of 1961 played a critical role in shaping the political playbook that Zimbabwe’s liberation movements (and the nation’s post – colonial political parties) would adopt in their quest to maintain and obtain supremacy.

As elements from the ruling ZANU – PF party seek to launch their new movement, the National Patriotic Front (NPF), the experience of the ZNP looms large.  Mawema, the founding President of the NDP, was the first of a number of Zimbabwean nationalist political leaders to launch fringe opposition movements.  Few would have expected that Mugabe, whole relationship with the NPF is nebulous, might constitute the last.

Weeks after coming to power following the de facto coup last November, President Mnangagwa quickly consolidated his regional standing with visits to several SADC member states.  He has urged Zimbabwe to look to the future and refuted allegations of violence during the hotly contested 2008 elections.  Mnangagwa’s prioritization of ties with regional partners and uneasy relationship with political violence draws on practices that emerged during the initial fractures of the nationalist movement – initially with the ZNP breakaway, and again with the emergence of ZANU itself in 1963.

At the end of May 1961, Hastings Banda, just months away from victory in historic elections in Nyasaland that would usher in the independent state of Malawi three years later, castigated Joshua Nkomo’s leadership of the NDP, calling him spineless for initially agreeing to a new discriminatory constitution.   Foreshadowing independent Malawi’s engagement with white supremacist structures in southern Africa, the June 15 edition of Malawi News, the newspaper of Banda’s Malawi Congress Party, hailed the formation of the ZNP as an alternative to the “weak and cowardly leadership of the National Democratic Party.”

Beyond Banda, the ZNP would not gather any additional significant international support.  However, its challenge to the NDP was predicated around an internationalist strategy to outflank the NDP on the left, with the name ‘Zimbabwe’ serving as the most vivid indicator of this mission and the two sides agitating for support at a Pan – African conference in Ghana at the end of June, 1961.

The ZNP’s leadership had significant international exposure.  Matimba had lived in England where he married his Dutch wife, becoming one of the first black Zimbabweans with a white spouse.  Mawema, had undertaken a study course in Israel and is credited as being the first individual to call the country ‘Zimbabwe.’  The ZNP’s Vice – President, Paul Mushonga, had attended the first All – African People’s Convention in Accra, Ghana in 1958 alongside Father Zimbabwe, Joshua Nkomo, the head of the NDP at the time of ZNP’s formation.

The ZNP Constitution committed the party “to work[ing] with other nationalist democratic and socialist movements in Africa and other continents with a view to promoting Pan – Africanism.”

However, the NDP refused to cede the mantle of Pan – African champion to the ZNP.  In attacking the ZNP, Robert Mugabe, NDP Publicity Secretary, made an early reference to the need for a one party state, noting that the All – Africa People’s Congress (a vehicle created by Kwame Nkrumah in 1958) had endorsed the idea that African colonies should have only one liberation movement – in the case of Southern Rhodesia, the NDP.

While the ZNP failed to gain widespread support, it did make inroads in one key constituency – the hard core restrictees of the former nationalist party, the Southern Rhodesian African National Congress (SRANC), which had been banned in early 1959.  Eight of the 14 SRANC members who remained restricted more than two years later issued a statement supporting the ZNP, a maneuver indicating that a split in the nationalist ranks was viable.

The eight nationalists (the group included prominent figures like Daniel Madzimbamuto and Edson Sithole) called on the All – Africa People’s Congress to drop Joshua Nkomo from its influential steering committee – membership of which provided Nkomo with significant travel opportunities for networking and fundraising.  The statement condemned Nkomo for having “sold the whole of Zimbabwe to the imperialists.”

By 1961, the ‘sell-out’ charge, which remains a fixture in Zimbabwe’s political rhetoric, was firmly entrenched.  The ZNP applied it to Nkomo on the basis the he had initially agreed to the 1961 constitution that limited blacks to just 15 seats in an expanded 65-member parliament.  Matimba stated, “if Mr. Nkomo was thrown out of the leadership of the NDP tomorrow morning the ZNP would disband forthwith.”

Matimba was himself surrounded by intrigue.  Rumors circulated that the ZNP was the creation of the settler government; Matimba had been deported following the 1959 Emergency and the circumstances surrounding his return were suspicious.  The collapse of the ZNP was swift.

Mawema broke ranks by the end of the year and in 1962 Mushonga formed the Pan – African Socialist Union amidst rumors that Matimba had accepted funding from archenemy of the liberation struggle, Moise Tshombe of the secessionist Katanga province in the Congo.  Nkomo survived the 1961 challenge, but the violent repression exerted by the NDP against the ZNP established a chilling precedent and foreshadowed the emergence of ZANU just two years later with many of the ZNP cadres among its members.

The ZNP was a factor for only a few months during Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, but its formation inculcated two important trends in Zimbabwe’s nationalist politcs: the importance of revolutionary rhetoric with an international appeal and the dividends of violent repression of political expression.  As Zimbabwe approaches elections later this year and seeks to enter a new era, it continues to labour under the burden of this legacy.

Brooks Marmon is a PhD student in the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh.  He can be contacted at


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