Joshua Nkomo was born to a family of Sotho origin in the predominantly Kalanga area of Semokwe Reserve in what is now Matabeleland South Province. His father (Thomas Nyongolo Letswansto Nkomo) was a preacher and a cattle rancher and worked for the London Missionary Society. After completing his primary education Joshua Nkomo took a carpentry course at the Tsholotsho Government Industrial School and studied there for a year before becoming a driver. He later tried animal husbandry before becoming a schoolteacher specialising in carpentry at Manyame School in Kezi. In 1942, at the age of 25, during his career as a teacher, he decided that he should go to South Africa to further his education. He attended Adams College and the Jan H. Hofmeyr School of Social Work in South Africa. It was there that he was awarded a B.A. Degree in Social Science. While in South Africa, he met Nelson Mandela and other future nationalist leaders. After returning to Southern Rhodesia in 1947, based in Bulawayo, he became a trade unionist and rose to the leadership of the Railway Workers Union. Nkomo married his wife Johanna MaFuyana on 1 October 1949.
In 1912, when the ANC was formed in South Africa, there were contingents from all the territories in Southern Africa under British control including Southern Rhodesia. The ANC retained a Southern Rhodesian chapter, Joshua Nkomo becoming its President in the early 1950’s. However, by that time the only functioning branch was in Bulawayo, and it did not have a tradition of militancy. During that time, young militants like Jason Ziyapapa Moyo and Joseph Msika joined the Bulawayo ANC whilst others in Salisbury (now Harare), such as George Nyandoro, James Chikerema and Paul Mushonga formed the City Youth League, emulating the militant ANC Youth League in South Africa. In 1957 they came together to form the Southern Rhodesian ANC (SRANC) as a militant national organisation.The young working-class men from Salisbury and Bulawayo decided not to contest for the top leadership, but to look for a slightly older, university educated person to lead them. They approached Stanlake Samkange, Enoch Dumbutshena and Aidan Mwamuka. In the words of Joseph Msika.
"Samkange insulted us, saying he could not work with unschooled people. Dumbutshena also insulted us saying we were unemployable and violent people against the whites. Mwamuka never responded. But Nkomo said what we were planning to do, the road that we would walk, would be a thorny one and said if we were prepared to face it he would join us, which he did.”.
Joshua Nkomo became President, James Chikerema Vice-President, George Nyandoro Secretary, Jason Ziyapapa Moyo Vice-Secretary, Joseph Msika Treasurer, and Paul Mushonga Vice-Treasurer. Because of his anti-tribalist approach to the liberation of his country, Nkomo earned the respect of all his countrymen.
The SRANC was banned in February 1959 – and in January 1960 was replaced by the National Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was banned on 8 December i961. Nine days later 17 December 1961, the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) was born. Joshua Nkomo was President, Tichafa Samuel Parirenyatwa, Zimbabwe’s first black medical doctor, Vice-President.
Nkomo, frustrated with the lack of progress in negotiations with authorities, indifference from the international community and the constant banning of liberation movements, decided to form a government-in-exile as a way of stepping up international pressure on the colonial regime and effect political change in Southern Rhodesia. His ideas came under heavy criticism from Robert Mugabe his Secretary General, Julius Nyerere, then President of Tanzania, and his once trusted friend, Ndabaningi Sithole, who it seems were now becoming alarmed by Nkomo’s popularity at home and abroad.
The ANC of South Africa had obtained substantial financial support from the USSR in 1961, and through the efforts of Joshua Nkomo, ZAPU also received Soviet support shortly after. In 1962, ZAPU set up a Special Affairs Committee led by James Chikerema and J.Z. Moyo to organise the armed struggle. The following year, a command structure led by Akim Ndlovu and Robson Manyika was established.
Ndabaningi Sithole, trained in the USA and with support from the CIA, then organised a split. This split was, like the PAC in South Africa, ostensibly more militant and based on a “blacks-only policy”, but was in reality anti-communist. Sithole was joined by the destructive Leopold Takawira, Herbert Chitepo, Enos Nkala and a little later by Robert Mugabe. The dissident split called itself the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZANU).
At the same time that the dissidents were creating the ZANU breakaway, and following the banning of ZAPU, Nkomo organised the People’s Caretaker Council (PCC), the people refusing yet another name change for the party.
On the 16th of April 1964, Nkomo was arrested, detained and spent the next ten and half years in detention at Gonakudzingwa together with Joseph Msika and Josiah Chinamano and his wife Ruth.
In 1967 a joint offensive by the armed wing of the ANC of South Africa, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the armed wing of ZAPU, the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Party (ZIPRA) was launched, first in Wankie, then Sipholilo. Then in 1971, the British Conservative government launched new proposals for a constitutional settlement through the Pearce Commission, whose report was released in 1972. The proposals of the Pearce Commission were for increased African representation in Parliament, eventually leading to majority rule. These proposals may have been welcomed in the 1950’s or even early 1960’s, but with the armed struggle intensifying, they were rejected by the mass demonstrations of the African people. Labour MP Maurice Foley who accompanied the Pearce Commission said that: “As a police state with a population of 5 million Africans and only a quarter of a million whites, Rhodesia is a security risk which can hardly be welcome even to the South African government.” – he went on to point out the danger to Western interests of Soviet and Chinese support for the armed struggle.
South African President Vorster was also well aware of the dangers and was busy with a new programme of détente with his African neighbours. He put pressure for the release of Joshua Nkomo and other leaders and Ian Smith the Rhodesian Prime Minister reluctantly complied in 1974. On his release, Nkomo moved to Zambia from where he was able to supervise the struggle. The African National Council was a body established internally in 1971 by both ZAPU and ZANU when the leaders were either in exile or in prison. Bishop Abel Muzorewa had been appointed as its leader as a neutral person. After Nkomo was released the majority of ANC members appointed him as leader. The unhappy bishop then formed his United African National Council (UANC) in 1977 which was to be used as a tool by the Rhodesians to extend the life of white supremacy.
In 1976, peace talks were held in Geneva, Switzerland in which Joshua Nkomo was the dominant figure from the nationalist side. The same year, under pressure from the frontline states, the Patriotic Front was formed to try to bring some form of unity between ZAPU and ZANU. Nkomo again attempted to hold peace talks with Ian Smith on the Victoria Falls railway bridge between Zambia and Rhodesia. They failed due to Smith’s intransigence.
When the Rhodesians began the “internal settlement” using Muzorewa and his party, both ZAPU and ZANU refused to have anything to do with it, and in 1979 the ZIPRA conventional army based in Zambia was ready for a full-scale invasion using tanks, heavy artillery and aeroplanes. Fearing control by a pro-Soviet party, the British government hastily pushed for the Lancaster House talks and manipulated a ZANU victory at the 1980 elections.
Nevertheless, ZAPU joined the government. Nkomo refused the post of ceremonial President, but accepted the post of Home Affairs Minister. In 1982, still fearing the strength of ZAPU, Nkomo was accused of trying to make a coup against the Mugabe government and was forced to flee into exile. ZIPRA commander Lookout Masuku and ZIPRA Intelligence chief Dumiso Dabengwa were both imprisoned, Masuku dying in prison. At the same time the wave of terror called Gukurahundi was launched in Matabeleland and Midlands, principally against the Ndebele people, ZAPU’s strongest support group. In 1985, when ZAPU tried to campaign nationally in the elections, the ZAPU leadership, regardless of ethnic group, was killed in every province. Gukkurahundi caused a rift between the Ndebele and Shona which has not yet healed, a rift which is only in the interests of the enemies of Zimbabwe.
Joshua Nkomo, Father of Zimbabwe, agreed to peace talks with his former junior, Robert Mugabe with the help of ceremonial President Canaan Banana. He signed the Unity Accord in December 1987, which was reluctantly ratified by the ZAPU Special Congress in 1988. It saved lives and brought a semblance of unity to Zimbabwe.
In 1990 Joshua Nkomo became Vice-President of Zimbabwe, a post he held until his death in 1999. Joshua Nkomo was a big man in every way, he listened to others and had a charisma and ability to talk to anyone and everyone. All his life he fought for a non-racial, non-tribal Zimbabwe. He believed strongly in land reform, saying just before he died, “We cannot pay for our own land.” He believed in equitable land distribution regardless of race and for the advantage of the dispossessed. The “land reform” in Zimbabwe today, is only a horrible distortion of the genuine nationalist position which he fought for all his life.