Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo (born 1917) was a leader in the African nationalist movement in southern Rhodesia during the post-World War II period. President of the Zimbabwe African People's Union, he was active in the first independent African government in Zimbabwe and was vice president of Zimbabwe from 1990-1996.
Son of a cattle-owning teacher and lay preacher, Nkomo was born June 19, 1917, in the Semokwe reserve of Matebeland in southern Rhodesia. He spent his formative years being educated in South Africa at Adams College in Natal and at the Jan Hofmeyer School in Johannesburg.
Nkomo returned home in 1945 and worked as a welfare officer with Rhodesian Railways while practicing as a lay preacher on most Sundays. In 1951 he completed a correspondence Bachelor of Arts degree in social science from the University of South Africa. That same year Nkomo became general secretary of the Rhodesian Railways African Employees' Association, and he soon built up one of the best organized unions in central Africa.
Trade unionism became a stepping stone for politics. Nkomo joined other young radicals who opposed white settler domination in southern Rhodesia. As chairman of the Bulawayo branch of the otherwise largely dormant African National Congress (ANC) in southern Rhodesia, Nkomo accompanied Premier Sir Godfrey Huggins (later Lord Malvern) to London for a conference about the possible federation of northern and southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
The failure of African protestations at the conference galvanized Nkomo's commitment to the African nationalist cause in southern Rhodesia, and upon return home he abandoned his railway job for insurance work in order to have more time for politics. In 1953 he contested and lost a seat in the first federal election, but soon emerged as the leading African nationalist in southern Rhodesia. He gradually rebuilt the ANC around Bulawayo, and when the African National Youth League (based in Salisbury) and the Bulawayo ANC merged in 1957, Nkomo became the president of the new ANC in southern Rhodesia. The party soon incurred the government's wrath, and in February 1959 it was banned and 500 members were arrested.
Nkomo was in Cairo attending an Afro-Asian conference at the time and so escaped imprisonment. He moved to London, where he became the external affairs director (and later president) of the party established to succeed the banned ANC — the National Democratic party (NDP). Nkomo toured the world trying to arouse public opinion against the Rhodesian government, particularly in Britain and at the United Nations.
For a while Nkomo's strategy seemed reasonable. The British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, made his "winds of change" speech in Cape Town. As the federation plan faltered, Britain agreed to hold separate constitutional conferences for the two Rhodesias. But compromises were too little and too late, and party radicals forced Nkomo to repudiate the conference. Soon afterwards, the NDP was banned, but the nationalists quickly formed a new party — the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), with Nkomo as president. Within nine months, this party was also banned. Again outside the country at the time, Nkomo decided to set up ZAPU headquarters in nearby Tanzania where he could continue his quest for international support.
The struggle within Rhodesia waivered as Nkomo concentrated on external ties, and in 1963 dissention within the ZAPU leadership led to the formation of a breakaway nationalist party, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). The new organization was increasingly committed to a military strategy and sent recruits from its military wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), to China for training in guerrilla warfare. Nkomo established the People's Caretaker Council (PCC) to carry out ZAPU's internal struggle.
In 1964 the Rhodesians elected Ian Smith, who supported a unilateral declaration of independence from Britain (accomplished in 1965). Smith promptly banned ZANU and PCC and arrested Nkomo and other nationalist leaders, who began a decade's imprisonment.
Meanwhile, warfare spread as nationalist insurgents from both parties stepped up attacks on the settler regime. In 1972 the Mozambique border opened up, giving ZANLA an opportunity to prosecute the war with renewed vigor. ZANU, now led by Robert Mugabe, called for complete surrender, but some moderate African leaders tried to reach compromise settlements with Smith. Nkomo's attempt to negotiate with Smith in 1975 hurt his reputation as a nationalist leader. Although Nkomo agreed to merge ZAPU and ZANU military forces in the Patriotic Front, Mugabe had eclipsed Nkomo as the leading nationalist in Southern Rhodesia. In 1978 Smith tried to circumvent the Patriotic Front by signing an internal settlement with Bishop Muzorewa. Mugabe and Nkomo rejected the settlement and continued fighting.
International disapproval and continued warfare finally drove Smith to the negotiating table. At the Lancaster House Conference in 1979 Smith agreed to a new constitution, and in 1980 Mugabe became prime minister and minister for defense. Nkomo held positions in the ministry and cabinet for a while, but conflicts with Mugabe erupted in 1982, driving Nkomo into exile. He returned in 1986.
Conflict between Mugabe's party, ZANU-PF, and Nkomo's party ZAPU, caused civil unrest, which often became violent. Talks of merging the two parties surfaced and resurfaced, but it was not until a particularly brutal massacre occurred in Matabeland, in 1987, that a unity agreement was signed. In the same year. Mugabe was elected President, and Nkomo became a minister in his government. With two others, Nkomo oversaw policy, among other responsibilities.
The newly created unified party took on the name ZANU-PF. The agreement between the two parties stated that the party was committed to a one-party state in the Marxist-Leninist tradition. It provided that the party would be headed by Mugabe, but that a constitutional amendment would be passed to create two vice-presidencies — one of which would be filled by Nkomo. It was ratified by both parties in 1988, and this led to more peaceful conditions in Zimbabwe.
In December 1989, ZANU-PF was convened to finish the party merger. Controversy broke out over several of the provisions in the unity agreement, including the creation of the second vice-presidency for Nkomo. Nevertheless, Nkomo was appointed vice-president in 1990.
Mugabe's government proved to be unpopular, student boycotts were suppressed in 1991, and other groups that wished to protest were stifled. Government shortages, inflation, and unemployment were also problematic while Nkomo was vice-president. Although opposition groups formed, they were never strong or organized enough to pose a real threat to Mugabe and Nkomo. In 1996, Nkomo announced his intention to resign his vice presidency, because of ill health.
Joshua Nkomo is listed in African Biographies (Zimbabwe, 1); his early career is discussed John Day's International Nationalism: The Extra-territorial Relations of Southern Rhodesian African Nationalists (1967); more current description can be found in David Martin's and Phyllis Johnson's The Struggle for Zimbabwe (1981). □