January 29, 1979 12:00 PM

We are for equality—clean, simple, unqualified, with no reservations. It can’t be done, it appears, by talking. So we have to shoot it out and get some sense into the heads of these fellows.

—Guerrilla leader Joshua Nkomo

With the approach of next week’s referendum on a new, nondiscriminatory constitution for Rhodesia, a bunker mentality settles over that beleaguered nation. Vowing a last-ditch fight for continued control, some white landowners are turning their isolated plantations into bristling armed enclaves, while others flee the country in despair and panic—more than 1,500 every month.

Seventy-five miles north of the Rhodesian frontier, in a green stucco bungalow in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, a similar mix of anxiety and preparedness prevails. The compound is surrounded by a six-foot Cyclone fence, covered with thick burlap to fend off any surprise attack by hand-held missiles. The grounds are patrolled by tough young guerrillas, armed with Soviet-supplied AK-47 rifles. Inside are a dozen military aides, occupied at the moment by the arrival of 2,000 more soldiers. Trained by Cuban cadres in Angola, they will reinforce the 10,000 rebels already encamped in Zambia.

In the midst of all the bustle is Joshua Nkomo, 61, the guerrilla army commander in chief and a leading candidate for president of Zimbabwe, as black Rhodesia would be called. He is a human mountain, 6’5″ and nearly 350 pounds, with a cherubic face and a thick mane of white hair. Nkomo has spent most of his adult life patiently negotiating equality for Rhodesia’s black people, but now he is convinced that the only way to obtain it is by war. Now he says grimly: “If there are to be talks, let them be between generals on the battlefield.”

It took the peaceable Nkomo a long time to come to that bleak conclusion, although he recognized the injustice of white supremacy early on. As a boy growing up on a tribal reserve where his father chauffeured white missionaries, he recalls, “I used to watch my father take off his hat when the white man came, and the white man did not take off his hat. And I asked myself, ‘Why should this thing be?’ ” Later, “when I went to school, and the differences became more prominent, I just couldn’t understand the treatment of the African by white people, and I thought, ‘This thing must change.’ ” So, while getting a correspondence-school degree in social science from the University of South Africa, Nkomo took a job with Rhodesian Railways as a social worker. “I thought I could change these things by doing social work and helping our people. I did that, and it didn’t work.”

Nkomo’s college degree, a rarity among Rhodesian blacks, and his imposing size gave him great prestige as a black leader. In 1951 he became general secretary of the Railway Workers’ Association, the country’s only major black union. “I said, ‘Well, let me be a trade unionist and see whether getting better wages for our people, so they can qualify for the vote, will work.’ ” Nkomo sighs at his own naiveté. “Getting better wages did not help. The thing was to get to those institutions which make the laws that keep us in a condition of inequality. We couldn’t get there by the vote. We didn’t have land or education or anything.”

In 1952 Nkomo helped found the African National Congress and became its president. “We protested, we organized. We did all of these things and we had no effect, so we thought, ‘How about throwing a few stones? Maybe those fellows will listen.’ So we threw a few stones—and they started to listen. And we said, ‘Hey, this is the way to do it.’ ”

Skirmishes began in the early ’70s. Nearly a decade before the National Congress had split into two major groups—Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), operating out of Zambia, and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) with 10,000-plus guerrillas quartered in Mozambique and headed by Robert Mugabe, 53, an erstwhile Nkomo lieutenant and a Marxist. Behind each army are some not-so-silent backers: The Russians furnish ZAPU with weapons (after the West turned Nkomo down); ZANU’s come from the Chinese. Personally, the two former allies are now bitter enemies.

Events of the past year have enhanced Mugabe’s position at Nkomo’s expense. In March two ZAPU splinter groups joined Prime Minister Ian Smith’s coalition government. Without their defection, Nkomo says bitterly, “Smith would have fallen already.” In August Smith flew to Lusaka for a secret conference with Nkomo to explore ways of moving toward a black majority government in Rhodesia. It failed when Smith insisted on retaining white control over the army. Nkomo’s credibility with black supporters fell sharply when news of the meeting leaked out. The next month a Rhodesian civilian airliner was shot down and 10 white survivors slaughtered by guerrillas. Nkomo claimed his troops had downed the plane but denied responsibility for the massacre. Nevertheless, in October Rhodesian forces retaliated, raiding Nkomo’s guerrilla camps in Zambia and leaving behind 1,500 dead. The time for talking had passed, Nkomo announced at a press conference, promising to “knock out the fascists by force.”

Ironically, Nkomo had been a voice of black moderation through most of the 27-year battle for majority rule and civil rights in his country. Since 1952 he has been the spokesman for black Rhodesians at no fewer than 10 major negotiating conferences—and spent 11 years imprisoned in Rhodesia as an “agitator.” In 1974 he was finally released and forced into exile, along with his wife and seven children.

As the war grows more fierce—an estimated 10,000 blacks and whites were killed last year alone—and as his own following declines, Nkomo remains hopeful that a peaceful transition is possible. Any government led by him, however, might well face military attack by the more radical Mugabe and his followers. Nkomo’s overriding concern now is gaining the trust and allaying the fear of white citizens—”especially the young ones. Some of the older chaps don’t believe that a black man is as human as they are. If they can tolerate the change in government, though, they may discover they have been frightened of nothing.”

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