Young Dambudzo started his formal education at Lundi School in Zvishavane, later completing Standard 4, 5 and 6 at Mumbwa Boarding School in Zambia in 1954-57, before going on to Kafue Secondary School in 1958-59 and Hodgson Technical College until 1960 when he was expelled for political activity. The Lundi School is still there, now joined by the Dambudzo Day Secondary School, built by the Mapanzure people and named in his honour.

It was at Myooye School in Mumbwa, just before he went Mumbwa Boarding School that he determined to add another name. Most of his classmates had two or three names, and he had been given only one, Dambudzo. He frequented a small library at the school and it was here that he found a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist, poet and philosopher who wrote the popular Uriel essays including Self-Reliance. Young Dambudzo enjoyed his thinking and his philosophy, and decided this would be a good name to choose, so he told his friends to start calling him Emmerson, later formalized to Emmerson Dambudzo, and informalized to E.D. Following are some of the quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson that may have inspired him.

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."

"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment."

He completed his O and A levels while in prison through correspondence, and enrolled for a law degree through the University of London, completing Part One at Khami Prison. After being released and deported back to Zambia, he completed his degree in constitutional law at the University of Zambia in 1974-75. He did a post-graduate LLB degree and another post-grad program to become Advocate. He was admitted to the Bar of the High Court of Zambia in1976.

He continued to learn throughout the liberation struggle, through the National Grievances, and the values of the party for unity, peace, freedom and development. The years of serving both family and country have inculcated key values which he stands by and which are his guiding ethos.

Mnangagwa was captured in January 1965, the last remaining member of the group that infiltrated the country before the Gwelo Congress, and he spent almost a decade in prison.

After refusing to bend to torture, including being made to hold sticks of dynamite to his chest, the young guerrilla commander escaped the death penalty through the intervention of a visiting priest. Father Swift, who chaplained at Salisbury Prison, appealed to British authorities to spare his life due to his young age. He was defended by J.J. Horn of Scanlen and Holderness who also pleaded that he was underage and could not be executed. He was taken to hospital where doctors confirmed that he was under 21 and so he was sentenced to jail. Two members of his Crocodile group, Victor Mlambo and James Dhlamini, were later hanged, despite appeals for clemency.

Mnangagwa was held as a D Class (dangerous) prisoner in the “condemned” section, serving the first year at Salisbury Remand Prison (now Harare Central), then at Fort Victoria (Masvingo), and Gray Street Prison in Bulawayo, and finally at Khami Maximum Prison where he spent six years and eight months. He took this opportunity to complete his interrupted education, including Ordinary and Advanced levels, and proceeded to start an LLB degree, successfully sitting for the intermediate law degree in 1969-70. This was halfway through the University of London degree program, which he had not finished when he was released from prison near the end of 1973 and deported to Zambia because his parents lived there. He completed the last two years of his legal studies at the University of Zambia in 1974-75 while practicing as a prosecutor, before going to Mozambique to resume a key role in the liberation struggle.

To this day, E.D. Mnangagwa is a dedicated and vocal opponent of the death penalty, and he did not put forward any names for execution among those convicted during the periods he later served as Minister of Justice.

Back in Zambia with the liberation movement in 1973, he had the intention of going immediately to Mozambique, but the High Command led by Josiah Tongogara, and the party Chairman, Herbert Chitepo, insisted that the young man should first finish his law degree. He did so during the next two years at the University of Zambia where one of his lecturers was Simbi V. Mubako, later justice minister in the first Cabinet of independent Zimbabwe.

The young lawyer then joined the practice of Enoch Dumbutshena in Lusaka as a legal assistant, to complete his qualification. The same colleagues who insisted that he should study were later beneficiaries of his legal expertise when Tongogara, Kangai, Tungamirai and others were detained in Zambia after the death of Chitepo, who was assassinated in Lusaka by Rhodesian agents on 18 March 1975. Chitepo was a role model as the first black lawyer in Southern Rhodesia.

The ZANU leadership was detained at Mpima prison in Kabwe and Kamwala prison in Lusaka, and Mnangagwa went to see them with Muzenda, Mubako and others. As he was now a legal assistant, he was able to go there as a lawyer. The authorities did not know that he was one of them. He participated in several initiatives for the unity of ZANU and ZAPU during and after the liberation war, leading to the formation of the Patriotic Front. As legal counsel, he facilitated the famous Mgagao declaration between commanders in Zambia and Tanzania. He was on the ZANU PF delegation to the Geneva conference in 1976.

He graduated and embarked on post-graduate studies which he completed in 1977. During this period he also practised as a prosecutor in Zambia. Then he went to Mozambique.