Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa served with distinction in the liberation war that brought independence to Zimbabwe, as a guerrilla commander who led the first group of trained guerrillas to cross the Zambezi River into then Southern Rhodesia in 1964 after training in Tanzania, Egypt and China. He was later imprisoned on death row, but was spared from the death sentence due to his young age at the time. He spent almost a decade in prison, resuming his education there which he completed later in Zambia to become a constitutional lawyer and was involved in various negotiations leading to independence. He was chief of security for the Zimbabwe African National Union (Patriotic Front) responsible for civil and military security during the last three years of the war, based in Mozambique, and a member of the National Executive Committee (NEC).
He left Zambia, where his family lived in exile, to go Tanganyika in 1962, just one year after that country’s independence, as a member of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). He and 12 other young men were sent to Egypt by ZAPU for military training at Heliopolis Military Academy, offered to Joshua Nkomo by President Gamal Abdul Nasser. But by mid-1963, ZAPU had been banned at home and there was soon a split in the ranks of the revolutionary party to form ZAPU and ZANU, both with the same objective to free the country but differing in the strategies to achieve this. Both parties were later recognized by the newly formed Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and its Liberation Committee. When young Mnangagwa was criticized for a letter he had written about joining “the rebels”, as head of the students in Egypt, he and 10 others were sent back to Tanganyika (now Tanzania) where he stayed at a camp in Bagamoyo used for recruits from Mozambique and South Africa. Of the 11 Zimbabweans, five were selected to go to China for military training in September 1963, the first group from the new ZANU party, under Mnangagwa’s leadership.
The training lasted for six months and included military strategy and tactics, infantry and drills, and training on rifles, semi-automatic weapons and small arms. Almost immediately after their return, they infiltrated into Southern Rhodesia in April 1964, crossing the Zambezi River with their equipment, in traditional dugout canoes. They split into two groups and set out for different areas of the country, after attending the founding ZANU Congress at Gweru (Gwelo) on 22-23 May 1964. Most delegates were not aware that among the youth present at the Congress was the first group of trained military cadres to enter the country, who had returned from military training a few weeks earlier. The Congress agreed on a five-point Action Plan which committed the party to a comprehensive programme of mobilisation and resistance. A Department of Political Affairs was set up to recruit cadres and send them for military training abroad.
The young guerrilla commander stayed briefly at safe houses in Highfield providing security to ZANU leaders such as the secretary-general Robert Mugabe, Dr Nathan Shamuyarira, and Rev. Ushewokunze. His group met with the party leader, Rev. N. Sithole and others to discuss sabotage. Three members of his group were deployed and later captured, and he sent another to carry a message to Lusaka, leaving himself and Matthew Malowa. They organized the Crocodile Commando, planning operations and basic training for William Ndangana and others from Chimanimani who were not yet trained but later mounted several roadblocks and launched an attack that attracted the attention of the Rhodesian army. Mnangagwa and Malowa took some food and rifles from soldiers at a nightclub near Nyanga, and went to Masvingo to find Simon Muzenda who provided explosives taken from mining sites. They went to Nkondo mine in Devure range, Bikita, where they sabotaged a site and conducted several other hit-and-run operations, including sabotaging a goods train at Masvingo
Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa was selected as Head of Security and Special Assistant to the President at the party Congress held at the Chimoio headquarters in Mozambique in September 1977. This system was similar to the host country, Mozambique, in which the Special Assistant to the President was actually the head of security, and this facilitated close liaison with the host country. He was therefore the top security advisor to the party and president, with the advantage of being a qualified lawyer.
He participated in all negotiations thereafter leading to an agreement on independence arrangements, including the Malta I and II talks under the Anglo-American initiative and others. He remained in that role as head of civil and military security (ZANU and ZANLA), deputized by Sheba Gava (late General Vitalis Zvinavashe), throughout the successful last stages of the liberation war and the negotiations for independence at Lancaster House in London in late 1979 until the agreement was signed on 21 December.
By the middle of 1979 – “the Year of the People’s Storm” -- the ZANLA forces inside the country numbered more than 20,000. By the end of the year martial law had been extended in Rhodesia to cover 95 per cent of the country, with the conflict escalating to the highest levels of the previous seven years since the attack on Altena Farm on 21 December 1972. The British government issued invitations to a constitutional conference at Lancaster House in London to the Patriotic Front leaders and to Zimbabwe-Rhodesia’s Muzorewa delegation which included Ian Smith and Rev N Sithole. The conference opened on 10 September 1979 and concluded after 47 plenary sessions with agreement on a new constitution, arrangements for the transitional period preceding Independence, and a ceasefire agreement on 15 December, with the formal agreements being signed by the leaders of the delegations on 21 December.
He led the first civilian delegation of 23 party officials who returned to Zimbabwe on 4 January 1980, a week after the ceasefire took effect, and he was responsible for the security of the party and president during the ceasefire and election campaign that resulted in ZANU PF and PF ZAPU winning almost all of the contested seats for the new Parliament.