Lenox Lizwi Mhlanga
Bulawayo celebrated 125 years of existence as a city last week. That should be put out there because there are those who believe that the authorities misfired since King Lobengula established it some years before that.
I will not get into an argument over what should be feted about but I think the city fathers were clear about what the shindig was all about. It was about structure and not form. No one disagrees with the fact that Bulawayo was established as a white settler town in 1894. It might be the quintessential colonial edifice, but if it’s worth toasting to then why not?
There are plenty of opportunities to recognise King Lobengula’s KoBulawayo that he established in 1870 at the site of the current state house in Sauerstown. The same settlement that was burnt down by the pioneers when they overwhelmed the Ndebele in 1881.
But that is not the subject of my column lest I be dragged into an unending debate about the history. I recognise my links with the city of my birth in the same month of June, the bitter cold being a stark reminder of the harsh weather that blighted Bulawayo when I entered this world screaming and kicking.
The elders still talk about the harsh winter of 1964. It was the same year that both ZAPU and ZANU were banned by the Rhodesian authorities, right after the latter had split from the former political party. My parents firmly belonged to a new and growing urban middle class, housed in Mpopoma that had the first ‘home ownership’ and rented ownership accommodation in the 1960s.
My father, fresh from Cape Town in South Africa, where he grew up and was educated, had met and married my mother, a trained nurse and daughter of a police sergeant. Mpilo Central Hospital was the only hospital, and that is where she was trained and gave birth to me.
My father was a pioneer of sorts, a few of a select number of salesmen whose business acumen and entrepreneurial skills set them apart. There were others like him, and for them the sky was the limit. He was soon renting a shop koThikili in Mpopoma while working as a manager of a furniture shop in the CBD.
But for them Mpopoma was very restrictive and not representative of his status. You see, the country was in the throes of colour bar, Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front leading the northern assault of South Africa’s apartheid policies. So their options were limited, but they were determined to push the boundaries all the same.
Soon they had moved to the new cooperative scheme housing of Mhlahlandlela located in Tshabalala to the west of the city. Here, businessmen, teachers, nurses and salesmen grouped together to build better housing for themselves and their families using a more modern cluster model.
I was enrolled at the nearby Masuku Primary School as were other children of this class of izimpatsha as we were called then. It was later elevated to izikhulu, a more dignified term that represented the position that our parents had elevated themselves to. Being the more enlightened in society, the white rulers tended to listen to them with a mixture of trepidation and envy.
They became the community leaders that were sought after in the absence of stifled political activity. Anyone who showed political leaning was instantly detained by the white authorities. Even when the violent protests of iZhii were ruthlessly put down in the mid 1960s, the middle class was able to make inroads in getting the few concessions that the stingy white administration would dole out.
These included the right to own and run businesses in the African townships and conduct community social activities like sports, recreation and the arts. My father’s involvement in soccer this early in my life was a result of this thrust. Some of his colleagues worked for the city council and the big companies of the day such as Rhodesia Breweries, Rhodesia Railways and Dunlop. It was those deep pockets that financed these community initiatives, with them obviously at the helm. They were afforded an opportunity to exercise their business acumen and to organise activities that kept the African occupied.
Little did the white authorities know that that these same people were actually the perfect cover for the political activities they were so determined to stifle. Occasionally the Special Branch would penetrate and disrupt the intricate networks they had created to support the underground activities of the likes of the late Joshua Nkomo, John Landa Nkomo, Joseph Msika and others.
My father would later share how the political icons of the time would use his offices in the CBD to plan their activities under the guise of selling them household furnishings. I remember the likes of the late Lazarus Dlakama and Sidney Malunga staying at our house in Mhlahlandlela soon after their release from detention.
They felt safer there than in their own homes that were constantly monitored. They eventually made their way to Zambia through the support of that intricate network.
-Next week we look at the roaring 70s and the shaping of my life.