I Will Never Forget What a White Man Told Me in #Zimbabwe in 1980
I have no idea whether the white man I am writing about is still alive or not. He gave me an understanding of what actually happened to us Africans, and how sinister it was, when we were colonized. His name was Ronald Stanley Peters, Homicide Chief, Matabeleland, in what was at the time Rhodesia. He was the man in charge of the case they had against us, murder. I was one of a group of ANC/ZAPU guerillas that had infiltrated into the Wankie Game Reserve in 1967, and had been in action against elements of the Rhodesian African rifles (RAR), and the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI). We were now in the custody of the British South Africa Police (BSAP), the Rhodesian Police. I was the last to be captured in the group that was going to appear at the Salisbury (Harare) High Court on a charge of murder, 4 counts.
‘I have completed my investigation of this case, Mr. Bopela, and I will be sending the case to the Attorney-General’s Office, Mr. Bosman, who will the take up the prosecution of your case on a date to be decided,’ Ron Peters told me. ‘I will hang all of you, but I must tell you that you are good fighters but you cannot win.’
‘Tell me, Inspector,’ I shot back, ‘are you not contradicting yourself when you say we are good fighters but will not win? Good fighters always win.’
‘Mr. Bopela, even the best fighters on the ground, cannot win if information is sent to their enemy by high-ranking officials of their organizations, even before the fighters begin their operations. Even though we had information that you were on your way, we were not prepared for the fight that you put up,’ the Englishman said quietly. ‘We give due where it is to be given after having met you in battle. That is why I am saying you are good fighters, but will not win.’
Thirteen years later, in 1980, I went to Police Headquarters in Harare and asked where I could find Detective-Inspector Ronald Stanley Peters, retired maybe. President Robert Mugabe had become Prime Minster and had released all of us….common criminal and freedom-fighter. I was told by the white officer behind the counter that Inspector Peters had retired and now lived in Bulawayo. I asked to speak to him on the telephone. The officer dialed his number and explained why he was calling. I was given the phone, and spoke to the Superintendent, the rank he had retired on. We agreed to meet in two days time at his house at Matshe-amhlophe, a very up-market suburb in Bulawayo. I travelled to Bulawayo by train, and took a taxi from town to his home.
I had last seen him at the Salisbury High Court after we had been sentenced to death by Justice L Lewis in 1967. His hair had greyed but he was still the tall policeman I had last seen in 1967. He smiled quietly at me and introduced me to his family, two grown up chaps and a daughter. Lastly came his wife, Doreen, a regal-looking Englishwoman. ‘He is one of the chaps I bagged during my time in the Service. We sent him to the gallows but he is back and wants to see me, Doreen.’ He smiled again and ushered me into his study.
He offered me a drink, a scotch whisky I had not asked for, but enjoyed very much I must say. We spent some time on the small talk about the weather and the current news.
‘So,’ Ron began, ‘they did not hang you are after all, old chap! Congratulations, and may you live many more!’ We toasted and I sat across him in a comfortable sofa. ‘A man does not die before his time, Ron’ I replied rather gloomily, ‘never mind the power the judge has or what the executioner intends to do to one.’
‘I am happy you got a reprieve Thula,’, Ron said, ‘but what was it based on? I am just curious about what might have prompted His Excellency Clifford Du Pont, to grant you a pardon. You were a bunch of unrepentant terrorists.’
‘I do not know Superintendent,’ I replied truthfully. ‘Like I have said, a man does not die before his time.’ He poured me another drink and I became less tense.
‘So, Mr. Bopela, what brings such a lucky fellow all the way from happy Harare to a dull place like our Bulawayo down here?’
‘Superintendent, you said to me after you had finished your investigations that you were going to hang all of us. You were wrong; we did not all hang. You said also that though we were good fighters we would not win. You were wrong again Superintendent; we have won! We are in power now. I told you that good fighters do win.’
The Superintendent put his drink on the side table and stood up. He walked slowly to the window that overlooked his well-manicured garden and stood there facing me.
‘So you think you have won Thula? What have you won, tell me. I need to know.’
‘We have won everything Superintendent, in case you have not noticed. Every thing! We will have a black president, prime minister, black cabinet, black members of Parliament, judges, Chiefs of Police and the Army. Every thing Superintendent. I came all the way to come and ask you to apologize to me for telling me that good fighters do not win. You were wrong Superintendent, were you not?’
He went back to his seat and picked up his glass, and emptied it. He poured himself another shot and put it on the side table and was quiet for a while.
‘So, you think you have won everything Mr. Bopela, huh? I am sorry to spoil your happiness sir, but you have not won anything. You have political power, yes, but that is all. We control the economy of this country, on whose stability depends everybody’s livelihood, including the lives of those who boast that they have political power, you and your victorious friends. Maybe I should tell you something about us white people Mr. Bopela. I think you deserve it too, seeing how you kept this nonsense warm in your head for thirteen hard years in prison. ‘When I get out I am going to find Ron Peters and tell him to apologize for saying we wouldn’t win,’ you promised yourself. Now listen to me carefully my friend, I am going to help you understand us white people a bit better, and the kind of problem you and your friends have to deal with.’
‘When we planted our flag in the place where we built the city of Salisbury, in 1877, we planned for this time. We planned for the time when the African would rise up against us, and perhaps defeat us by sheer numbers and insurrection. When that time came, we decided, the African should not be in a position to rule his newly-found country without taking his cue from us. We should continue to rule, even after political power has been snatched from us, Mr. Bopela.’
‘How did you plan to do that my dear Superintendent,’ I mocked.
‘Very simple, Mr. Bopela, very simple,’ Peters told me.
‘We started by changing the country we took from you to a country that you will find, many centuries later, when you gain political power. It would be totally unlike the country your ancestors lived in; it would be a new country. Let us start with agriculture. We introduced methods of farming that were not known I Africa, where people dug a hole in the ground, covered it up with soil and went to sleep under a tree in the shade. We made agriculture a science. To farm our way, an African needed to understand soil types, the fertilizers that type of soil required, and which crops to plant on what type of soil. We kept this knowledge from the African, how to farm scientifically and on a scale big enough to contribute strongly to the national economy. We did this so that when the African demands and gets his land back, he should not be able to farm it like we do. He would then be obliged to beg us to teach him how. Is that not power, Mr. Bopela?’


‘We industrialized the country, factories, mines, together with agricultural output, became the mainstay of the new economy, but controlled and understood only by us. We kept the knowledge of all this from you people, the skills required to run such a country successfully. It is not because Africans are stupid because they do not know what to do with an industrialized country. We just excluded the African from this knowledge and kept him in the dark. This exercise can be compared to that of a man whose house was taken away from him by a stronger person. The stronger person would then change all the locks so that when the real owner returned, he would not know how to enter his own house.’
We then introduced a financial system – money (currency), banks, the stock market and linked it with other stock markets in the world. We are aware that your country may have valuable minerals, which you may be able to extract….but where would you sell them? We would push their value to next-to-nothing in our stock markets. You may have diamonds or oil in your country Mr. Bopela, but we are in possession of the formulas how they may be refined and made into a product ready for sale on the stock markets, which we control. You cannot eat diamonds and drink oil even if you have these valuable commodities. You have to bring them to our stock markets.’
‘We control technology and communications. You fellows cannot even fly an aeroplane, let alone make one. This is the knowledge we kept from you, deliberately. Now that you have won, as you claim Mr. Bopela, how do you plan to run all these things you were prevented from learning? You will be His Excellency this, and the Honorable this and wear gold chains on your necks as mayors, but you will have no power. Parliament after all is just a talking house; it does not run the economy; we do. We do not need to be in parliament to rule your Zimbabwe. We have the power of knowledge and vital skills, needed to run the economy and create jobs. Without us, your Zimbabwe will collapse. You see now what I mean when I say you have won nothing? I know what I am talking about. We could even sabotage your economy and you would not know what had happened.’
We were both silent for some time, I trying not to show how devastating this information was to me; Ron Peters maybe gloating. It was so true, yet so painful. In South Africa they had not only kept this information from us, they had also destroyed our education, so that when we won, we would still not have the skills we needed because we had been forbidden to become scientists and engineers. I did not feel any anger towards the man sitting opposite me, sipping a whisky. He was right.
‘Even the Africans who had the skills we tried to prevent you from having would be too few to have an impact on our plan. The few who would perhaps have acquired the vital skills would earn very high salaries, and become a black elite grouping, a class apart from fellow suffering Africans,’ Ron Peters persisted. ‘If you understand this Thula, you will probably succeed in making your fellow blacks understand the difference between ‘being in office’ and ‘being in power’. Your leaders will be in office, but not in power. This means that your parliamentary majority will not enable you to run the country….without us, that is.’
I asked Ron to call a taxi for me; I needed to leave. The taxi arrived, not quickly enough for me, who was aching to depart with my sorrow. Ron then delivered the coup de grace:
‘What we are waiting to watch happening, after your attainment of political power, is to see you fighting over it. Africans fight over power, which is why you have seen so many coups d’etat and civil wars in post-independent Africa. We whites consolidate power, which means we share it, to stay strong. We may have different political ideologies and parties, but we do not kill each other over political differences, not since Hitler was defeated in 1945. Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe will not stay friends for long. In your free South Africa, you will do the same. There will be so many African political parties opposing the ANC, parties that are too afraid to come into existence during apartheid, that we whites will not need to join in the fray. Inside whichever ruling party will come power, be it ZANU or the ANC, there will be power struggles even inside the parties themselves. You see Mr. Bopela, after the struggle against the white man, a new struggle will arise among yourselves, the struggle for power. Those who hold power in Africa come within grabbing distance of wealth. That is what the new struggle will be about….the struggle for power. Go well Mr. Bopela; I trust our meeting was a fruitful one, as they say in politics.’
I shook hands with the Superintendent and boarded my taxi. I spent that night in Bulawayo at the YMCA, 9th Avenue. I slept deeply; I was mentally exhausted and spiritually devastated. I only had one consolation, a hope, however remote. I hoped that when the ANC came into power in South Africa, we would not do the things Ron Peters had said we would do. We would learn from the experiences of other African countries, maybe Ghana and Nigeria, and avoid coups d’etat and civil wars.
In 2007 at Polokwane, we had full-blown power struggle between those who supported Thabo Mbeki and Zuma’s supporters. Mbeki lost the fight and his admirers broke away to form Cope. The politics of individuals had started in the ANC. The ANC will be going to Maungaung in December to choose new leaders. Again, it is not about which government policy will be best for South Africa; foreign policy, economic, educational, or social policy. It is about Jacob Zuma, Kgalema Motlhante; it is about Fikile Mbalula or Gwede Mantashe. Secret meetings are reported to be happening, to plot the downfall of this politician and the rise of the other one.
Why is it not about which leaders will best implement the Freedom Charter, the pivotal document? Is the contest over who will implement the Charter better? If it was about that, the struggle then would be over who can sort out the poverty, landlessness, unemployment, crime and education for the impoverished black masses. How then do we choose who the best leader would be if we do not even know who will implement which policies, and which policies are better than others? We go to Mangaung to wage a power struggle, period. President Zuma himself has admitted that ‘in the broad church the ANC is,’ there are those who now seek only power, wealth and success as individuals, not the nation. In Zimbabwe the fight between President Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai has paralysed the country. The people of Zimbabwe, a highly-educated nation, are starving and work as garden and kitchen help in South Africa.
What the white man told me in Bulawayo in 1980 is happening right in front of my eyes. We have political power and are fighting over it, instead of consolidating it. We have an economy that is owned and controlled by them, and we are fighting over the crumbs falling from the white man’s ‘dining table’. The power struggle that raged among ANC leaders in the Western Cape cost the ANC that province, and the opposition is winning other municipalities where the ANC is squabbling instead of delivering. Is it too much to understand that the more we fight among ourselves the weaker we become, and the stronger the opposition becomes?
Thula Bopela writes in his personal capacity, and the story he has told is true; he experienced alone and thus is ultimately responsible for the ideas in the article.

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