Then on 8 February a major fight erupted at Connemara barracks between Kwekwe and Gweru in the Midlands province between ex-Zanla and Zipra guerrillas. Although that fighting at Connemara was quashed within a few days with the intervention of former Rhodesian troops and the Air Force, the fighting spread to Bulawayo. Late in the afternoon of February 10, Zanla and Zipra men exchanged fire at the camp they were based in, situated at Bulawayo’s motor-racing circuit in Glenville. In the course of February 11 the old 1 Rhodesian African Rifles Battalion (predominately black, with black and white officers, which had been renamed 11th Infantry Battalion of the ZNA), under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Mick McKenna, brought the fighting under control. However, that evening fighting broke out in Entumbane, this time a three-way battle involving elements of Zanla and Zipra, who fought each other and who tried to wrest control of an armoury being guarded by a ZNA company under the command of Major Lionel Dyck. Knowing that Zipra had heavy armoury at Gwaai River Mine (north west of Bulawayo), and ex-Soviet BTR-152 armoured personnel carriers, and T-34 tanks at Esigodini, McKenna had taken the precaution of covertly deploying early warning teams on Bulawayo’s outskirts. Soon after the fighting erupted in Entumbane the early warning team located at the Blue Hills near Esigodini reported that an armoured column was en route to Bulawayo from Esigodini. McKenna responded swiftly, dispatching armoured cars to intercept the column. In the early hours of February 12 the lead vehicle of the Zipra column, a BTR-12 carrier, was knocked out on the Johannesburg road opposite the Holiday Inn near Milton School; the remainder of the column, comprising three BTR-12 carriers, was destroyed further out of town near what was then the Hilltop Motel and which is now the Theological College of Zimbabwe.
As day broke, word was received that another column, of 12 BTR-12s and BRDM armoured personnel carriers, was on its way to Bulawayo from Gwaai River Mine. Once again, a company of 11th Battalion was used to set up an ambush, this time at the Umgusa River bridge on the Victoria Falls road. This column did not get close to Bulawayo as several Hawker Hunters buzzed them, causing them to disperse.
Nkomo and senior ex-Zipra officers Lookout Masuku and Dumiso Dabengwa were called in; the latter two faced down their own men at considerable risk, ordering them to lay down their arms. Peace was restored finally on February 14.
Official figures show that some 160 people died in Bulawayo, although some think a figure of 400 is more accurate. There would be no further fighting on this scale. Emmerson Mnangagwa sent McKenna a telegram congratulating him and his men on their “exemplary conduct in stabilising the situation”. Several of the white soldiers involved were awarded military medals for their bravery in what was to be called “the Entumbane fighting”. Government appointed Judge Enock Dumbutshena to conduct a commission of inquiry; he produced a report which was handed over to Mugabe but never published. Years later, the Legal Resources Foundation, of which I was a trustee, brought a case before the High Court compelling its publication; after the order was granted the president’s office announced it could not comply with the order because the report had been “lost”. One can only presume that the reason for this coyness was because the report showed that white and black ex-Rhodesian servicemen, the Zipra high command and the Zapu leadership acted together to prevent Bulawayo falling.
Safely ensconced in Cape Town, I read of these events with deep sadness. My sense of hopelessness which had started the previous December returned and persisted. Into this void stepped three of my law classmates, Peter Smuts, Barry Jessop and Alastair Wylie. While I had always kept my King James Version of the Bible and sporadically said prayers to a distant God, I did not actually know the meaning of faith. David Watson had stirred me in 1979 and several friends at UCT, including these three, had invited me to a variety of Christian functions over the years. Although I wasn’t hostile, I had somewhat contemptuously referred to them as the “God squad” — people who, in my opinion, were overly religious and lacked balance. But they were nothing if not persistent and in February 1981 Smuts invited me to a Bible study group he had started in his digs. There is nobody more arrogant than a fourth year law student and, in keeping with that, I condescendingly agreed to go along, if only to show Smuts that he took spiritual matters too seriously. We started studying the Book of Romans, wonderful for a law student because of its carefully constructed arguments. I had never before been challenged to consider biblical truths in this fashion and as the weeks progressed, I was left increasingly uncomfortable. It would take a separate book to describe the change in my thinking, but suffice it to say that I was deeply challenged. Primarily three things struck me: first, that God’s eternal power and divine nature are clearly evident in the world around us; second, that people themselves, all of us, have a natural inclination to turn away from God; and third, that God is not interested in our religious practices but rather in faith, a basic simple trust. Through it all, I was challenged to have a fresh look at the historical Jesus Christ and his claims; he was a man who spoke truth to power, who set an amazing example of kindness, wisdom, courage and humility, and yet who also made some rather outlandish claims about who he was, and what he had done.
In particular, I battled with the claim of Jesus Christ’s resurrection; how could it be that a man could rise again from the dead? How could that possibly be true? I was given a magnificent little book, Who Moved the Stone? by Frank Morrison, which challenged me even further. The book lays out a variety of arguments why belief in the resurrection does not defy logic. How could it be that a bunch of frightened common men, fishermen such as Peter, could be transformed on the basis of a lie? If Jesus had just died on the cross and not risen, what caused these men to be transformed from such pitiful, scared men into people who changed the world? Ultimately, while belief in who Jesus Christ actually was remained a matter of faith, the arguments put forward by Morrison gave me confidence that I was not blindly putting my faith in something that was simply illogical. Many weeks of careful study and intense discussions, in particular with Smuts, Jessop and Wylie, followed. By the end of May I was left with clear truths which I did not know how to handle — that a gentle, wise man named Jesus Christ lived 2 000 years ago, that he was crucified by the Romans (all verified by independent sources) and that he claimed to be the Messiah, someone in whom I should put my absolute faith. He was either a madman (which was not borne out by his actions and life) or I should take his claims seriously.
After several weeks of inner turmoil, I made a decision in the quiet of my room at 6pm on June 12 1981. I had a tiny Gideon’s New Testament which I signed: “Confessing to God that I am a sinner, and believing that the Lord Jesus Christ died for my sins on the cross and was raised for my justification, I do now receive and confess Him as my personal Saviour”. I did not hear angels or sweet music but my outlook on life changed fundamentally from that time on.
As I grappled with Christ’s claims, and my reaction to them, during the first half of 1981 I was also thoroughly engrossed in the demands of my LLB degree and running the Zimbabwe Society. My meetings in Salisbury had yielded support from the Zimbabwean government for participation in a Focus Week by a high level group. Given what had happened in 1980, we decided that we had a better chance of pulling off the Week if we invited white Zimbabweans of a more conservative disposition. Accordingly, it was agreed that Senator Dennis Norman, the minister of Agriculture, Brian Grubb, a former president of the Associated Chamber of Commerce and an ex-RF MP, Rhodesian arms manufacturer and farmer Andre Holland, would be invited. As in the previous year, invitations were issued by the UCT vice-chancellor and extensive preparations made. Grubb was to speak on the topic “Commerce and the New Order”, Holland on “The role of white Zimbabweans in the New Order” and Norman would deliver remarks, including a message from Mugabe, encouraging students to return home at the Society’s annual dinner scheduled for Friday August 21. UCT obtained confirmation from the South African government that there would be no problem and so we hoped it would go off smoothly. On the Monday before the dinner, I was contacted by the Zimbabwe Trade Mission in Johannesburg who advised that Mugabe wanted to know what students would like to hear. I replied that most students wanted to return home but needed encouragement that they would be welcome. On the afternoon before Grubb and Holland were due to leave, August 18, I received a phone call from Senator Norman telling me that the South African Trade Mission in Salisbury had just told them that their visit was off as, using similar language to the previous year, it was “not opportune at present”. Norman also said he had been asked to convey to me that I should “restrain my criticism of the South African government unless I wanted to return home to Zimbabwe earlier than intended”! Norman commiserated with me but there was nothing to be done. He later commented in the press that he was “sad rather than angry”; it had not been convenient for him to come down but he realised that students needed someone to “talk frankly to them” and that he was going to tell students that “if they wanted a challenge … there was place back home and the final rewards would be worth the effort”.
The cancellation again made the headlines in South African, Zimbabwean and British newspapers, but that was little consolation to those of us who had worked so hard.
The next day, still irritated by the South African government’s action and contemplating how serious their threat was against me, I received a telegram shortly before attending a tax law lecture, which read:
Dear Mr Coltart,
Replying to your message of the 17th August — for which many thanks, I am happy and encouraged to learn that Zimbabwean students at Cape Town University are ready and willing to return home upon completion of their studies to serve their country.
As you are no doubt aware, we in government intend to establish a non-racial society based on equality — and the promotion of the well-being of all our people in accordance with our socialist principles.
It is in this connection that we have adopted the policy of reconciliation whereby our people must put aside the hatreds and animosities of the past and approach the future in a positive and constructive frame of mind and with commitment and dedication to the all-round development of the new Zimbabwe.
As we struggle to re-build our country out of the destruction of war we look to young people like yourselves to assist us to achieve our objective of establishing a prosperous and harmonious and humane society in this country.
I call on all of you who have completed your studies to return and join us in the urgent tasks before us. I hardly need to remind you that this is as much your home as it is ours. As so often has been said, in identifying with a returning to the new Zimbabwe you have nothing to fear but fear itself.
Prime Minister of the Republic of Zimbabwe
The book is available in Harare from Blackstone Books, Baroda Trading and Weaver Press. It is available in Bulawayo from Vigne Bookshop and ‘amabooks’.