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Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) was the military wing of the Zimbabwe African National Union, a militant African nationalist organisation that participated in the Rhodesian Bush War against white minority rule.

ZANLA was formed in 1965 in Tanzania, although until the early 1970s ZANLA was based in camps around Lusaka, Zambia. Until 1972 ZANLA was led by the nationalist leader Herbert Chitepo. He was followed by Josiah Tongogara from 1973 until his death in 1979. With the war drawing to a close, command fell to Robert Mugabe, previously ZANU's number two leader after Tongogara and head of the movement's political wing.

Until about 1971, ZANLA's strategy was based on direct confrontation with Rhodesian armed forces. From 1972 onwards, ZANLA adopted the Maoist guerrilla tactics that had been used with success by FRELIMO in Mozambique: infiltrating combatants into the country, politicising the peasantry and participating in 'hit-and-run' ambush operations.

ZANLA's close association with Mozambique's FRELIMO helped it after Mozambican independence in 1975. From about 1972, ZANLA had operated from Tete Province in northern Mozambique, which was FRELIMO-controlled, and, after Mozambican independence, ZANLA was permitted to open additional training and supply camps along the Rhodesian-Mozambican border. This greatly assisted the recruitment and training of cadres.

Beside their overall political ideologies, the main differences between ZIPRA, the armed wing of the pro-Soviet ZAPU party, and ZANLA were that:

  • ZANLA drew its recruits mostly from Shona-speaking ethnic groups
  • ZANLA followed a strategy of politicisation of the peasant population (inspired by the Maoist teachings of "protracted people's war")
  • After about 1972, ZANLA introduced combatants into the country for long-term campaigns of guerrilla fighting, while ZIPRA was designed to be used as a conventional armed force: entering the country, striking and pulling back to its bases in Zambia and Angola

During the late 1970s, the predominantly Shona tribe ZANLA fighters were deployed in the Matabeleland and midlands provinces, areas where the predominantly Ndebele ZIPRA mostly operated. There were a lot of clashes between the two forces. ZANLA fighters were well known for their savagery when it came to dealing with Ndebele civilians who were usually taken into what were called overnight bases and forced to sing songs in Shona denouncing ZAPU and its leader Joshua Nkomo. These ZANLA cadres had a strange love for chicken and a local staple food known as Sadza. Each time they came to a Ndebele homestead given their lack of the Ndebele language, they would simply demand "ndipe sadza nehuku" hence the local Ndebele nickname for them "Osadza nehuku". They were known as well for saying "Down with Nkomo" most of the time, hence another Matebele name for them became "OPASI"

Aside from these tribal issues, in Mashonaland their home ground, the ZANLA fighter gave a different account of himself. Like their more polished and better organised fellow fighters in ZIPRA, in Mashonaland they helped inflict many casualties on the Rhodesian Security Forces. In fact, until today, the then ZANLA command still maintains that it was their forces, not ZIPRA, that attacked the Salisbury fuel depot in December 1978, resulting in a massive shortage of fuel in Rhodesia.

Whilst there was undoubtedly intense rivalry between the two fellow movements, the Rhodesian government treated both the same. As much as the Rhodesian security forces attacked and killed hundreds of ZAPU recruits across the borders in Zambia and Angola at Mkushi and Freedom Camps, ZANU also recorded many losses in Chimoio and Nyadzonia in Mozambique.

Following the 1980 elections large portions of ZANLA were integrated into the new Zimbabwe National Army.


Further reading[]

  • Rasmussen, R. K., & Rubert, S. C., 1990. A Historical Dictionary of Zimbabwe, Scarecrow Press, Inc., Metuchen, NJ, United States of America.
  • Norma J Kriger, Guerrilla Veterans in Post-war Zimbabwe: Symbolic and Violent Politics, 1980-1987, Cambridge UP, 2003

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