THE late former Vice-President Dr Joshua Nkomo believes football was an effective vehicle to bring the people of Zimbabwe together and was instrumental in healing a past chequered with violence at the football stadia.
When the late Vice-President returned from prison in 1975, he, along other nationalists like Herbert Ushewokunze, was perturbed that tribalism was taking hold in most spheres of life including football.
He found it disgusting that some people were divided between Matabeleland Highlanders (now Highlanders) and Mashonaland United (now Zimbabwe Saints) in Bulawayo.
At the centre of the controversies were the tribal factions as the former club was viewed as a team for the Ndebeles and the latter a creation of the Shonas.
The rivalry between the two teams is said to have been so fierce that sometimes violent clashes between the supporters were the order of the day, before and after matches.
Former Highlanders chairman, Ndumiso Gumede, yesterday spoke at length about how the late Vice-President Nkomo was instrumental in convincing the then leaders of Mashonaland United and Matabeleland Highlanders to change the teams’ names.
Nkomo felt the names created tribal tensions at a time nationalists wanted unity to fight Ian Smith’s colonial regime.
Then in March 1975, the late nationalist invited the leadership from the two clubs and instructed them to drop the name Matabeleland and Mashonaland on their teams.
“He was a great man who had a deep passion for people. Maybe it was because of his background as a social worker, he just loved people. So he came to football games on many occasions either as an official guest or just for fun. He had this belief that football can be used as the bridge to bring people together.
“You definitely cannot forget the big role he played when he and other ex-political prisoners came out of detention in the mid-1970s. He was really worried that there were tensions that were centred largely on tribal grounds, especially in Bulawayo.
“He felt the names of the biggest two teams in the province — Matabeleland Highlanders and Mashonaland United — were actually fuelling the gravity of this problem.
“So he called the former Bulawayo Town Clerk, Mike Ndubiwa, and the clubs’ leadership and then persuaded them to drop the names that had the tribal connotations. We agreed to drop Matabeleland on our name and Mashonaland United changed their name completely to Zimbabwe Saints.
“All that was because he wanted people to work together and not to be divided by those silly tribal biases. Later on the Government decided that there should be a football trophy to commemorate unity and we played that for a number of years,” said Gumede.
He said ever since Bosso adopted the name Highlanders, the club’s identity changed and the narrative now transcends geographical, ethnic and racial borders and has become a symbol of national pride.
“I am surprised there are still some people who still think that Highlanders is a team for Matabeleland people. It’s not like that. The team is only housed in a certain region but the principle is that “ithimu yezwe lonke,” (loosely translated to “The team of the whole nation”).
“It’s a much wider and more encompassing team. It stands for something bigger. We have always had players from different backgrounds, coming from all over the country to play for Highlanders and at some point we were the only team with white players when many had none.
“That’s how football ought to be. It shouldn’t see race, tribe or gender,” said Gumede.
Three years ago, there was a heated debate whether the late Vice-President was Highlanders or Dynamos supporter following an interview carried by our sister paper, The Sunday News, with one of his former head of security, Nehemiah Nyathi.
Nyathi, who served as part of Dr Nkomo’s security team from May 1980 until July 1, 1999 when the Vice-President passed on, said Father Zimbabwe kept tabs on the country’s two biggest teams — Highlanders and Dynamos.
It was suggested in that interview that Dr Nkomo was an avid Dynamos supporter who would always demand to be kept posted on the team’s fixtures, results and log standings.
This claim was, however, disputed by journalist Ezra “Tshisa” Sibanda and Jabulani Hadebe of the Joshua Nkomo Foundation, who said Nkomo was a staunch Highlanders fan. But whatever his loyalty was, the debate shows he was a football enthusiast and a people-centered person who saw football as a uniting force.
Asked on how Dr Nkomo viewed the perception that Dynamos was a team for the Shona tribe while Highlanders was for the Ndebeles, Nyathi said the late Vice-President disliked such divisive notions.
“This talk of Dynamos belonging to Shona people and Highlanders being a Ndebele team comes from people who lack knowledge. There has never been a time when Highlanders has been dominated by Ndebele players.
“It (Highlanders) always had a mixture of people from different ethnic backgrounds. Dr Nkomo was against racial and tribal segregation and would always implore football administrators not to discriminate players on racial or tribal grounds,” Nyathi said.
A larger-than-life character that he was, Dr Nkomo has always volunteered his time to football matters. In 1984 he saved the situation at Highlanders, who suddenly found themselves without a chairman following the unexpected resignation of Malcom King midway through his term.
Highlanders members then unsuccessfully tried to lure back Gumede, whom King had served under as vice-chairman before assuming the chairmanship of Bosso.
“People tried to persuade me to take up the position but I refused because I had been there before. At the time, I felt that when I went to ZIFA it was an elevation.
“So coming back to lead Highlanders was like climbing from the university to do ‘O’ Level because I felt I had done my part and left the club with offices and their own properties.
“Then some courageous people approached the late Vice-President Nkomo and out of the blue I received a phone call. He said can you please come to my office we need to discuss something.
“When I got there he fired right away. “Who do you think you are?” “People want you to lead the club and you are refusing. What is that? You are the funniest person that I have ever seen because elsewhere people are fighting for positions and you are busy refusing. What’s that?”
“He went on to persuade me and before I knew it he had already called a journalist from The Chronicle and said “I am with Gumede right now, he has agreed to be the chairman.” So I changed my mind and had to do it. That’s just how influential he was.
“Then there was another incident again when we quarreled with the Bulawayo City Council over the increases in stadium rates which we felt were too steep.
“The Council insisted that we will not play at the stadium if we do not pay what they asked for and we said fine we will use Ross Camp.
“But we had a big problem with Ross Camp because we needed a much bigger venue for the big games, especially against Dynamos. So the Vice-President called myself, Frank Valdemarca from ZIFA and Ndubiwa of Bulawayo City Council to discuss the impasse.
“He lambasted Ndubiwa and openly told him that the amenities were meant for sport and sportspeople should be allowed to have access. We were very happy to hear Ndubiwa being lambasted but little did we know that he had also reserved some of his arsenal for us.
“He then turned to us and said “you football people don’t you know that these facilities were built at a huge cost. Don’t you know that they also need regular maintenance? So where do you think the Council will get the money from if you refuse to pay? I want to hear that you are paying for using the amenities.”
“So we had to find each other with the Council as we left his office and I must say we never had any more problems that time, thanks to his interventions,” said Gumede.