THENJIWE Virginia Lesabe (nee Khumalo) was born at Hope Fountain near Bulawayo on January 5, 1932.
Thenjiwe married the late Reverend Peter Lesabe of the AME church and they had seven children, six of whom are surviving.
She enrolled at Whitewater Primary School for her primary education before proceeding to Hope Fountain Mission to train as a teacher. She taught at Lotshe Primary School in Makokoba, Bulawayo. She resigned from teaching in 1959 and joined Bantu Mirror as a journalist.
Between 1949 and 1953, Lesabe became an active member of a social club known as Gama Sigma Club in Bulawayo. The club was composed of intellectuals and others interested in social welfare matters including education for Africans in the country. Other prominent members of the club were Samuel Ndebele, Chief Gampu, Abraham Nkiwane, Edward Ndlovu, Francis Nehwati, Benjamin Burombo and many others. The club acted as a think tank.
Lesabe was among the first people who joined the Southern Rhodesian African National Congress in 1957. She showed keen interest in politics before the formation of the SRANC and expressed her views publicly at local gatherings.
In 1960, she was among the first women to join the National Democratic Party (NDP), whose chairlady of the Women’s League was Anna Nyathi. Lesabe mobilised many people in Mzilikazi and Babourfields and formed a branch known as MZIBA (Mzilikazi/Babourfields).
At the first inter-branch meeting of the Women’s League members, she was elected chairlady of the Bulawayo district committee. In the meantime, she had been helping at the regional NDP office headed by the late Agrippa Mukhahlera. Late national hero Sikhwili Khohli Moyo and current Zapu president Dr Dumiso Dabengwa and Amos Ngwenya were also involved in the running of the party’s affairs.
When Zapu was formed after the banning of the NDP, party branches and districts were merely revamped without changing leadership, except at regional and national level. Bulawayo was the most active and strongest in terms of membership. Lesabe continued as the leader of the Zapu women’s league, ZAWU, until the party was banned in 1962.
After the cancellation of an NDP public meeting at Stanley Square in 1960, Lesabe led a public demonstration against the regime’s actions. She led a door-to-door campaign for people to join the demonstration. There was a massive response to her call. The demonstration went on for three days, during which property, including beer halls, were attacked by protestors. The demonstration spread to the Midlands.
Lesabe was also involved in the massive unrest activities code-named “Zhi” during the sixties. During one such incident, Manwele bar in Makokoba was invaded and barricaded by youths and burnt down. Police used tear gas on the youths and arrested Lesabe and others including Enock Ndlovu and Dezzy Ngwenya. They were thrown into police vehicles and taken to Ross Camp and detained in an open area next to the fence, with tall grass. A woman only remembered as MaSibanda, and was part of the detainees, was heavily pregnant and started experiencing labour pains and delivered a baby boy in the grassy area.
Lesabe led a call out for the police to come and help the woman. When they refused, Lesabe shouted: “What if it was your wife?” The guard, apparently struck by what she said, went away and brought two nurses who attended to her and the baby and ferried them to hospital.
The groups of protesters were taken to Gery Street prison, where Lesabe kept talking to them to be brave and not to fear fighting for their country.
On several occasions before and after independence, Lesabe and the late VP JW Msika told members of the party how Dr Joshua Nkomo was chosen to lead the first national organisation, the ANC, after an agreement between the Bulawayo leaders and Harare leaders at the time, to form a national political organisation, and how other intellectuals in Harare had rejected pleas for them to lead the ANC.
After it was banned, Zapu operated as an underground movement. Lesabe played a very key role in the underground operations, including recruiting youths for guerrilla training outside the country. At the formation of the People’s Caretaker Council in 1963, she was elected to the national council. The PCC was not really a political party, but an organizing vehicle for Zapu to escape the ban, and to counter splinter movements. The PCC was also banned in 1964.
Between 1970 and 1974, she toured all provinces in the country where she addressed several meetings informing members about Zapu programmes of the liberation struggle and advised them of what was to be done.
In 1975, she was elected to the National Executive as the head of ZAWU at a congress of the ANC (Zimbabwe). The same congress elected the late Josiah Chinamano as vice president and the late JW Msika as secretary general.
That same year, the late Lesabe and Ariston Chambati, A Jirira and others went to Lusaka, Zambia, accompanying the president of Zapu, Dr Joshua Nkomo, to hold talks with President Kenneth Kaunda. She spent days as a guest at the State House in Lusaka.
In 1975, she was back in Lusaka with a delegation for the funeral of Jason Ziyaphapha Moyo. She and Mrs Dlomo from Gweru remained behind after the funeral for medical check-ups because of pains caused by arrests and detentions by the Rhodesian regime. The party sent them to the Democratic Republic of Germany (GDR), East Germany at the time, for further medical treatment. After treatment, Lesabe returned back to Zimbabwe through Zambia to continue fighting for independence.
When the struggle intensified and the regime became more vicious, the rest of the Zapu leadership fled the country to Zambia through whatever means and ways they could. Lesabe left Bulawayo with her children secretly. She spent seven days hiding in parked goods trains at the Bulawayo railway station with her children, waiting for the opportunity to escape.
She managed to safely make it to Francistown, Botswana, hidden in a goods train using a plan put together by a Zapu member who worked for the railways. The concerned Zapu member is still alive and stays in Binga district.
After independence, Lesabe gave cattle to the Zapu member who helped her escape when she returned home at independence as a ‘thank you’ for saving her life and that of her children. Others who left the country through the same arrangement include Chief Vezi Maduna of Insiza, Elijah Moyo and Elias Hananda.
While in Zambia, Lesabe was appointed into the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Council. Because of her capacity and experience, the party occasionally assigned her to missions to foreign countries in Asia, USA, Latin America, Europe and African countries.
One of her first missions was to tour Scandinavian states to appeal for assistance for Zapu, Zimbabwe’s authentic liberation movement. Her appeal for assistance was also on behalf of other authentic liberation movements, such as ANC of South Africa and Namibia’s Swapo.
In Finland, she visited many cities to address meetings. During her next visit to Helsinki, she was with a Swapo delegation led by the party’s president, Dr Sam Nunjoma. After a joint Swapo and Zapu appeal, support groups started programmes to raise funds and materials for Zapu and Swapo.
On 17 August 1979, large quantities of goods which included medicine were shipped to both liberation movements.
At independence, Lesabe was elected MP for Matobo district in Matabeleland South on a PF-Zapu ticket. She later represented Umzingwane in Parliament. She was again elected chairperson of ZAWU at Zapu’s 1984 congress.
Lesabe witnessed all the Gukurahundi atrocities. She was one of the brave Zapu leaders who risked their own lives by visiting affected communities to witness the massacres and was later involved in the Zapu negotiating team with Zanu to end the atrocities.
After the unity accord between Zapu and Zanu, she became deputy minister of Tourism. She would later serve as minister of education and culture, and minister of national affairs and employment creation.
In Zanu PF, she became deputy secretary for women’s affairs and served in the national staff committee chaired by the late VP Simon Muzenda. After the death of Sally Mugabe, she was appointed secretary for women’s affairs until 2004 when she remained a member of the party’s politburo.
In 2009, she decided to go back to her roots to rejoin the revived Zapu and was elected chairperson of the Zapu Council of Elders at the party’s 9th congress held in Bulawayo in 2010. She was one of the most senior and dedicated women in Zapu who openly declared their decision to leave Zanu PF to rejoin Zapu and quickly got to serious work. She visited virtually all provinces of Zimbabwe and Zapu’s South Africa province to drum up support and settle disputes.
John Mzimela, one of the few surviving founders of the SRANC, described Lesabe as an outstanding, courageous member of Zapu, during and after the struggle.
A former classmate and long time colleague of Lesabe, Zapu Matabeleland North council of elders chairman, Jeremiah Macelegwane Khabo shared his experiences about Lesabe.
He said: “I first met Thenjiwe Khumalo in 1947 when we were both students doing our first year in teacher training at Hope Fountain Mission. We were under the tutelage of pioneer black educationists such as Tennyson Hlabangana, O.B Mlilo and Robert Mugabe, who was a primary school teacher at that time.
“Thenjiwe was the head girl of the girls’ institute where she exhibited her leadership qualities. In class, she was brilliant in teaching methodology and very articulate during lessons. She was exceptional in debate when pitted against other schools such as Mzingwane.”
When Hlabangana died in 1948, Lesabe was probably the only girl who was strong enough to witness his burial, while others were too affected to witness the occasion.
Amos “Jack” Ngwenya is a veteran nationalist who together with the late Willie Musarurwa, established Zapu’s external headquarters in Zambia in 1963. He is currently a Zapu elder in Bulawayo