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Phathisa Nyathi: Trip to Zambia was fact finding mission, not for seeking King Lobengula’s remains

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Historian Phathisa Nyathi who recently led a delegation to Zambia on a “fact-finding” mission on what happened to the late Ndebele King Lobengula after the battle of Pupu in 1893, says the aim was not to locate the king’s grave as some critics have alleged, but to confirm with Chief Mpezeni in that country, if indeed the late king had sought refuge among his Ngoni people.

In an exclusive interview with Studio 7, Nyathi also dismissed criticism that the delegation was sent by President Emmerson Mnangagwa but said the idea of the trip was planted during the commissioning of the reconstructed Pupu National Monument in Lupane, where President Mnangagwa officiated.

“I want to make this clear. No one saw a grave. No one said they know where the grave is, and even if they did, we were not going to go there, no,” fumed Nyathi.

“I was approached by Finance Minister (Mthuli Ncube) who showed me his Zambian counterpart who in turn asked why the Ndebele people were not going to his country to find out what happened to their king,” he said.

Nyathi said on arrival, in Zambia, Chief Mpezeni confirmed that King Lobengula indeed stayed among the Ngoni people and was interred somewhere in the Sanjika Mountain four years later.

“Chief Mpezeni said if we had come earlier, there were some people who saw the King, who would have shed more light into the issue, but they have since died,” he said.

“The ‘disappearance’ of the king story was used as a decoy to prevent colonialists from tracking him down. The inner circle of the Ndebele community, including the king’s close family members have always been aware of what happened, and some have visited the area before,” said Nyathi.

“It’s only that some people don’t care about history. The grave that was used as a decoy is there in Binga, it’s a national monument. It’s where Lobengula crossed the Zambezi River to Zambia with the help of then local chief Pashu. But the grave is actually that of chief Magwegwe Fuyana, the decoy, and Ngomba Mhlanga, who was used as umqamelo (a person killed to ‘accompany’ the king during burial).”

Nyathi said he wrote about the king seeking refugee among Chief Mpezeni’s Ngoni people, after interviewing Ndlumbi Mahlangu, who had reached Binga and was still alive in 1985, and various members of the Khumalo clan and their close associates, who provided some of the information for his books: ‘Setting of the Sun’ and ‘The Battle of Pupu’.

“Some of Lobengula’s direct descendants were named Qedilizwe (trekking throughout the country) and Dabulamanzi (crossing a great river), which shows it was well-known what happened to the King, it’s all chronicled in my books,” added Nyathi.

Some of the books were sold at the recent Dakamela Awards Ceremony in Nkayi.

Nyathi said he visited a place near the Sanjika Mountain during a separate journey, accompanied by Chief Gampu Sithole of Tsholotsho, and government official Paul Damasane, who is also a poet, author, and expert in Ndebele traditional customs.

Last month’s trip was reportedly sponsored by government, and among the delegation was King Lobengula’s descendant Midard Khumalo, Senzeni Khumalo, a researcher for the National Museums, Monuments of Zimbabwe, and Paul Damasane, Deputy Chief Secretary in the Office of the President and Cabinet in Charge of Social Services. They were also joined by Zimbabwe’s Ambassadors to Zambia and Malawi, Charity Charamba, and Nancy Saungweme, respectively, who also facilitated the delegation to meet Chief Mpezeni.

Nyathi said more steps would be taken on the issue of King Lobengula, but did not shed more light.

He dismissed suggestions that forensics should be performed to ascertain the true identity of the remains of the king, if found. He said culture has its own way of establishing the truth and Africans should trust their methods instead of Western ones.

“People think that the dead do not speak, or King Lobengula has no one he speaks to. The dead are alive and the living are dead,” he noted.