Cell 42: The prison that couldn’t stop ED’s destiny
Tichaona Zindoga and Gibson Mhaka
On August 13, 1966, a young black man in the then colonial Rhodesia was shunted through tough steel gates of a high security prison – bound by high and thick walls – into a tiny cell that was to become his home for close to a decade. He was following many others of his generation, only he was special in ways that could not be understood at the time. A young Emmerson Mnangagwa, now President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, was aged 18 when he was imprisoned at Khami Maximum Security Prison, west of Bulawayo, for contravening Section 37 (1) (b) of the notorious Law and Order Maintenance Act.
His prison number was 841/ 66 and he was bundled into Cell 42 of “B” Hall.
The young Mnangagwa had been arrested in Salisbury’s Highfield township in 1965 for being part of the Crocodile Gang that carried out sabotage activities against the Rhodesian regime after receiving military training in China.
Operations of the Crocodile Gang had included killing a resident farmer and police reservist, Petrus Oberholtzer at Nyanyadzi and blowing up a train at Fort Victoria, now Masvingo.
The latter incident led to the capture and subsequent hanging of James Dhlamini and Victor Mlambo.
In January 1965, Mnangagwa was arrested by police inspectors at Michael Mawema’s house in Highfield in connection with the incident.
It is believed that Mawema, a nationalist, had betrayed Mnangagwa to police.
After being arrested, Mnangagwa was tortured and confessed to the crime under the Law and Order Maintenance Act and would have been hanged, but was spared on account of his age.
Emmerson Mnangagwa was born in Zvishavane in the Midlands Province on September 15, 1942.
The law proscribed death penalties for those under 21 – something that has been reflected, as is widely known, in his stance on capital punishment.
He served the first year at Salisbury Prison and then went to Grey Prison (now Bulawayo Central Prison) following which he was sent to Khami Prison.
Khami of today
It is sweltering hot in Bulawayo – as well as other parts of Zimbabwe under a blistering sun in a midsummer drought.
We have made arrangements with the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services Bulawayo Metropolitan region to gain access to Khami Remand Prison, as it is now.
The officials are proud of the little piece of history that they hold at Khami and are willing to help the world know of the intercourse they have with the past and present.
President Mnangagwa is the man of the moment.
The Khami Prison of today houses common criminals in contrast with an earlier era, when since at least 1959, over 500 nationalists and members of the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress were detained there.
The man in charge here is Chief Superintendent Jelouse Dambura, who takes us on a tour of the facility.
Along with other senior prison officers, he leads us into “B” Hall, which houses cells where President Mnangagwa and other political prisoners like Vice President Kembo Mohadi and the late national hero and journalist Willie Musarurwa spent part of their lives.
Musarurwa, as a matter of fact, had a connection with President Mnangagwa dating back to the days of Zapu.
Our tour starts with a visit to Cell number 42, the tiny cell that housed President Mnangagwa during his incarceration at a time when the colonial regime was at its most brutal.
The cell on the immediate right hand side of the entrance, known as a “single cell” because of its design to hold one person, is unoccupied, but it remains as austere with the double walls, as ever.
Here, political prisoners like President Mnangagwa, classified by the regime as “most dangerous”, were isolated from other prisoners in a special section of single cells and automatically placed in “D” category.
Chief Superintendent Dambura explains the barbaric conditions that blacks were living under in rooms like Cell 42.
Chief Superintendent Dambura explains: “The conditions here were oppressive. Spending time in that cell was almost impossible.
President Mnangagwa was regarded as a high security risk and since he was on the death row, he was only allowed to go out for 15 minutes for exercises and bathing. During those 15 minutes, they were also expected to empty and clean their toilet buckets and have a cold shower.
“Just imagine, in one corner stood a bucket for ablutions, which had to be emptied and cleaned first thing every morning. The only other item that was allowed in the cell was a Bible”.
A wide passage separates cells on the right and left sides.
There are a dozen cells on each side and apart from the conventional cells, there were also “dark rooms” where prisoners were thrown in as punishment.
The dark rooms are completely out of the reach of the sun so much so that an inmate will not know what time of the day it is.
Additionally, the dark rooms have a solid iron leash to which prisoners would be chained in leg irons.
The prison officials say that these dark rooms have been outlawed by the High Court, which declared them inhuman.
There are open communal showers and toilets that are at the other end of the complex.
We are told that during President Mnangagwa’s time, prisoners had two sets of clothes: one set that they wore inside and another once outside.
The prisoner had to enter the cell naked – and was inspected as such.
Walking in the passageway with the cells on both sides, one cannot avoid that old, familiar stench that so often hangs around people coming from the remand cells: the stench of urine and human waste that issues from the buckets of waste and hangs stubbornly onto clothes and body.
But on the same passage, one is struck by the world of change from the old confinement. Inside the hall, there is a small television set where prisoners follow news and other programming.
Outside, on the courtyard, inmates play soccer and engage in exercises.
There is also a technical hall for vocational training.
“Now we are focusing on the correctional aspects rather than the punitive aspect of prison. As you can see, the inmates spend their time outside or watching TV,” explains Chief Superintendent Dambura.
In the previous era, the colonial regime, which was also administered on the basis of race, extended to who got clothing and who ate what. Black prisoners’ diet was plain sadza and vegetables.
Pages of history
The prison officials fish out huge tomes of prison records and we leaf through the pages of history. There are many names of people who went through Khami Prison and many were young and persecuted for the crime of rising against the settler regime.
More prominent personalities during the later stages of the liberation struggle include Vice President Kembo Mohadi and first black editor of The Herald Willie Musarurwa.
Mohadi was admitted on July 8, 1975 under prison number 73/ 1975 after being convicted and sentenced to 15 years on November 8, 1975 for contravening Section 23 (A) and 36 of the Law and Order Maintenance Act. He was released on March 22, 1980.
Musarurwa was also a guest of this historically rich correctional institution, where he served three effective months for contravening Section 39 (2) (d) as read with Section 39 (1) (9) (11) of the Law and Order Maintenance Act 1960.
He was admitted to the prison on October 9, 1964 under prison number 192/ 1964 and released on December 9, 1964.
President Mnangagwa was discharged on January 6, 1972 and was transferred to Salisbury for deportation to Zambia.
Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa studied law in Zambia, where he had been banished for his political activities by the Rhodesian regime.
He worked closely with former President Robert Mugabe from the 1960s and after Independence in 1980 until last year.
After Independence, he held several ministerial portfolios including State Security, Justice, Rural Housing and Defence.
In 2014, he was appointed one of the two Vice Presidents, a position he occupied until his unceremonious removal at the instigation of his political rivals known as G40 in early November last year.
He, however, bounced back as President the same month following the resignation of Cde Mugabe after countrywide demonstrations for him to step down, complemented by an impeachment motion in Parliament led by Zanu-PF party.