Tendai Mugabe Senior Reporter
The name Vernon Johnson Mwaanga may not be familiar to the younger generation of Zimbabweans. However, in Zambia’s body politic, Dr Mwaanga is arguably one of the most respected and influential personalities after the country’s founding father and former president Dr Kenneth David Kaunda.
Commonly known as Dr VJ, the man fashioned out an extraordinary life that saw him being appointed Zambia’s chief diplomat to the Soviet Union at the tender age of 21 in 1965.
He served in different portfolios under Dr Kaunda’s administration.
At one point, he was appointed Foreign Affairs Minister and as Lusaka’s chief diplomat at the time, he visited 147 countries across the globe engaging other nations on issues of mutual interest.
In Africa alone, he visited 47 countries.
Due to his unparalleled intellectual prowess, he also served in other critical portfolios such as information and intelligence.
Dr Mwaanga has now retired from active politics, but remains an oasis of knowledge in Zambia and a force to reckon with.
He is now largely into consultancy giving advice where necessary.
In short, the man has seen it all with regards to African politics.
But what is the importance of this witty Zambian politician to Zimbabwe’s body politic?
Last week The Herald had a rare opportunity to speak to Dr Mwaanga, who revealed unrecorded yet important history about President Mnangagwa’s long political career.
In the refreshing interview, Dr VJ revealed for the first time that President Mnangagwa was once kidnapped in Zambia during the liberation struggle.
His vivid and graphic account of the kidnapping proved that the war was not a stroll in the park.
Dr VJ narrates what President Mnangagwa went through in his quest to have Zimbabwe free.
“After the (military) training he (President Mnangagwa) went through, he came back with the Zanu leadership here. Internal problems then started surfacing,” said Dr Mwaanga.
“There was apparent factionalism in Zanu at the time. One of the days during my tenure as Foreign Minister of Zambia, my security guard rang my home doorbell and said that Mrs Mnangagwa was at the gate, wanted to see me urgently and she was crying.
“I told the guard to let her in. When she came in I asked her what the problem was. She said her husband had been kidnapped by a rival faction.
“We knew which faction it was and they had camped somewhere in Lusaka.”
The soft-spoken politician then took a long breath and continued: “I got in touch with the commissioner of the police and asked him to go to the camp. We knew where the camp was. I told them to go and release Mr Mnangagwa. When they arrived at the camp, armed people who were there resisted.
‘‘The police retreated because here (in Lusaka) they are not armed.
“When they retreated, they reported to me that they had been engaged militarily by the elements they found on the ground.
“I phoned the army commander and I asked him to send soldiers to the camp to go and have Mr Mnangagwa released. I told them to use any amount of force necessary to secure his release. When they got there, they tried to put up resistance but the soldiers were well armed. The soldiers warned them that if they tried they may light up the whole camp. They went in and I told them to disarm everyone. They found Mr Mnangagwa tied to a tree in that camp. They took photos and then untied him.”
He said after long discussions with Zanu leaders, part of its operations moved to Mozambique.
Asked why President Mnangagwa was kidnapped, Dr Mwaanga said: “They considered that he belonged to another faction. It was part of the factional wars. He was considered to belong to one main group which was supportive of President Mugabe at the time.”
Despite this life-threatening incident, Dr Mwaanga said, President Mnangagwa remained committed to the struggle and never budged.
In any case, Dr Mwaanga said, President Mnangagwa decided it was time to exert more pressure on the enemy.
“He was very consistent on his commitment to have Zimbabwe liberated,” he said.
“Liberating Zimbabwe meant everything to him. He was a very unassuming person, very much on the quieter side. He didn’t talk too much but his commitment to the liberation of Zimbabwe was absolutely total. He wanted to see Zimbabwe become independent at whatever expense even if it cost his own life – that the Smith regime has to be removed and that all their satellites, the (Abel) Muzorewas they were just the same and had to be fought in the same manner.
“He wanted the struggle to be executed in a very meticulous manner. He was a very serious person and committed really. At the time, I remember my discussions with him were not about him getting any position, but about him being able to liberate the country. He said just like every other Zimbabwean, he would find something to do afterwards. ‘There will be something for all of us to do in a free Zimbabwe.’
“It was not about himself. It was about the country. That is something that always impressed me about him. His commitment to the country and not himself. He sacrificed a lot and he was prepared to sacrifice even his life.”
In this new dispensation where President Mnangagwa is now the Head of State and Government, Dr Mwaanga urged Zimbabweans to give him maximum support as he implements his economic vision.
Said Dr Mwaanga: “I have a feeling that once given his own mandate, he will then be able to form a Government which will reflect his own vision about the future of Zimbabwe.
“He (President Mnangagwa) kept repeating to me that ‘my brother VJ, Zimbabwe is open for business.’ I keep a close eye on what is happening in Zimbabwe and I think once free, fair and credible elections are held, Zimbabwe will move forward.
“Once given a chance to rebuild the country, I am convinced that President Mnangagwa will do the right thing for the country and put Zimbabwe back on the growth trajectory so that the economy begins to grow.”