Colonial torturers. A student saviour.

York alumnus, ZANU rebel, Torture victim. Solomon Wekwete talks to about his extraordinary experiences and how a fellow student and friend delivered him to safety from the hands of his captors

It’s 1961 and Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia, is on the brink of its war for liberation. The country’s people are beginning to stand up to the oppression of colonisation. At the forefront of this movement are the Zimbabweans African Nations United (ZANU) and the Zimbabweans African People United (ZAPU) rebels. One such person was Solomon Wekwete, a former University of York student, who was not only imprisoned, but also tortured for his involvement in ZANU. All this was due to Solomon’s reluctance to give up the fight to liberate Zimbabwe.

Solomon was born in Rhodesia, in 1934. Growing up under a colonial administration, Solomon was unable to begin his education until the age of 14. This led to him only qualifying as a teacher at the age of 25, a job he kept for 3 years. During the early years of Solomon’s life, he experienced the oppression of growing up under a colonial government. He remembers, “The police were marching along the street in front of me and I tried to cross the road between them; I was man-handled. Fortunately there was someone whose child I was teaching, who then pleaded I be released”.

It was probably these experiences and the animosity shown towards his peers, which motivated Solomon to enter politics. As he recalls, “the politics started to change and so many people were joining the political parties and, as a young man, I was one of them”. During the year Solomon was a member of this group, he attended the weekly Sunday meetings while maintaining his job as a teacher. The party was met with opposition, when, at the height of the party’s influence it was banned by the government. Bit this didn’t deter Solomon. A year later he joined another political party where he continued to be an active member of up until 1960, when the group was forcibly disbanded. Yet again, the government had banned another pro-African political party.

“They would hang me up by my private parts and tie my hands behind my back. They would leave me there.”

As a result of this activity, Solomon was told by the police he was to be remanded once the school year had come to an end. “I then decided to run away. After finishing the examinations and handing them into the head master, I slipped out of Rhodesia to Zambia.” Once in Zambia, Solomon settled into a non-political life working as a salesman for a year, before entering the Republic of the Congo. While in Congo, Solomon received a telegram which would alter the course of his future permanently. “A telegram arrived from home to say my father had died, this was in 1964; I wanted to go home. I tried to get home by going back into Zambia.” Upon reaching the border, Solomon met a friend who had become a policeman. He could not encourage Solomon’s efforts. “We can allow you back into Rhodesia, but will arrest you once you reach home”. At this point in his life, Solomon was becoming accustomed to living a life in which he survived on the borders of government control.

Once again, Solomon was forced to flee Rhodesia, entering Zambia once again. It was upon his second entrance into Zambia that Solomon joined the growing ranks of freedom fighters for Zimbabwe through ZANU. It was at this time that Ian Smith had unilaterally declared independence for Rhodesia, under white minority rule. Once Solomon had established himself within the party, he was able to concentrate on the work he had longed to do in and for Zimbabwe. He looks back on the feelings of liberation and power which came with his enrolment into ZANU. “I was responsible for recruiting people in Zambia, and at one point had recruited 80. I would then get them across the border to Tanzania to our camp Chuniya, where we would provide training.” Solomon continued to take on dangerous roles of responsibility for the sake of his cause. He was also responsible for the distribution of ammunition throughout the ZANU party.

By the year of 1966, the fight for Africa’s independence had become globally recognised. The West was beginning to take notice of the sacrifices people like Solomon were making. He, along with other members of various liberation parties, was offered the opportunity to undertake a one year course at the University of York, involved in training African people for positions in political office. The programme was designed to equip students with skills needed to take over administration, once independence had been gained. During his first stay at York, Solomon was a member of Derwent College. His time at York still brings back fond memories of the course. He explains, “The course covered us to go to Dublin, Scotland, Germany and Belgium.” Once he had completed the programme, unlike other students who chose to stay in the UK, Solomon was told to return home by the leaders of the ZANU party, so that he could continue his work with new recruits.

However, upon Solomon’s return, he was to find that the war had intensified, with fighters receiving training in combat from China. It was on one of Solomon’s routine trips, moving people across the borders, that Solomon was stopped and interrogated by two Portuguese men who were working for the colonial government. After an intense interrogation, which lasted three months, Solomon was handed over to the Zimbabwean authorities. Once it was confirmed that Solomon was a ZANU freedom fighter, he was subjected to the same fate as many others who had also been captured: an intense time torture, which was to become a regular occurrence for the next five years of Solomon’s life.

“When I was first captured, I remember spending three days in a dark bathroom with no food or water”. Solomon also recalls the physical pain inflicted upon him. “They would hang me up by my private parts and tie my hands behind my back, they would leave me there…when you fainted, they would pour water on you and try to find out who you were and what you were doing.” It was during these five years that Solomon came across and began some South African Open University (UNISA) courses. Due to his former links in York, he was also able to describe his capture to people abroad. One person in particular was Guy Christiansen, his former associate, who was to become a key lobbyer in getting Solomon released. Guy was able to contact his father-in-law, editor of the British Medical Journal, who went to visit the jail in which Solomon was being held, demanding to see him. During Solomon’s time in jail, talks were occurring between the British and Zimbabwean governments with regards to the proposal of a political reform, which the African leaders opposed. These talks were occurring during the period of Solomon’s imprisonment, when a request was being made for him to be released and permitted to return to York.

This is how he became acquainted with Amanda Sebestyen, his lifelong friend and also a former student from the University of York. Through various connections still in place within the alumni circle, Amanda became aware of Solomon’s case, and also became very involved in the lobbying, as well as raising awareness for the release of Solomon. Solomon was only able to gain release due to Amanda funding the scholarship set up by Professor Alan Peacock.

In 1972, Solomon was released from prison, on the condition that he did not return to the country. Finally, he returned to York. He would remain at the University for 3 years, graduating with a degree in Economics. Once his time in York had come to an end, Solomon moved to London where he met his late wife and lived there until Rhodesia gained its independence in 1980, becoming the Republic of Zimbabwe. Before his return to Zimbabwe, Solomon lived in Mozambique, becoming Chief of Protocol for a party established by exiled leaders and working within the camps. However, Solomon was unable to remain in this position due to his disputes with the ideology imposed upon members by the leaders. “There was a lot of confusion….. things that were happening with ladies and young girls in the camps did not please me”. Upon his return to Zimbabwe, Solomon took up the position of Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Finance, then in the Ministry of Industry and Commerce and finally, as Trade Attaché and Representative in Malawi, Tanzania and Mauritius, until 1994, when he retired.

Solomon’s story can easily be compared to that of many other freedom fighters within the era of Africa’s civil wars. However, what distinguishes Solomon is the integrity he still maintains to the true values of the ZANU party. He closes the interview by telling us how he questioned Mugabe. “ This may have been a bit out of line, but because of my make up, I did not understand how someone could just get money and rinse it out……without helping the people”. This leads us to ask an uncomfortable question. What will become of a nation, where the freedom fighters have become the oppressors?

Photos courtesy of the University of York Alumni Office

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