‘Marechera was the epitome of this simmering revolt’— Musaemura Zimunya remembers the Pots and Pans Protest of 1973

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Chimukwembe demonstration, aka the ‘Pots and Pans Protest’, a student uprising in Harare, Zimbabwe (then Salisbury, Rhodesia) that had lasting consequences for Zimbabwean literature. Author and poet Musaemura Zimunya, a key protagonist, remembers.

Header image: Student demonstration on 7 August 1973 after the disciplinary hearing and police response. Source: Rhodesian Herald, in the University of Zimbabwe Library Godlonton Collection, from Dambudzo Marechera: A Source Book on His Life and Work by Flora Veit-Wild (1992)
Musaemura Zimunya

I was barely five months into my first year at the University of Rhodesia when the Chimukwembe riot—‘The Pots and Pans Demo’ (demonstration) or ‘Pots and Pans Protest’—erupted in early August, 1973. It happened in a way no one could have predicted. At the time, the total student enrolment at the University of Rhodesia (now the University of Zimbabwe) was about one thousand, comprising seven hundred white students and three hundred blacks. This racial mix was made possible by the Royal Charter, the governing instrument signed by the young Queen Elizabeth in 1955, during the middle years of the Federation of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (Malawi), which ran from 1953 to 1963. The charter decreed that race and religion, class and nationality would not be used to bar any teacher or student with the necessary qualifications from the university. This modelled the university into an island of multiracialism in the heart of the posh Salisbury (now Harare) suburbs of Mount Pleasant and Alexandra Park, thus allowing blacks to freely study and stay in the halls of residence without hindrance, much against the racial doctrine of segregation championed by the Ian Smith settler colonial government. The founding principal Walter Adams preferred the term ‘non-racial’ to the ‘multiracial’ then in common use. However, all these were mere euphemisms referring to the same phenomenon and did little to water down the ideology underpinning colonial structures and the behaviour of the colonists.

This is how our generation came to be at the university, along with Dambudzo Charles Marechera (the future author of The House of Hunger) and Stanley Nyamfukudza (the future author of the novel The Non-Believer’s Journey) who, like me, were to be some of independent Zimbabwe’s literary trailblazers. Others attending university at the same time were Simba Makoni, a future minister of finance in Robert Mugabe’s cabinet, Witness Mangwende, now late, a foreign affairs minister in the nineteen-nineties, and the scholar Ibbo Mandaza (then Ibbo Joseph). We sat in the same lecture rooms with white students and attended the same tutorials. In the context of the larger Rhodesian social order, this was a contradiction. Up until university level, there were two systems of education, one so-called ‘European’, the other ‘African’. Europeans followed a very broad curriculum where those who excelled academically sat for AEB examinations at Ordinary and Advanced Levels, while others could train at polytechnics for professional, mining and industrial jobs. As a chosen lot, their curriculum was specially designed to provide them with maximum preparation to take advantage of the vast opportunities beckoning ahead of them. Not so with us black students. Africans took the Cambridge Ordinary and Advanced Level Exams en route to university, with punishing screening hurdles along the way from primary school to eliminate competition with the Europeans. Otherwise, our lot was narrowly confined to ill-rewarding opportunities in teaching or junior clerical jobs, at best. At worst, we became fodder for menial jobs in factories or in the mines; or ‘dhaka boys’ in the construction industry; or field labourers on commercial farms and ‘garden boys’ and ‘kitchen boys’ in urban domestic service.

It is true to say that by the time we arrived at university level, we were as good as, if not better than, the white students, on account of the much more gruelling Cambridge school syllabus. The only area some of us found challenging would have been spoken language competence, not written language—grammar, spelling and expression. Many African students were assumed to be weak in spoken English and obliged to take lessons in the language laboratory to improve their skills. I, Marechera, and other ‘pretentious’ fellow black students endured what we considered a premeditated and selective humiliation administered by a hostile system.

The much-vaunted multiracialism of the institution was not successful enough to conceal or eradicate racial tensions arising from the colonially inherited social prejudices. In fact, it fostered even more suspicions, mistrust, resentment and a perpetual state of racial unease. There were few, very, very few real friendships between black and white students. In classrooms, white students tended to zone themselves away from black students while black students timidly grouped together separately. The segregation was made worse by the fact that most white students lived away from campus. Further, while they could not openly show their prejudice, some lecturers—all of them white—would hardly ever show encouragement to black students, indicating their regard for us as some sort of academic irritant through preferential treatment, subtle or blatant, for their fellow whites. For example, very few black students would achieve more than a B- pass, the majority ranging from F to C+. Instead of deterring African students, this environment achieved the very opposite—the hardening of resilience which they had evolved throughout their underprivileged education, in addition to fuelling the bitter struggle for freedom.

Marechera was the epitome of this simmering revolt. In spite of his speech impediment, he, ever the exhibitionist, would never shy away from carrying tomes of reference books to class for his English literature seminar presentations. He strode with an arrogant gait, a cigarette in one hand, seeming to relish striking intellectual terror in the hearts of the white racists.

Outside class, there were white-run clubs where blacks would find no comfort in association. I remember auditioning for a role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I found myself overwhelmed by white students who kept chattering and mumbling until I couldn’t keep my concentration, leading to a complete collapse of my confidence. Shattered, I walked out, terribly frustrated and never to go back. There were university balls—dances—which would be very expensive, apart from restricting entry to couples. Black male students would have had to have girlfriends at Harari Hospital, on the other side of town, assuming they had the money to hire taxis to and from campus for the occasion, on top of paying the high entry charges. Marechera would, from time to time, invite himself to the hall entrance without a partner. This, invariably, led to a misunderstanding, a fracas and racial violence. So, in the end, blacks would settle for association in ethnic clubs like the Shona Society for Shona-speaking students and the Ndebele Society for those who spoke Ndebele. The climax of their activities were tours to Great Zimbabwe, Matopo Hills, or Khami Ruins close to Bulawayo.

Bythe time I entered the University of Rhodesia, I was already a nationally acclaimed poet, having routinely published in Two Tone, a Rhodesian quarterly magazine; in a biennial magazine called Rhodesian Poetry; and in New Coin, a South African journal. One day, Marechera quietly invited me to his room at Manfred Hodson Hall to see his work. As I sat on his bed, going through his neatly calligraphed writings in a big, hardbound black exercise book, I was overawed by his language, some of it beyond my understanding. At the end of it he asked for my opinion, but I could only say it was good, unwilling to tell him I hardly understood it.

On 27 July, we woke up for breakfast and to some bad news. As we were perusing newspapers in the common room, someone brought to our attention a newspaper article in the Rhodesia Herald. It was a parliamentary backbencher in the Rhodesian Front (RF)—Smith’s party—denouncing black students at university for being unkempt, noisy, and filthy drunkards who vomited chibuku,African millet beer, in the corridors of our halls of residence and routinely brought ‘prostitutes’ onto the highly spruced up campus—and what else besides. I imagine the very thought of so-called prostitutes conjured up images of sickness in the neighbourhood of white suburbs, painting a picture of a decadent culture in this pristine institution and suburb. He accused us of bringing academic and civilised standards down and urged the government to turn Gwelo Teachers’ College, over two hundred kilometres south of Salisbury, into a Bantustan university to which we could be relocated. That was the final straw that we—black students, that is—needed to be provoked.

By the end of the day, a meeting had been called where a resolution was passed to demonstrate in town. The following day, we made our way into town, furtively, in small groups to avoid detection. Slowly, we gathered together in Cecil Square (now Africa Unity Square), a park in central Salisbury, until nearly three hundred of us were ready to go. We marched several times around the Anglican cvathedral-cum-parliament building block, wielding placards denouncing Smith, his Rhodesian Front party and the offending MP, all the while singing ‘Ishe Komborerai Africa’ (‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’), attempting to goad the riot police. After they did not come, out of frustration, we decided to march towards the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a street away, on Jameson Avenue. We then dumped our placards there and went back to campus. After some deliberation, we resolved to enter the administrative building, occupy offices and immobilise all operations unless the principal, Professor Robert Craig, addressed us. As he did. After a few words reassuring us of his support, he asked us to tell him our grievances. Several contributions were made, out of which the following list was adopted:

  1. We were angry at the unprovoked racist remarks made by the parliamentarian and even angrier at the Principal’s weak unsatisfactory response;
  2. This response did nothing to protect us against humiliation from the same Rhodesian Front quarters;
  3. We reminded the Principal that the racism displayed by the MP was not an isolated phenomenon but that everywhere around campus there was racial prejudice—in halls of residence, among fellow white students, lecturing staff and gangs of white thugs, some of them in army uniforms, who would come to tank at the Students’ Union bar and thereafter target African students, leaving a trail of havoc;
  4. Our fellow female students reported being sneered at by white females over false claims of ‘unhygienic practices’ etc; and so
  5. We demanded a commission of enquiry to look into these grievances.

Like a true liberal, the Principal acceded to our demands; he agreed to set up a committee comprising a few student representatives and university teaching staff to enquire into the grievances and gave it two weeks to report back. When the committee gave its report, it concluded that there was no solid proof of racial prejudice on campus. It was this cover-up that rubbed salt into our already festering wounds, and which triggered the riots the following day, Friday, 3 August, 1973. We resolved to boycott classes, go around campus raiding the kitchens, collecting pots and pans—hence the moniker the ‘Pots and Pans Demo’. In addition, we collected utensils, tea urns, tea pots and tea cups, teaspoons, sugar basins, dining room keys—every essential for cooking and serving food. While this was going on, other students went around campus collecting hoovers, brooms, picks, shovels, hoes, grass mowers, building and carpentry equipment, workshop keys, university motor vehicle keys, bus keys and tractor keys. These acts were meant to be our improvised ‘emancipation’ of workers. In short, we were determined to bring all university operations to a halt and make it impossible for any academic activities to proceed as normal.

By midday, campus was almost lifeless except for our riot. Around the same time we were called together for some disturbing news. Police would visit campus at night to make raids and arrests, so we were advised to find a place to sleep overnight in the townships. I slept in National, Harari (now Mbare), at the home of my relatives, the Mapfumos (the household in which the musician Thomas Mapfumo lived). The following morning, my cousin William—Thomas’ younger brother—and I were sent to buy bread. On our way to the shops, we saw a newspaper banner headline that read: UNIVERSITY STUDENTS RUN RIOT. On the front page was a group of students, one of whom was carrying a pick caught by a close up photo, chasing some unknown target. ‘Ndimika uyu, mukoma! Ah-ah-ah-ah! Zvino muchaita sei?’ William exclaimed. (‘Isn’t this you, bro!? Now, what will you do?’).

By the time I got back for lunch at the university, it appeared as though everyone—black and white—was looking for me. To the whites, I was now a ‘celebrity, hey!’ while to the blacks I was the face of the riot. Early in the evening, summonses were slid under our doors for certain persons to appear for disciplinary hearings at the Llewelyn Lecture Theatre on Monday at 2 p.m. Among these were Simba Makoni, Witness Mangwende, Heneri Dzinotyiweyi, Ian Makone and, of course, Dambudzo Marechera. On the Monday, we spent the afternoon outside the Llewellyn Lecture Theatre toyi-toying, singing ‘Ishe Komborerai Africa’ and chimurenga songs of the time, until proceedings ended at around eight in the evening. As if the authorities had guessed, or a mole had whispered in their ears, that we would storm the buildings should any of our fellow students be expelled, they postponed the verdict to 10 a.m. the next day, Tuesday, 7 August. It was on this very day we went around campus singing songs of war, while Marechera carried his placard that yelled the words: ‘NHASI MUCHAMAMA HUTSI’ (‘TODAY YOU WILL SHIT SMOKE’).

Around 10.30 a.m., the verdict was pronounced. Simba Makoni emerged from the lecture theatre to make the announcement: all the students who had been summonsed for disciplinary hearings had been expelled from the university. A mood as of a funeral gripped us and all our anger resurfaced as we trooped silently up the hill to mount an assault on the administration building with stones. Police were following us without any idea where we were going, until the glass panes of the administration building began to shatter and crash; and soon they and their dogs were on our tails. We narrowly avoided storming the Students’ Union building, as we heard someone shouting, ‘That’s ours! That’s ours, please don’t!’ But soon we were bearing down on the newly constructed Senior Common Room, not very far from the Students’ Union centre, whose generous glass window facade we could not resist shattering. Then the police and their dogs were upon us—157 of us, just over half the black student body—as we ran towards the rugby field where we eventually gathered, were surrounded, and were ordered to surrender. We were then ordered into prison vans and, once in, a police officer warned, ‘If they sing their “Komborera komborera”, shoot them!’

It is important to understand that we were more than ready to volunteer to climb up into the prison vans, the ‘Black Marias’, and go to jail. A resolution had been made that no one should run away from the police, but that we should stand our ground, no matter what; and that it would be the height of treason to run away while others got arrested and jailed. After all, this was the war about which we had been chanting. This was our moment to make a political statement that would reverberate across the land and throughout Africa and the rest of the world, just as our liberation fighters had done with the Altena Farm attack on Christmas Eve of 1972, which inaugurated in earnest the armed phase of the freedom struggle.

The first few days of our arrest were spent on fingerprinting—from about 8 a.m. to about 4 p.m. When they were finished with us, we were paraded on the Tomlinson Depot football ground for identification. There we sat, knees up, one behind the other, in about ten rows. We could guess who the CIDs were looking for: riot ringleaders and characters caught on camera during the demo. As a front page icon, I shuddered at the thought of being identified and hauled out of the line, perhaps out of the group as well!

Then, after that, what grim prospects should I expect? I, poor son of a poor mother and father: sole egg of mother eagle, as the Shona would say. I was very nervous because there was nowhere to hide from those notorious CIDs of Ian Smith. They were moving between the lines, scrutinising our profiles one by one while comparing them with that wretched individual on the front page, chasing some invisible mirage on the way to a Rhodesian jail.

Whatever awaited me, any minute, ever since that ill-fated newspaper appearance, I had done my best to disguise myself. You see, from that front page photo, my Afro crown would have given me away without much fuss. But my hair was soft and malleable as wool and easy to sweep backwards, even with my bare hands, flat against my head. Secondly, that rioter in the photo was not wearing spectacles, but the prisoner was. Anyway, having done my best, I could only wait with bated breath—literally.

The three CIDs had now moved to our line, somewhere ahead of me. Naturally, a few fellow captives turned their eyes in my direction, in pity or sympathy. They were all waiting for a moment of the imminent drama. Then the CIDs stopped by one student who was also sporting a rich Afro crown, somewhere ahead of me, almost identical to the one on the front page. They took their time scrutinising his profile, frequently referring and pointing to the photo on the front page. Although the moment gripped everyone’s attention, it affected me the most.

‘Do you know this person?’ asked the investigator, showing him the front page picture.

‘No, I do not,’ the student responded uncomfortably.

‘Now, you, don’t tell me bloody lies! Stand up and follow me,’ roared the officer.

The prisoner rose up, terrified and trembling, but stretching himself tall, he pleaded: ‘Look at me, please, officer, the man in that photo is not my height; moreover, I have a much darker skin than him. I can swear I am not he who you are looking for, I don’t even know him.’

By the time he finished talking, they were already walking up the line in my direction, having realised their mistake. They only gave me a cursory glance and proceeded to the back of the line, turned back to the next line and walked towards the front, checking another line without success.

Back in the remand prison, we were visited by a detective chief who invited us to assess our situation. His proposal was: we should plead guilty in order to speed up our trial, and plead for leniency so that our situation could be resolved quickly and we could go back to university promptly. After five or so days of uncertainty and fear of the unknown, the proposal was sweet news and we fell for it.

We soon realised we had been fooled. For the entire long and tedious three weeks of our trial, everyone had a case to answer for. We were detainees, denied the option of remand on bail. We were detainees, denied the option of remand on bail. Every morning, we were driven to the Rotten Row courts and dropped in the freezing underground cells, waiting our turn to be taken to the courtrooms. Those cells were designed to remind you of who your ruler was: they were like mortuaries, a place for the dead. You really felt irrelevant, to yourself, your family, your country, and the world.

We were jailed for prison terms ranging from nine to fifteen months, depending on the severity of the charge, and with no option of fines.

A few days before we were divided and scattered across several prisons across the country, we were taken out to the prison yard to relax. There we found ourselves mixing with all kinds of prisoners in jail for various offences. In the yard was an old man in his late sixties, perhaps seventies, with whom we started chatting to find out why he was there. He was a villager from St Albert’s Mission, in the restive Mount Darwin area in the north, who had been tortured, then tried, and jailed for refusing to divulge information about the activities of ‘terrorists’ who had been infiltrating the area, leading to the sensational kidnapping of high school pupils who were then taken across the border into Mozambique to train as guerrillas. As soon as the old man realised we were political prisoners, he bared his back, which was tattooed with streaks of keloid tissue from wounds caused by the savage sjamboks of his erstwhile captors. This encounter provided yet another shocking link between us and the liberation war, a reminder of the irrevocable direction our struggle was taking us.

Following the completion of our sentences—I was incarcerated at Marandellas Prison, where the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) nationalist Josiah Chinamano was also held—we were banned from entering or being found within a ten kilometre radius of Salisbury. We were, effectively, no longer allowed to study in Rhodesia, the University of Rhodesia being the only university in the country. In one fell swoop, fifty per cent of the black student body then admitted at the university was gone. That’s how I and many others ended up in the United Kingdom, thanks to the Commonwealth Secretariat who laid on scholarships. I enrolled at the University of Kent, while Marechera ended up at Oxford, from where, after being sent down, he wrote the book The House of Hunger, winner of the 1979 Guardian Fiction Prize.

  • Musaemura Zimunya is a Zimbabwean poet, editor and retired teacher who taught at universities in the United States and Zimbabwe. His poetry collections include Country Dawns and City Lights and Thought Tracks and, with Mudereri Kadhani, he is the editor of the poetry anthology And Now the Poets Speak. 

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