A unique piece of Zimbabwean history acquired by Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

This long-sleeved shirt formerly belonged to Charles Makhuya. In the 1970s Charles was a guerrilla / freedom fighter with the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), the armed wing of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).

Charles had been a ZAPU nationalist youth activist in his home town of Bulawayo but at the age of 15, he decided to leave Zimbabwe to join the armed struggle for Zimbabwe’s independence. He left clandestinely, crossing first into Botswana and then onto Zambia, where ZAPU in exile had its headquarters. ZAPU sent him for military training in Angola. He travelled to the Angolan town of Luena in convoy with a group of 2000 other ZIPRA fighters, where he was trained by Cuban and Soviet instructors. He gained expertise in anti-tank warfare as well as medical training, and survived the 1979 bombing of the ZIPRA camps by the Rhodesian Air Force, in which around 200 guerrillas died along with Angolans, 6 Cubans and one Soviet instructor, and more than 1000 were wounded. The trainees were given white long-sleeved shirts by their Cuban trainers. Many individualised these by adding tie-dye designs, using the dye in woollen blankets they possessed, released by immersing these in hot water.

After Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, Charles returned home to Zimbabwe with other ZIPRA colleagues. The first British-supervised independence elections were won by Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union Party (ZANU), and relations between ZANU and ZAPU deteriorated. In the early 1980s, ZAPU and ZIPRA members became a target for “anti-dissident” violence. At this time, any evidence of personal association with ZAPU or ZIPRA brought great risk and most ZIPRA fighters disposed of items that might identify themselves as such, including these distinctive shirts. Charles’s shirt is likely to be one of very few in existence today making it a unique document of a period in Zimbabwe’s turbulent political history.

Royal Pavilion & Museums is grateful to Charles for enabling the shirt’s long-term preservation in a public museum collection and to Zephaniah Nkomo of the Mafela Trust and Professor JoAnn McGregor of the Sussex Africa Centre at the University of Sussex for facilitating its transfer. The acquisition of the shirt forms part of Royal Pavilion & Museums’ Fashioning Africa project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures scheme, which is working with partners to build a new collection reflecting the changes in African fashion identities 1960-2000.

Helen Mears, Keeper of World Art