A Rhodesian Man-Hunt

By J.M. Helliwell

Illustrated by T.T. Cuneo

In 1933, four native “bad hats,” escaping from jail in Southern Rhodesia, led the British South Africa Police a merry dance for over a year, during which time, heavily armed with bows and arrows, assegais and knobkerries they committed many further crimes and traversed hundreds of miles of wild country to the south-east of Belingwe as far as the Portuguese border. In the end, however, the Law triumphed.

The author - J.M. Helliwell
The author – J.M. Helliwell

In December 1933, four natives made a daring escape from the jail in Belingwe, in Southern Rhodesia, and a brief notice concerning the “get-away” appeared in the official Gazette circulated among the fifty-odd British South Africa Police stations and posts throughout the country.  This raised the curtain, so to speak, on a drama which was destined to occupy the attention of the authorities in the south-eastern portion of Southern Rhodesia for over a year, and to end, fittingly enough, with the villains of the piece dying on the stage.

The four convicts who had escaped were Mapfumo, Runesu, Makoti and Zifuna; they were all members of the Mazungura, a large clan which, before 1890 had established themselves among the hills in the eastern parts of the Belingwe district, terrorizing the neighbouring villages by constant raids on property and cattle. At the time of the jail-break Makoti and Zifuna were serving sentences for stock-thefts, while Mapfumo and Runesu – two really dangerous criminals – were awaiting trial on charges of stock-theft, store-breaking and rape.

For a month nothing was heard of the “wanted” men; they had disappeared in the Belingwe Native Reserve, a vast broken, hilly country covered for the most part by the all-concealing Rhodesian bush.

Early in January, 1934, a complaint was received at the Police and Native Department post in the Chibi Reserve, which adjoined the Belingwe Reserve.  A native stated that a few days previously a stranger had appeared at his village armed with an assegai.

That evening some fifteen head of cattle were let out of the kraal; the stranger vanished at the same time as the animals.  The complainant had followed the spoor of the animals across the Lundi River, which divides the two Reserves, and well into the Belingwe Reserve.  Eventually, being in a strange country, he became nervous, returned to Chibi, and reported the affair.

A native constable, Mushuku by name, was detailed to accompany the complainant and endeavour to apprehend the stock-thief.  For thirty miles they followed the trail of the cattle, and then Mushuku and the complainant – who had been joined by two other natives of his village – found themselves in the hills amongst which the Mazungura clan had their villages.  The spoor ended at a small hamlet, where they found the stolen beasts huddled together in a kraal.

The village appeared to be completely deserted, but presently a native approached from the other end.  His bearing was arrogant; he demanded to know what the constable wanted there. Now Mushuku, who was stationed at Chibi, was not familiar with the appearance of the four prisoners who had escaped from Belingwe. Hi did know, however, that he was in one of the Mazungura villages, and incidentally realized just how much reliance he could place upon the complainant and his two friends, who were obviously terrified at finding themselves in so dangerous locality.

Mushuku calmly informed the haughty stranger that as the cattle in the kraal were stolen, and had been traced to his village it would be necessary to detain him for enquiries.  Thereupon the strange native (who was none other than Makoti, one of the escapees), laughed derisively. He did not care to be arrested that day, he retorted, adding that the cattle were his own, and that he was going to a beer-drink.  He advised Mushuku to leave the village before he was driven out. Then, with magnificent impudence, Makoti sauntered away, presumably heading for the scene of the beer-drink.

But he didn’t get far; the native constable caught him up, threw him to the ground, and – although a much smaller man than Makoti – succeeded in putting the handcuffs on him. Mushuku then secured the scowling prisoner to himself with a length of riem (ox-thong) and instructed the trembling complainant and his friends to release the cattle from the kraal and follow him.  This was duly done, and the little party set off on the long return journey to Chibi police-camp.

After travelling a few miles in this fashion they observed three natives armed with knobkerries bearing down on them from the rear – the remaining escapees from Belingwe jail.  Forthwith the complainant and his two companions fled, leaving the cattle and abandoning the native constable to his fate.

Overtaking Mushuku, the trio attacked him fiercely, Mushuku defended himself bravely, but was soon beaten to the ground.  His prisoner was then released, the key of the handcuffs being taken from the constable’s haversack, and Mushuku was himself handcuffed and the key thrown away into the bush. Makoti, apparently greatly enraged at the affront which had been put upon him, was all for cutting the luckless constable’s throat.  The point of the knife had actually penetrated Mushuku’s skin when he was dissuaded from this drastic step by his friend Zifuna. The quartette contented themselves with beating Mushuku insensible.

In this condition –  badly injured, with several teeth missing, and a fractured arm – they threw him into the thick bush at the side of the path and left him.  He was still unconscious when found some hours later by the valiant cattle-owner and his companions, who, after the danger was well past, plucked up courage to return! The native constable was then helped into Chibi, where he arrived in a very sorry state.

The man-hunt was now well and truly “on”. Zifuna, believing that the unfortunate Mushuku had been killed, surrendered in order to exonerate himself, and shortly afterwards Makoti was caught by a patrol.  He was secured when sleeping and, though well-armed, was unable to put up any resistance. Tried at the High Court at Gwelo, Makoti received six years’ hard labour for the assault on the constable. Mushuku was highly commended by the judge for the plucky way in which he had conducted himself, and was afterwards awarded the Police Medal.

The two most dangerous criminals, Mapfumo and Runesu, still remained at large, and with a view to capturing them patrols under the direction of mounted troopers were sent to comb the Belingwe Reserve.  With an impudence that compelled reluctant admiration the two ruffians travelled through the country accompanied by three women, who acted as their carriers and cooks.

Both convicts were heavily armed with bows and arrows, assegais and knobkerries. They robbed villages of grain, beer, and even cattle, threatening the inhabitants with such dire vengeance if they complained that the victims not only refused to divulge any information, but even refused to admit they had been robbed!

Both convicts were heavily armed with bows and arrows
Both convicts were heavily armed with bows and arrows

When news of these raids did eventually leak out, the tidings were so old that by the time the patrols reached the scene the “wanted” men had vanished.  The nature of the country afforded them every protection in the way of cover.  They travelled by night through rocky hills; in the daytime they lay hidden in the thick bush.

As the weeks went by the position began to look pretty hopeless; rewards offered for information leading to the arrest of the fugitives met with no response, and the authorities seemed to be making no headway.

Now it happened that a certain Chief Singala, whose country lay on the Belingwe-Nuanetsi-West Nicholson border, had an ancient feud with the Mazungura, and as a result he made the only attempt, so far as the natives were concerned, to put an end to the criminal depredations of the two outlaws.  One day he learned that Mapfumo and Runesu and their attendant womenfolk were living in a cave in the Runai Hills, overlooking the Nuanetsi River. This report was followed by another, to the effect that the fugitives had raided a nearby village and carried off a quantity of Kaffir beer and food; they had also stolen a calf.

The nearest police patrol was over thirty miles to the north, and the incensed Chief decided to act on his own.  Early the next morning, therefore, he advanced on the hill with about twenty men drawn from nearby villages and armed with assegais and knobkerries. The outlaws spotted them approaching and, while the three women made their get-away down the steep bluff overlooking the river, actually advanced to meet the villagers, shouting insults and threats.

Getting to close quarters, the two ruffians discharged numbers of arrows at their attackers, driving them to cover. This accomplished, they took to their heels, clambered down the bluff, splashed across the river, and disappeared among the hills on the farther bank.  No real attempt was made to follow them; the Chief’s followers had had enough!  The fugitives left behind them in their cave quantities of weapons and foodstuffs; the remains of the stolen calf were also found, and were seen when the police patrol, of which the writer was in charge, arrived on the scene the following day.

The two ruffians discharged numbers of arrows
The two ruffians discharged numbers of arrows

After this skirmish Mapfumo and Runesu apparently disappeared into thin air; for several months no trace of them could be discovered. They had vanished into the thick bush of the Nuanetsi district, a vast area of some twenty thousand square miles, sparsely populated with natives in the north and extreme south, and infested with game of every description.

Shortly after the incident just described, however, Chief Singala received a message, through some source which he declined to divulge, that caused him to seek protection of the police at Nuanetsi, some hundred and twenty miles south of his village. The Chief was greatly alarmed; he was convinced that the outlaws would return, murder him and burn his village, by way of avenging the attack on them.

It may seem incredible to European minds that two criminals fleeing from justice could so thoroughly terrorize a whole countryside, but it must be remembered that for generations the warlike Mazungura clan had been held in the utmost awe by more peaceful natives.  The exploits that followed the outlawry of Mapfumo and Runesu had increased this legendary prestige to almost magical proportions.

Considerations of space render it impossible to relate in detail the long chase that followed on the part of various patrols. There were false clues galore, leading to numerous forced marches wherein white troopers led handfuls of native police for twenty or thirty miles through the night to raid some hill or hiding-place – only to find that the information was incorrect or that the birds had flown days previously.

In June, 1934, the two European patrols still operating were withdrawn until more definite news was forthcoming as to the whereabouts of the outlaws.  The latter were now lying very low, but it was certain that, sooner or later, they would give their position away by visiting inhabited areas in search of food and beer.  The Rhodesian native cannot long resist the temptation of a beer-drink and the amenities of village life.

In July, 1934, two native police – one of them armed with a Martini-Henry rifle – were on patrol near the Lundi River, in the northern portion of the Nuanetsi district. They received information that the fugitives might be found at Huku’s village, on the Lundi River, and immediately proceeded thither, arriving in the early morning.  Unseen by the constables, Mapfumo and Runesu, who were actually there, slipped out of the place ahead of them, but the police found the outlaws’ there women companions and detained them for inquiries.  The headman of the village, Huku, was also arrested on a charge of harbouring the fugitives.

The whole party was assembled in Huku’s hut preparatory to setting off on the long trek to the police-post at Nuanetsi, when Mapfumo and Runesu, who had returned to rescue their womenfolk, rushed in.

Native Constable Kachingwe raised his rifle and fired at Runesu at point-blank range. There was a click, but nothing more; the weapon had misfired. (Subsequent investigation proved that this particular stock of ammunition contained a large proportion of faulty cartridges). Runesu promptly lunged at the constable with his assegai, piercing him in the fleshy part of the groin, and Kachingwe fell to the ground. His comrade, thinking that all was up, managed to slip out of the hut and get away.

He did not wait to ascertain Kachingwe’s fate, but made straight for Nuanetsi, arriving two days later, and reporting that his companion had been killed by the outlaws.  This native constable was later tried for cowardice and discharged from the Force.

As a matter of fact Kachingwe had not been killed, but escaped death only by a very narrow margin. As he fell to the ground, still clutching the rifle, Runesu stabbed him again. Throwing up his left arm to protect himself, the constable received the thrust in the forearm, the assegai severing all the tendons and cutting through to the bone. Next instant Mapfumo leaped forward, grabbed the rifle, and crashed the butt down on Kachingwe’s head, stunning him and fracturing his skull.  The outlaws then made off with their women, leaving the unfortunate constable lying in his blood.

 Word of this affair reached a European trader in the Reserve, who tended the injured constable until such time as the Government Medical Officer from Fort Victoria came out and had him removed to hospital. Kachingwe eventually recovered from his injuries, but was invalided out of the Force and given a pension as medically unfit for further service. Huku, the village headman, was sentenced to a long term of imprisonment for harbouring the outlaws.

Once more the chase was resumed; but the two criminals, realizing that this latest outrage had stirred up a veritable hornet’s nest, disappeared into the uninhabited bushveld and made their way swiftly southwards down the Lundi River towards the Portuguese border, two hundred miles to the south-east.

Eventually information filtered through that they had been seen in the Shangaan country, on the Portuguese side of the line. The Portuguese authorities readily agreed to collaborate with the B.S.A. police in the capture of these elusive rascals, but their efforts did not prove of much assistance. The officials were now almost at their wits’ end; it looked as though a condition of stalemate had been reached. For many months indeed, Mapfumo and Runesu lay “doggo” in Portuguese territory.

When it is realized that this Portuguese territory borders Nuanetsi for at least a hundred miles, and that the establishment of the local police-post consisted of only one N.C.O. two white troopers, and eight native police, it will be understood that – even with the assistance of occasional patrols from other districts – the task that confronted the men on the spot was one of extreme difficulty.  All the time, more-over, normal duties had to proceed uninterrupted, and only such officers as could be spared were allotted to the manhunt.

In December, 1934, Trooper Cunningham, who was patrolling the border with two native constables, received information that Mapfumo and Runesu, or two men who closely resembled them, had crossed the frontier and were now heading north.

Cunningham was on foot, the waterless nature of the country prohibiting the use of horses. A long forced march through the night brought him to where his quarry had been observed by a passing native the day before. This was near the Nuanetsi River, and Cunningham came to the conclusion that the fugitives would head northwards along its course through the dry and uninhabited region that lay between them and their old stamping grounds.

But which bank would they follow? The country hereabouts is covered with thick thorny bush, and the nature of the ground is such as to make tracking impracticable. After thinking things over Cunningham detailed one native constable to advance along the left bank; he himself worked up the right one. The other constable was to keep to the right and make his way through the bush some distance from the river. Both men were instructed to communicate with their superior should they find any trace of the outlaws.

Keeping in constant touch with his two assistants, Trooper Cunningham moved slowly up the river until two o’clock in the afternoon. He was about to call a halt when he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand leading towards the water, and soon afterwards heard native voices from among the tall bounders in the river-bed directly in front of him.

Before he could make up his mind what to do, a couple of natives carrying bows and arrows and axes appeared from among the rocks and commenced to trudge across the sand towards the bank. There could be no doubt about it – they were the “wanted” men! Raising his .303 rifle to his shoulder Cunningham called upon them in the native dialect to surrender.

The nearest man dropped
The nearest man dropped

The fugitives instantly halted, cast one look at him over their shoulders, and then bolted. Cunningham fired at the nearest, who threw up his arms and dropped, and then loosed off two more shots in the direction of the second man. One seemed to score a hit, for the man staggered, but recovered himself, and disappeared into the bush. Dashing up to the fallen native, Cunningham discovered that he was Mapfumo. He had been hit in the left hip, and was in a semi-conscious state.

Just then the native constables appeared on the scene, and took up Runesu’s spoor. A spot of blood on a blade of grass showed that he had been hit, but of Runesu himself there was no sign, and Cunningham came to the conclusion that he had sustained a non-disabling wound in the fleshy part of the leg. Once again the all-concealing bush baffled the best efforts of the police, and Runesu got clear away.

Mapfumo was removed to the nearest road, a motor-track running from the police-camp at Nuanetsi to the border, and then taken to hospital in Fort Victoria. Here he lingered for six weeks, eventually dying from the effects of his injury.

It seemed certain that the wounded Runesu, now left all alone, would make his way to his home-country, far to the north, and the search was accordingly concentrated in that direction. He eluded the vigilance of the patrols, however, until within fifty miles of the Belingwe border.  Passing through Chief Chitanga’s country, his trail was picked up by a patrol of three native constables, who eventually came upon him in the bush near the Lundi River. The fugitive was limping badly and, seeing his pursuers and realizing the futility of flight, he halted and prepared to make a stand.

Makoti & Zifuna in jail at Belingwe
Makoti & Zifuna in jail at Belingwe

Native Constable Makiyi, who was armed with a Martini-Henry rifle, called on upon Runesu to surrender, but the outlaw returned a scornful refusal and raised his bow to shoot. Thereupon Makiyi fired two shots at a range of some seventy-five yards, but missed.  Throwing down the rifle, he advanced upon Runesu with his two companions, dodging nimbly from tree to tree to avoid the arrows which the fugitive was now loosing at them.

All the natives had knobkerries; Constable Majohnnie, in addition carried a throwing spear. As they advanced they separated, closing in on their quarry from different points. Presently Majohnnie threw his assegai, piercing Runesu’s leg. The outlaw, however was still defiant; he promptly plucked it out and hurled it back, shouting to the constables to come forward and fight like men.

Taking the ruffian at his word, the trio rushed in. Runesu, having exhausted his supply of arrows, was now brandishing an axe, and leaped forward to meet them. A fierce melee ensued; the Runesu fell dead, his skull fractured in half-a-dozen places.

Thus ended an eventful chase which had occupied more than a year and extended over hundreds of miles of the wildest country in Southern Rhodesia.