His formative years were spent in South Africa with education at Adams College, Natal, and the Jan Hofmeyer School, Johannesburg.
On his return home in 1945 he worked as a welfare officer with Rhodesian Railways. Most Sundays he was a lay preacher. At nights he studied social science gaining a BA externally from the University of South Africa in 1951.
He was appointed general secretary of Rhodesian Railways African Employees’ Association in 1951 and soon made it the best-organised union in Central Africa. It was a stepping stone to politics. Shortly afterwards he was chairman of the Bulawayo branch of the old African National Congress. As such he became a delegate for Matabeleland, accompanying Southern Rhodesian Premier Sir Godfrey Huggins (later Lord Malvern) to London in April 1952 for a conference convened to consider the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
On his return home he abandoned his railway job, taking up insurance work in Bulawayo to give himself more time for politics. He stood for Matabeleland in the first federal elections in 1953 but lost to a fellow African, M. M. Hove. As consolation he plunged into work as
newly elected president of ANC. The party’s fortunes gradually revived in the furore over the Native Land Husbandry Act, which resulted in Africans being forced into urban encampments. On the re-birth of the ANC in Southern Rhodesia on September 12, 1957, Nkomo was elected president. Political tension rose and Premier Sir Edgar Whitehead banned the ANC on February 25, 1959.
Nkomo was in Cairo at the time attending an Afro-Asian conference. Instead of going back home to imprisonment he established a new political base at Golders Green in north London where he became external affairs director of the National Democratic Party, the successor to the banned ANC. After his election as president of the NDP in October 1960 he returned to Rhodesia for two months.
In London on December 5, 1960, with Banda (Nyasaland) and Kaunda (Northern Rhodesia), Nkomo threatened a boycott of the Federal Review Conference unless the British government acceded to separate constitutional conferences on the two Rhodesias. It worked. Eventually agreement was reached in Salisbury on February 7, 1961. Nkomo accepted a settlement giving Africans the prospect of 15 out of 65 seats in the new Parliament. But angry reaction inside his party forced Nkomo to think again and repudiate the deal on February 17, 1961.
He was initialy a Methodist but in 1999 converted into Roman Catholicism.
When the NDP was banned on December 9, 1961, Nkomo again was out of the country, this time at the Tanzania independence celebrations. Eight days later he re-emerged as president of ZAPU. He concentrated upon interesting the United Nations in self-determination for Rhodesia, and succeeded, despite vigorous British opposition, in having Rhodesia recognised as an international question in the General Assembly on June 28, 1962, after he had won the rare distinction of a personal hearing in February. The Whitehead government banned ZAPU
on September 19, 1962. Riots led to police opening fire in Salisbury and Umtali. Youths were being recruited for guerrilla training. Nkomo continued the struggle as leader of the People’s Caretaker Council. As a result he was restricted from October 2 until December 31 in a kraal south of Bulawayo.
Immediately after the Rhodesian Front won the elections in April 1964 Nkomo called for the intervention of British troops and condemned the Smith government as “the suicide squad”. He said: “The situation is so serious that the British government should suspend the constitution and send in troops to maintain law and order while a new constitution is being worked out.”
Premier Ian Smith’s first act was to order the arrest of Nkomo on April 16, 1964, and have him banished to Gonakudzingwa. Although the Court of Appeal on August 13, 1964, upheld the ruling that the restriction orders were illegal, new detention orders were dropped by parachute on Gonakudzingwa and Nkomo stayed in restriction. The PCC was banned on August 26, 1964. Nkomo’s restriction was extended for a further five years on December 6, 1968.
During his long detention his only contact with the outside world was in letters from friends and family and occasional meetings with British ministers. On February 25, 1965, he was flown to Hippo Valley to meet Arthur Bottomley, then British Commonwealth Secretary, and Lord Gardiner, Lord Chancellor, for consultation on a proposed new British constitution. He was taken to Salisbury on October 27, 1965, for talks with Prime Minister Harold Wilson. On November 7, 1968, he had two hours in Salisbury with George Thomson, British Minister taking soundings on the Fearless proposals.
Nkomo’s conviction that NIBMAR no independence before majority rule was the only solution to the
Rhodesian problem was reaffirmed at a meeting with Sir Alec Douglas Home, then Foreign Secretary, in Salisbury on November 20, 1971. When the Pearce Commission, testing opinion on the settlement proposals, met him on February 10, 1972, at Nuantesi cattle station, about 60 miles from his camp, Nkomo was as resolute as ever in rejecting anything short of majority rule for the Africans.
His skill as an advocate abroad winning international support at the United Nations and Afro-Asian conferences earned him a higher reputation for a time than he had at home. It required the ordeal of arrest and detention, being in and out of gaol, to make him the tough, ruthless leader attracting mass support in African townships.