In 1985, 10 years after Chitepo’s death and five years after his goal of Independence had been achieved, came the first revelation of the facts surrounding his assassination by the Rhodesian regime.
HERBERT Wiltshire Tapfumaneyi Chitepo was born near Nyanga in the lush Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe on June 15, 1923 — the year that the British South Africa Company, a legacy of Cecil Rhodes, lost its grip on the country they called Southern Rhodesia.
The white settlers had voted for “responsible self-government”, and Southern Rhodesia was annexed as a British colony.
One of the earliest nationalists, Abraham Twala, had written in 1922 that “experience has taught us that our salvation does not lie in Downing Street” (the office of the British prime minister).
This perceptive observation was shared by a generation of nationalists who took up arms 40 years later. Among them was Herbert Chitepo.
Chitepo was a man of contrasting images. He was a warm and compassionate family man whom his Rhodesian adversaries regarded as the “brains” behind the guerilla war and whom his comrades described as the “architect” of the Second Chimurenga, the struggle for freedom and independence.
Born into a peasant family, and endowed with a clarity and strength of intellect which he further developed, Chitepo rose to become his country’s first black barrister.
His parents died when he was very young and he was raised by Anglican priests at St Augustine’s Mission School near Mutare. The young Chitepo was a brilliant scholar, always at the top of his class, and he went to South Africa for secondary school and for a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Fort Hare College.
He studied Law in London and was called to the bar at the Middle Temple.
Back home in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Chitepo defended many nationalist figures in Rhodesia before accepting an appointment as the first African Director of Public Prosecutions in Tanganyika (Tanzania) in 1962, soon after that country’s independence.
He combined his legal base with nationalist political work and was a founder member of the National Democratic Party in 1960.
After the NDP was banned, he was a founder member of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union in 1962, and one of those who broke away in August 1963 to form the Zimbabwe African National Union.
Chitepo was instrumental in the decision of the Liberation Committee of the Organisation of African Unity, based in Dar es Salaam, to recognise Zanu as well as Zapu. At Zanu’s first congress in Gweru in 1964, he was elected in absentia as National Chairman.
Many nationalists were arrested soon after, including Robert Mugabe, and served a decade in prison, while those outside the country organised the military response to take back their land, led by Chairman Chitepo.
In 1966, Chitepo decided to leave his prestigious job in Tanzania and move to Zambia to devote himself full-time to reorganising the party and beginning the armed struggle in earnest.
It was a decision that separated Chitepo from many of his contemporaries who sat out the struggle in academic institutions and comfortable jobs, and it was a role that radicalised his views.
He was Zanu’s most senior leader at liberty and under his guidance the party shaped its military wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, under the command of Josiah Tongogara.
April 28, 1966 marked the start of the armed struggle when seven armed guerrillas died in combat with Rhodesian troops in the Battle of Sinoia (Chinhoyi).
This was the first organised act of armed insurrection since the First Chimurenga of the 1890s following the settler occupation of the land.
The war, thereafter, can be divided into three phases.
The first phase from 1966-1968 was marked by the Battle of Sinoia and the battles by Zapu in the north-west of the country in 1967.
Addressing a Chimurenga Day rally on 28 April 1968, Chitepo insisted that the only language the Rhodesian prime minister would understand was violence.
“Zimbabwe was taken from us through bloodshed. Only bloodshed – a bloody chimurenga involving four and a half million of us – can restore Zimbabwe to its owners.”
However, the Rhodesian military power at that time was intimidating and the guerillas had little chance of winning a conventional confrontation.
Chitepo explained that: “We have tried to correct this tragic error by politicising and mobilising the people before mounting any attacks against the enemy. After politicising our people it became easier for them to co-operate with us and to identify with our programme.”
The next phase was a lull while a new strategy was implemented under Chitepo’s leadership, and the third and decisive phase based on political mobilisation of the population was launched in the north-east of the country on December 21, 1972.
Seven years later to the day – on December 21, 1979 – a peace agreement was signed after negotiations in London, democratic elections were held in February 1980, and independence won on April 18, 1980.
Herbert Chitepo was a tireless worker and leader who devoted his life to achieving this goal, and ultimately died for it.
He was known as a strategic thinker and a gifted orator, and when he addressed the Sixth Pan-African Congress in Dar es Salaam in 1974, he proposed a global strategy against imperialism.
“By cutting off the tentacles of imperialism to the periphery we will deprive the white working class in capitalist countries of their high standards of living they have enjoyed because of the super profits that the multi-national corporations reaped in under-developed countries.
“It is only when the exploited working class of both black and white realise that they have a common enemy, a common oppressor and a common exploiter that they will unite and jointly seek to overthrow the capitalist system. This is our global strategy against capitalism, racism and imperialism.”
Such activities and speeches did not endear Chitepo to the Rhodesian regime, or the West; nor did his role in the formulation of Zanu’s military strategy in the 1970s.
Chitepo’s fiery language and the fact that he was the front man enunciating radical party policy inevitably made him a target for assassination by the Rhodesian regime.
Just after 8am on March 18, 1975 an explosion shattered the morning routine in Chilenje South and echoed across the southern suburbs of Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia, headquarters of the liberation movements fighting against colonial or minority administrations in Southern Africa.
A pall of smoke and dust in the early morning sunlight cast grey shadows across the drive at 150 Muramba Road, shrouding the mangled remains of a pale blue Volkswagen.
In the wreckage lay the body of Herbert Chitepo (51), National Chairman of Zanu and leader of Dare re Chimurenga, the war council that was directing the infiltration of guerillas into Southern Rhodesia.
In 1985, 10 years after Chitepo’s death and five years after his goal of independence had been achieved, came the first revelation of the facts surrounding his assassination by the Rhodesian regime.
Brigadier Dudley Coventry, who was still serving in the new Zimbabwe military and training the Special Forces, made another contribution to healing the wounds of the past when he provided the names of the late Chuck Hind and Ian Sutherland (by then relocated from Zambia to South Africa) and other details to two well-known journalists, the first link in a chain to others and a meticulous piecing together of details.
Sifting fact from rumour, bias and folklore; seeking information from those who did not want to talk as well as those who would; and testing the delicate balance of racial reconciliation, in the belief that only the truth could begin the process of healing, this story was told by my late husband, David Martin, and myself in our 1985 book, “The Chitepo Assassination”.
Parts of that book were borrowed almost verbatim by Peter Stiff in revising his own book, as revealed in his interview last week with The Sunday Mail, now 40 years after the death of the national hero, Herbert Wiltshire Tapfumaneyi Chitepo.
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