Herbert Chitepo: The war will go on

Phyllis Johnson —
“There will be no talks, no negotiations, no discussions involving our movement until Mr Smith recognises the right to immediate majority rule. That is not majority rule tomorrow, next week, next year or whenever. It is now. Until we hear that man, the rebel leader of the rebel regime, speak those words, our war goes on and it will continue until we have liberated every acre of our country.” (Lusaka, 1974)

Herbert Wiltshire Chitepo was a brilliant scholar, endowed with a clarity and strength of intellect which he further developed through his studies, but his vision and his life work was the liberation of Zimbabwe from colonial rule.

Born into a peasant family at Bonda near Nyanga on June 15, 1923, his parents died when he was a child and he stayed at St Augustine’s Mission School near Mutare for his primary education.

The young Chitepo was 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.

He was the first black lawyer and advocate in Zimbabwe, then called Southern Rhodesia, and the first Director of Public Prosecutions in independent Tanganyika (now Tanzania).

He was very clear about what he was fighting for.

“I could go into the whole theories of discrimination in legislation, in residency, in economic opportunities, in education. I could go into that, but I will restrict myself to the question of land because I think this is very basic,” Chitepo said in Australia in 1973.

“To us, the essence of exploitation, the essence of white domination is domination over land. That is the real issue.”

Chitepo was a founder member of the National Democratic Party in 1960 and of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) in 1962, before leaving to form the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) in August 1963.

He supported unity of the liberation movement towards freedom and independence, but differed in the tactics and timeframe. He wanted independence now, “not tomorrow, next week, next year or whenever. . .now”.

At Zanu’s first Congress held in Gweru in May 1964, he was elected National Chairman. The Congress decided that Zanu would not send any more delegations to London to plead for freedom. The guiding spirit behind the new party was, “We are our own liberators”.

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 until his death in 1975. Chitepo had defended many nationalist figures in Southern Rhodesia in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Mugabe, the Zanu Secretary-General, who was arrested in December 1963, on return from travels that included an address to the United Nations.

“The court was crowded for Mugabe’s appearance in the dock and many had to wait outside,” the Rhodesian Herald reported.

“In a locked courtroom, the chief prosecutor, Mr C. Cockerton, asked for a remand until January 22. But this was opposed by Mugabe’s defence counsel, Advocate H. Chitepo, who is the Director of Public Prosecutions in Tanganyika.”

The newspaper said further that Advocate Chitepo had arrived in the country on a family visit. 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 guerrilla war and whom his comrades described as the “architect” of the Second Chimurenga, the struggle for freedom and independence.

He had met his wife, Victoria, when they were studying at Adams College near Durban, South Africa in the 1940s and they married in 1955.

She was at his side through the liberation struggle and became a Government minister in her own right after independence.

Of her husband, she said he was an inspiration. It was Victoria Chitepo who travelled from Dar es Salaam into the bush in Southern Rhodesia to meet the detained Zanu leaders at Sikombela to carry a message from her husband and consult on the way forward. The nationalists could see that they were in for a long time in prison, as the Rhodesian Front had come to power and replaced its leader with Ian Smith. The Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) was imminent, eventually declared on November 11, 1965.

The message from prison just before UDI resulted in Chitepo moving to Zambia in 1966 to devote himself full-time to advancing the armed struggle. 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. 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.”

The war thereafter had three phases.

That first phase from 1966-1968 was marked by the Battle of Sinoia (Chinhoyi), the first organised act of armed confrontation since the First Chimurenga of the 1890s following the settler occupation of the land, and by the Zapu battles in the north-west of the country. Chitepo was Zanu’s most senior leader at liberty and under his guidance, the party shaped its military wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (Zanla), under the command of Josiah Tongogara. During this period, two key partnerships were forged that changed the course of the liberation war. The first was strengthening the relations with the People’s Republic of China who provided training and logistical support, and shared the methodology of mobilisation that was used to win the liberation war in China in 1949. The second was the approach for collaboration with the the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo) to allow Zanu access into north-eastern Rhodesia via Tete province, which Frelimo had liberated in 1968.

Frelimo leader Samora Machel agreed in May 1970 and a team was sent to Tete for liaison. The third and decisive phase of the war followed, based on mobilisation of the population and launched in the north-east on December 21, 1972.

This phase involved political and 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 regained on April 18 1980.

Herbert Chitepo was a tireless worker and leader who devoted his life to achieving this goal, and ultimately he died for it.

Chitepo’s fiery language and his role in developing Zanu’s new military strategy inevitably made him a target for assassination by the Rhodesian regime. On March 18, 1975, an explosion shattered the morning at 150 Muramba Road in Chilenje South, Lusaka.

In the wreckage of his pale blue Volkswagon lay the body of Herbert Chitepo, 52, National Chairman of Zanu and leader of the Dare reChimurenga, the war council that was directing the infiltration of guerrillas 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, which had been the subject of a deliberate disinformation campaign by Rhodesian CIO that caused considerable confusion.

Brigadier Dudley Coventry, who was still serving in the new Zimbabwe military and training the special forces, 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. Sifting fact from rumour, bias and folklore, and seeking information from those who did not want to talk as well as those who would, this story was told by my late husband, David Martin and myself in our 1985 book, The Chitepo Assassination.

David Martin and Phyllis Johnson, The Struggle for Zimbabwe, 1981; The Chitepo Assassination, 1985

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