Chitepo’s fight for land

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This story was first published on 21/03/2016

By Patience Rusare

LAND ranked highest among the grievances that motivated the black majority to launch the First and Second Chimurenga/Imfazwe to free the country from colonial oppression.

It is worth noting that in the period preceding the liberation war, mwana wevhu/umntwana womhlabathi (child of the soil) became the nationalists’ rallying call.

Herbert Chitepo, then Chairman of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) party, put it succinctly when he said: “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.

To us the essence of exploitation, the essence of white domination, is domination over land.

That is the real issue

The essence of what they have done to us, the deprivation that they have done by taking the land away from us.” (Herbert Chitepo: Speech on a trip to Australia in 1973)

Born into a peasant family in Nyanga and endowed with a clarity and strength of intellect which he further developed, Chitepo rose to become the country’s first black lawyer.

His parents died when he was three years old 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 his secondary school and for a Bachelor of Arts degree in English at Fort Hare College.

Thereafter, he went to London where he worked as a research assistant in Shona at the London School of Oriental and African Studies.

He studied at King’s College, London, and at the Inn of Court, becoming a barrister in 1954.

Returning to Salisbury, he set up a private practice, a decision that required an amendment to the Land Apportionment Act to enable him to occupy chambers in the city centre.

The Land Apportionment Act was to ensure that, ‘each race had its own area and neither race may own and occupy land in the area of the other race, except by permit which shall be issued or refused by a Minister of Government when it seems in his opinion desirable’.

However, Chitepo used his legal expertise to lobby for reforms on the Land Apportionment Act and be allowed to occupy chambers in the city centre.

Although the Southern African Government amended the Land Apportionment Act so that he could practise Law in Salisbury, the Native Commissioner required Herbert Chitepo to conduct his defence of any accused African seated cross-legged on the floor.

Similar incidents in shops, restaurants and lifts led him to abandon his early intentions of fitting into the existing social order.

During his early years in practice, the majority of his briefs concerned Africans indicted on straightforward criminal charges. However, from 1957, after the Land Husbandry Act was enacted, he became more and more involved in defending African nationalists against charges arising under the Act and against restriction orders.

Not only the nationalists, but even peasants faced such charges each day as they were the most affected.

With the coming into power of the new Rhodesian Government in 1962, any pretence at accommodating blacks was abandoned.

Segregation was henceforth pursued with increasing vigour.

This process culminated in the 1969 Land Tenure Act, which, while repealing the Land Apportionment Act, re-enacted and strengthened its provisions by dividing the land in half with 44,9 million acres allocated to each race.

The policy was entrenched in a new constitution.

These measures led to further overstocking, very high population densities, serious environmental damage, reduced agricultural productivity and poverty in the communal areas.

Overcrowding led many people to settle on riverbanks, steep slopes, grazing areas and fragile land, posing great environmental risks.

The blacks were settled in barren, tsetse-infested lands (reserves).

Hunger and poverty ravaged the peasants who  were subsequently forced to work for whites.

Chitepo described this process as “equivalent to homicidal or genocidal extermination of the people”. 

And something had to be done before the whole race perished under the white rule.

In June 1960, Chitepo made his first entry into politics by joining the National Democratic Party (NDP) and was at once made a member of the council.

After the NDP was banned, he was a founder member of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) in 1962 and one of those who broke away in August 1963 to form the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).

Chitepo was instrumental in the decision of the Liberation Committee of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), based in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, 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 as director of prosecutors in Tanzania and moved to Zambia to devote himself full-time to re-organising the Party and launching the armed struggle in earnest.

Chitepo asserted there could be only one way to take back the land and end white rule in Rhodesia — military confrontation.

“It became clear to some of us really, the road to independence, the road to majority rule via constitutional discussion and agreement and changes of a peaceful nature was not open,” said Chitepo.

“It was a dead end road.” Addressing a Chimurenga Day rally on April 28 1968, Chitepo insisted that the only language the Rhodesian Prime Minister would understand was violence.

“Zimbabwe was taken from us through bloodshed,” he said.

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 guerrillas had little chance of winning a conventional confrontation.

Chitepo explained: “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.”

Chairman Chitepo was right as the country won independence through guerrilla warfare.

Years later, the black-ruled Government repossessed land previously owned by whites.

The land today belongs to indigenous people much to the abhorrence of whites, but the struggle for economic independence continues.

Pamberi neChimurenga!

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