Chitepo assassination: Where are local historians?


“NeCambridge iyi atove nani.
“Zvaana Mbuya Nehanda haaimbozvipasa.”
The two ladies immediately burst into a very loud laugh, their palms hitting against each other loudly, village style.
This was real life drama behind me as I queued to consult my son’s history teacher.
I looked at the women and I could only offer a helpless grin of disapproval.
The school had just dropped Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council (ZIMSEC) syllabus.
In history this has meant ‘exit Zimbabwean/African history’ and ‘enter 19th Century Austria/Prussia’.
Later that evening, I recounted this sad incident to my watering hole friend, a historian of repute.
He cautioned me against just blaming the school authorities and parents alone, forgetting the conspiratorial role of our own historians.
He spoke about local historians and their deafening silence on the history of the liberation struggle.
If they, who are so learned, find the liberation struggle a no-go area, what more of green students and teachers?
Zimbabwe has more than half-a-dozen universities with full-fledged history departments.
These departments have produced scholars of repute, including scores of PhD researchers scattered at prestigious universities in South Africa, United Kingdom and the US.
With the exception of one or two, none of these have developed into trusted national authorities who can lead debate and opinion on Zimbabwean history.
Consequently the leading lights on our history, the liberation struggle included, have tended to be Anglo-American Africanist historians who have provided not only contemporary analysis, but funding and supervision to the production mill for PhDs by locals.
As I reflected on the state of affairs of our history and the liberation struggle, I noticed the absence of historical analysis in acres of press coverage on this year’s 41st anniversary of the assassination of Chairman Herbert Chitepo.
The historical narratives around this tragic incident have been three-pronged: The first attributes the assassination to insiders and is grounded in ethnic conflicts in ZANU in Zambia and represents the official Zambian position then and now. The second is a ZANU unifier’s position and attributes the assassination to Rhodesian counter-intelligence operations, while the third narrative discounts neither of the two and in fact leaves room for a merger of the first two.
Herbert Chitepo, born on June 15 1923 in Nyanga, graduated from Adams College as a teacher in 1945, a BA from Fort Hare in 1949 and later as a Barrister at Law in London.
The later feat saw him become the first African in Rhodesia to qualify as a Barrister.
He returned to Rhodesia and became part of the nascent nationalist movement and anti-colonial intellectual discourse.
This saw him finding space in Capricorn Africa Society (CAS), National Democratic Party (NDP) and Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).
In 1962 he went into political exile and became Tanganyika’s (Tanzania) first Director of Public Prosecutions.
In 1963 he became the founding Chairman of ZANU.
In January 1966 Chitepo resigned from his plum job in Tanzania to lead the ZANU war effort from Lusaka, Zambia, at a time most of the liberation struggle leaders had been jailed by Ian Smith.
Between 1972 and 1974, the ZANU war effort, under Chitepo, got a major boost with the opening of the North Eastern Front as a result of collaboration with FRELIMO.
Whereas battlefield presence in the North East was a major boost to the fighting credentials of ZANU, internally it brought serious fissures (including the Nhari rebellion) around management of logistics at the front.
In Salisbury, the Ian Smith regime was having sleepless nights over how to contain the escalations.
And in the middle of all this, on March 18 1975, in Chilenje South, Lusaka, Zambia, Herbert Chitepo and his bodyguard Silas Shamiso were killed in a car bomb explosion.
President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, through Statutory Instrument 101 of 1975, put in place a Commission to inquire into the assassination of Herbert Chitepo.
The Commission’s Report was published in 1976.
The report concluded that Herbert Chitepo’s death had been sanctioned by members of Dare and the High Command as reprisal for the Nhari Rebellion and subsequent abductions of ZANU military figures.
The report also concluded that the Nhari Rebellion targeted the Karanga while the reprisals targeted the Manyika.
Based on this report emerged the various narratives that view the liberation struggle and the death of Chitepo in the context of ethnic contestations.
This is still the official Zambian line and in Zimbabwe, the narrative was popularised in Masipula Sithole’s publication, The Struggle within the Struggle.
The narrative also found public acceptance within the Ian Smith regime and in anti-ZANU movements.
The narrative has, however, largely been ignored by local historians.
The position taken by the Zambian government, including the subsequent arrest and torture of the ZANU military leadership, paralysed the ZANU war effort.
ZANU criticised the Zambian actions, in particular obsession with the insider job theory when there was a big possibility the assassination could have been the work of the Rhodesian Special Branch or CIO.
The resultant mistrust resulted in ZANU’s relocation to Mozambique in 1975.
The strong possibility of a Rhodesian hand and the need to unite a badly fractured liberation movement provided fertile ground for the elaboration of a Chitepo assassination narrative that would help achieve revolutionary unity.
The narrative was popularised in a publication, The Chitepo Assassination, by David Martin and Phyllis Johnson in 1985.
The publication was largely on a chance Rhodesian informant/confessions; Brigadier Dudley Coventry, Ian Sutherland and ‘Chuck’ Hind, the latter being the alleged assassin.
Again, local historians have been largely quiet, neither supporting nor further interrogating the chance find.
Whereas there has been a dearth of locally published historical analysis on the struggle, nationalists and ex-combatants have of late been quite active filling up shelf spaces in the biographies section.
Many more have been willing to give oral testimonies on the liberation struggle.
However, with regards to the Chitepo assassination, a common trend has emerged; amnesia, ignorance or discomfort with the subject.
Meanwhile, officers from the former Rhodesian security services have put together, in the UK, an archive of the war and claim to hold the untold stories on the liberation struggle.
Access to the archive is both racial and political.
Louise White is perhaps the only serious historian to have been given access to the archive.
From her guided access, she does not know which narrative to believe and ends up only exploring possibilities and leaving the possibility of a merger in the narratives open.
Four decades later, we yearn for our historians to come out of their shells and say something about these historical events from our struggle.
That will make our history learning more interesting for Unyetu autochthons than teaching them about Otto von Bismarck.


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