HERBERT CHITEPO ASSASINATION
Herbert Chitepo, a senior office bearer in the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu), was killed in a car bomb. Despite numerous confessions it is still not known who planted the bomb. A Zimbabwean newspaper serialised the report into his murder – which only results in more pointing of fingers. And this more than 15 years after his death. Now we have history served up as murder mystery. Thriller transformed into a study of nationalism
Resource Articles and books
Murder, myths and Mugabe
The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo: Texts and politics in Zimbabwe
Indiana University Press, USA and Double Storey, South Africa
Reviewed by Richard Bartlett
Herbert Chitepo, a senior office bearer in the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu), was killed in a car bomb. Despite numerous confessions it is still not known who planted the bomb. A Zimbabwean newspaper serialises the report into his murder – which only results in more pointing of fingers. And this more than 15 years after his death. Now we have history served up as murder mystery. Thriller transformed into a study of nationalism.
Immediately after Chitepo’s death in March 1975 the Zambian government, where Chitepo was living in exile, held an inquiry into the murder. The outcome was not conclusive but did point most directly at internal tensions in Zanu, the liberation movement, as being the most likely reason for his being murdered by fellow Zimbabweans. Conflict in the liberation movement is one possible reason, but since Zimbabwean independence in 1980 there have been many confessions by operatives who once worked with Rhodesian security forces.
The question Luise White raises in this analysis of the assassination is not who killed him, or even why was he killed, but why has discussion and debate around his demise have not been laid to rest? Why are Rhodesians so keen to confess when many believe his own people killed him? Why does a Zimbabwean newspaper see fit to publish the report into his death almost two decades later? Why do Zimbabwean politicians still evade the issues which were raised by guerrillas at the time of his death? And, perhaps most importantly, why should we still care about the murder of some Zimbabwean struggle ‘hero’ when the country has far more immediate and divisive issues threatening its future?
"Why should we care about the murder of some struggle 'hero' when the country has far more immediate and divisive issues threatening its future"
Central to understanding the murder of Chitepo is understanding a rebellion by Zanu cadres on the frontline in Mozambique against their leaders in Lusaka, known as the Nhari rebellion after one of its leaders. The reasons behind the rebellion in 1974 were ostensibly lack of support from the leaders, who were out of touch with the realities of the war in the bush. The mutiny was violently suppressed, leading to many executions, and led to a period of suspicion and in-fighting within the guerrilla movement. In this air of mistrust and power struggles, assassins planted a bomb in the car which Chitepo used. So to appreciate possible reasons for Chitepo’s assassination, it is necessary to delve into almost forgotten corners of Zimbabwe’s history.
White argues, essentially, that history is written by the victors and if we are to understand Robert Mugabe’s recent rhetoric against white farmers, British and other opponents, then we need to examine the history of Zimbabwe’s road to independence, and Zanu’s history, and how these histories are being created and updated. The example of Herbert Chitepo offers a convenient hook on which to show how the founding myths of the nation are used in current political struggles. As White says:
I’m in pursuit of history, of how narratives about the past are produced and reproduced and how power is produced and reproduced by these narratives. I’m interested in the many confessions, why some fail and why others surface when they do. My question then is not who did it, but why do so many people insist they did it?
She goes about this by presenting The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo not as a historical study, but as a murder mystery where the murderer is irrelevant. This technique is used in an attempt to make the book of interest to more than only history academics with an interest in the country. The other reason is implied in the sub-title of the book – texts and politics. Her thesis is based on subverting existing understandings of texts, on deconstructing meanings, on looking behind confessions to find motives (for the confessions, not the murders). Thus she attempts to subvert the entire accepted notion of what historiography should be. As a detective is faced with a plethora of facts in pursuit of truth, so we are invited to consume White’s text as historians (amateur or otherwise) in pursuit, not of truth, but of understanding, and perhaps even revelation.
To achieve this the format the book adopts is not that of standard textbook. The investigation begins not with the murder, but with a listing of all the characters involved, from the victims of the bomb (there were three) to the would-be murderers. This presentation changes the reception of the text from murder mystery to tragedy, as in Macbeth or Julius Caesar. This dual understanding of mystery/tragedy initially confounds expectations. Thanks to hindsight we know it is tragedy, and we know it is murder mystery without resolution. So we read on, not for closure but for its opposite. There have been too many closures and by delving into the texts that offered this closure the possibility exists that we can begin to understand why this was convenient, but may not necessarily be the only interpretation of events.
The other literary technique White uses, and makes a point of mentioning, is that there are no chapter headings. She states: "…as in a murder mystery, there are no chapter titles and no sub-sections within the untitled chapters, and there are some long digressions that provide background information". The attempt to make Zimbabwean history more enticing than a conventional historical text might be is commendable, and does succeed, partially. There are reservations. It does not make the book any easier to get through, unless you are already knowledgeable on the complexities of Zimbabwean history. One figure who absence from this text is surprising is that of Robert Mugabe. He is mentioned, but he is peripheral to the story of the murder, even if he is central to the grander narrative.
This secondary role of Mugabe can be ascribed to White’s use of the murder mystery format and the assumption that readers understand the context in which the murders took place. Understandably, White does not want to overburden readers with excessive background information, but this approach limits the understanding of the text to those unfamiliar with the politics of Zimbabwe’s independence movements in exile.
When Chitepo was murdered in 1975 it was a time of improved outlooks, and fresh obstacles. With Mozambique’s independence a new front opened on Rhodesia’s eastern border, and the Zimbabwe African National Union, which came to be led by Mugabe, eventually established its headquarters there, leaving the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) to operate from Zambia. The mystery of Chitepo’s death tells of these events, but they remain peripheral, where attention is paid to tiny details that came to shape the internecine world of Zimbabwean exiles and guerrillas. Hence we are left pondering grander questions. How did Mugabe come to move from background player to leader? Perhaps this is not directly relevant to Chitepo’s assassination and the subsequent investigations, but the whole point of this book is how texts about and surround the murder "shaped contemporary Zimbabwe".
The other contextual blindspot is the situation in which Zambia found itself in the mid 1970s. It was committed to the liberation of Zimbabwe, but that commitment was costing the country. Rhodesian incursions into Zambia were often more ostentatious than a simple car bomb, as the case of airforce raids to Lusaka would demonstrate. But Zambia was suffering another pressing problem, an economic one. The mid 1970s was a time when oil prices soared and other commodities, such as copper, moved in the opposite direction, which had a serious effect on Zambia’s ability to offer unconditional support to an expanding liberation movement. And on Zambia’s western border, Angola was also moving towards independence. This should have been good news but it quickly turned bad as war in Angola escalated, leading to a fresh influx of refugees into Zambia, adding to its new-found economic difficulties. Did any of this macro-economic environment have an effect on how the Zambian government approached what appeared to be in-fighting in Zimbabwe’s liberation movements. Such contextualisation is beyond the realm of a murder mystery.
But what it lacks in contextualistion, it certainly makes up for in detailing all the important characters, and in doing so takes the book one step beyond what murder mystery can be. This is not about who did what, but about who is said to have done ‘what’ according to surviving written sources. The reasoning behind some of these sources is suspicious, for example, why did the Rhodesians such as Ken Flower, head of the intelligence services in Rhodesia and independent Zimbabwe, admit to having a hand in Chitepo’s murder? Why was he not the only Rhodesian to do so? What purpose do such confessions serve, as they are not intended to bring a murderer to justice? Is it about the perpetuation of the idea of white supremacy? Of the ability of Rhodesian superiority despite losing the battle? These are questions the book raises, and answers as far as is possible.
More importantly, which White addresses more thoroughly, is the reason behind Chitepo’s assassination continuing to cause upheaval in present-day Zimbabwe. White’s thesis is that Mugabe has subverted the notion of the founding myth of Zimbabwe by portraying the country as a victim of colonialism and British imperialism, which is convenient but represents a complete subversion of the history of the country’s conversion from independent minority-ruled state to majority-ruled Zimbabwe. While this idea of history being reformulated to accommodate the needs of Zanu(PF) and the Mugabe regime makes marvellous sense and reaches to the core of the ideological crisis in Zimbabwe, it is often weighed down by the excess of historical detail.
White does warn readers that there is a plenitude of detail that might slow the non-Zimbabwean expert, and such warning should be heeded. The concept of murder mystery as historiography is a difficult one to implement, considering the very different requirements of each. As a study of Mugabe’s manipulation of nationalism predicated on a history which has been shaped to the purposes of the victor, The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo makes fascinating reading, once White gets round to her analysis of contemporary Zimbabwe. As murder mystery it expects far too much of armchair detectives – more a case of forensic historian.
Richard Bartlett is the co-editor of the African Review of Books
Josiah Tongogara, Rugare Gumbo, Henry Hamadziripi, Kumbirai Kangai, Mukudzei Mudzi named in 1975 report into Chitepo's murder
Top Zanu commanders from the Dare Rechimurenga and the Zanla High Command killed former Zanu chairman, Herbert Chitepo, in Zambia in 1975, a special report by a Zambian commission into the late leader's mysterious death reveals. This is the first time that the report has been made public since the lawyer-cum-politician's assasination 26 years ago. Chitepo died when a car bomb planted under the driver's seat in his VW Beetle detonated as he was trying to reverse the car from the garage at his Zambian house. The Standard this week reveals for the first time the contents of the report. The report puts paid to claims from within Mr Mugabe's party that Chitepo had been killed by agents of the Ian Smith regime. The late chairman's widow, Victoria Chitepo, is on record as saying it was common knowledge that the leader was killed by fellow party members.
The Report of the Special International Commission on the Assassination of Herbert Wiltshire Chitepo, which was commissioned by former Zambian president, Kenneth Kaunda, in Lusaka, 1976, cites the late Zanla commander, Josiah Tongogara; current deputy minister of home affairs, Rugare Gumbo, who was secretary for information and publicity; Henry Hamadziripi, secretary for finance; Kumbirai Kangai, secretary for public and social welfare; and Mukudzei Mudzi, secretary for administration as the people responsible for assassinating the Dare chairman, Chitepo.
The report said the late chairman was a victim of a tribal power struggle within the party. Said the report, in the possession of The Standard: "The members of Dare and the High Command decided on March 1975 to kill Chitepo for reasons already stated. On that day, Dauramanzi and Mpunzarima were sent to collect a bomb from Rex Nhongo. They returned on Monday 17 March when Chimurenga handed the bomb to Sadat Kufamazuba for safe keeping until midnight when Chimurenga, Rudo, Short and Sadat planted the bomb on the driver's seat of Chitepo's car. The four men were acting under the directions of Tongogara. On the same night, Tongogara sent Robson Manyika to Chitepo's house to go and check whether Chimurenga, Rudo and Short had carried out the mission. Manyika said he did all this and reported back to Tongogara. This account is consistent with the corroborative evidence of the members of Dare and the High Command before the Commission and with their demeanour when they appeared before us."
The report continues: "The members of Dare and the High Command could all therefore be indicated as principals to the murder of Chitepo because jointly and severally they actively desired to bring this about and did in fact bring it about. Although only one individual may have completed the final act to consummate the crime and though some may not have been present as in the case of Hamadziripi and Chigowe, who claim to have been in Malawi at the material time, they could all be charged for Chitepo's murder."
The report says members of the High Command who gave evidence admitted that on hearing rumours some of them were to be arrested, scattered and ran away from Zambia instead of being eager to assist Zambian Police. "So the whole evidence both circumstantial, as well as direct with regard to the Chitepo assassination, points inevitably and clearly to his colleagues in the Dare and the High Command, especially Tongogara, Chigowe, Mudzi, Gumbo, Kangai and Hamadziripi," says the report.
The commission was chaired by Reuben Chitandika Kamanga and Mathias Mainza Chona, both Zambians, representatives of African countries from Botswana, Congo, Ivory Coast, Libya, Malagasy, Morocco, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Tanzania and Zaire. Its terms of reference was to inquire into the events and circumstances leading to death of Chitepo on 18 March 1975. It was to investigate and establish "whether any racists or imperialists agents, or any racists or counter-revolutionaries or saboteurs were directly responsible for the said death." It was to investigate and establish the identity and the motive of the person or persons responsible for the said death. The commission was tasked to: "Make recommendations with regard to the measures or any additional measures that ought to be taken for the security of persons engaged in any political activities aimed at the attainment of freedom and independence of the people of Zimbabwe and any other country in Africa still under colonial or minority rule."
Said Kaunda on Zambian national radio on 31 March 1975: "We are shocked. We are still grieved and angered. We remain bitter against the murderous act, bitter against the murderers - the enemies of Zambia and Africa. Many Zambians are, to say the least, very dismayed and justifiably irritated by statements made by some Zimbabwe nationals, some, even nationalist leaders, have shown no concern whatsoever for the assassination of Mr Chitepo. To them, Mr Chitepo has been assassinated and that must be the end. Instead of calling upon the party and government to track down the killers of this gallant fighter, they are either completely silent, while others virtually demand that we stop the investigation altogether and thereby shelter the assassins."
Twenty-fours years later, Kaunda was still bitter as he told The Standard in 1999 when he came to visit the grave of the late vice president, Joshua Nkomo: "Chitepo was a committed leader. And some day we will talk about how he died. It is one blot in the history, a sad reflection of the whole liberation of this region. Some of the Zanla leadership left Zambia soon after the burial. I didn't expect them to leave immediately...this was their death. It was our death too, and it required all of us to work together on it," said Kaunda.
At the Review Conference of September 1973, the following were elected to the Dare: Herbert Chitepo - chairman (Manyika); Mukudzei Mudzi - administrative secretary (Karanga); Noel Mukono - secretary for external affairs (Manyika); Kumbirai Kangai - secretary for labour, social services and welfare (Karanga); Rugare Gumbo - secretary for information and publicity (Karanga); John Mataure -political commissar (Manyika); Henry Hamadziripi - secretary for finance (Karanga); Josiah Tongogara - chief of defence (Karanga). Apart from being an astute politician, Chitepo made history by becoming the first black advocate in southern Africa.
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