The Assassination Of Herbert Chitepo

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On March 18, 1975, Herbert Chitepo, an African nationalist in exile and chairman of the war council that struggled to liberate Zimbabwe from white-ruled Rhodesia, was killed by a car bomb. Since then, there have been four confessions and at least as many accusations about who was responsible. In The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo, Luise White does not set out to resolve questions about who was accountable for this horrible murder. Instead, in a style that is as much murder mystery as it is history writing, she uncovers what is at stake in the various confessions and why Chitepo’s assassination continues to incite conflict and controversy in Zimbabwe’s national politics. White casts doubt on official accounts of the murder and addresses how and for whom history is written and how myths and ideas about civic culture were founded in war-torn Zimbabwe. Although the truth about the assassination of Herbert Chitepo may never be known, readers will discover how one man’s murder continues to unsettle Zimbabwe.

Indiana University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Foreign Affairs
This intriguing book reopens the unsolved murder of Herbert Chitepo, an early hero of the Zimbabwean nationalist struggle. Its aim is not to apportion blame but to discuss why the documentary evidence surrounding the case — which includes testimony by at least three self-confessed killers and accusations implicating numerous others — is so contradictory. White, an accomplished historian, offers subtle and plausible explanations of how and why each of these texts (including a report of a Zambian government inquest and several books and memoirs) was initially produced. She shows that each must be read in the context of power struggles within the former Rhodesia and the interests of neighboring states in the outcome of these struggles. Interesting but speculative is her claim that today there is significant public discussion of these texts, which is helping to construct a "founding myth" of the Zimbabwean nation.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780253216083
  • Publisher: Indiana University Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 1,435,630
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.47 (d)

Meet the Author

Luise White is Professor of History at the University of Florida, Gainesville. She is the author of The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi, for which she won the Herskovits Award, Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa, and co-editor (with David William Cohen and Stephan F. Miescher) of African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices in Oral History (Indiana University Press).

Indiana University Press

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The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo

Texts and Politics in Zimbabwe

By Luise White Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2003 Luise White
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780253216083


On 18 March 1975, Herbert Wiltshire Chitepo was killed when a car bomb, planted in his Volkswagen Beetle the night before, went off at 8:05 a.m. outside his home in Lusaka, Zambia. Chitepo was the head of the war council (war council is the literal translation of dare ya chimurenga) of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), headquartered in Lusaka, where it and other Zimbabwean nationalist groups sought to free Rhodesia from the rule of its white minority. The blast threw part of the car onto the roof of his house and uprooted a tree next door. Chitepo was killed at once, as was one of his bodyguards, Silas Shamiso. His other bodyguard, Sadat Kufamadzuba, was injured in the blast. Both bodyguards figure prominently in this book. A neighbors child, playing in the yard next door, died a few hours later from injuries he received in the blast.

Since 1975, there have been many speculations, accusations, and confessions as to who killed Chitepo and why. In the first weeks after his death, it was said that he had been killed by South Africans, by Zambians, by Rhodesians, by his own party, and by other liberation movements determined to free Rhodesia. There were arrests in Lusaka and a commission of inquiry, which published its findings in areport a year later. Neither that report, nor the many published critiques of it, nor any of the subsequently published confessions have quelled the rumors and accusations about who killed Chitepo, however. The assassination of Chitepo is as important now as it was in the weeks following his death. Who killed Chitepo was an issue in the 1980 elections in Zimbabwe and twenty years later there were new accusations, new hints, and new demands for Zimbabwe to hold an investigation into his death. The question of who killed Chitepo, and the freight of conflict and collaboration and cover-up that question carries, were important in the liberation struggle and are no less important more than twenty years after liberation was achieved. Why?

Chitepos murder poses a problem not only for Zimbabwe but also for historians: why is the identity of the assassin so important, and why are the many texts that identifyand self-identifythe assassin so ephemeral, so incapable of resolving the crime, or even of seeming credible? Chitepos murder was a turning point in the liberation struggle in the 1970s. It precipitated a crisis in ZANU, which was exacerbated by the detention of its leadership in Zambia for nineteen months, but it also sent fragments of ZANUs armyand after 1976 its military leadershipinto Mozambique, where they had support from the newly independent government and access to the 1200-km border between Mozambique and Rhodesia. This of course explains why the Chitepo assassination was important in the 1970s, but it does not explain why the assassination has come back as an explanation of the complexities of politics in Zimbabwe today. To answer these questions, I will not pursue the assassin, or attempt to fix his or her identity once and for all. This book charts a different course of interrogation altogether. Im in pursuit of history, of how narratives about the past are produced and reproduced and how power is produced and reproduced by these narratives. Im 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?

Each of these many confessions articulates a world of politics and relationships. Some confessions seek to silence other confessions or make them seem flawed and fabricated. In others, someone or some group that has denied a deed for years confesses to it at a specific moment. I am hardly the first historian to point out that an event takes on different meanings over timeeven a very short timeto the different, sometimes opposing, groups who claim the event as part of their history. I argue that this is not a problem to be solved; instead, it is a basis for analysis. The fact that both Rhodesians and Zimbabweans claim Chitepos murder as part of their unique histories has produced at least four published confessions and at least as many published accusations over the last two decades, each with an exclusive account of events. But history is a messy business; as Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues in his study of the Haitian revolution, there is no perfect closure to any event, and each fact about the event contains inborn absences specific to its production. Not everyone is included in historical texts, let alone when those texts are joined together to make a narrative of the past. But the very messiness of the lived past, the very untidiness of the closures, means that all that has been omitted has not been erased. The most powerless actors left traces of themselves in contemporary accounts, just as the most powerful actors crafted versions of events that attempted to cover their traces or to leave traces of their reinvented personas. But traces are inherently uneven, Trouillot writes, and lived inequalities yield unequal historical power in texts. Historians, and political activists, do not give all historical accounts equal weight or equivalent readings. In this, historians and political activists ignore some traces and silence other interpretations of events. Traces are not legible in and of themselves, but they assert that no eventand no textis ever alone. Events have rough and complicated antecedents, and each has an afterlife, often in the form of more texts and more words that render the actual event obscure. To look closely at any event requires looking carefully at the texts it generates, both days and years after the event. To this end this book will discuss the Zimbabwean and Rhodesian texts about the Chitepo assassination. In his discussion of Chinese activists interpretations of the Boxer Rebellion, Paul Cohen notes that there can be a real competition between political and historical texts which claim to represent the past. Texts compete by claiming (and proclaiming) their truth. Looking at how texts compete, at what they compete over, and what is at stake in their competition, is a way to articulate the relationships between them.

Chitepo was fifty-two when he died. He was born in Manicaland in 1923, in the eastern highlands of Rhodesia. His father died when he was three and he was brought up in a mission, where he received his early education. He attended secondary school in Natal, South Africa, where he met his wife, Victoria, the daughter of migrants from Manicaland. He went to Fort Hare College in South Africa in 1949. Upon graduation he read for the bar in London, where he kept company with many people active in anti-colonial movements. He returned to Rhodesia in 1954 as Rhodesias first African barrister. He was active in politics. He gave one of several keynote speeches at the Capricorn Africa Societys meeting in 1956. He was a member of the National Democratic Party (NDP) and, when it was banned, he joined the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) and became a legal advisor to its president, Joshua Nkomo, a man who would become one of several political rivals. Chitepo defended many nationalists in court, but his practice remained small and unprofitable: white attorneys never referred briefs to him. In 1962 he went to Tanzania to serve as the countrys first African director of public prosecutions. When ZANU split from ZAPU in 1963, Chitepo joined ZANU and was instrumental in getting the president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, to support the new party. In 1964 Chitepo was elected national chairman at the party congress. In 1966 he left Tanzania for Lusaka to direct ZANUs external wing, which was to begin an armed struggle against white-ruled Rhodesia.

Chitepo was a statesman and a fund-raiser more than anything else, although many people now insist he was destined to rule a free Zimbabwe. In the years between 1966 and his murder, he became increasingly militant, increasingly conversant with the tenets of socialism, and increasingly self-confident in speeches and interviews. He insisted that his partys Marxist-Leninist theory of revolution would achieve a socialist state in Zimbabwe by including middle-class support in mass mobilization. He argued that the struggle had to include not only workers and peasants but also the national bourgeoisie and other patriotic and anti-imperialist forces. As Africa became a continent of independent nations, Chitepos call to rally all anti-imperialist forces to the struggle had a resonance and urgency throughout Africa and the world.

Whatever the anti-colonial discourse of its African nationalists, Southern Rhodesia had never really been a colony. Founded by the British South Africa Company for mineral exploitation and white settlement in 1890, Southern Rhodesia was granted self-governing dominion status by the British in 1923 after its electorate of twenty thousand whites rejected closer union with South Africa. The white population increased dramatically after World War II: many older men saw Southern Rhodesia as a place where a pension would go far, while younger men thought it an ideal place to make a life. The white population increased from 82,000 in 1946 to 135,000 in 1951, to 223,000 in 1960, and to about 250,000 in 1965. Virtually all this immigration was English-speaking, overwhelming the Afrikaaner and Greek population of the country. In 1953, Southern Rhodesia became part of the Central African Federation. Some form of amalgamation with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland had been bandied about by white Southern Rhodesian politicians for years, but by 1953 a federation was seen as a hedge against majority rule. Despite a hazy rhetoric of gradual integration and partnership, there was no integration, and partnership between black and white was explained by Southern Rhodesias prime minister Godfrey Huggins (who became the first prime minister of the Federation) as the partnership between the horse and its rider.

When the Federation ended, and the other member states became independent black-ruled countries, Southern Rhodesia remained intransigent and resisted majority rule. But minority rule seemed unimaginable in Africa in the mid-1960s, until November 1965 when Rhodesia rebelled from Britain and issued a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) under the government of the Rhodesian Front (RF), led by Ian Smith. To almost everyonesincluding many Rhodesianssurprise, Rhodesia survived. Britain imposed sanctions almost at once, much to the profit of wealthy farmers (who bought the farms of newly settled white farmers who could not absorb the losses of a year or two) and those who began to evade sanctions. Through import substitution and trading illegally with whoever was willing, by the late 1960s Rhodesia had become one of the economic miracles of Africa. Within the country, whites maintained a certain cynicism about their successes. There was a strong sense that their cowboy government brought new wealth to the country at the cost of international censure and a war against black nationalist movements that by 1975 many in Rhodesia doubted they could win. Many liberals saw their government and its policies as part of a growing culture of mediocrity. There were not enough talented white people in the country to run Aberdeen, people said, let alone a country. After several failed negotiated settlements, and after Rhodesia had lost thousands of whites through war and emigration, the RF proposed an internal settlement that involved sharing power with some of the African political parties that had been unable to gain a foothold among the nationalist parties in exile. Such a settlement was almost beside the point, as the armies of the nationalist parties were operating within the country, and a military victory seemed well beyond Rhodesias capabilities.

In 1979 Rhodesia became the short-lived and never fully legal Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. Its government, led by Bishop Abel Muzorewa (whom we shall see in the next chapter), was supposed to prove to the world that Rhodesia could be ruled by blacks. No one was convinced, and Zimbabwe-Rhodesia unleashed a bombing campaign of unprecedented violence upon guerilla bases in the neighboring countries. Although the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) was certain it could achieve victory on the field, those neighboring countriesZambia and Mozambique, both of which have a place in this storypressured ZAPU and ZANU into negotiating a cease-fire, a constitution, and arrangements for free elections. For this to happen, Zimbabwe-Rhodesia was to be governed directly by England for the two months prior to the elections (in February 1980), which brought in the legitimate African-ruled nation of Zimbabwe (1980), governed by ZANU(PF).

Despite this history, many politicians and even more scholars have found it convenient to call Zimbabwes history colonial and its legal independence decolonization. Colonial is a fair enough shorthand that allows for some important generalizations regarding social processes and how rule over Africans was instituted, but as chapters three, four, and five argue, the use of the term, and of decolonization for the period after 1980, often obscures a complex political history and linkages between many metropolitan centers around the world and at least as many states in Africa. Maintaining that Rhodesia was colonial and Zimbabwe independent has allowed authors many discursive flourishes, given the play of the two countries, one illegitimate and one legitimate, with two names. It has also insinuated an absolute historical break between the two states, without continuities between them or openings and spaces in which they coexist, particularly for the period from 1965 to 1980. The title of one journalists history of the transition says it all: The Past Is Another Country.

This book, however, is not about Herbert Chitepo or Rhodesias independence. Chitepo is one of the least important actors in the pages that follow, although I detail many of his actions in the weeks before he was assassinated. Nothing Chitepo did or said can be shown to have led directly to his murder. On the contrary, as the next two chapters show, he did everything he could to forestall attempts on his life. There is no point in the mid-1970s where I can say with certainty that he became a marked man: he feared for his life many times in the mid-1970s, but so did many Zimbabwean nationalists in exile. In the same vein, Rhodesia, with its policies and politics, is not the subject of this book. It is one of several overlapping political backgrounds, rather than a causal agent or a racist force or imperialist presence that by the very oppressiveness of its reaction caused Chitepos death. To be sure, without Rhodesian independence in the 1960s and 70s there would have been no liberation movement, no external wing of ZANU, and no national chairman to assassinate in exile, and it is possible to argue that without Rhodesian racism there would have been no Rhodesian independence, but such facts are not causal. They set the stage for events but do not make them happen.

This book is about the many confessions to Chitepos murder. If I simply wanted an unsolved murder to write about, chapters three, four and five provide me with several such cases (two by parcel bombs) and one abduction in which the body was never found. What makes the Chitepo assassination unlike any other political assassination in Africa during the 1970s, or 80s, or 90s, is the number of confessions and the tenacity with which the confessors cling to them. In those other assassinations, lengthy investigations claimed that the murders could only be attributed to a person or persons unknown, whereas in the months and years following Chitepos murder there were almost as many confessions as there were hints and analyses that fixed the blame on political processes or nation-states, if not on specific individual operatives of those states. Moreover, each confession has a different analysis and a different car bomb and different actors. Most of these confessions also contain a clear refutation of another confession, or of an accusation against someone else. Many of the parties who claim responsibility insist that they alone are culpable, and organize evidence and anecdotes to show that they did the deed. A recent book by Peter Stiff, for example, one of the architects of Rhodesian war memory and someone whose writings figure prominently in this book, contains the following index entry: Chitepo, Herbert (assassinated by Rhodesians). My question, then, is not who did it, but why do so many people insist they did it?

Whatand for whomare all these confessions for? They are not different perspectives on the same event, each narrated from a different position. These confessions cannot, I suggest, be read in sequence to reveal a more accurate history, as Terence Ranger has done with the different accounts of the death of the first white man killed in the liberation war. Indeed, Im not concerned with how true, or how false, any of these confessions is. Instead I want to consider the differences between them, and reflect on how those differences were constituted and constructed. The differences in who said what when, and how seriously such statements were taken, function as what David William Cohen has called a truthrather than the truthin which a specific version of events mediates between the complicated concerns of those who confess and those to whom they confess.

And complicated concerns there are. For over two decades, these concerns have competed to explain the assassination of Chitepo, and they have generated the several texts on which I base this book. An anonymous document, probably one of many, circulated in ZANU circles in and out of Zambia two weeks after Chitepos death. The Report of Zambias Special International Commission (usually called the Chitepo Commission) was published in April 1976. Many in ZANU (and a few outside the party) wrote back to it: the detained ZANU leadership in Zambian jails wrote two remarkable critiques, one a Reply and the other an Analysis. A British scholar teaching at the University of Zambia also wrote an attack on the Report. ZANUs president wrote a glowing endorsement of the published Report, which was reworked, a few years later, by his brother, who was ZANUs publicity secretary in the U.S. Several years later, the director of Rhodesias Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) claimed to have refuted the commissions findings, personally and privately, shortly after they were published. The two confessions that did not address the Report directly were those of two separate Rhodesian agents; both these confessions were published in 1985. And there are said to be more confessions, suppressed or repressed. David Martin and Phyllis Johnson are British and Canadian journalists who began their respective careers in East Africa; later Martin reported on the events described here for the London Observer. Since 1980 they have worked and written in Zimbabwe. They claim that there would have been even more confessions published in the decade after Chitepos death had authors not delayed too long or given in to diplomatic pressures. They published a confession that was relayed by a close friend of the deceased assassin. Their books Afterword lists two other books that extolled the exploits of the Rhodesian operatives who killed Chitepo, as well as a number of Rhodesians who, either in conversation with them or in a newspaper interview with someone else, named a Zimbabwean who didnt do it, even if they refused to name the Rhodesian who did.


Excerpted from The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo by Luise White Copyright © 2003 by Luise White. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preliminary Table of Contents:

Characters in Order of Appearance
A Note on Place Names
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six

Indiana University Press

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  • Posted October 29, 2011

    I was there.

    I remember that day in Chilenje South, a suburb in southern Lusaka Zambia. I saw that grey/white VW Bug that belonged to Herbert Chitepo, it was blown almost to smithereens, and yes the uprooted tree is accurately described, and the fence was torn like nothing I had ever seen before ... little did I know that I was a part of history that day in 1975 even though I was but a little boy.

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