Ndabaningi Sithole: one of the fathers of Zimbabwean independence
Men of the cloth do not often feature in struggles for black liberation or emancipation, although notable examples were Dr Martin Luther King and Rev Jesse Jackson in the United States. In Zimbabwe, Ndabaningi Sithole was such a man. A gifted orator, Ndabaningi Sithole was the brains behind the foundation of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) in 1963.
He was born on 21st July 1920 in the village of Nyamandlovu in Matabeleland (western Zimbabwe), but he was an Ndau by descent, the Ndau being one of the minority ethnic groups in Zimbabwe, found mostly to the south-east of the country. His early years were not easy because his father distrusted education and would not support his son’s endeavours to gain a good educational grounding. Blessed with immense intellectual abilities, young Ndabaningi defied his father and started to pursue his education through missionary schools just as most Zimbabwean revolutionaries did. He attended Dadaya School under the tutelage of Garfield Todd, a white New Zealander who was to become Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia from 1953 to 1958.
His determination to be educated led to him gaining a National Junior Certificate and eventually a BA degree from the University of South Africa by private study. He returned to Dadaya School as a teacher, and in 1947 led a short protest strike in support of several girl students whom he believed had been punished in a degrading manner by Garfield Todd.
Sithole became a Christian and was uncertain for some time whether to pursue a career as a teacher or in the Church. In 1953 he was accepted by the American Board Mission and spent three years in the United States before returning to Rhodesia to become head of a primary school and to be ordained as a Methodist minister. His interest in politics arose when he became president of the African Teachers Association and wrote a short book with the title “African Nationalism”, which was published in 1959. Although he advocated a moderate and peaceful approach to reform, such views were dangerous in a country that was governed by the minority white population.
He soon realised that politics were his vocation and joined the National Democratic Party, led by Joshua Nkomo, in 1960. He soon reached a position of influence within the party and was forced to resign his teaching post, becoming a full-time time politician from that point on. The Government’s response to black nationalism was to become more authoritarian, proscribing the NDP as a criminal organisation in December 1962, but a new organization, the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) was declared very soon afterwards.
However, all was not well in the leadership of ZAPU, and Sithole and others split from Nkomo in July 1963. The new party was called the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), its leaders including, besides Sithole, Herbert Chitepo, Robert Mugabe, Edgar Tekere and Enos Nkala. In 1964 both ZANU and ZAPU were banned and many nationalists, including Sithole, were placed in detention camps. Sithole was detained for five years, after which he was arrested on a charge of plotting to assassinate the Prime Minister, Ian Smith, and sentenced to six years in jail. The evidence rested on a letter that Sithole was supposed to have written, but he always maintained that it was a forgery, stating at his trial: “I wish publicly to dissociate my name in thought, word and deed from any subversive activities, from any terrorist activities, and from any form of violence.”
On his release in 1974, Sithole lived in exile in Zambia with other ZANU leaders, one of whom, Herbert Chitepo, was killed by a car bomb in March 1975, an occurrence that led to the emergence of Robert Mugabe as the leader of ZANU with a more militant approach than that advocated by Sithole. Even before this event, Sithole had lost a vote of no confidence in his leadership, but Mugabe was still in prison at the time. ZANU split along tribal lines, with the Ndebele joining Sithole in ZANU-Ndonga and the Shona following Mugabe in his ZANU-PF (Patriotic Front).
Sithole’s moderate approach led to him being part of the four-man executive council to govern “Zimbabwe Rhodesia” under the “Internal Settlement” of 1978, in conjunction with Ian Smith, Bishop Abel Muzorewa and Chief Jeremiah Chirau. He also took part in the Lancaster House Agreement of December 1979 that was designed to reach a settlement for black majority rule that would be agreed by all the parties and recognised internationally.
However, the militants in ZANU and ZAPU, who had been engaged in guerrilla-war tactics against the Smith government, were distrustful of Sithole for his presumed sell-out to the whites, and, although Mugabe had signed the Agreement, the solution was clearly not to his liking, involving as it did a guaranteed presence of white members in the new Parliament. Having failed to win a seat in the Parliament elected in 1980, and fearing for his life, Sithole left for the United States in 1983, where he stayed until 1992.
At the age of 75 he attempted a political comeback by being elected to the Zimbabwe Parliament in 1995. The following year he stood against Mugabe in the election for president, but only gained 37,000 votes as against the 1.4 million won by Mugabe. However, he had withdrawn from the election before polling took place, his name remaining on the ballot, because he claimed that the election was being unfairly managed. Accusations of election rigging have been levelled at Robert Mugabe ever since, and with good reason.
In 1997 Sithole was arrested, tried and convicted on a charge of attempting to assassinate Robert Mugabe, and he was also ejected from his parliamentary seat. As his appeal was never heard, it must remain technically uncertain whether there was any truth in the allegation, although the likelihood of the charge being entirely fictitious must be high, given the characters of the people involved.
In June 2000, Sithole’s ZANU-Ndonga won his seat yet again. However, by this time Sithole himself was seriously ill and he left Zimbabwe for medical treatment soon afterwards. He died in hospital in Pennsylvania on 12 December 2000 at the age of 80.
Ndabaningi Sithole will always be seen as an important figure in the history of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle. Had he been able to prevail against the stronger and less principled Robert Mugabe, there is every possibility that much of the misery suffered by the people of Zimbabwe in more recent years might have been avoided.