Long before he died at an Indiana, USA, hospital on Wednesday 23 March after a long fight with cancer, Robert James Chikerema told friends that the last place on earth he wanted as a resting place

was Heroes’ Acre in Harare.

“I’ve told my sons that if they ever try and take my body to that place they are to open fire! I’ve given them guns. They must open fire and stop me being buried next to those crooks and sycophants who destroyed Zimbabwe.”

One of the regrets he took to his deathbed was the failure to “liberate” his closest friend and longstanding political colleague George Nyandoro from what he always called “that place.”

With great bitterness in his voice, he told me: “George died in July 1994, unexpectedly. His dying wish was to be buried next to his family but no! Mugabe, who so hated George in life, wanted to nationalise him in death. The day they buried him and sang their songs of praise I got so drunk. ‘George, I said, my brother – one day I will take you away from that place. How I will do it, I do not know. But one day …'”

Chikerema was born at Kutama Mission on April 2, 1925, the son of Joseph Dzeneza Dambaza and his wife Antonia Sekai Dambaza. In all, there were 12 children but five died. Charles, the Marxist former editor of The Herald, was the family’s youngest.

All were brought up a strict Roman Catholics and when he was 13 years old Chikerema left Chishawasha Mission Station and went to Kutama Mission where his contemporary and nephew Robert Gabriel Mugabe was being educated by the Jesuits.

Said Chikerema in 1996 -“They taught me the meaning of the words Love and Truth. I abandoned Catholicism when I saw how so called Christians treated blacks when I lived in South Africa but I still owe them a debt of gratitude. They were firm disciplinarians but they were really great teachers and taught us to have respect for the Church, our country and above all, ourselves as blacks.”

In his late teens he left Rhodesia for Marian Hill Mission in Natal and later moved to Cape Town where he studied law at the local university.

There he was befriended by a large Jewish family who took him in, helped pay for his education and introduced him to Zionism and Marxism.

In his early twenties Chikerema read bits of Das Kapital, joined the Communist Party and got to know men like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo.

Upon his return to white-ruled Rhodesia, he teamed up with a man who was to stay loyal to him for the rest of his life –George Nyandoro, great grandson of one of the Shona chiefs who took up arms against Cecil Rhodes’ white settlers in the 1890s.

It was those two who invited Joshua Nkomo to head up the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress (SRANC), which put life and spirit into the black fight for parliamentary representation in a country in the midst of Federation involving the ‘partnership’ between three African countries, the two Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

Chikerema and Nyandoro were the darlings of the black masses in the then Harare Township of Rhodesia long before Robert Mugabe came on to the political scene. In 1959, both were arrested in an Emergency that paralysed the Federation and moved it centre stage for the first time.

Upon their release from prison in 1964, Nkomo sent Chikerema and Nyandoro to Tanzania and then to Zambia to carry on the fight against Ian Smith’s Rhodesian ‘government.’

Chikerema was the acting president of ZAPU and in that capacity addressed crowds of hundreds of thousands in Peking and went to Moscow where he agreed to sell his country’s post-Independence minerals to the Soviets in return for weapons of war to topple the Smith regime in Salisbury.

Weary of watching internal feuds eat up the energies of ZAPU and the 1963 created ZANU, Chikerema, Nyandoro and Nathan Shamuyarira formed the Front for the Liberation of Zimbabwe (FROLIZI) in 1971.

In December 1974 Chikerema (FROLIZI), Bishop Abel Muzorewa (UANC), Ndabaningi Sithole (ZANU) and Joshua Nkomo (ZAPU) signed a Unity Accord organized by President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and his political spin doctor Mark Chona. But it didn’t stop the terrible in-fighting.

In Lusaka, Chikerema watched as internal fighting sapped the strength of those supposed to be fighting white oppression in Rhodesia and it was Chikerema who lashed out at what he called “a Karanga Mafia in ZANU” immediately after the murder in March 18 1975 in Lusaka of Herbert Chitepo.

That morning at State House, Chikerema tried to draw a pistol from his holster and shoot dead the man he always said murdered Chitepo – Josiah Tongogara, head of the Mugabe wing of ZANU. “You will never get way with this,” he yelled as policemen surrounded the clearly out of control Chikerema.

Robert Mugabe’s ruling party never ever forgave him.

After the collapse of the massively publicized but basically ludicrous détente exercise between Kenneth Kaunda and John Vorster of South Africa in 1974-1975, Chikerema went off screen returning to Rhodesia in 1978 to participate in a widely condemned internal settlement.

At first he supported Bishop Muzorewa and became co-Minister of Transport in the short-lived Rhodesia-Zimbabwe Government (March –November 1979)

But later he broke away from the bishop’s party and formed the Zimbabwe Democratic Party (ZDP) supported by a small group of MPs who included some of the great names of the liberation struggle – Professor Stanlake Samkange, Dr Enock Dumbutshena and Steven Parirenyatwa, who was tragically killed in a car accident shortly before Independence.

In 1980, Chikerema contested the country’s first one person-one vote elections but got nowhere. For 13 years he walked the political wilderness always hoping that one day the call would come and he would, somehow, miraculously take over and shape the new Zimbabwe in his own socialist, traditionalist image.

The call never came but debt collectors did and Chikerema went to work for his old financial backer Tiny Rowland of Lonrho, returning only briefly to the political arena in 1995 when he joined the Forum party led by Enock Dumbutshena.

James Chikerema often attacked Mugabe in print. But when the septuagenarian re-married in 1996, Chikerema sent him a bull as a wedding present and in 1999 surprisingly served on the Constitutional Commission that was so massively rejected by the people of Zimbabwe the following year. – Trevor Grundy

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