Today marks 34 years since a young lawyer was abducted outside the Bird and Bottle restaurant at the Ambassador Hotel on Union Avenue in Salisbury. On October 15, 1975, Edson Sithole and his secretary, Miriam Mhlanga, were grabbed by unknown assailants, bundled into a car and never seen again. A few weeks earlier, Sithole had fallen out with other nationalists in a break that would split the UANC and shuffle the ranks of both ZAPU and ZANU, all just seven months after the assassination in Lusaka of Herbert Chitepo.
Chitepo and Sithole were early casualties in long list of mysteries including Josiah Tongogara, Lookout Masuku, Albert Mugabe, Chris Ushewokunze and litany of others who have met untimely deaths.
In 1980, shortly after coming to power, Robert Mugabe called for an enquiry into the Sithole-Mhlanga mystery, but nothing more was heard and they are still officially missing.
Years later, a report on chemical warfare in southern Africa claimed that the two were driven to Mount Darwin where they were killed by the newly formed Selous Scouts who injected them with a lethal dose of sodium pentathol, and threw their bodies down a mine shaft.
More on that theory later.
Edson Sithole was born on 5 June, 1935 in the Ndau-speaking region south of Mutare, but in 1943 the family moved to Bikita where he was a star pupil at the local primary school. He put himself through high school while working on a tea estate and, after moving to Salisbury, became active in politics. In 1956, with George Nyandoro, he helped form the City Youth League which organised some of the earliest strikes and boycotts during Federation.
Sithole was detained repeatedly and, during one spell, shared a hut with Edgar Tekere at Wha Wha prison near Gweru. All the time he was studying law and, in 1963, became only the second black barrister admitted to the Bar. The first was Herbert Chitepo. By the time of his disappearance he had successfully completed his PhD and was a doctor of law.
Originally with ZANU, he moved to the UANC and worked closely with Abel Muzorewa and was a delegate at the 1975 peace talks at Victoria Falls, organised by Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda and South African prime minister, John Vorster.
Had he lived and given his habit of speaking out against nonsense wherever he saw it – both in the Rhodesian regime and among fellow nationalists – he would likely have remained a critic of bad government.
Instead, an empty grave bears his name at Heroes Acre near Harare, but little has been done to track down why his remains were never found.
In 1993, while giving a lecture at the University of Zimbabwe, the late writer David Martin claimed that Sithole and his secretary were kidnapped by the Rhodesian CIO and disposed of by the Selous Scouts using lethal injection.
But there are three other reasons this tale doesnt work for me:
1) Sitholes car was found close to the Mozambique border. This could have been a deliberate plan to muddy the trail, but why bother when witnesses had already come forward to testify that Sithole and Mhlanga were seen being forced into another vehicle in Salisbury? Surely it would have made more sense for CIO to simply get rid of the car.
2) The Rhodesian government, while happy to drop bombs on places like Chimoio, was not big on assassination. In the 1970s, Ian Smith had both Mugabe and Nkomo under lock and key, along with Edisons cousin, Ndabaningi Sithole, and a host of other leaders, yet they survived. Indeed, prison conditions were so good that several inmates, including Mugabe, were able to take university degrees by correspondence. So why the urge to kill a relatively placid character like Edson?
3) Death by lethal injection? Surely the Scouts would simply have shot the pair. It sounds contrived and complicated when a bullet to the head would have done the job.
In his book, Serving Secretly, Ken Flower, who was head of CIO under both Smith and Mugabe, said that a decision was made to get rid of Sithole, but he leaves it there and doesnt say whether or not they went through with the idea, or how.
As we approach the 30th anniversary of independence in April next year, it would be good to see the MDC launch a parliamentary enquiry into what really happened – not just to Edson, but in the case of Chitepo, Tongogara, Masuku, Cain Nkala, Moven Mahachi and so many others including, some would say, Susan Tsvangirai, though from what evidence I have seen, the crash that killed the Prime Ministers wife appears to have been a genuine accident.
In Matabeleland, survivors of Gukurahundi argue that the current programme of reconciliation is worthless because you cannot forgive people until you know WHO you are meant to pardon and WHAT they are alleged to have done.
The same applies to the disappearance of Sithole and the many unexplained deaths since 1980. Time surely that we laid the ghosts to rest! – Geoff Hill is bureau chief Africa for The Washington Times and author of What Happens After Mugabe?Post published in: Opinions