Chitepo’s death: the mystery remains

Few need to be reminded that Robert Mugabe was flown to Lusaka on a Rhodesian plane in late 1974 for negotiations. However, despite these initiatives, Chitepo had adamantly refused to countenance any suggestion that Mugabe might replace Sithole as the new ZANU nationalist leader. His death was therefore very convenient.

The late Josiah Tongogara, badly tortured in a Zambian prison.
The late Josiah Tongogara, badly tortured in a Zambian prison.

At the time I and other senior cadres therefore regarded this succession of events with suspicion. However, the atmosphere in Lusaka and among the ZANLA combatants following Chitepo’s murder was poisonous and therefore not conducive to separating fact from fiction.

With hindsight it is, at the very least, arguable that those driving the unity accord believed that Mugabe would be more acceptable to the Rhodesians than Sithole, for it was generally felt that Mugabe would be more prepared to negotiate a favourable settlement with the Rho¬desian regime. Admittedly, there were some in the ZANU leadership who considered that Chitepo had sympathised with the Nhari-Badza rebellion, although there was no evidence to support this. Indeed, the dissidents could have incriminated him after their capture, and before their execution, but they did not.

This internal revolt also polarised ZANU and presented an opportunity for settling scores. In my view, Chitepo’s murder is very likely to have been committed by the Rhode¬sians, but it is possible that the Zambian government or his enemies within ZANU were implicated. Most likely it was a lethal combina¬tion of all three. What is certain, however, is that his death paved the way for the nationalist leaders newly released by the Smith regime to take control of ZANU and to apparently steer it away from ‘communist inspired radicals’, as happened in the case of Jason Moyo.

All infiltrated

National¬ist rhetoric today would have us believe that a) the liberation war was a coherent struggle between the Rhodesians and the two liberation movements, ZANU and ZAPU, of which ZANU was the strongest and clearest and b) that it was primarily a struggle or civil war cen¬tred on race and land. This is a gross over-simplification. All three parties contained people across a fairly broad political spectrum, all three contained hard-liners, all were infiltrated and each had their col¬laborators. To take a small example, Fay Chung, in Reliving the Second Chimurenga, talks of the role played by Eniwet Mawema in Lusaka in the aftermath of Chitepo’s murder.

Mawema was a well-known Rho¬desian agent who been imprisoned in Tanzania for spying and who had somehow escaped the swoop by the Zambian government in March 1975 on ZANU and ZANLA cadres in Lusaka. Thus, he appeared to fill a leadership vacuum. Yet, at the time of his death in 1999, Mawema was the CIO director of internal security and operations. (He is not the only former Rhodesian agent to have held a senior rank in the CIO after independence.)

It therefore seems to me that while all parties may have been impli¬cated, or at least known prior to the event what might happen and did nothing to stop it, the assassination was planned and co-ordinated by the Rhodesians. It is instructive to point out that attempts had been pre¬viously made by them to assassinate members of the Dare leadership, including Chitepo. For example, the explosion at the OAU Liberation Centre in Lusaka in 1974 destroyed the ZANU offices, including that of Chitepo.

Much has been written about the assassination of Herbert Chitepo, with many claims and counterclaims and, as Louise White (2003) argues, often for revisionist or particular political agendas. The full truth is unlikely to be known for some years, if ever, as the fictions are often believed by the persons recounting them. However, what remains a living reality is that Chitepo’s death is still being politically manipulated to drive a wedge between the Karanga and the Manyika, which was how it was portrayed by the Zambian government in the first place.

Zambian swoop

The Zambian government took advantage of Chitepo’s death to clamp down on ZANU, and its military wing, ZANLA. In effect, the assassi¬nation provided a cover for the enforcement of the ceasefire provisions of the unity accord as their security forces hunted down the ZANLA fighters and ZANU cadres on Zambian soil, as if they were accom¬plices to Chitepo’s murder.

The High Command met on the afternoon of 22 March, immedi¬ately after Chitepo’s burial. I had flown to Lusaka from Dar es Salaam for the funeral. Tongogara chaired the meeting and lamented the death of our chairman. We were all convinced that the Zambian government would crack down hard on the party – the reality exceeded our worst expectations – and we were given various assignments and redeployed in anticipation of the Zambian action. The majority of the members of the High Command were to proceed to our base at Chifombo on the border with Mozambique from where they would operate. This group included Tongogara himself, MeyaUrimbo, Vitalis Zvinavashe, Joseph Chimurenga, Justin Chauke and myself.

Soon after our arrival in Chifombo on the morning of 23 March 1975, we learnt of the inva¬sion of our farm camp just outside Lusaka. Then, at around lunchtime, we received news that the Zambian army was advancing on Chifom¬bo. All the senior commanders, myself included, quickly crossed the border into the Mozambique, putting themselves beyond the reach of the Zambian army. We were at a loss what to do next, as resisting the Zambian action by force was out of the question. One suggestion was that we should proceed deeper into Mozambique and contact the Mozambican authorities.

As we were deliberating, I drew Tongogara’s attention to the need not to leave our fighters to the mercy of the Zambian authorities. It was important, I argued, that we provide them with leadership. We argued for about two hours before he relented and allowed me to return to the camp to find out what was happening. I left for Chifombo camp at around 5.30 p.m., accompanied by Cde Mathias Tatenda, and shortly after 7 p.m. we heard soldiers speaking in a language unfamiliar to us, which suggested that our fighters had been evacuated. As we drew closer, we were accosted by Zambian soldiers who demanded that we give ourselves up and wanted to know why we were not with the rest of the ZANLA forces who had been moved about 15km away.

Prisoners of war

As a commander, I had a pistol with me, which I quickly passed to Tatenda, muttering that I was going to pretend to be a recruit who had run away at the sight of the armed soldiers. (Tatenda had supposedly run after me.) The Zambian soldiers fell for our ruse and simply put us into their truck and drove us to the makeshift ‘camp’ that was on the main road that linked Lusaka with Chipata. There we found about 600 fighters corralled by 20 or so Zambian army trucks whose engines ran throughout the night, with headlights on full beam. The ZANLA fighters were being treated like prisoners of war.

To my surprise, the following morning I met William Ndangana, the ZANLA Chief of Operations; as he was my senior commander, I was a little apprehensive. He told me that he had accompanied the Zambian army on its raid of Chifombo camp, and had done the same at our Lusaka farm camp. His role was to pacify the fighters and fore¬stall any resistance to the takeover of the camps by the Zambian army.

He had addressed the fighters in the presence of Zambian army officers and ordered them to co-operate. Without this approach, there might very well have been violent resistance; as a whole the ZANLA fighters had a very negative opinion of the Zambian authorities, who they saw as working to derail the liberation struggle and as serving the interests of the Rhodesian regime.

Ndangana was pleased to see me and immediately wanted to intro¬duce me to the Zambian officers as a member of the ZANLA High Command and make me his second-in-command in the operation to close our camps. I strongly objected to his suggestion. I told him of my discussion with Tongogara and the arrangement for me to remain with the fighters, who, Ndangana told me, were all going to be taken to Mkushi, in central Zambia. He appreciated my position and made no further effort to persuade me to assist him, although clearly he would have preferred to have the support of another ZANLA commander.

Meanwhile, the Zambian army had begun a screening process, taking down the personal details of and photographing every ZANLA soldier. I was determined to avoid this process as it would have undermined my objective, and I managed to do so. Immediately after screening, we were herded into army trucks. After a 15-hour journey we arrived at Mkushi, where we found another contingent of about 500 ZANLA comrades who had been taken from our Lusaka Farm Camp and from ZANU (safe)houses in Lusaka.

Saved from arrest

The cadres from the farm camp were under the command of Chika-vangwena, Patrick Mupunzarima, a member of the ZANLA High Command and a deputy to the head of security and intelligence. Alto¬gether there were about 1,200 of us, of whom roughly 60 per cent were refugees, mostly women, children and the elderly. The following morning Ndangana left with the Zambian officers to round up any residual ZANLA combatants in Lusaka and, over the course of the next three weeks, another 100 joined us. Among them were many recruits from the front or from Botswana, some of whom had first gone to our former camps, which were now occupied by Zambian soldiers.

Soon after my arrival at Mboroma I reached an understanding with both Ndangana and Mupunzarima, the two members of High Com¬mand, that I would remain undercover. Our comrades would continue to respect me as a senior commander but they would not salute me. They would also continue to refer to me as Comrade Dzino, my popu¬lar name, and not Dzinashe Machingura, my Chimurenga name and the one by which the Zambian authorities knew me as a member of the ZANLA High Command.

The arrangement was that I would officially be the assistant and bodyguard to Chikavangwena, whom we had tasked with the operational command and administration of the restriction camp. I would share his tent and accompany him to all meetings with the Zambian officers as his secretary. (This later saved me from arrest by the Zambian officials.) After about three weeks, when the Zambians were satisfied that they had more or less rounded up all the ZANLA fighters, they came to Mboroma and picked up Ndangana, Mupunzarima, Chikavangwena and Charles Dauramanzi. I was spared. I appointed DenfordMunetsi as the new commander and Marima as the political commissar.

After about three weeks, the Zambian officials released some senior ZANU and ZANLA cadres from imprisonment into Mboroma. Among them were Webster Gwauya, the party’s chief representative in east Africa, Elliot Kaseke, a member of the ZANLA High Command, David Todhlana and Richard Hove, the former secretary of external affairs. Marooned in the wilderness of Mboroma, far removed from communities, we were all grappling with the events.

Stopping the war

We saw through the Zambian excuse for the crackdown, i.e., the murder of Chitepo, understanding it instead to be a disabling clampdown of ZANU and ZANLA with the objective of stopping the war. Chitepo’s death could not have justified such high-handed, indiscriminate action. Had the Zambian government been determined to investigate the circumstanc¬es of his death, it is inconceivable that they would have assumed that ZANLA as a whole could have planned and executed the murder of their national chairman.

After I had left Tongogara and other members of the High Com¬mand on the Mozambican side just across from our Chifombo camp, they made contact with the FRELIMO authorities, who then dis¬patched a helicopter from Tete to collect them. In Tete, Tongogara told them what had happened, castigating the behaviour of the Zambian government. Unbeknown to him, however, there were Zambian secu¬rity officials present at his briefing and they recorded everything he said.

As a result, Tongogara was promptly arrested and handed over to the Zambian authorities, who flew him back to Zambia. This is how he found himself in a Zambian prison, where he was badly tortured to extract confessions that would fit with the predetermined findings of the Chitepo Commission of Enquiry. Nonetheless, when his tor¬ture was confirmed by the Zambian High Court, he was released after nearly 18 months of incarceration on about 19 October 1976.

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