Sithole’s place in African history is assured whether Mugabe likes it or not

History is written by the winners. We all know that. Yet it’s often so much more interesting when told by the losers. Rev Ndabaningi Sithole, the first president of ZANU, was one of them.

Two of Zanu’s greatest men - Herbert Chitepo, assassinated in Lusaka in March 1975 and Ndabaningi Sithole at a meeting in Lusaka in December 1974 at the start of the detente exervise between Zambia and South Africa.
Two of Zanu’s greatest men – Herbert Chitepo, assassinated in Lusaka in March 1975 and Ndabaningi Sithole at a meeting in Lusaka in December 1974 at the start of the detente exervise between Zambia and South Africa.

Born in Gazaland in 1920, son of impoverished parents who sacrificed so much to see their son first go to school, he would have turned 93 on 20 July.

Younger than Nelson Mandela, older than Robert Mugabe, Ndabaningi Sithole was one of those larger-than-life men who surprised Westerners with the way he structured his arguments and provided insight into African culture and African aspirations at a time when Britain was retreating from Empire and when the sons and daughters of the African Raj were digging in fearful of the future.

His book African Nationalism is a seminal work. It stands alongside other deeply felt works such as Nathan Shamuyarira’s Crisis in Rhodesia, Maurice Nyagumbo’s With the People and Lawrence Vambe’s An ill-fated People.

African Nationalism (OUP, 1950) helped make Sithole’s name in African nationalist circles and was one of the reasons he was elected president of ZANU when it was formed at the Highfield home of Enos Nkala on August 8, 1963.

It became an African Bible of Hope not only in southern Rhodesia but also in other parts of Africa.

And despite Robert Mugabe’s best effort to airbrush Sithole off the granite wall of history, the man won’t be buried that easily. One day soon, he’ll be dug up and re-examined. Others will take his place in the ground he now occupies. Sithole was the man from nowhere.

The future preacher’s mother was called Siyapi. She came from Matabeleland. His father was an odd-job-man, a one-time errand boy for a hotel in Gwelo called Jim born in Gazaland. Their one day famous son was born in a mud hut in Nyamandlovu. He says in his most famous book: ”On the same day that I arrived, I was made to inhale the smoke from a burning goat’s horn so no evil would befall me.”

He never stopped inhaling. This boy didn’t wear trousers until he was 10. He saw a motor car and thought it was a moving cottage. He fled into the forest when he first saw a train. He caddied for golfers at Shabani (Zvishavane) where the family moved for work and later slogged it out as a kitchen hand. At the age of 15 he ran away from home and with £2 in his pocket was admitted to Dadaya Mission run by Garfield and Grace Todd who recognized the boy’s intelligence, sponsored his education and treated him like a son. In 1950, he joined the United Methodist Church and moved to an American Methodist Mission at Mount Selinda in south-west Rhodesia. The staff there was so impressed that they sent him to America to study for a degree at Newton Theological Seminary at Andover, Massachusetts. He was ordained into the United Methodist Church in 1958 and was made a headmaster at a nearby school the following year.

As a teacher, he became politically aware. African Nationalism was the result. It was banned immediately. In those days, only a handful of Europeans wanted to understand black aspirations. Sithole was lucky. Grace and Garfield Todd cared deeply for Africans and he never forgot his debt to this New Zealand couple. The foreword to African Nationalism was written by Garfield Todd who was also a victim of white intransigence and who was removed as prime minister of southern Rhodesia in 1958 because of his desire to extend the franchise. Todd wrote: “Mr Sithole’s book is especially welcome and valuable at this time because it comes from a young African who has struggled against odds which would have dismayed most men.”

In 1960 the Sharpeville massacre took place in South Africa. At home, the National Democratic Party was formed.

It needed men of integrity and intellect to lead it. Sithole was one. Mugabe was another.

The NDP was banned and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) led by Joshua Nkomo was formed and also banned and dissatisfaction with Nkomo’s leadership grew.

In 1963, ZANU was formed, ripping the once seamless robe of nationalism.

The consequences were disastrous for millions of people who went on to witness UDI in 1965 and then a bitter race war from 1966 to 1980 that led to the death of at least 33, 000 blacks and hundreds of whites civilians, many of them commercial farmers. In August 1974, while in Kwe Kwe Prison Sithole lost his leadership of ZANU. Mugabe was installed.

But when several leading nationalists were flown to Lusaka later that year for talks with Frontline leaders about détente with South Africa, Mugabe was told to go home. None of the leaders wanted to talk to this almost unkown man. They wanted Sithole.

What happened to Sithole during the March 1980 election is well known. He and his tiny party Zanu (Ndonga) got nowhere.

He left Zimbabwe, went to America and lived in Virginia where he became some sort of mouthpiece on African affairs for the right-wing Heritage Foundation. When he finally returned to Zimabwe in 1992 he was met by a crowd of young men who tried to lift him onto their shoulders. They failed. He was too heavy. At a news conference later that day, I asked him if he intended to be an opposition leader for the rest of his life. He half smiled and said: “What else is there to do?”

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about Ndabaningi Sithole in Britain and the USA. In Zimbabwe, he’s not so well known any longer. But he will be again one day when Mugabe goes and when a new crop of African historians tell us what they know about Zimbabwe’s origins.

Sithole was no saint. He was inconsistent. But he was also a towering figure of defiance, an intellectual heavyweight and a man who spent years in prison fighting for the young, the sort of free men, women (maybe children, too) who are reading this newspaper, Zimbabweans who will be urged to remember the day when ZANU was formed but told to forget one of the key players who brought it on – like reading a book called “Zanu” and not knowing the name of the author.

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