Review of The Assassination of Hebert Chitepo - Mukai

Who really Killed Herbert Chitepo?

Luise White: The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo, Texts and Politics in Zimbabwe, Indiana University Press. 2003, distributed in Zimbabwe by Weaver Press, 107 pp.

Reviewed by Gift Mambipiri


Published in Mukai-Vukani Jesuit Journal for Zimbabwe No 48, May 2009, pp 23-24)


Zimbabwe has had many ‘mysterious’ car deaths for political leaders since the days of the liberation struggle. The most recent that shook our nation and set many tongues wagging claimed the life of the wife of the Prime Minister, Mai Susan Tsvangirai.

Did she die in a natural car crash or was it an assassination? Many people and news websites, believing that she was assassinated, were quick to bring out of their shelves a long list of politicians allegedly assassinated by their political foes.

And one name of such victims which featured on many of these lists is that of Herbert Chitepo, national chairperson of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), who died in Lusaka when a bomb planted in his car detonated as he was about to leave his house for a meeting with Kenneth Kaunda that morning.

It is Chitepo’s death that forms the basis for this text. Unfortunately, for the reader, the text does not provide the much sought after answer on who really killed Cde Chitepo. “ I’m not trying to establish who killed Chitepo, but to find out why so many people claim they did so…” declares our author from the onset. (14)

Chitepo was chairman of the war council of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). He was killed on March 18, 1975 in Lusaka by a car bomb.
Since then there have been “many speculations, accusations and confessions as to who killed Chitepo and why?” (1). Just like what happened in the period immediately after Mai Susan Tsvangirai’s death, the weeks after Chitepo’s death were a witch-hunting platform. The South Africans were suspects, so were the Zambians, the Rhodesians, other liberation movements such as ZAPU; and, interestingly, there were also suggestions it was his party [ZANU] that had eaten its own child.

Many people were arrested in connection with this [the murder] in Lusaka, but that did not provide fulfilling answers to who really killed Chitepo. The Zambian government launched an inquiry ostensibly to try and clear its own name. Their report, published a year later, did not quell the rumours. [It is] no wonder that the Chitepo death “was an issue in the 1980 elections…and twenty years later there remain new accusations, new hints and new demands for Zimbabwe to hold an investigation into his death.”(1)

Luise White here makes a case not for the identity of the assassin, important as this may be, but on “why so many people insist they did it”, especially years after Zimbabwe got independent from Britain (2). The encouragement here is there is more to the confessions than what meets the eye. “Each of these many confessions articulates a world of politics and relationships. Some confessions seek to silence other confessions or make them seem flawed and fabricated” and in the process keep the real story under wraps. She beliefs by analysing some of these confessions and exposing them for what they really are, we might one day unmask the real assassin in the murder of Chitepo.

The Chitepo commission, launched by the Zambian government to try and get to the bottom of this tragedy, was one such move of disguise, which in the end created more questions than answers. The report claims Chitepo “died because of ethnic conflicts in the party”(8). Kenneth Kaunda, the then Zambian president told our author at one point that the death of Chitepo “was an inside job”(8). Even Rhodesians based their conclusions on the Chitepo commission report on who killed him. Admittedly there were simmering clashes on ethnic grounds in the liberation movement, but not huge enough to warrant such a drastic measure. In fact the guerrillas pointed and accused by the commission were not familiar even with the special small car bomb used here. No wonder many in dismissed the report as a self-serving gimmick by the Zambians.

Surprisingly, well after independence, Rhodesians changed track, finally ‘remembered’ and confessed that they indeed had killed Chitepo. The confession in The Struggle for Zimbabwe, published by David Martin and Phyllis Johnson, tells the story from the mouth of a friend of the deceased assassin as well as a number of Rhodesians who were at liberty, surprisingly, to name the “Zimbabwean who didn’t do it, even if they refused to name the Rhodesian who did it”(8). This though gives a feeling they were out on a public relations expedition.

As The Struggle for Zimbabwe revealed to the world the assassin’s true identity for the first time in 1985, another book by Peter Stiff describes the same assassination and reveals also the assassin of Herbert Chitepo. We are given here two different assassins of the same person. “In one text, the assassin is Taffy Bryce, and in the other he is Chuck Hinde”(62).

The Zambians claim Tongogara killed Chitepo. He was detained and tortured for a long time. But meeting Sr Janice McLaughlin, Tongogara assures her, “You know, the Rhodesians accused me of killing Chitepo and so did the Zambians…I could never have killed Chitepo…He was like a father to me”(87).

Tongogara himself was to tragically die on the eve of independence in 1979. Was it a genuine accident that claimed his life or was he assassinated seeing independence was at hand, and so was the presidency to the new republic? His family believes he was butchered, no wonder why his wife was not keen on having him reburied at heroes acre in Harare, “next to his murderers”(92).

Though this text does not bring finality to the identity of Chitepo’s assassin, it opens up our world by an analysis of both the events of what happened during the liberation struggle as well as giving us insight into the small print that make the voluntary confessions and accusations we have heard so far.

It is a pity our politics is so tainted that we may soon launch an inquiry into yet another death, before we could fully explain who really ate our other sons, Herbert Chitepo, Jason Moyo and Josiah Tongogara, amongst others.

Gift Mabipiri has a degree in English and communication and works for Jesuit Communications as editorial assistant.

© Mukai/Vukani