Review of The Assassination of Hebert Chitepo:Texts and Politics in Zimbabwe - Ranger

The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo: Texts and Politics in Zimbabwe
Luise White
2003: (pp: 153) 235 x 135 mm
ISBN: 02532160807

The Independent
3 October 2003
Reviewer: Terence Ranger

Assassination, confession and narrative Luise White has written a very original book. One could say the same, of course, about all her previous books, but this one is original in a different way. It is not a book that works inwards from the margins but a book that works outwards from the centre. It is not about sex-workers or vampires but about a murder that has been at the very heart of the nationalist history of Zimbabwe for more than thirty years – the murder in March 1975 of Herbert Chitepo, Chairman of ZANU and revered martyr of the liberation struggle.

I have thought of writing a book about Chitepo myself. He was my friend. I knew him well in Rhodesia; stayed with him and Victoria in Dar es Salaam in 1963; met him in Lusaka in the early 1970s. Two of the key figures in the narrative of his assassination – Cornelius Sanyanga and Simpson Mutambanengwe – had been my students at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. After 1980 I regularly met Victoria and the Chitepo sons and daughters. When I published my family biography of Thompson Samkange and his sons, Stanlake and Sketchley, in 1995, the Chitepos asked me to write a biography of Herbert too. I told them that I could not do so. The Samkange papers were voluminous. There were no Chitepo papers. The causes of the deaths of the Samkanges, father and sons – heart failure, drowning and lung failure – were all too tragically clear. So too was the cause of Herbert's – a bomb explosion. But nobody knew who was responsible for it. The Chitepo family thought they knew who had done it but they had no proof. I told them that all I could have done was to write an account of Herbert's life; present the conflicting hypotheses about his death; and show how after his death he became much more glorious and revered than he had been during his life. Meanwhile I had been guiltily using the then available competing versions of Herbert's death as an exercise in source criticism for my Special Subject students in Manchester.

These were the difficulties which I felt have prevented anyone else from writing a biography of Herbert Chitepo. Now, however, Luise White has turned these difficulties into positive advantages. She does not attempt to write a biography of Chitepo or even to sketch his character. She does not try to determine who actually did murder him and why. What interests her is the existence of so many confessions to the murder by so many 'perpetrators', black and white. She asks why there have been all these confessions, and even more allegations; why, despite them all, there remains so much uncertainty about the murder; and why it continues to matter so much in contemporary Zimbabwe, after so many other murders and countless unexplored and unexplained deaths. In short, Luise White is doing, with great sophistication, what my Special Subject students were clumsily struggling to do in the late 1970s.

White remarks that Zimbabweans show an interest in and knowledge of their recent history that puts Americans to shame. (I recall that when I spoke at a secondary school in Bulawayo in 2000 and the history teacher rashly told his class that I could answer 'any question about history', the first hand to go up was that of a girl of sixteen, born long after the grim events of the 1970s. 'Who killed Chitepo?', she asked. 'Who killed Tongogara?', asked the next young man. The obsessive interest which Luise White documents starts very early in Zimbabwe). [She] also remarks that histories of Zimbabwe often take this interest and knowledge for granted and hence are full of detail which makes them fascinating to Zimbabwean readers but inaccessible to anybody else. It is her laudable aim to write for a general audience. She avoids acronyms and almost completely avoids jargon. I think, though, that the sheer, and necessary, complexity of the confessional narratives and the bewildering profusion of characters and names will also make this book very difficult for a general reader. For Zimbabweanists, however, some very important points emerge.

White argues that the confessional narratives have all been ways of constructing Zimbabwe's recent history. That there are overlapping and contradictory black narratives and overlapping and contradictory white narratives demonstrates that it is much too simple to interpret history in binary terms – white versus black; anti-colonialism versus colonialism. Indeed, White shows how multiple and complicated is the apparently simple construct of 'nationalist history' or the contemporary notion of 'patriotic history'. (She also shows that 'nationalist' history and 'patriotic' history are not the same things and have involved different processes of creation).

By focussing on the authors of the various confessions and on the interests they were serving, she breaks up such generalised historiographies into multiple strands. She writes:

'Historians of Zimbabwe have to abandon the either/or paradigm in which either the liberation forces or the Smith regime are the causal agents of every deed and action during the war. Some forms of struggle, resistance and negotiation may originate elsewhere. Historians of Zimbabwe – like those of the rest of Africa – need to look outside the frame they've set for themselves, and shift the history of war and violence beyond their interrogations of nationalism. If war and violence can be uncoupled from the history of nationalism and its triumphs, it can have its own history, a history of guerrillas instead of a history of guerrilla struggle'. (p. 36)

White goes on to make a series of shrewd points about the dynamics of 'a history of guerrillas' that are all the more relevant today, now that the 'ex-combatants' are re-asserting and reproducing themselves, inscribing guerrilla narratives into Zimbabwe's new public historiography. At the same time, momentarily uncoupling the history of nationalism from that of war and violence, she uses the Chitepo story to make some shrewd points about the ingredients of nationalism in Zimbabwe. Making a rare foray into Chitepo's actual biography, for example, she notes his early involvement in the Capricorn Africa Society and suggests that liberalism – and capitalism – deserves a place in the ancestry of ZANU. Some narratives of Chitepo's death were aimed at those ZANU leaders who could be held to represent liberalism and capitalism and were thus an attempt to exorcise them in favour of the myth of the increasing and irreversible radicalisation of the movement.

White handles the details of the various confessions and allegations very well, often throwing me back into the confusion and brutality of the mid-1970s. But she also draws the reader forward into post-independence Zimbabwe and, indeed, right up to the present. Confessions by whites, after all, came after independence. The various white confessions have very different intentions from each other, some being designed to clear their ZANU masters of any blame for Chitepo's death and others being designed to glory, in exile, in the murderous skills of Rhodesians. (Luise White makes the first use of the Rhodesian army and intelligence deposits in the Bristol Museum of Empire to confront Ken Flower's later selective memories by citing his contemporary intelligence reports). What interested me most of all, however, were her comments on the current debate about history in Zimbabwe:

'In my own recent talks and writings about the historiographical crisis in Zimbabwe I have emphasised that the Mugabe government is determined to propagate 'patriotic' history in every way – on radio and television, in the state-controlled newspapers, in school syllabi and textbooks, in lectures by war veterans in militia camps to party youth and reluctantly co-opted headmasters, and in courses in so-called 'Strategic Studies' to be mandatory in all tertiary institutions. But I have been lazily inclined to see this 'patriotic' history as merely a narrowing down and simplification of the old nationalist historiography.'

White argues that it is made up of a number of competing strands, some of them innovations.

Commenting on the return to centrality of the war veterans, [she] writes:

'The new entitlements of war veterans and farm invasions scripted two new histories of the making of Zimbabwe. In one, the foundation of Zimbabwe was based entirely on the war, now recast as a unified and unflinching struggle for the land white farmers had stolen from Africans in the 1890s. In such a history, the place of the party, like that of refugees in Mozambique, was submerged and collapsed into the history of a single liberation army. In the other, the founding movement has been reduced to the agreement reached in the negotiations at Lancaster House in 1979. Those negotiations ... have been revived in political talk in Zimbabwe as an example of how British perfidy subverted the struggle. This particular history ... claims that the cease-fire sold out guerrillas, denying them the land they were about to seize in battle. More important, perhaps, is that this particular history made Britain central to Zimbabwe's history as it had never been before.' (p. 95)

White says that these two versions 'have competed to be true and official, but no version has managed to dominate the other for very long'. In a general militarisation of the past – resolving the old dilemma of whether the gun should control the party or the party control the gun by fusing the two – 'a new, inclusive narrative took hold in Zimbabwean political lore, as several observers reconstructed Zimbabwe's history in order to make every 1970s politician a guerrilla'.

This process has continued since White finished her book. The ex-guerrilla and novelist, Alexander Kannengoni, finished his last fictional account of the traumas of the liberation war, Echoing Silences (Heinemann, 1997) with a dream rally in the bush at which the spirit of Chitepo and the other murdered heroes lamented the betrayal and corruption of the revolution. Kannengoni's novel does not mention Mugabe. But now, Kanengoni, a strong supporter of the 'third revolution' of land redistribution, has described in the press the heroism of Robert Mugabe in the Mozambican bush. In 1975, Kanengoni tells us, the Frelimo base commander approached Mugabe and his small band ordering them to surrender so that they could be handed over to the Rhodesians 'because our colleagues in Zambia had killed Herbert Chitepo'. In Kanegoni's version, Mugabe responded to this crisis by defying the Mozambicans, declaring that 'we would rather die at the hands of Frelimo than the give the Rhodesians the immeasurable pleasure of killing us'. Then Mugabe set about instructing his companions in the history of the struggle – 'and throughout all that rather academic process, there was not a single book, a single piece of paper, a single pen ... It was an incredible time, he was an extraordinary man ... When I look at him now – 23 years later – the man has not changed because what he told us then he is telling an entire nation now' (The Daily News, 12 April 2003).

White comments on the tensions with which Kanengoni has been grappling. 'The traces of history [are] everywhere, including in idealisations of Chitepo and Tongorara' – the murdered lawyer and the soldier who may have had him killed. 'As topics of conversation, and press conferences, and as ghosts, both men were portrayed as more heroic, more charismatic, and more judicious figures than they had ever been considered in their lifetimes. Chitepo and Tongogara have been re-invented as men who would have been president of independent Zimbabwe had they lived.' Mugabe had somehow to manage and even to exploit these resurrections rather than to be declared 'illegitimate' by them. (pp. 96-7)

As for Mugabe's denunciations of the man he calls 'Tony B-Liar' – against whom rather than against Morgan Tsvangarai he seemed to be contesting the March 2002 presidential elections – White again brings out the contradictions:

Zimbabwe has been given a new history in which it was a British colony until 1980 ... This new colonial history sits awkwardly beside the history of settlers, dominion status, and the Rhodesia Front's renegade independence. That history, far more than any imaginary colonial past, is constituted by questions about who rightfully belongs in a country and how that country can protect its national sovereignty. (p. 97)

White thus extracts a great deal from her focus on the long-ago murder of one man. She could, indeed, have included even more material. She might have discussed the mushroom growth of 'chimurenga' songs during the 1970s liberation war glorifying Chitepo as the martyred saint and hero of the revolution – a more diffuse process of narration than the confessions on which she concentrates, She might have discussed how, when he finally won control over ZANU and its army in 1977, Mugabe strove to check the cult of Chitepo by creating an alternative myth of the late Leopold Takawira, who died in prison without ever reaching the field of war. Mugabe created an annual Takawira Day and recommended every guerrilla to make him their model. She might have written about the myths current in Manicaland – Chitepo's home region – about the supernatural events which attended his re-burial at Heroes Acre, when it is said that a great white bird flew out of the open grave and Mugabe started back in guilt. Or about the spirit medium in the Manicaland hills, possessed by the spirit of Herbert Chitepo and seeking to communicate with his descendants. She might have written about the terrible legacy of Chitepo's death on his own family, with the suicides of a brilliant son and daughter. Or about the extraordinary saga of the annual Herbert Chitepo lectures on Human Rights, the first given by Robert Mugabe and the second by President Chissano, both arguing that human rights come out of the barrel of a gun. She might have done all this, but what she has done is achievement enough. This is an original and fascinating book.

© The author/publisher