Who killed Chitepo in Lusaka?


A few years ago, the New Zimbabwean newspaper carried an article by Dr Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni entitled “Crisis of leadership – We must learn from history.”

This week, the same newspaper quotes a Zimbabwe opposition leader Tendai Biti accusing the ruling ZANU-PF as being responsible for the murder of Herbert Chitepo.

This was in this week’s interview marking the funeral in Harare of Chitepo’s widow Victoria

In an earlier article, Gatsheni traces the current crisis of leadership in Zimbabwe to the liberation struggle.

Furthermore, Gatsheni further calls for the truth to be told about the deaths of some leading figures in the Zimbabwe liberation movement, more especially Herbert Witshire Chitepo in Lusaka in 1975.

Until his death, Chitepo headed the ZANU-PF long before President Robert Mugabe came onto the scene.

For some time he was Tanzania’s Attorney-General before, in the later part of his life, he resided in Lusaka’s Chilenje township, a stone throw away from the Chilenje police station.

I intend to deal with the death of Chitepo because of my geographical proximity to the house where Chitepo lived and died. In a way, I was “nearby” when it happened.

So, I too, am interested in knowing the truth behind Chitepo’s murder not only because I was his neighbour, but I also because I saw him alive, unlike most young Zambians and Zimbabweans today.

I am Zambian. I lived not far from House No. 150 Maramba Road in Lusaka’s Chilenje South.

This is the Lusaka City Council house which government gave to Chitepo and where he died early morning on Tuesday, 18 March 1975.

Chitepo died in a landmine explosion together with his bodyguard, Silas Shamiso and a young Zambian neighbour, a boy named Sambwa Chaya, who had fatefully risen early to play in his garden at Number 148, Maramba Road.

When Chitepo died, I was barely half a kilometre west, at House Number 93, Kaaze Road in Lusaka’s Libala Stage 3 residential area.

I was a relatively young man and did not fully appreciate what the blast was all about. I did not realize that more than three decades later, I would still be thinking about that massive blast.

These days, whenever I stroll past Chitepo’s house, I think about the man who would have been Zimbabwean first black president.

I keep wondering why there is nothing marking the spot where his life was cruelly taken. This evening I almost knocked at the door to ask the people living there whether they knew the man who lived there in 1975.

I saw Chitepo once, at a distance, on a Saturday afternoon. He was standing outside his blue VW beetle car talking to someone.

This was at the Chilimbulu Road side near Kamwala Secondary School, in Lusaka. I was in a mini bus (called taxi in South Africa) going for a film show in the town centre.

A man sitting next to me, a Zimbabwean exile, volunteered information and pointed him out. He said “that is Chitepo, our leader.” My naive response was “Oh, I see. Who is he?”

The bemused informant mumbled something to the effect that Chitepo was the leader of the liberation army. I had no full comprehension about what he was talking about.

I was confused because to me, only Ndabaningi Sithole and Joshua Nkomo were the leaders of the Zimbabwean liberation movements.

Of course there were other ‘minor’ personalities, but I did not know Chitepo.

He was hardly in the Zambian newspapers which in those days were run and dominated by Zimbabwean exiled journalists like the late Farayi Munyuki ( a colleague, friend and workmate in the mid 1990s in Maputo, Mozambique, he was known as Albert Mvula in Zambia), Tim Chigodo and others.

I was an avid reader of newspapers but I only knew Sithole and Nkomo because these men regularly featured in the Zambian media unlike Chitepo.

I therefore paid little attention to the lanky man standing by his little light green VW beetle car, chatting away to somebody on a bright sunny afternoon. I showed no further interest in my minibus colleague’s revelations, until the events which followed a few weeks later.

Firstly, I was surprised by the furore caused by the death of this “nonentity” Chitepo. I thought Kaunda and his government was blowing things out of proportion.

When it happened though, I for the first time, recalled the conversation I had with the Zimbabwean exile on the bus, whom I have never met since.

Before then, I was not interested in Chitepo until I grew up and realized the importance of the man I gave a passing glance to, so many years ago.

In those days, Zambians were used to hearing about the deaths of newsworthy freedom fighters like John Ziyapapa Moyo of Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) who was killed in Lusaka in January 1977.

We considered such deaths as the inevitable part of the sacrifice to the struggle for a people’s freedom.

In those days, there was a trail of killings which started around 1973. Among the first to die was a Zambian secretary in Livingstone killed by a letter bomb blast.

This bomb was followed by another at the huge Chinese embassy complex in Long acres which claimed the life of a Chinese national; then another at Lusaka’s main post office which killed an Indian Secondary School teacher, the poet Chiman Vyas.

Thereafter, thousands of blasts intermittently occurred across Zambia, destroying people and office buildings like the Liberation Centre; bridges; railway lines; liberation camps like Chikumbi some 20 kms north of Lusaka and similar camps in Mumbwa, Livingstone, and Zambia’s North-Western province.

Once, even one of the carved lions at the entrance of the Supreme Court building in Lusaka was bombed.

The remains of this bombed-out lion lies ‘in state’ outside the Mulungushi Conference Centre on Lusaka’s Great East Road. This form of destruction was common in those days.

In those days, we could even witness rebel Rhodesian military planes flying low over Lusaka, urging Zambians to throw out Zimbabwean freedom fighters “kept by Kaunda” because, apparently and in reference to shortages of the Zambian staple food, they were “finishing your mealie meal!”

With these things swirling around and my youthfully-limited appreciation and understanding of political events, Chitepo’s death was initially, the ‘usual’ occurrence in liberation politics that I had got used to.

This was so until I noticed the seriousness with which Zambia’s then President Kaunda’s handled Chitepo’s murder.

A few days after Chitepo’s death, Kaunda addressed the Zambian nation on both radio and television.

He announced the formation of an international commission of inquiry consisting of representatives from the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Liberation Committee; Zambian government; Botswana; Libya; Malawi; Malagasy Republic; Morocco; Mozambique; Sierra Leone; Somalia; Tanzania; Congo Brazzaville; Rwanda; Ivory Coast; and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo – DRC).

This was probably the first and only time that such an international commission was formed in the history of Zambia.

The commission was tasked with the responsibility of inquiring and establishing the facts, and identifying the individuals and the motivations, behind the murder of Chitepo.

In a nationwide address, Kaunda said Zambia viewed Chitepo’s death “with utmost gravity.” He was furious that some Zimbabwean nationalists suggested that by investigating Chitepo’s death, Zambia was frustrating the liberation struggle.

The accusations were that Zambia had arrested ZANU’s military Commander Josiah Tongogara and more than a thousand of his troops thereby circumventing the struggle for the speedy liberation of Zimbabwe. Some freedom fighters died in detention during interrogations. Others fled the country to the safety of Mozambique.

The relationship between Zambia and Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party has never been cordial since that time.

In addressing the Zambian nation shortly after Chitepo’s death, Kaunda said: “It requires no special talent to criticise and insult. Even the stupid, the ignorant and the insane can, and do criticise. Zambians must not be unduly perturbed by insults.”

Kaunda said that to suggest that Zambia was frustrating the Zimbabwean struggle was an insult to the “irreparable injuries” sustained by Zambians  in their “irrevocable” support for the freedom movement in Zambia. He said Zambia’s support to the freedom fighters in Zimbabwe was the most expensive compared to its support to fighters in Mozambique and Angola.

He said Zimbabweans themselves realized that whatever successes were achieved in the armed struggle depended on the sacrifices made by Zambia, although the future of Zimbabwe will be determined by Zimbabweans themselves.

Kaunda was responding to allegations from ZANU, which was increasingly being dominated by an emerging powerful clique of Mugabe loyalists.

This group openly accused Kaunda of being complicit in the assassination of Chitepo. According to this group, Kaunda was frustrating ZANU and promoting the interests of Nkomo’s ZAPU, a perceived ally of Kaunda.

Later, this stance became the official position of the ZANU-PF dominated government after independence in 1980. This was the basis of frosty relations between the two neighbouring countries for many years until after the 1990s. Unfortunately, in spite of diplomatic niceties, the position largely remains unchanged today.

According to this view, Kaunda connived with the rebel Ian Smith regime to eliminate the more militant ZANU.

It is claimed that Kaunda was in cahoots with the racist South African Prime Minister John Voster to frustrate the struggle in Zimbabwe as part of the  illegitimate pact for “Détente” in Southern Africa.

Kaunda, who was once a card carrying member of the South African National Congress (ANC) under Chief Albert Luthuli, was, as President of Zambia, secretly talking to the white racist South African regime to the exclusion of the Frontline States led by Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, a grouping mandated by the OAU to provide continental policy leadership on the liberations struggles.

When the South African government revealed that it had been talking to Kaunda behind the back of other members of the OAU, the African continent and the liberation movements were outraged.

Kaunda was referred to as a “double-dealer.” He was said to be talking loudest at OAU meetings, while colluding with the South Africans and the Smith regime in Rhodesia.

Kaunda on the other hand, argued that his secret talks led to the release of Mugabe and Nkomo who for decades had been detained at Gonankuzingwa maximum prison in South-Eastern Rhodesia.

From the Zambian side, contacts with the Pretoria regime were led by Kaunda’s Special Adviser, Mark Chona.

Later on, Chona was assisted by the later-day Zambian President Rupiah Banda who was then Zambia’s Permanent representative at the United Nations. One such meeting was held in New York in 1974 between South African agents led by the intelligence chief General Hendrik van den Berg and Banda’s delegation which included Zambia’s Foreign Minister Vernon Mwaanga.

These secret talks culminated in an unproductive summit in 1974, between Kaunda and Voster at the Rhodesia/Zambia Beit Bridge border overlooking the Victoria Falls. The talks were held in an especially built South African rail coach. Later, Voster crossed over into Zambia for lunch hosted in his honour by Kaunda at the then five-star Intercontinental Hotel in Livingstone.

This meeting resolved nothing and only enhanced Kaunda’s image as a South African collaborator or sell out.

Consequently, some historians have accused Kaunda of having been a paid agent of the racist Pretoria regime, a charge I first heard when I resided in South Africa from 2002 to 2010 from some of the lowly ranked people associated with the South African Liberation movement when in exile before 1990.

However, for those who closely know Kaunda and his high principles, this charge cannot stand.

Those who worked closely with Kaunda, attest to the fact that he could never have been a paid spy for white South Africa.

They believe the secret talks were probably Kaunda play on ‘realpolitik’ to safeguard the interest of his then 10-year old nation.

Zambia was at the coal face of the clash between the security interests of white nationalism which was facing off against the Black Nationalism, pressing in from the north.

As the late Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew observed in 1969, if a war of attrition broke out between the two nationalisms, Zambia was to be the North Vietnam of Africa.

Lee was referring to the Vietnam War which symbolized the military clash between the ideologies of Soviet Communism and Western Capitalism in Indo-China in the 1960s.

That aside, Kaunda’s assumed ‘connection’ to both South Africa and the Smith regime was further strengthened by the revelation that the man who later confessed to have planted the bomb which killed Chitepo, a Major Chuck Hind, was a member of the elite but secretive British SAS regiment.

Hind, in the 1970s, trained the initial intake of the Zambia elite paramilitary police force that formed the spine of Kaunda’s bodyguards. This specialist force was also primed to counter any coup attempts by the Zambian army.

To this day, this Hind-trained battalion-strength unit provides security to Zambian presidents and guards the official residence, State House.

Possibly unknown to Kaunda, Hind was already a paid up member of the Rhodesian Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) when he was training the presidential guards.

Meanwhile, while all this was taking place at the diplomatic level, Chitepo’s position was becoming more tenuous.  The battle for the control of the ZANU Military High Command and the ZANU Supreme Council (the Dare re Chimurenga) was violently raging.

Up to 1971, the DARE under Chitepo was dominated by Manyikas and this resulted in the Karangas and Zezulus fighting back and wanting to, not only correct the imbalance but also to assume leadership positions in the two critical organs of ZANU.

This resulted in people like Dr. Nathan Shamuyarira, independent Zimbabwe’s later day Information Minister, resigning from ZANU and joining a new organization, the Front for the Liberation of Zimbabwe (FROLIZI) led by Henry Hamaziripi and James Chikerema who apparently, pretended to be unifiers of the two main liberation movements: ZANU and ZAPU.

It is clear from the above narration that at the time of Chitepo’s death, the political climate within ZANU and across Southern Africa was ‘muddy.’

It was riddled with intrigue, high stakes diplomacy, mistrust, power struggles, international espionage, tribalism, racism and Kaunda’s considerations for his country’s national interests.

When therefore, Chitepo was killed a mere two days after returning to Lusaka from Malawi and after holding a tense meeting with Kaunda; when Ndabaningi Sithole the then nominal leader of ZANU came to Lusaka from Salisbury (Harare) at the invitation of Kaunda to use the External Services of Radio Zambia, or the now closed Radio Three,  to address Rhodesians/Zimbabweans on the need for unity between ZANU and ZAPU; when militants led by Mugabe were opposed to such measures; when Sithole was received at Lusaka International Airport like a visiting Head of State; with the two State-controlled dailies Times of Zambia and Zambia Daily Mail splashing his arrival pictures liberally on their front pages; the atmosphere was fully poisoned, perhaps heralding the prospect of a major tragedy.

With the benefit of hindsight, it could be this complicated political environment which could have been the recipe that facilitated the brutal end of the life of the illustrious Chitepo.

What could have become of Zimbabwe under Chitepo, can now only be speculated upon.

That is why some 41 years after, and as Zimbabwe lays to rest Chitepo’s widow Victoria, it is perhaps right that this death be re-investigated, dispassionately.

This is more pertinent when Tendai Biti, leader of the Zimbabwean opposition People’s Democratic Party is reported in the New Zimbabwean issue of 12 April 2016 as accusing Mugabe’s ZANU-PF as having killed Herbert Chitepo.

“Zanu PF was responsible for the death of the late great Herbert Chitepo. That is why after independence they failed to hold a new inquest into his death as they were responsible for his death,” said Biti in an interview.

So much time has passed. However, the region needs to recognize that the dispute over who was responsible for Chitepo’s death remain unresolved.

For example, the conclusions of Kaunda’s International Commission on the assassination of Chitepo  released in March 1976 were rejected by Zimbabwe.

This commission said the new Karanga-dominated DARE and Military High Command killed Chitepo.

A further startling remark in the commission’s report is that Tongogara wanted to be Zimbabwe’s first black President using the “the barrel of the gun.”

On the other hand, independent Zimbabwe government charged that Kaunda was complicit in Chitepo’s murder. This was been rejected by Kaunda’s Zambia.

So, although relations between Lusaka and Harare may have mellowed over the years, this conflictual position remains.

That is why 41 years on, we need to resolve this historical conflict before it absorbs the next generation.

I never met Mama Victoria Chitepo, but on behalf of her then Lusaka neighbours, I can only say: “Farewell Mama Chitepo.”


The author teaches Mass Communication at the University of Zambia.

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