Who killed Herbert Chitepo?'

Trevor Grundy writes on the assassination of the key ZANU leader in Lusaka forty years ago

Forty years on and Zimbabweans and Zambians are still asking - Who killed Herbert Chitepo?'

Forty years ago on the morning of March 18, 1975, Herbert Chitepo who was a key leader of the Rhodesian liberation movement ZANU, was blown to pieces after a bomb planted underneath his pale blue Volkswagen Beetle exploded outside his home in Lusaka.

The murder of Chitepo happened during one of the darkest period of Zimbabwe liberation politics.

In November 1974, a rebel group within ZANU led by Thomas Nhari, attempted to depose the movement's High Command headed by Josiah Tongogara, a key military figure in the fight against white rule in Rhodesia. Tongogara was a member of the Karanga clan of the majority Shona tribe in Rhodesia. The Nhari Rebellion was squashed, thanks to a large number of troops loyal to Tongogara arriving in Zambia from Tanzania. Chitepo, from the Manyika clan of the Shonas, was asked to sign the death warrants of over 200 young freedom fighters whose main complaint had been about poor quality weaponry, irregular pay and awful food. They said that their leaders lived in a luxury in Lusaka and other African capital cities.

At the start of 1975, Chitepo was in a state of severe depression. His few close friends said that he was drinking heavily. He was despondent about growing inter-ethnic rivalries in the movement. But he didn't give up easily. He was resilient. As a boy he had gone barefoot to school and overcame every obstacle to qualify as a barrister in England. But in Rhodesia be encountered European privilege and African anger. "I saw him gradually change from being a person of goodwill who wanted to make partnership work, to a bitter anti-white extremist," wrote the former Anglican Dean of Johannesburg, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh in his book "Encountering Darkness" (Collins, 1973).

Chitepo was also a strong critic of the détente exercise launched in 1974 by Zambia's President Kenneth Kaunda and South Africa's Prime Minister, John Vorster. He argued it was not the time to talk to diehard whites in Salisbury, basing his argument on the propitious conditions for revolution signalled by the coup d'etat in Portugal and the imminent independence of Mozambique that year.

Kaunda was determined to move ahead and was furious about divisions within the liberation movements that had cost his young country so dearly since its independence in October 1964. His aim was to unite the main African freedom parties and put them under the control of the Methodist cleric, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, who was more familiar with the weight of prayers books and Bibles than AK47s. Kaunda and Vorster supposed that under a single command, the warring movements could thrash out their disagreements with Ian Smith and lay plans for majority rule in Rhodesia. Chitepo asserted there could be only one way to end white rule in Rhodesia - the military way.

On December 8, 1974, Kaunda saw to it that ZANU and its main rival, the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) and the much smaller Front for the Liberation of Zimbabwe (FROLIZI) led by James Chikerema, went under Muzorewa's command. That unity was short- lived with Nkomo attempting to make his own arrangements with Ian Smith and the ZANU leaders determined to bring power to the people through the barrel of guns supplied by Peking.

In a move to salvage what was left of détente and African nationalist unity, Kaunda and his senior political adviser Mark Chona met a group of liberation leaders at State House, Lusaka, on the evening of March 17. Muzorewa had flown into Lusaka from Salisbury. They agreed to meet again the following day. Before he left, Kaunda asked Chitepo if he wanted a Zambian bodyguard. Chitepo said "no" and questioned what sort of leader he would be if he needed protection from his followers. Chikerema said he saw Chitepo drive away in his VW. He said Chitepo was in a thoughtful mood, no more depressed than usual.


The question Who killed Herbert Chitepo won't lie down. There has been no closure on the death of Zimbabwe's lost leader. Professor Terence Ranger told me at his home in Oxford in September 2007. "Last time I spoke to secondary schoolchildren in Zimbabwe, the headmaster rather foolishly said I could answer any question about history. A dozen hands shot up. They all wanted to know who killed Chitepo."

The journalists David Martin and his partner Phyllis Johnson claimed in their book, "The Chitepo Assassination" (Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1985) that the murder was arranged by Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith using white (possibly black, too) agents. Their first book "The Struggle for Zimbabwe" (Faber & Faber, 1981) was dedicated to Tongogara. The authors say the point of their book about Chitepo is to lay to rest "the spirits that have remained disturbed for a decade."

The Zimbabwean historian, Dr Masipula Stihole, author of "Zimbabwe's Struggles within the Struggle" (Rujeko Publishers, Salisbury, 1979) wrote a tongue in cheek review about their qualifications as political detectives: "The authors of this book say that in 1985 they ‘stumbled across someone who knew' who had assassinated Chitepo and that this discovery was the ‘first link in a chain to others' who knew, and of a ‘meticulous piecing together of details of the action and its motive. Could it be that these two professional journalists are of such industry that two-and-a-half-months after stumbling across this ‘someone who knew' they could have time to interview a ‘chain' of others and have meticulously pieced together the ‘details', let alone write a 134-page book that could be purchased by mid-March of the same year? - even if they do run the Zimbabwe Publishing House?" He added: "The book is fascinating reading and convincing as fiction."

Assertions that Tongogara was innocent and Smith's agents were responsible for the assassination made strange ideological bed fellows. Ken Flower, head of Ian Smith's dirty tricks department - the Central Intelligence Office (CIO) - agreed with Martin and Johnson. In his memoir "Serving Secretly" (John Murray, 1987) Flower told how he flew to Lusaka to tell one of Kaunda's lawyers investigating the assassination that Tongogara was not responsible for Chitepo's death. It was a strange intervention considering that at that time Tongogara was branded white Rhodesians' number one enemy. Flower records he said: Your precious findings are not worth the paper they are printed on. Tongogara had nothing to do with Chitepo's death."

The story that Smith's men killed Chitepo is repeated ad nauseum by people who had no connection with any of the African liberation movements at that time.

Their common source is a book written by Peter Stiff, a cockney Londoner and one-time member of the Special Branch of the British South Africa Police (BSAP) who said in a book called "See You in November" (Galago, 1985) that white agents of Smith killed Chitepo. The agents were named as Alan "Taffy" Brice who was in the Rhodesian Intelligence Corps and a man called Hugh "Chuck" Hind, a British national on the payroll of the Rhodesian CIO born in Glasgow in 1940. Stiff informs us that Hind was assisted by a European who was farming in Zambia called Ian Sutherland. Stiff's book came out at the same time as the book by Martin and Johnson

In her book "The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo - Texts and Politics in Zimbabwe" (Indiana University Press,2003)" Luise White, Professor of History at the University of Florida, stands back and asks why so many people claim responsibility for the murder of Chitepo. She writes -"These texts, taken together or in various combinations, have constructed a national history in which Africans were the victims of white subterfuge, of a white power that can undermine the most complicated of African commitments."

David Martin died in 2007. At his state-assisted funeral, Robert Mugabe paid him a rare compliment, saying- "He broke past the perfunctory bond that links a journalist to a source."


Several assertions that Smith's agents killed Chitepo are dismissed by prominent Africans. In 2001, Chitepo's widow, Victoria, said that her husband's assassination was an internal ZANU job. She demanded that his killers be brought to justice.

The Report of the Special International Commission on the Assassination of Herbert Wiltshire Chitepo which was commissioned by Kaunda in 1976, cites Tongogara and four other leading Karangas in ZANU as the men who killed Chitepo. 

"I knew Chitepo for years. He was murdered by Tongogara and the Karanga Mafia," the former Vice-President of the Zimbabwe People's Union (ZAPU) and founder of the Front for the Liberation of Zimbabwe (FROLIZI) James Chikerema told me at my home in Harare in 1995. 

I recorded Chikerema's version of the struggle for Zimbabwe --and his role in it -on 48 tapes during a six month period. He said: "I saw Tongogara soon after Chitepo had been killed. We were at State House on that morning ofMarch 18. I heard about Chitepo's death on the radio at 8am. I said to him (Tongogara) -"You are a murderer. You will never get away with this.' Then I reached for my gun but the Zambian police got hold of me and stopped me. There would have been a shoot out there and then."

What Chikerema told me over a six month period about African liberation movements, and how they were funded, convinced me -if needs be once again - that if history is written by the winners, it's so much more interesting when told by the losers.


Mugabe, anxious to eradicate all accusations that he benefitted from the death of Chitepo, has introduced a widely criticized "Patriotic History" which endorses the ZANU-blessed line that whites killed Chitepo.

Yet, this 91-year who was appointed Chairman of the African Union (AU) earlier this year, still fears Chitepo's enduring legacy. Kenneth Kaunda remains concerned that the truth has not been told. While visiting Nkomo's grave in 1999, he told a reporter that Chitepo was a committed leader. "And some day we will talk about how he died. It is one blot in the history, a sad reflection of the whole liberation of this region."

Africans visiting London tell me - sometimes looking over their shoulders as they speak - that in the villages of Manicaland, heartland of the Manyika ethnic group, songs are still sung by young people as well as the old calling on Chitepo to rise from the grave and lead Zimbabwe once Robert Mugabe joins Josiah Tongogara and Herbert Chitepo at Zimbabwe's national burial site - Heroes' Acre - in Harare.

They say they hope that will be soon.

The Rev Ndabaningi Sihole (left) founder of Zanu with his key political adviser Herbert Chitepo at the time of the detente exercise between Zambia and South Africa in December 1974.

(Picture: Courtesy of the late Ndabaningi Sithole).

Trevor Grundy was Zambian correspondent for the Financial Times (London) and the BBC's Focus on Africa radio programme in 1975. This article was first published on the Canadian online magazine, Cold Type..

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