About Diana Mitchell

Diana Mitchell’s Memoirs

A brief summary of Diana Mitchell from the Who’s Who

Diana Mitchell was born in Salisbury (Harare) and went to Eveline High School in Bulawayo.  She the went to the University of Cape Town where she graduated Bachelor of Arts in History.  She also took her Diploma in Education.

After returning to Rhodesia – and getting married – she taught at high schools in Gwelo (Gweru), Fort Victoria (Masvingo) and Salisbury (Harare). Through taking part in a fund-raising effort for African education she became involved in politics and was a Founder Member of the Centre Party.  She then specialized in the study of the Tribal Trust Land development. For a number of years she worked on Savings Clubs projects in the Seki TTL.

In 1973 she obtained the Certificate in Adult Education at the University of Rhodesia.  She stood unsuccessfully  as an Independent in the 1974 Parliamentary elections.  During 1976 she lectured at the University of Rhodesia on Science Education.  She earned an M.A. degree in African History at the University of Rhodesia.

A biography of Diana Mitchell

Diana Mitchell 1932 – 2016
Writer, Political Activist and Expert in Zimbabwean African Nationalists

Diana Mitchell was the child of an ill-starred marriage. She was born Diana Mary Coates in Salisbury (Harare), Southern Rhodesia in 1932. Her father, Elliott Coates, was an Officer in the Merchant Navy. He was voyaging back from Australia to the UK, when his employers were informed that Elliott had impregnated his teen-aged lover Mary Peck during a stop-over in Sydney. Elliott was summarily dismissed and put ashore in Perth where he was soon joined by young Mary, a former drama student, who was now expecting Diana’s older brother, David. The disgraced couple were then compelled into marriage by their respective families.

Following the birth of David and with the world plunged into the despair of the Great Depression, the destitute pair borrowed the fare for passage to the pineapple farm of a relative in Port Edward. This was a remote and wild place on the Natal Coast of South Africa where Elliott worked as a foreman. His conservative and patrician family then ordered him to the family’s Orange Estate outside Salisbury (Harare), Southern Rhodesia leaving Mary, who was pregnant with Diana, to care for their infant son alone on the wild coast. Unable to bear the isolation, the young woman sold Elliott’s antique dueling pistols in order to escape the pineapple farm and join her husband. She gave birth to Diana at the Lady Chancellor (now Mbuya Nehanda) maternity hospital shortly after her arrival in Salisbury (Harare), Southern Rhodesia. With this final act of disobedience, Elliot and his young wife were cast out by their family, left to fend for themselves in the self-governing colony of Southern Rhodesia.

The first 2 years of Diana’s life were spent in hospital with a supposedly fatal case of infant enteritis. Her mother heard of a French-trained doctor with a cure who had recently arrived at the Bulawayo General hospital in Matabeleland. The family migrated to Bulawayo where Diana was placed in the care of Doctor Montgomerie who ultimately cured her. With the Depression still lingering, Diana’s father was reduced to laboring with a pick and shovel, carving out Southern Rhodesia’s first primitive strip roads. Her mother, garbed as a gypsy fortune teller, put her theatrical talents to work by reading the tea leaves of customers at a local café. The marriage did not last and her parents divorced in 1937.

Diana became the ward of establishments catering to children from broken homes. With the outbreak of World War II, her father entered service as an officer aboard the HMS Dorsetshire and her cultivated but practical mother was employed in munitions production. Diana was put into the care of a pair of severe Edwardian ladies. These rigorous disciplinarians refused permission for the five-year-old to bid goodbye to her father as he set off for war in the Atlantic because she had yet to perform a prescribed daily bowel movement.

In later years her African Nationalist friends assumed that, like most whites they knew of, Diana came from a comfortable farming background but she was quick to educate them about her deprived early childhood.

Whatever material comforts she lacked, Diana benefited from a first class government education system for white Southern Rhodesian children. As a boarder at Eveline High School in Bulawayo in the late 1940s, she was taught by highly qualified English women. It was at Eveline that Diana was first introduced to the iniquities of British colonial racism where black people were lowest on the list of humanity, deemed to have limited potential and useful only as servants, laborers and nannies. Her English teachers and, in particular, her Headmistress, Penelope Gordon, were determined to expose their young charges to a broader view of the world. The great, the good, visiting dignitaries and celebrities, all were invited to address the schoolgirls. Diana recalled a particularly significant event when Miss Gordon marched her students (all white) to the Bulawayo City Hall where, to their shock, they were addressed by a highly educated back man who spoke perfect English and communicated as if they were equals. Diana believed this may well have been Herbert Chitepo, the country’s first black barrister and an early casualty in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle.

The damascene moment in Diana’s young life arrived when she was accepted for study at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and travelled on a long train journey from Bulawayo to Cape Town in a shared compartment of young women, one of whom was of mixed race. The crude and overt racism displayed by her fellow whites towards this “outsider” appalled her and brought to the fore her deep sense of justice as she was forced to address her fundamental beliefs about the equality of races. As a precursor to her later political activism, she ostentatiously befriended the victim. This was the first in an extensive list of colour-blind friendships that she made over the course of her long life.

Dr. D. F. Malan had swept to power in South Africa in 1948, his hard line Afrikaner Nationalist Party separating the races with its apartheid policies. At UCT in 1951, Diana found a few black students and professors still remained. The ethnic cleansing of academia was in progress but these “non-whites” were allowed to complete their contracts and courses before they too would be banished to all black universities. Taking a BA (General), Diana required a language and the great George Fortune steered her into Shona, the language of Zimbabwe’s majority tribe. For the first time in her life she came into direct contact with black professionals who were her intellectual superiors.

After graduating from the UCT, she returned to Southern Rhodesia and became a School teacher in Gwelo (now Gweru) at Chaplin High School. This was one of the few professional occupations open to women. There she met and married Brian Mitchell, her husband for 54 years. A quiet hydrological engineer, Brian went on to become the Zimbabwean Government’s Deputy Secretary for Water. Brian was soon transferred to Fort Victoria (Masvingo) and then the capital, Salisbury (Harare). Diana settled down to raising her young children and teaching various subjects in the capital’s schools until Brian gave her the nudge that launched her political career. The fifties in Southern Africa brought the great hopes of a Central African Federation. Today’s Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe joined in an economic unit. This enterprise promised growth and liberalism as Africa decolonized, but it was not to be. Malawi and Zambia chose to go their separate ways and the Federation collapsed. Southern Rhodesia was left to determine its own path forward. In the 1962 elections, Diana’s sympathies were with Edgar Whitehead’s moderate United Federal Party, but it suffered a massive loss to the Rhodesian Front (RF). With dismay, Diane watched as that last hope for reasonable government in Southern Rhodesia was swept away. Her husband, familiar with some of the leading lights of the RF, warned ominously that they were “Cowboys”.

The RF was propelled into office by a panicked white populace reacting to Harold Macmillan’s “winds of change” speech and the influx of Belgian refugees fleeing the chaos and horror in the Belgian Congo. White privilege and security were under threat and the racist and reactionary Rhodesian Front promised to stem the tide of African liberation sweeping the continent. Settled in a modest house in the well-to-do suburb of Highlands, Diana became determined to join fellow whites in taking political action to oppose the blinkered folly of the Rhodesian Front. This began with her long series of letters to the editor of the Rhodesia Herald taking the Smith Government to task for their short sighted policies. These letters brought her to the attention of other liberal whites and she became involved in efforts to assist the children of domestic workers who were living on the grounds of expensive mansions but had no access to education in the white suburbs. A backyard classroom known as “Forest Nursery School” had been established nearby for the children of these domestic servants.

In late 1965, Ian Smith declared illegal independence from Britain, and shortly after, in 1966, his government bulldozed Forest Nursery School, signaling its long term intentions where little islands of interracial cooperation had no place. With the loss of the school, a meeting was called and dozens of young black children anxiously gathered on a lawn of one of their benefactors while discussions commenced as to their future. Diana began protesting loudly of the inhumanity of the politicians responsible for this cruelty, when she was interrupted by the imperious daughter of the former Governor of Nyasaland who challenged her, “Stop talking Diana and DO something”. A committee was formed called “Friends of African School Children” (FASCH). A natural organizer, Diana became honorary chairperson and began efforts to raise funds by knocking on doors and running jumble sales. FASCH operated successfully for some years sending the children of domestic workers to mission schools in the rural areas. Diana met with RF Government officials trying to change their minds and promote the idea of equal access to education for all, but to no avail. The general attitude summarized by an RF Minister and pillar of the local Anglican Church who opined that FASCH was simply spoiling these children and making their parents discontented with their lot. Finally, pleading with Bill Irvine, the Rhodesian Front’s Local Government Minister, Diana was coldly informed, “I cannot help you; this is a political decision”.

Convinced that the Rhodesian Front was on the road to ruin, Diana embraced the politics of change like a convert to a new religion. Her energy and success with FASCH introduced her to the liberal Centre Party. Founded in 1968 and led by Pat Bashford, the Centre Party was dedicated to an orderly transition to a non-racial society. Diana was invited to the party’s executive committee as press and public relations officer.

Now in her political element, she cut her political teeth in the Centre Party. For a brief period no other opposition party to Smith existed and there was minor success at the polls with 7 of the party’s black members winning 8 of the allotted seats on the lower roll. In the interim, the British government sought a solution to the “Rhodesia Problem”. Talks were held with the Smith Government and eventually in 1972, the British Pierce Commission arrived in Rhodesia to test the acceptability of a settlement proposal. This led to the emergence of Bishop Abel Muzorewa as leader of the United African National Council, which galvanized African opposition to this British brokered deal in which they had been offered no part. Previously banned African Nationalist parties gathered under the Bishop’s leadership and Diana, in a bridge-building effort, arranged talks between the Centre Party and the UANC. This was her introduction to the legitimate leadership of the Zimbabwe African peoples, many of whom had just been released from years of restriction, men like Edson Zvobgo, Josiah Chinamano and Edson Sithole. She was received as a friend by these men who were familiar with her numerous opposition articles and letters.

Recognizing Diana and the multi-racial Centre Party as a link to the intransigent white community, the Bishop requested she arrange a meeting with the leading white citizens. She gathered a delegation of important white businessmen lead by Sir Henry McDowell, chairman of the Institute of Directors. The meeting went well, but privately the Bishop expressed his great disappointment: he was not interested in preaching to the converted; he wanted to speak to political leaders. Dutifully, Diana set out to convince the Rhodesian Front that they should talk to the Bishop. Senator Sam Whaley, doyen of Ian Smith’s legal team squinted at her through steely blue eyes. Her suggestion that his party should meet with the Nationalists because they would inevitably be ruled by them was met with the growled retort: “You should know, Mrs Mitchell that for the Rhodesian Front, absolutely nothing is inevitable”. Hilary Squires, soon to be appointed a judge by the regime found the suggestion that he should talk to Nationalists to be traitorous, declaring: “I am absolutely loyal to my Prime Minister.”

Despite this posturing, the pressures for a political settlement grew. A brief period of détente ensued during which the shooting in the low level guerrilla war on the border subsided. With pressure from British and South African negotiators, further political prisoners were released in 1974. A gifted raconteur with an engaging personality Diana met and easily mixed with this company, developing an unrivaled list of contacts and knowledge of African Nationalists. She struck up a great friendship with Willie Musarurwa at this time. Willie was a founding member of the NDP in 1960, he had recently been released from restriction and was considered a walking encyclopedia of Zimbabwe, its people and customs. He knew all about Mrs Mitchell. Heavily censored newspapers were given to political prisoners like Willie, but his friendly jailers would later salvage for him the excised sections from camp rubbish bins and these frequently included Mrs Mitchell’s writings. At this time she began to form the idea of putting together a Who’s Who of Rhodesian African Nationalists. The public at large had only the slimmest knowledge of the most senior of these leaders. Much of what was reported came from the professional propagandists in the Smith regime. It was Willie who also gave his blessing to her choice of a co-author, Robert Cary, a fellow white liberal and popular published writer. Carey’s subject was principally Rhodesian colonial history but Musarurwa admired Cary’s even-handed treatment of colonized peoples in his books. Willie insisted that all African Nationalist factions were to be represented in the Who’s Who and provided the first warning about Robert Mugabe “You will find Mugabe a clever, cold fish, unlike the friendlier and far warmer Joshua Nkomo.” And so it proved to be; when she met Nkomo, he greeted her with a warm outstretched hand and invited her to join his party, ZAPU. Determined to be non-aligned she remained unattached to any of the Nationalist parties.

Willie suggested a list of leading Nationalists who would be the subjects of the book and a standard questionnaire was prepared. This was distributed by Edson Sithole, a member of the ANC’s central committee, who later disappeared in unexplained circumstances. With the path prepared before her, Diana set out to personally interview as many of these subjects as she could locate. At this time the white population of Rhodesia regarded these men as merciless, communist terrorists. Fearlessly, Diana set out first to Zambia and then to Tanzania where many of the Nationalists had dispersed. The guerrilla war had resumed with accelerating ferocity and, anticipating a renewed crack-down by the Smith regime, many nationalists fled to these “Frontline States”. Numerous senior ZANU members were in Mozambique, but this was excluded from her itinerary as it was not considered safe to visit.

The result of these efforts was a manuscript with short biographies of 66 Nationalists, 23 of whom went on to become significant within ZANU’s ruling elite, including Robert Mugabe, Didymus Mutasa and Nathan Shamuyarira. The book struggled to find a publisher as the local book industry was wary of its exceptionally controversial subjects. The ABC journalist, Peter Jennings, arrived to cover the Rhodesian situation in 1977 and, to his astonishment, found this middle aged white woman in possession of a trove of intelligence on Rhodesian African Nationalist personalities whose names were just emerging as possible leaders of soon to be independent Zimbabwe and of whom the international press corps were entirely ignorant. Through Jennings’ extensive contacts the book found a publisher and went on to sell 10,000 copies between 1977 and 1980.

With her reputation established as an expert in her field and with an extraordinary breadth of contacts, Diana’s small home in Highlands became a revolving door of journalists, diplomats and politicians looking to “pick her brains” as she put it. During independence celebrations she found herself in the company of Ken Flower, Ian Smith’s Chief of Central Intelligence and Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was to become Robert Mugabe’s security chief and eventually President of Zimbabwe. Delighted to be in the company of these intelligence experts, she suggested to them they might provide useful information for the forthcoming update of her “Who’s Who”. Flower and Mnangagwa laughed uproariously at this idea, exclaiming: “But we get all our information from your book”! In Rhodesian military circles the “Who’s Who” was cynically referred to as “Mrs. Mitchell’s Gook Book”. Among African Nationalists, an entry in the book was a door opener to future opportunity and it remains even today required reading for Zimbabweans looking to understand the political liberation of their country.

Naively incapable of profiting from her expertise, Diana’s activities as a politician were largely funded by her teaching career and her long-suffering husband, Brian. She stood twice as an opposition candidate for parliament. When the Lancaster House Agreement was reached, bringing a ceasefire in the bush war, Diana achieved accreditation as a photo-journalist and she set her course to document the assembly points where guerrillas from the military wings of ZANU and ZAPU were gathering. While much of the world’s attention focused a few weeks later on the official hand-over of Rhodesia to its new ZANU(PF) rulers, a rather more dangerous but essential military hand-over was required. In February 1980 Diana set out in her ancient car to the Foxtrot assembly point in Chivhu, central Zimbabwe, to report on the stand-down of forces. She described herself as being too stupid to be frightened about the dangerous territory she drove into. As she neared the assembly point, a lone vehicle appeared to escort her in, driven by a single British soldier who warned her that on no account should she stop until they arrived at the camp. Halfway across a riverbed, the car became stuck on rocks. A swarm of guerrillas emerged from the tree line, surrounded Diana and attempted to extract the occupants and contents of her car. Her lone, brave escort came charging back, raging at the guerrillas that they should fall back, which they meekly did. Diana was ridiculously proud of the photograph she took that day which was published in the South African Daily Star. She captured ZANLA Commander Rex Nhongo shaking the hand of Rhodesian General “Bertie” Barnard before the thousands of assembled ZANLA guerrilla forces as the Rhodesian and Zimbabwe flags were run down and up the flagpole.

The 18 months following Zimbabwe’s independence were a honeymoon period, with the successful transition to the new ZANU(PF) government. Diana was optimistic about the country’s prospects as progressive policies were enacted. Her enthusiasm evaporated, however, as Josiah Chinamano, then Vice-President of ZANU brought news of the true nature of Mugabe’s Government in late 1983. He returned from Matabeleland reporting the first of the atrocities committed by Mugabe’s 5th Brigade as they sought to intimidate the Matabele population. Shortly after, Diana began her weekly “Mwana Wevhu” column in the Financial Gazette which voiced her growing dissatisfaction with the Mugabe regime and, in particular, the growing restrictions placed on the free press. The sacking of her great friend Willie Musarurwa as the editor of the Sunday Mail in 1985 brought home Mugabe’s intention to silence his opponents.

Diana’s political career continued and, in 1991, she was a founding member of the Democratic Forum Party which then became the Forum Party with retired Chief Justice Enoch Dumbutshena at its head.

A relentless collector of Southern African political journalism, Diana amassed an archive of cuttings and documents that grew to fill an entire garden shed. Dating from the pre-internet age, much of this might have been lost to history and, with it, the day to day chronicle of political events in Rhodesia and Zimbabwe. This collection was split into 2 archives, the first acquired by her Alma Mater, the University of Cape Town and the second by the Hoover Institute at Stanford University in the USA.

By 2003 she had seen enough of the corruption and cronyism of the Mugabe regime and left to join her fellow exiles in the UK.

Diana Mitchell died peacefully in Haywards Heath, UK and is survived by 3 children, 3 grand-children and 4 great-grandchildren.