Abel Muzorewa was born on 14 April 1925 into a simple peasant family living at Old Umtali (Mutare) Mission, a
United Methodist Church settlement in the Eastern Districts of Rhodesia. He was the eldest of nine children, of whom six are boys and three are girls. Abel attended the mission primary school to Standard VI and then went to Chinyadaa at Nyadiri Mission.
Trained only by the example of his teachers, he taught as an evangelist before studying theology at Hartzell Theological Seminary, Old Umtali (Mutare), where, in August 1953 he was ordained a minister of the church. He served as assistant to the church conference evangelist and then became a pastor of the Chiduku Circuit, in the Rusape area of the Eastern Districts, where he remained until 1957. During this period he became an elder – a full member of the church.
In 1958 he was awarded a scholarship to study for a theological degree. He went to the United States and spent the next five years at the Central Methodist College, Fayette, Missouri (where he obtained a B.A. degree), and at Scarritt College, Nashville University, Tennessee (where he gained his Master’s degree in 1963).
He returned to Rhodesia to become Pastor at Old Umtali (Mutare) Mission. In 1964 he was appointed National Director of the church’s Christian Youth Movement. Two years later he was seconded to the Christian Council and became Secretary of the Student Christian Movement.
He was consecrated a Bishop of the United Methodist Church in Rhodesia on 28 August 1968. The ceremony, which took place in Maseru, Basutoland, (now Lesotho) was of special significance in that Abel Muzorewa was the first black member of his church to receive this
After travelling in Zambia, Ghana, Liberia and Angola he returned to his church work in Rhodesia. In 1970 the Central Methodist College in Missouri awarded him an honorary Doctorate in Divinity. He first came to general public notice in September 1971 when the Internal Affairs authorities banned him from entering the Tribal Trust Lands. By this time he
had his office in Salisbury (Harare) and was living at Marimba Park, a residential suburb for higher income Africans some 8 miles (12 km) south-west of the capital city.
Since a considerable proportion of his church members live in the Tribal Trust Lands the banning order seriously affected his ability to carry out his duties as Bishop of his church.
Two months later he found himself pitchforked into active politics for the first time in his life. In late November 1971 he was approached by a delegation of four representatives of the old ZAPU (PCC) ZANU nationalist factions1 and asked to lead a united effort to oppose the Smith/Home constitutional proposals. The new body, which at that time was intended to be only temporary2 was to be called the African National Council. The Bishop was chosen for leadership because ‘he had not been involved in previous splits in the nationalist movement, nor would he immediately attract a Government banning order of the ANC. His courage and tenacity of purpose were well known’.3
Bishop Muzorewa was faced with a most difficult decision. He believed strongly in the aims of
nationalism, in the need for unity and, at that time, in a non-violent approach4 He was entirely lacking in political experience and would be required to lead men who had been active during the years of political struggle and who were well known for their strong personalities. He says that it required more than two weeks of prayer before he finally made up his mind to accept the offer that had been made to him.
The ANC was completely successful in mustering sufficient support to convince the British Government that the constitutional proposals were unacceptable to the African people. Once this victory had been achieved (May 1972) Muzorewa was faced with a new situation which made it virtually impossible for him to leave the political scene. He had to convince a sceptical white audience that the ANC really did represent the wishes of the majority of the African people and that the whites should take the opportunity of discussing acceptable constitutional proposals with his group, as a precursor to an ‘internal settlement’ and world-wide recognition.
He made several public and private appeals to whites to recognise his role as the spearhead of a new and peaceful movement towards ‘shared power’5. On one occasion he addressed more than 1 000 whites at the Harry Margolis Hall in Salisbury (Harare) (20 July 1972) and made an excellent impression with his sincerity and air of restrained reasonableness. He disappointed many, however, since he was unable to lay his cards on the table and state precisely what type of constitution the ANC was aiming for (except to urge the white audience to accept majority rule peacefully).
At this time his own ANC Executive showed signs of breaking up. His first Treasurer, Josiah Chinamano, had been arrested in January; his Organising Secretary, Michael Mawema, and his deputy Secretary-General, Edson Zvobgo, left the country in July; the Secretary-General, Charlton Ngcebetsha, was arrested and detained. Only Dr Edson Sithole, his Publicity Secretary and a legal expert, remained with him as a constant factor in the hierarchy.
The first organisation to recognise Bishop Muzorewa as a significant political leader was the non-racial Centre Party. During the Pearce Commission’s visit discussions aimed at mutual understanding took place over a period of weeks between CP delegations and the Bishop
and his Executive. Top priority at these meetings was given to the question of suitable safeguards for minority groups. The newly-formed Rhodesia Party was next in line and a set of 12 principles (agreed with Dr Edson Sithole, W. Kona and H. Kachidza) was eventually published in the national newspapers.
Partly because of this initiative from minority parties, Prime Minister Ian Smith, who had previously been unwilling to concede that the Bishop carried the support of the greater part of African people, took the step in July 1973 of inviting him to talks on the constitutional issue. There was, indeed, irony in the fact that on the very day that the ‘set of principles’ was published the Bishop was attending a discussion at the Prime Minister’s office.
After a promising start the talks dwindled as uncertainty increased on both sides. Guerrilla incursions had been stepped up in the north-east of the country between December 1972 and February 1973 and had remained at a high pitch throughout the whole of 1973. In January 1973 the border with Zambia had been sealed by the Rhodesian Government in the belief that attacks were being launched from bases in Zambia. There was considerable suspicion on the part of whites that the ANC was too closely aligned to the perpetrators of violence. Detentions of ANC senior men and rank and file members caused the Bishop to doubt whether meaningful discussions with the Government could be continued.
Private talks with the Prime Minister did, however,continue and these gave rise to dispute within the Nationalist ranks over the Bishop’s ability to conduct such talks unaided by his followers.6 Nevertheless, a meeting of the national executive gave him a mandate to go on with the talks and reaffirmed his leadership.
At the end of October 1973 Abel Muzorewa was awarded a United Nation’s prize for ‘outstanding achievements in the field of human rights’, but he was not permitted7 to go and receive it ‘because he had supported sanctions against Rhodesia and because the UN at which he had spoken backed the guerrilla organisation’8
At the ANC’s first congress, held on 3-4 March 1974 the Bishop emerged, undisputed, as the council’s leader, with only such changes in the hierarchy as had been made necessary by the departure or restriction of individuals. It was resolved at the congress that talks should be conducted by an ANC team rather than by Muzorewa alone.9
In June 1974 it became apparent to the public that an agreement between Ian Smith and Bishop Muzorewa was imminent. Details of a proposed settlement were debated by the ANC Executive and after a lengthy meeting vigorously rejected. Opponents of the Bishop claim that he was prepared to ‘sell-out’ for six extra seats in Parliament for Africans.10 The Bishop maintained
that he had been misled and considerable confusion resulted.
The new situation which arose out of the Portuguese coup of 25 April 1974 had great bearing on the events that followed and on the Bishop’s political career. Much of the initiative for stabilising the Rhodesian situation was taken out of the hands of Rhodesians, both black
and white. The detente exercise by Presidents Kaunda, Nyerere, Machel and Khama, and John Vorster, the South African Prime Minister, forced all nationalist factions and their leaders, both past and present, into an uneasy ‘Declaration of Unity’ in Lusaka in early December 1974. The Bishop, appointed as leader of the former ZAPU (PCC)/FROLIZI/ZANU/ANC organisations, appeared to have reached the summit of his political career. “I feel like the tallest man in the
world,” he remarked.
His pleasure was to be short-lived. Vicious faction-fighting broke out in Zambia, leading in March 1975 to the murder of Herbert Chitepo and the imprisonment of many Rhodesian nationalists by the Zambian Government. Inside Rhodesia rumours circulated about a ‘death list’ – said to have been prepared by the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole who was arrested and charged with being the main obstacle to a peaceful settlement11
Bishop Muzorewa travelled to Jamaica late in April 1975 to set before 34 heads of Commonwealth Governments a programme ‘for international action for the transformation of Rhodesia into the independent state of ‘Zimbabwe’ 12
On 3 June he broke his homeward journey at Lusaka in order to have a discussion with James Callaghan, the British Foreign Secretary. While in Lusaka he publicly denied any suggestion of dis-unity in the ANC, but made oblique remarks regarding “glory seekers” among his lieutenants. Two days after his return to Salisbury (Harare) on 6 June a bomb exploded in the grounds of his home, damaging the building but not injuring anyone. He was not at home at the time. He was later reported as saying he believed it was the work of “an African”.
Bishop Muzorewa did not remain long in Rhodesia. On 2 July he flew to Lusaka with a 14-man ANC delegation to discuss the question of a venue and an agenda for a constitutional conference. He and his party moved on to Dar-es-Salaam, to Mocambique and then back to Lusaka where he came out in strong criticism of the British Government, saying that the British were “useless” and concerned only with the protection of their “kith and kin”. At the same time he denied the rumours of a split which followed Nkomo’s premature departure from Zambia.13
He flew to London on 6 August at the invitation of the British Government, having been briefed in Blantyre before departure on the situation at home by his deputy, Dr Elliot Gabellah.
He was still insisting at this time on a peaceful effort for change: “we must go to a conference as soon as possible to avoid a tragic, bloody path to majority rule.”14
During his absence from Rhodesia an announcement was made in Salisbury (Harare) that the long-awaited conference would soon be held at the Victoria Falls. Asked if he was pleased he replied: “What do you think I have been crying for all these years?”. Inexplicably, Ian Smith chose to ‘play down’ the occasion with an off-hand reference to a “30 minute meeting” and a description of the ANC as “a decapitated chicken” – to which the Bishop reacted angrily. However, he made a final appeal for peace when he declared, during his opening speech at the conference on 25 August, that this was the last chance to avoid bloodshed in Rhodesia.
The meeting was abortive, the were many reason later cited for this. Some observers believe that it was the inexperience of the Bishop which led to the unfortunate disagreement over ‘diplomatic immunity’ for certain of his lieutenants if talks were to be continued inside Rhodesia. This question had not been included on the agenda nor had it been fully debated by the ANC before the conference. There was also an obvious rivalry between Nkomo, Sithole and Muzorewa, which did nothing to persuade Vorster (who was stage-managing the summit) to apply further pressure on Smith. Within a few days ANC unity was dead. The Bishop was away in Europe raising funds when the leadership of the ZLC (the military wing of the ANC) was assumed by the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, James Chikerema and George Nyandoro. Supporters of Joshua Nkomo believe that this was an attempt to ‘hi-jack’ the leadership of the ANC. The Bishop’s first reaction was to call it a “storm in a teacup”, but on his return from Europe he proceeded to ‘expel’ Nkomo and some of his adherents on the ANC Executive from the organisation.
Zambia, however, did not recognise this expulsion. Following the reorganisation of the split factions into a ‘Muzorewa ANC’ and an ‘Nkomo ANC’ the detente partners continued to regard the separate groups as being component parts of a single ANC.15
In the changed situation, Bishop Muzorewa (in close association with the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole) decided that “the emphasis on continuing our struggle was outside, rather than inside, the country.” “I spent,” he later said, “the time organising and administering the external wing of my party, including raising funds for the party’s needs.”16
In October 1975, faced with the Zambian Government’s strong attitude at that time against a
violent solution to Rhodesia’s problems,17 Muzorewa was forced to remove his headquarters to Dar-es-Salaam.
During late October the guerrillas in Mgagao camp in Mocambique signed a document of no confidence in the leadership of Bishop Muzorewa, the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole and James Chikerema. They said they would only follow Robert Mugabe. In December Muzorewa (having denounced the Smith/Nkomo talks which had recently started) visited Mocambique in company with Chikerema. It was reported that they attempted a reconciliation between Mugabe (then in Tete) and Ndabaningi Sithole (living in Dar-es-Salaam), and a union of all their followers in pursuit of a military solution.
On 23 February 1976, speaking in Maputo, he condemned the visit to Salisbury (Harare) by Lord Greenhill, saying ‘Smith must capitulate’. Ten days later he was photographed alongside President Machel when the latter announced that he was closing the border with Rhodesia (3 March). In response to questions he said that he would ‘pack his bags and quit’ if a settlement
were reached between Smith and Nkomo.
On 31 May Bishop Muzorewa openly attacked the Presidents of Botswana, Zambia, Mocambique and Tanzania19 accusing them of seizing control of the guerrilla movement by the creation of a ‘third force’, of trying to push Joshua Nkomo into leadership of the ANC, and of torturing and liquidating terrorists loyal to the Bishop’s group. He alleged that a Tanzanian
Colonel, H. Mbita, acting on behalf of the OAU Liberation Committee, had sabotaged ‘our determined efforts to consolidate unity and build a national army`, and had created the third force on ‘a narrow tribal base’. By his actions, alleged Muzorewa, ‘the OAU Liberation Committee had assumed the role of decision makers, planners, organisers and spokesmen for the Zimbabwe liberation struggle’.
Muzorewa followed his attack by telling a closed meeting of the OAU Liberation Committee in
Dar-es-Salaam in early June 1976 that he believed the latter was ‘deliberately isolating the ANC political leadership from the guerrilla forces.’20 In response to an allegation that he and his colleagues were unwilling to go into the camps, he replied that he had, in fact, been refused access. He maintained that 90 per cent of the guerrillas were loyal to the ANC and that some of
these were being ‘deployed into Zimbabwe even without adequate training and equipment as a form of punishment for refusing to be under the Mbita High Command.’
Throughout July, August and September there were attempts to unite the Nkomo and Muzorewa factions of the ANC, including strong pressures by the ‘front-line’ Presidents during the summit conference in Dar-es-Salaam in early September. These attempts showed few signs of success and the polarisation of the two groups seemed complete when a triumphal return
to Salisbury (Harare) by Muzorewa on 3 October was followed by an unproductive meeting between the two leaders.
On 8 October Muzorewa published an open letter appealing for unity between the different tribes and races of Rhodesia. ‘Unity is power,’ he said, adding that it was ‘one sure and good remedy for preventing civil war21 In an interview published in To the Point on 15 October he was reported as saying: ‘In the next few weeks I see myself busy as ever trying very hard to bridge differences and unite our people to be what they were before Mr Nkomo broke our unity … Good white men can live side by side with Africans in power, while they contribute like everyone else to the economic and social development of Zimbabwe.’
On 16 October Bishop Muzorewa announced the names of the 34 delegates, advisers and secretaries who would attend the Geneva Conference called by the British Government for 28 October.
In early March 1977, there were strong indications of a rapprochement between Muzorewa and Rev. Sithole,22 but these were later denied by both groups. Following the failure of the Geneva talks, Bishop Muzorewa spent much of 1977 in foreign travel, while the Anglo-American initiative was being prepared. He was angered by the British intention to exclude him from the cease-fire negotiations and believed it part of a scheme to assist Nkomo to become the future leader of Zimbabwe. In this mood, he and Sithole were ready to abandon the Anglo- American proposals and negotiate an internal settlement with Smith. They insisted, as a pre-condition for the talks, on a commitment by Smith to majority rule and to one-man one-vote. Smith made a statement that was apparently such a commitment, and the talks started in November 1977.
The ‘March the Third Agreement’ that ended the talks showed, however, that the substance of the commitment had been snatched away. this was not some much because 28 of the 100 seats were reserved for whites who could exercise a veto over amending entrenched clauses in the constitution. Rather, the catch was contained in the four commissions to be set up under civil servants to run the police, army, judiciary and public service. In this way, the white bureaucracy was to usurp many of the powers of parliament and thus prolong minority rule.
The transitional government that was to run Rhodesia from March 1978 to June 1979 was headed by a four-man executive council composed of Smith, Sithole, Chief Chirau and the Bishop. Muzorewa was at least the second most important member of this foursome, for his renamed United African National Congress (UANC) drew large crowds at public meetings and was comparatively well-organised. But he was unable to achieve any meaningful changes, and indeed agreed to the dismissal of one of his party’s Minister, Byron Hove, who had advocated for real reform. Equally important, he and his colleagues were unable to win international recognition or bring an end to sanctions. At the root of this lack of achievement was the failure to bring an end to the war.
Nevertheless, in the elections finally held in April 1979, the UANC took 51 of the 72 black seats in Parliament, and Bishop Muzorewa was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe Rhodesia in June. He was also Minister of Defence and in his dual capacity vigorously prosecuted the war, signing approval for an increasing number of cross-border raids. Hopes of gaining recognition from the West, or even retaining power, faded after the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Lusaka in August 1979 paved the way for the Lancaster House Conference. In the February 1980 elections, the UANC was reduced to 3 seats. Before then, Bishop Muzorewa relinquished his powers as prime minister to the British Governor, Lord Soames, appointed under the Lancaster House agreement.
Although he never acquired the skills of a political leader, Muzorewa did perform a crucial role in the transformation of Rhodesia to an Independent Zimbabwe, in that he conditioned whites to the inevitability of change. His time at the top was short and undistinguished; it was a period of escalating war and brutality; yet it was as well a landmark on the road to independence.
Abel Muzorewa is a diminutive figure: roundfaced and bespectacled with a shy smile and a habit of clasping his hands before his face while he speaks, as if in prayer. He is soft-spoken with an air of gentleness and modesty.
He is married with five children. His eldest son, Blessing Tendekayi, studied in the USA. His other children are also studying outside Rhodesia. His wife is active in church and social work. He owns a farm at Dowa where it has been his practice to relax and to breed chickens and pigs.
1 See entry on Josiah Chinamano for details.
2 Gordon Chavunduka, ANC Occasional Papers Nos. 1 & 2 (1975, p. 2: “At that time the Council was intended to be a temporary body whose main function was to explain, advise and expose the dangerous implications… if Africans accepted the Anglo-Rhodesian constitutional settlement proposals.”
3 Jawing It Instead Of Warring It – Chris Sherwell (Dept. of Political Science. University of Rhodesia – Towards an Assessment of the ANC. Jan. 1975,
4 Gordon Chavunduka explains the ANC‘s attitude in l971: “The majority of Africans want majority rule. I am only concerned that when the change comes, as it must, it will be a peaceful one.” (Sherwell p.16).
5 As late as August 1973, Dr Edson Sithole told a meeting of the National Affairs Association that the ANC was not asking for total power, but for an immediate sharing of power.
6 Edson Zvobgo resigned at this time, saying that he had doubts about the Bishop’s political maturity.
7 His passport had been withdrawn in 1972 after his addresses to the United Nations Assembly and to a crowd of 10 000 people in Trafalgar Square, London.
8 Sherwell, p.16
9 At this time, of course, the former nationalist leaders, Joshua Nkomo and Ndabiningi Sithole, were still in restriction and their followers found no difficulty in uniting under the Bishop’s leadership.
10 Over and above those provided in the Smith/Home proposals.
11 See entry on the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole.
12 The Rhodesia Herald, 2 May 1975.
13 Stated to have been made necessary by the illness of his wife in Bulawayo.
14 The Rhodesia Herald, 7 August 1975.
15 Being guided by the basic political principle of hedging one’s position in the face of a power struggle of uncertain outcome.
16 To the Point, 15 October 1976.
17 Zambia Daily Mail, 11 November 1975.
18 The Rhodesia Herald, 19 April 1976.
19 The Chronicle, June 1976.
20 Africa Confidential, 9 July 1976.
21 The Rhodesia Herald, 8 October 1976.
22 See entry on Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole.