1951-52 Interim Chairman, All-African Convention.
President, Reformed Industrial and Commercial
1961 Southern Rhodesia Government delegate to
Charles Mzingeli1 was born in 1905 at the Mbakwe Roman Catholic Mission near Plumtree in Matabeleland. His father had become converted to Christianity
after the defeat of the Matabele in 1896 and, together with Father Hartmann, founded the Mbakwe Mission.
Charles, who was the fifth of a family of nine children (two boys and seven girls) did not go to school until he was 15 years old — as was often the case in those early days. He was sent to Empandini Mission where he embraced the Roman Catholic Faith.
After completing primary school he went to work in South Africa as a domestic servant, and soon came under the influence of the trade unionist, Clement Kadali.
He moved from South Africa — first to Francistown in Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and subsequently to Livingstone and Broken Hill (now Kabwe)2, in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).
Returning to Bulawayo, he started a branch of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU). He later transformed the organisation and led it as the Reformed Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (RICU).
Charles Mzingeli moved to Salisbury (Harare) (Harare) in 1929 and became one of the earliest activists while earning his living by running a grocer’s shop in Harare. For many years he was the focal point of grievances for urban workers and even for rural tribesmen. He was regarded by the Government of that time as a ‘dangerous communist’. In 1930 he was arrested in Salisbury (Harare) (Harare) for making a subversive speech. However, he was not brought to trial, being sent instead to face a similar charge which was then outstanding at Mrewa. For this offence he was fined £30, or six months in prison. After he had been only three weeks in prison, his fine was paid and he was released.
His most significant contribution (Shamuyarira calls it “monumental”) to the history of African Nationalism was his absolute determination to stamp out tribalism. As an Ndebele living and working in Mashonaland it was remarkable that he was prepared to fight, even beyond the limits of the law, for the “foreign” people (Mashona) among whom he lived. His union made it a deliberate policy to exchange officials from both major tribal groups between its headquarters in Bulawayo and its headquarters in Salisbury (Harare) (Harare).
In 1951 he became Interim Chairman of the All-African Convention, established on the initiative of Harry Nkumbula3 to unite all those African groups in Southern Rhodesia which were in opposition to the proposed Central African Federation. He was angered when Nkomo, who had joined the AAC, attended the talks in London on Federation. When Nkomo subsequently denounced the Federal proposals, Mzingeli continued to work in the AAC, serving under Nkomo (the organisation’s President) until 1953 when the final decision to create the Federation was made. The emergence in 1956, in Salisbury (Harare) (Harare), of the Youth League with its entirely new objective — challenging the fundamental laws of the country rather than merely trying to ameliorate their effects on the African people — started the decline of Mzingeli’s public career. His former secretary in the RICU, George Nyandoro, joined with a group of young men James Chikerema, Edson Sithole, Henry Hamadziripi and Thompson Gonese) in an all—out effort to break his power. They succeeded by shouting him down at his meetings (as he had done in the past to his opponents) and by removing him from the chairmanship of the Harare Advisory Board, a position he had occupied unchallenged for 10 years.
He surprised his followers by joining his former adversaries in the United Federal Party. He led the Inter-Racial Association in the last phase of its existence before its demise in 1960, and he helped to introduce the A and B Roll franchise arrangements (which had been designed by Dr Morris Hirsch) after attending the 1961 Constitutional Conference as a Government delegate.
In spite of his apparent defection from the nationalist cause in his later years, Charles Mzingeli is regarded as an important figure in the struggle for political power. He constitutes a link with the early years by virtue of his age: moreover, his protest against Government actions — at a time when virtually all Africans were passive in the aftermath of the military defeats of 1896-97 — provided a courageous example for those who came after him.
He lives in Harare with his adopted son. His wife died in 1972. In spite of his age, he is in good health apart from severe attacks of gout which prevent him from continuing to run his small grocer’s shop at the Harare Community Centre. He is a short, bespectacled, well-built man with receding grey hair. He has a wide, generous smile and a courtly manner. He still shows a good—humoured, tolerant attitude to life and its problems.
1 The authors are indebted to Nathan Shamuyarira for much of the material for this entry.
2 There he discovered to his astonishment that Africans who wore shoes were regarded as ‘cheeky’ by the majority of whites. The year was 1922.
3 At that time Nkumbula was President of the Northern Rhodesia African National Congress.