1956-57 Interim Secretary-General, later Secretary, Harare Branch, ANYL.
1957-59 Secretary, Harare Branch, ANCongress.
1964 Publicity Secretary, ZANU.
1972 Publicity Secretary, ANC.
1974 Chairman, Editorial Committee, ANC.
1974 Member, Central Committee, ANC.
Edson Sithole was born on 5 June 1935 in the Eastern Districts of Rhodesia. His parents were “typical peasants” (his own phrase) and the area where they lived was 30 miles (48 km) from the nearest school. In 1943, owing to his father’s, illness, the family moved to Bikita and here it was possible for the young Sithole to start his primary education.
After reaching Standard 1 at Bikita he worked on a tea estate on a part-time basis for 75 cents per month while attending the estate school in the afternoon. After passing Standard 11I in 1947 he was forced to leave school for a year, but attended Chikore Mission in the Chipinga District in 1949. Here he passed Standard IV.
In 1950 he intended to go to night school in Umtali (Mutare) but was, on arrival in Umtali (Mutare), “taken away under deception by a farmer to a remote farm where (he) was forced to work for three months at $2,50 per month”. He deserted and made his way to Salisbury (Harare) which he reached in May 1951. Determined to continue his education, he enrolled at St Peter’s night school in Harare. To pay his way during the two years needed to reach Standard VI he worked as a kitchen boy, as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant and as a factory hand in a clothing factory.
He soon became interested in politics and took part in the campaign mounted in 1951 and 1952 against the proposed Central African Federation. As there was no active nationalist party at that time in Mashonaland, he campaigned as a member of the Nyasaland African National Congress.
In 1952 he joined an African newspaper concern as a news vendor at a wage of $8,75 per month – “the highest I had ever earned”. After a year he was promoted to the post of clerk.
During this period he continued his private studies, passing junior Certificate in 1954 and the General Certificate of Education ‘A’ level in 1957. The absence in Mashonaland of any proper African political party had worried him since the days of the anti-Federation campaign, and in 1955 he assisted Dunduza Chisiza, Henry Hamadziripi, George Nyandoro, James Chikerema and Thomson Gonese to found the ANYL. He was appointed the Organisation’s interim Secretary-General. After the formal launching of the ANYL on 13 May 1956 he decided to join the American Board Missions in the Chipinga District as a clerk, but maintains that he “remained the background brain of the organisation and handled most of its published documents”.
He returned to Salisbury (Harare) in 1957 and took up the post of Secretary of the Harare Branch of the ANYL. When the old ANCongress was dissolved Edson Sithole became Secretary of the same Branch in the re-formed organisation. Because of the size and position of Harare, this branch became the most powerful organ of the ANCongress, and Sithole’s significance within the movement increased rapidly.
During 1958 he was offered a scholarship by the American State Department. His intention was to take up this offer during the following year, but this objective was thwarted when, on 26 February 1959, a state of emergency was declared and he was at once detained. At first he was kept in Khami Prison, but later he was detained for varying periods in Selukwe (Shurugwi), Que Que, Gwelo (Gweru), Salisbury (Harare) and Marandellas (Marondera) Prisons. In June 1961 he was taken, with 14 others, and sent to the remote restriction area in the Gokwe District. Here he remained until his release in July 1962.
While in prison he studied for the LL.B. degree of the University of London, completing Part II of the Final Examination in June 1962. On his release he studied for the Rhodesian Bar examination which he passed in April 1963. On 4 July he was admitted to the Rhodesian Bar, being only the second African (the first being Herbert Chitepo) to be so admitted.
While still in detention in 1961 the news reached him of the NDP’s original acceptance of the terms of the proposed new constitution for Southern Rhodesia. Although this acceptance was soon reversed, a number of detainees – including Edson Sithole – concluded that the party leadership was seriously at fault. This attitude led in June 1961 to the formation of a body named the ZNP of which Edson Sithole was appointed Deputy Secretary in 1962 (while still in restriction). In September 1962 the ZNP joined hands with the Southern Rhodesia African Trades Union Congress (under Reuben Jamela) to form PASU. Edson Sithole was appointed Secretary-General but the post was short—lived. When Paul Mushonga, the President, died in a car accident in December 1962 the new group quickly faded away.
Edson Sithole’s distrust of Joshua Nkomo’s leadership, however, remained and when ZANU was formed in August 1963 he joined the new organisation under the leadership of his namesake, the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole. In May 1964 he was elected Publicity Secretary of the party. Once again his tenure of political office was not long. On 26 September he was arrested and restricted to Wha Wha for one year. During his time at Wha Wha (and subsequently at the new Sikombela camp after June 1965) Sithole showed once again that insatiable thirst for academic advancement which has marked his whole career. He enrolled for the LL.M. degree with the University of London and successfully sat the examination in September 1965.
On 26 September 1965 he was released from restriction and confined to a five-mile (8 km) radius from Salisbury (Harare) Post Office. This limited freedom did not last long. On 5 December he was once again back at Sikombela. On 4 June of the following year he was removed to Salisbury (Harare) Prison. Within a short time he enrolled for the LL.D. degree with the University of South Africa. The subject of his thesis was: ‘A Comparative Study of the Republican Constitutions of Zambia and Malawi’. He passed the oral examination in July 1968 and completed the written work (the longest ever handled by the Faculty of Law at the University) in 1973. He was awarded the degree of Doctor of Laws in May 1974 becoming the only person with that degree in Rhodesia and the only African to hold it in Southern Africa.
He was released from detention on 15 March 1971 but on this occasion his movements were restricted to a two-mile (3,2 km) radius from Harare Police Station. He was also required to report daily to the police and to observe a 7 p.m. curfew.
In November 1971 Sir Alec Douglas Home, British Foreign Secretary, visited Rhodesia and expressed the wish to meet a deputation of African ex—detainees. Mr Mansfield (of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) asked a prominent missionary, Jack Grant1 to propose names, a request which led in its turn to an invitation to Edson Sithole. He was asked to nominate a second ex-ZANU member (to balance a similar pair of ex-ZAPU men)2 and chose Michael Mawema.
The meeting with Sir Alec evolved naturally into a series of discussions between the ex-detainees concerned — and eventually to the formation of the ANC on 16 December.
In view of the fact that the four founder members were either ex-ZAPU or ex-ZANU it was felt that outside leadership was required. The result was an approach to Bishop Muzorewa who eventually accepted.
Edson Sithole was appointed Publicity Secretary of the ANC. Following the report of the Pearce Commission in May 1972 he was a leading figure in the sporadic discussions between the ANC and the Rhodesian Government and was, in fact, present at the first, abortive series of talks initiated by Lance Smith (then Minister of Internal Affairs) in October 1972. On 2 June 1974 the ANC Central Committee rejected the agreement supposedly reached between the Prime Minister, Ian Smith, and Bishop Muzorewa. “I was,” (says Sithole) “considered the instrument of that rejection, and so, on 20 June, I was detained at Gatooma Prison. I stayed isolated for six months, talking only to the people who brought my food.”
On 3 December 1974 he was taken from prison and flown, together with others, to Lusaka for discussions leading to the grouping of all nationalist groups under the ANC. On 12 December he was flown back to Salisbury (Harare) and released.
As Publicity Secretary, member of the Central Committee and Chairman of the Editorial Committee, Sithole was in the forefront of the kaleidoscopic developments of the ensuing months. He was among the first of the leading nationalists to sense the growing disunity in the ANC, a trend which he actively encouraged by circulating in June 1975 a report that Joshua Nkomo had ‘done a secret deal’ with Ian Smith.
In August 1975 he attended the Victoria Falls talks as a leading member of the ANC negotiating team. When, in September, the split became public and a meeting of the National Executive was called by the ANC Chairman, Samuel Munodawafa, he refused to attend, maintaining the procedure was unconstitutional. When the holding of the meeting led to the ‘expulsion’ of Joshua Nkomo and others from the ANC he backed the action taken by Bishop Muzorewa.
Despite his heavy involvement in politics Edson Sithole always maintained his practice as an advocate and was greatly in demand for the defence of Africans charged with a wide variety of offences. His nervous energy is boundless – a quality which blends with his intellect and political cunning to make him a most formidable opponent. His office in Kingsway in Salisbury (Harare) was always a constant hive of movement, with all activity centering on his slight, dynamic figure. He is unmarried and is on record as saying that no woman could be expected to marry a man so prone to the risk of imprisonment.
1 Field Secretary of United Church Board for World Ministries in Rhodesia and Chairman of Christian Care. Also Executive Member of Christian Council.
2 Josiah Chinamano and Cephas Msipa.
3 Miss Miriam Mhlanga. A reward of $100 000 was offered by Dr Elliot Gabellah on behalf of the ANC (Muzorewa) for information about Dr Sithole‘s whereabouts.
4 His fiancé, Evelyn Kawonza, who now works in the ANC (Muzowera) office in Salisbury (Harare), is adamant that he is alive (March 1977).