Herbert Chitepo was born on 5 June 1923 in the Inyanga district of Rhodesia. His father died when
Herbert was three years old and he was brought up at St David’s Mission, Bonda. He received his early education at the mission and later moved to St Augustine’s, Penhalonga. In 1943 he went to Adams College, Natal, to train as a primary school teacher. Returning to Rhodesia he taught for one year at St Augustine’s but then decided to go back to Adams College in order to matriculate.
He attended Fort Hare University College, South Africa, from 1947 to 1949, graduating B.A. Thereafter he went to London where he worked as a Research Assistant in Shona at the London School of Oriental and African Studies. He studied at King’s College, London and at the Inns of Court, becoming a barrister in 1954.
Returning to Salisbury (Harare) he set up in private practice, a decision which required an amendment to the Land Apportionment Act to enable him to occupy chambers in the city centre. He was admitted as an Advocate of the High Court in 1954. During his early years in practice the majority of his briefs concerned Africans indicted on straightforward criminal charges but from 1957 onwards he became more and more involved in defending African nationalists against charges arising under the Land Husbandry Act and against restriction orders. In 1959 he appeared before the Beadle Tribunal on behalf of Africans detained under the state of emergency declared on 26 February of that year. In June 1959 he attended the International Commission of Jurists’ conference in New Delhi, India.
In June 1960 he made his first entry into politics by joining the NDP and was at once made a member of the Council. In November he presented a paper on the subject of ‘The Impact of Legislation on the Community’ to the National Convention. In December 1960 he was invited by Sir Edgar Whitehead, the Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister, to join the Southern Rhodesian delegation to the Federal Review Conference, but he declined on the grounds that he would attend only as a delegate from the NDP. He did, however, serve as a member of the NDP delegation1 to the Southern Rhodesian Constitutional Conference in Salisbury (Harare) in February 1961.
After the banning of the NDP in December 1961 he joined the newly-formed ZAPU. In June 1962 he left Rhodesia and was appointed Director of Public Prosecutions in Tanzania. In july 1963 he was suspended from ZAPU by Joshua Nkomo following criticism of the latter’s leadership of the party. In August 1963 he joined with the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole in the formation of the rival ZANU and was appointed National Chairman.
In 1965 he moved to Lusaka and in the following year commenced the organisation of military incursions into Rhodesia. In September 1966 he urged the Commonwealth Prime Ministers to enforce total economic sanctions against Rhodesia. In 1969 he undertook the planning of underground subversion inside Rhodesia and played an important part in building up African opposition to the Smith/Home constitutional proposals of November 1971.
From 1971 onwards he became increasingly involved in disputes between the various nationalist groups in Lusaka. On 12 September of that year he convened a conference near Lusaka at which a resolution was passed urging rejection of Chikerema’s efforts to unite under the banner of the newly-formed FROLIZI. In the following year, however, he agreed to link the military operations of ZANU with those of FROLIZI. In 1973 he was elected Chairman of the Zimbabwe Revolutionary Council (the external wing of ZANU – later DARE)2.
The Lusaka Declaration of December 1974 pitch-forked Herbert Chitepo into a crisis which resulted in his death three months later. A violent power struggle erupted between the Manyika and Karanga elements of ZANU and there were allegations that Chitepo was prepared to go along with the policy of detente3 Wherever the truth lies, the one sure fact is that, on 18 March 1975, Herbert Chitepo was assassinated when his VW car blew up in the drive of his house in Lusaka.
Herbert Chitepo left a widow, who lives in Tanzania, and six children (four girls and two boys). He typified in his life the problems surrounding all attempts to create a meritocracy in a multi-racial community. Although the Southern Rhodesian Government behaved admirably in amending the Land Apportionment Act so that he could practise law in Salisbury (Harare), it could not always answer for its servants – one of whom (a Native Commissioner) required Herbert Chitepo to conduct his defence of an accused African seated cross—legged on the floor. Similar incidents in shops, restaurants and lifts, coupled with suggestions from militant nationalists that African intellectuals were keeping aloof from the struggle, led him in the end to abandon his early intention of fitting into the existing social environment. As the years went by he himself became progressively more militant until, in the end, the sophisticated young lawyer had turned into a dedicated military leader.
Herbert Chitepo was held in great esteem by his legal colleagues as a highly intelligent man with considerable strength of character. According to someone who knew him well4 he believed that nothing in the world was impossible to a person of determination.
1 The delegation initially accepted the proposal for 15 B Roll seats. His particular concern was with the drafting of a Bill of Rights.
2 In this post he headed the military effort and is, in the opinion of fellow-nationalists, entitled to much of the credit for the successes achieved.
3 These allegations have been strongly denied by many ZANU leading personalities, among them Robert Mugabe who expressed the view “that the (murder) was committed by agents of the sponsors of detente taking advantage of the situation of commotions and disturbances which had arisen
in ZANU”. (Revolutionary Zimbabwe, No. 3, p. 5.) It is only fair, however, to add that the Chitepo Commission of Inquiry came to the conclusion that Chitepo, although initially opposed to ‘unity’ and detente, later changed his stance and that his murder was carried out by persons in DARE and the
military high command of ZANU (see paragraphs 83 and 255 of the report).
4 A. P. Knottenbelt.