James Chikerema

James Chikerema

1956-57 First President, African National Youth League (ANYL).
1957-59 Vice-President, ANC.
1961-62 Executive Member, ZAPU (although in detention).
1964 Acting President, PCC (during detention of Joshua Nkomo).
1972 Chairman, FROLIZI.
1974 (Dec.) Member, Executive Committee of ANC.
1975 (Sept.) Secretary, ZLC.

James Chikerema was born in May 1925 at Kutama Mission near Salisbury (Harare). His parents were of the Shona tribe; his father, the first African teacher at the mission school, was a practising Roman Catholic.

Chikerema was educated at the mission school and then went for his secondary education to St Francis’ College, Marianhill, in Natal before going on to Cape Town1 His political activities had begun at Marianhill where he joined the S.A. African National Congress. While in Cape Town he formed (together with Maurice Nyagumbo) the Central African Social Club — a body designed for the political education of Rhodesian blacks living at the Cape. His activities in this club (particularly a demonstration against the proposed Central African Federation) led to his deportation from South Africa early in 1953.

He returned to Rhodesia where he obtained employment with a factory at Norton near Salisbury (Harare). He became chief clerk, but was then dismissed for organising a strike among the workers.

Although he then sold insurance to make a living, Chikerema’s main efforts from 1955 until the present day have been devoted to the furtherance of the nationalist movement, more often than not by militant action. During 1955 he joined with Edson SitholeDunduza Chisiza and George Nyandoro in planning the ANYL which was launched in the Mai Misodzi Hall, Harare. He has been described at that time as ‘a fiery, tempestuous character, with a strong emotional appeal’2 and it was this quality which led to his election as first President of the ANYL in 1956. He also edited the League’s journal, Chapupu.

The African trade union movement was at this time led by Charles Mzingeli in Salisbury (Harare). Chikerema concentrated on breaking the power of Mzingeli whom he regarded as too conciliatory in his dealings with European employers.

In August 1956 he helped to organise a bus boycott in Salisbury (Harare). Somewhat uncharacteristically, he joined the Inter-Racial Association in 1957 and during the same year he was involved in protests organised among Africans against the implementation of the Land Husbandry Act.

The revival of the ANCongress followed from the activities of the ANYL. At the launching of the re-formed Congress in Harare on 12 September 1957 Chikerema was elected Vice-President — the post of President going to Joshua Nkomo. With this grouping at the top it was hoped that the Congress would have a strong appeal to both Shona and Matabele.

Chikerema continued in his flamboyant and fiery way to lead the political militants. He worked to undermine the authority of the native commissioners in the rural areas, telling the people not to co-operate with them. At one point he was accused of slandering Sir Patrick Fletcher, then Minister of Native Affairs, and was fined £100. Finally, on 26 February 1959, he was arrested and detained under the state of emergency declared by Sir Edgar Whitehead.

While he was in detention ZAPU was formed (December 1961) and he was appointed a member of the Executive. When the Rhodesian Front Government released him in 1963 he helped Nkomo to form the PCC.3 Then, on Nkomo’s advice, he left the country.4

He travelled in eastern Europe and Asia, and says that he addressed 2 000 000 people in Tiananmen Square in Communist China. He spoke in “the great hall of the people” (accommodating 10 000 people) in 1964. He also visited the USSR on several occasions.

After the arrest of Nkomo (April 1964) and the banning of the PCC (August) Chikerema revived the ZAPU title and became Acting President.5 He set up an office for the organisation, first in Dar-es-Salaam and later in Lusaka.

In August 1967 the first guerrilla campaigns inside Rhodesia were organised by ZAPU’s ‘war council’ — comprising Chikerema, J. Z. Moyo, George Silundika and Edward Ndhlovu. After the failure of the campaign Chikerema turned to organising subversion. It was during this year  1967) that he was obliged to apologise to President Kaunda for allowing a BBC television team
to film guerrilla training camps in Zambia.

Although at the time of the split between ZAPU and ZANU in 1963 he had remained loyal to Nkomo and ZAPU, it was always his wish to unite the warring factions.6 When quarrels erupted among the exiles in 1970 he tried to impose his authority by dismissing the other members of the ‘war council’. He was, however, forced (by the intervention of President Kaunda) into “an uneasy truce” with them on 25 April 1970.

It was clear to him, however, that the incessant strife between the nationalist groups in Lusaka was hampering all efforts at mounting effective insurgency operations in Rhodesia. His efforts to achieve unity resulted, in October 1971, in the creation of FROLIZI of which he was elected Chairman at the inaugural meeting in September 1972.

Chikerema’s prestige among nationalists had been boosted early in 1972 after he helped to organise demonstrations inside Rhodesia against the acceptance of the proposed new constitution. He was thus in a very strong position to take overall control of the new wave of incursions which started in December of that year and proved to be a far greater problem to the Rhodesian authorities than anything which had preceded them. Nevertheless, he continued to meet opposition from within the hierarchy of the movement and FROLIZI, instead of becoming (as planned) the sole expression of nationalist militancy, emerged as just one of three diverse fighting groups.7

In December 1974 when the detente exercise led to the signing in Lusaka of an agreement to unify all nationalist groups under the ANC, his position as leader of FROLIZI entitled him not only to become one of the four leaders of the ANC but also to nominate three other FROLIZI officials to the new National Executive Committee.

He attended the Victoria Falls talks in August 1975 as a member of the ANC negotiating team. One of the issues which caused the talks to become bogged down was the question of his being given diplomatic immunity to work inside Rhodesia on constitutional committees. He states, however, that no grant of immunity would persuade him to enter the country while the present government remains in power8

Following the Victoria Falls talks a deep split emerged in the nationalist ranks with the announcement on 2 September that the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole would lead the ZLC as Chairman with Chikerema as his secretary. This move was vigorously denounced by Joshua Nkomo in Salisbury (Harare)9

In June 1975 when an ANC delegation was holding discussions with Ian Smith aimed at a constitutional conference, Chikerema and Edson Sithole had circulated a document which purported to record a secret agreement between Ian Smith and Joshua Nkomo. This was followed in November10 by a rumour (traced back to Chikerema in Lusaka) that Nkomo had accepted the post of Foreign Affairs Minister in a ‘sell—out’ agreement.

In November 1975 Chikerema, together with a number of the Muzorewa/ZLC faction — including the principals — was expelled from Zambia by order of President Kaunda. It is believed that this action followed the fierce inter-tribal fighting between Rhodesian Manyika and Makaranga tribesmen living in Zambia. Their fights had culminated in the murder of
Herbert Chitepo, and the subsequent imprisonment of many Rhodesian nationalist expatriates in Zambia.

Together with the Rev. N. Sithole and Bishop Abel Muzorewa he was singled out at this time by the guerrillas as a target for their ‘no-confidence’ statement.11 According to Bishop Muzorewa’s
memorandum of May 1976 this was followed by a refusal by the guerrillas to allow Chikerema (among others) to have access to their camps.12

In February 1976 he attended (together with Muzorewa and Sithole) a four-nation summit meeting in Quelimane (Mocambique) at which the Presidents of Zambia, Mocambique and Botswana were present under the chairmanship of Nyerere13

In July 1976 Chikerema announced in Lusaka that the Muzorewa group rejected the OAU resolution (passed at the meeting in Mauritius) that aid to the nationalist cause should be channeled to the so-called ‘third force’. The resolution, said Chikerema, gave the impression that there were two ANCs whereas there was only one.14

On 15 October Chikerema was named as one of the delegates from the ANC (Muzorewa) to the Geneva Conference.

James Chikerema was brought up as a Roman Catholic but he says that his experiences of discrimination in South Africa caused him to become sceptical of Christianity. He later abandoned the RC faith and returned to traditional Shona beliefs, holding the Vadzimu (tribal spirits) in great respect. He prays to these spirits and adheres to all the ancient cults. He dresses in a semi-military outfit and has the appearance of a man older than his years, but retains all his youthful vitality. He speaks with a strong, vibrant voice.

Although relaxed and smiling in social circles he has adopted the habits of a man who lives with danger — he will not collect a registered letter and he will not see a stranger without a prior personal ‘check out’ by a friend or bodyguard.

When he speaks of his childhood he recalls his first brush with authority — at the age of 10. He had failed to remove his hat when addressed by a dipping tank supervisor (“it was drizzling, and I was so fearful”) and was punished. He says that he was never the “darling” of his teachers, and that even his father thought at first that he was too hot-headed. He has enormous respect for his father as a man believing in strict discipline. “He was not a liberal or a paternalist,” says Chikerema.

He speaks of Rhodesia “requiring a unique solution. You cannot transplant a system of government from one country to another”. He describes himself as a “democratic national socialist”.

James Chikerema has the same contradictory qualities as Ndabaningi Sithole. On the one hand he is always at the centre of controversy: yet his approach to the question of unity is reasonable and contained. Contrary to Nkomo’s claim to have pursued unity, Chikerema maintains that his former ZAPU colleagues opposed unity in 1971 “because they were afraid to lose their positions” and that “these constant divisions have done nothing but harm”.

He is married with a family, but insists on keeping his home life entirely private. He maintains that he has no time for hobbies or pastimes and says that he now abstains totally from alcohol.

1 He enrolled at the University of Cape Town in 1949 and 1950 as a B.A. student. He wrote no examinations.

2 Who’s Who in Africa, p.60.

3 In August 1963.

4 It was Nkomo’s intention that those who (like Chikerema) had already served long periods in detention should serve the movement outside the Colony.

5 For as long as Nkomo remained in restriction.

6 This policy was given impetus when, early in 1970, a messenger arrived in Lusaka from Joshua Nkomo stressing the need for unity in the movement
(See entry on Joshua Nkomo)

7 See also entry for E. Dumbutshena.

8 In conversation with D.M.M., Lusaka, September 1975.

9 On the grounds that it was contrary to the ANC policy that individuals should not hold office at one time in both the political and the military

10  By this time Joshua Nkomo was in the middle of a series of talks with the Prime Minister.

11 See entry on Bishop Muzorewa.

12 Africa Confidential, 9 July 1976.

13 The Rhodesia Herald, 10 February 1976.

14 The Rhodesia Herald, 14 July 1976.