Ndabaningi Sithole

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Ndabaningi Sithole

Ndabaningi Sithole (born 1920) is a teacher, clergyman, and politician who played a critical role in the early nationalist movement in Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia). A leading African intellectual, he epitomized the plight of Africans during the period of the former Southern Rhodesia's system of racial discrimination.

Ndabaningi Sithole was born on July 21, 1920, in the rural area of Nyamanandhlovu. He was brought up in a pagan household and spent his early years in a typically tribal environment in an isolated part of the country. He was seven years old before he first saw a white person. The family moved to Shabani in 1930, and in 1932 Sithole started attending a school run by British Methodist missionaries. His father, however, opposed the idea, and Sithole left the school at the end of 1932 and became a servant in a white home. But the urge to become educated remained, and in 1935 he defied his father's wishes and ran away to enter the Dadaya Mission school, which was controlled by the Reverend Garfield Todd, who was subsequently to become prime minister of Southern Rhodesia.

Despite his poverty and backwardness in many subjects, Sithole applied himself determinedly and ultimately succeeded. Becoming a Christian, he acquired the National Junior Certificate (Standard Eight), which was then a considerable achievement for an African. He then returned to the Dadaya Mission as a teacher and managed, by private study, to prepare for a Matriculation Exemption Certificate. Also by private study he managed to acquire a bachelor of arts degree through the University of South Africa.

By 1950 Sithole was torn between the vocation of teaching and the Christian ministry. Even as a teacher he had become a Methodist lay preacher, but for over eight years he had been unable to bring himself to enter the Church fully. Finally, in 1953, he did commit himself and applied to the Mission Council of the American Board Mission of Southern Rhodesia, which accepted his application. Under their aegis he spent more than three years in the United States, studying, lecturing, and preaching in many parts of the country. On his return to Southern Rhodesia he became principal of the Chikore Central Primary School and an ordained minister.

Work as a Nationalist

Sithole's attention had become increasingly focused upon politics. In 1957 he completed a short book called African Nationalism (published in 1959), which was a very moderate, humane, and balanced account of African grievances in the white supremacist system of Southern Rhodesia. He made it clear that he believed firmly in interracial cooperation. In August 1959 he was elected president of the African Teachers' Association, and from this post he entered politics. Early in 1960 he joined the African nationalist movement, the National Democratic party (NDP), led by Joshua Nkomo, and rapidly rose to the position of treasurer and membership in its executive. By this time he had been forced to resign from his teaching post and was a full-time politician. In December 1960 he was sent to London as an NDP delegate to the Federal Review Conference.

In the 1960s Sithole's career was profoundly affected by the growing authoritarianism of the Southern Rhodesian regime and by the serious split in the nationalist movement. On Dec. 9, 1962, the government proscribed the NDP, but ten days afterward a new nationalist organization, the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU), was founded. Sithole automatically became a leading member, and he represented it abroad. Dissatisfaction with Nkomo's leadership mounted, and Sithole emerged as the leader of a rival faction. Nkomo was accused of indecisiveness and of reluctance to force a confrontation with the government. The split occurred on July 6, 1963, and, despite attempts at reconciliation, it proved to be unbreachable. Sithole was out of the country at the time, but shortly after his return he and his followers founded a new political movement, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).

In December 1963 Sithole was sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment for distributing an allegedly subversive letter calling upon Africans physically to resist an illegal declaration of independence by the Southern Rhodesian government; but he appealed successfully against the conviction. In February 1964 Sithole, along with hundreds of others, was restricted by the government and placed in a remote detention camp; and in August both ZANU and ZAPU were banned.

Sithole remained in detention for five years. On Feb. 12, 1969, he was sentenced to six years of imprisonment for involvement in a plot to assassinate lan Smith, prime minister of the illegal Rhodesian regime, and two of his ministers. The conviction rested largely on the authorship of a letter planning the assassinations. A police forensic scientist testified that it had been written by Sithole. Sithole denied this and declared that he had been framed. After sentence had been passed, he said, "I wish publicly to dissociate my name in thought, word and deed from any subversive activities, from any terrorist activities, and from any form of violence."

After his release from prison in 1974, Sithole lived in exile in Zambia with a section of the African National Council, but later withdrew his faction of ZANU from it. In 1976 he attended the Rhodesian Constitutional Conference and served as a member of the Transitional Executive Council in preparation for the long-sought transfer of power to the black majority in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia in 1978-79. After serving that year as a member of Parliament, he ceased to play a substantial role after his long-time rival Robert Mugabe became prime minister in 1980 and established the first free African government in Zimbabwe.

In 1987 he sought refuge in the United States, fearing that Mugabe was trying to kill him. The two had competed for the presidency of ZANU-PF during its early days, and their rivalry intensified when Mugabe took over the party during the guerrilla war against white-ruled Rhodesia. Sithole returned to Zimbabwe in 1991, when he occupied one of two opposition seats in a parliament overwhelmingly controlled by the ZANU-PF party. In 1994 he organized a faction to contest the one-party presidential elections, which Mugabe had again easily won. The following year he was arrested in connection with an alleged plot to assassinate Mugabe, and his weak opposition party was accused of supporting rebels based in nearby Mozambique. Sithole withdrew as an opposition candidate in the 1996 elections, when Mugabe was again elected unopposed.

Sithole continues to be an active member of the opposition Zimbabwe African National Union Ndonga party. In 1997 he publicly reasserted his belief in coups as a legitimate instrument of change in Africa when constitutional means fail. He condemned the Organization of African Unity and its chairman, President Mugabe, as having "no relevance for an independent Africa, which is faced by … problems which include continental insecurity and control of the economy by former colonial masters."

Further Reading

Sketch: Sithole's Hammer & Sickle: Africa's Great Problem (1991) and Roots of a Revolution (1977) are out of print. Sithole's African Nationalism (1959; 2d ed. 1968) discusses his own career as well as larger issues. Collected speeches: In Defence of a Birthright, Norman Bethune Institute, 1975. His role in the early days of African nationalism is described in "Nbadaningi Sithole, Garfield Todd and the Dadaya School Strike of 1947" in Journal of Southern African Studies, June 1992. Profiles: An African Biographical Dctionary, ABC-CLIO, 1994; Glickman, Harvey, Political Leaders of Contemporary Africa South of the Sahara, Greenwood, 1992; Lipschutz, Mark, Dictionary of African Historical Biography, Univ. of California, 1987. His career is discussed in Nathan M. Shamuyarira, Crisis in Rhodesia (1965); James Barber, Rhodesia: The Road to Rebellion (1967); and B. Vulindlela Mtshali, Rhodesia: Background to Conflict (1967). □