Retracing the life and death of Dr Edson Sithole

Isaya Muriwo Sithole
Tomorrow, the 15th of October, marks forty-three years after a member of the ZANU Central Committee, prominent politician and barrister, Dr Edson Furatidzayi Chisingaitwi Sithole was abducted at a local hotel in the then Salisbury.

There are various theories that have been put forward to explain this mysterious disappearance but the veteran nationalist is widely believed to have been kidnapped and eliminated by the Rhodesian government for his political activities. The disappearance of Dr Sithole arguably remains the biggest political mystery in the entire Southern African region to date, and it continues to sear pain in the hearts and minds of many progressive Zimbabweans.

As we commemorate forty-three years after Dr Sithole’s disappearance, the Sithole family has decided to break the silence on this unresolved riddle through a three-part series of articles, to feature the authoritative history, and circumstances surrounding the disappearance of one of Zimbabwe`s selfless sons. After his abduction and , Dr Sithole, has never been seen or heard of. Dr Sithole is perhaps best remembered as one of the founding fathers and martyrs of the Zimbabwean national liberation struggle. He is also remembered as the second black barrister to be called to the Rhodesian Bar after the late national hero, Cde Herbert Wiltshire Hamandishe Chitepo.

He was also the first black person in the Southern and Central African regions to have obtained a PHD in Law, after obtaining his LLD with UNISA in 1974 at the age of thirty-nine. This was an achievement made even more remarkable in that it occurred during the dark days of the seventies. Dr Sithole was born in the communal lands near Birchenough Bridge on 5 June 1935 to Chisingaitwi and Chioniso Sithole. He started his primary education in Bikita in 1943 and continued at Chikore Mission School in Chipinge until 1949. He was forced to work on a farm for three months in 1950 but he escaped to Salisbury in 1951 and enrolled at St Peters School where he combined night school with odd jobs like factory hand, working in the kitchen and as a waiter.

In Bikita, Sithole grew up in an environment where black people were being forced to herd cattle belonging to white colonialists while at the same time the number of cattle for blacks was being reduced arbitrarily. This practice was extremely resented by the local people.  This is why young Sithole got involved in nationalist politics at an early age. On the eve of the creation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Sithole joined politics as a member of the Nyasaland African National Congress, there being no active political party in Southern Rhodesia at the time. This later led him to participate in the formation of the City Youth League in August 1955, together with James Chikerema, George Nyandoro and Dunduza Chisiza.

Sithole was the interim Secretary-General of the City Youth League until 13 May 1956. The name was later changed to the African National Youth League (ANYL) to give the movement a broader national appeal. Many young people who emerged later as military and political leaders mention the names of Edson Sithole and other founders of the City Youth League as early sources of inspiration. The involvement of Chisiza, a Malawian, in Southern Rhodesia, illustrates the cross fertilisation in nationalist politics within the three territories constituting the Federation in those days as that of Josiah Tongogara and others in Zambia did some years later. The Youth League organised a highly successful bus boycott in Salisbury in September 1956, resulting in Chisiza’s deportation from Southern Rhodesia.

After briefly working as a clerk with the American Board Missions in Chipinge, Sithole returned to Salisbury in 1957 as secretary of the City Youth League`s Harare branch, a post he continued to hold under the new African National Congress (ANC) formed on 12 September 1957. Garfield Todd’s take-over as Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia with the creation of the Federation in 1953 created a slight possibility of evolving political partnership between blacks and whites. In September 1957, the Youth League merged with the Bulawayo branch of the ANC to form a national ANC with Joshua Nkomo as President, Chikerema as Vice-President and Nyandoro as Secretary-General. Todd was ousted the following year in a Cabinet revolt and the illusion of partnership politics was swiftly dispelled.

In 1959, a State of Emergency was declared throughout the Federation. This was to remain in force in Southern Rhodesia until independence in 1980. On February 26, 1959, Sithole, together with 500 other ANC leaders, was arrested and detained when the party was banned. He was held first at Khami prison, Bulawayo, then in Selukwe (Shurugwi), Que Que (Kwekwe), Salisbury and Marandellas (Marondera) prisons. Between June 1961 and July 1962, Sithole was restricted with 14 others at Gokwe prison. While in prison, he was appointed deputy secretary of the Zimbabwe National Party (ZNP) formed in June 1961 in opposition to the National Democratic Party’s initial acceptance of the 1961 constitutional proposals, rejected by many as derogation from the nationalist principle of one man one vote.

When the ZNP merged with the Southern Rhodesia African Trade Union Congress to form the Pan-African Socialist Union in September 1962, Sithole was appointed its Secretary-General and served in that position until the party’s demise in December 1962.

Earlier in June 1962, Sithole had obtained an LLB degree from the University of London, and on July 4, he was called to the Rhodesia Bar, becoming the second African in Zimbabwe to join the Bar, after Herbert Chitepo.

In May 1964, Sithole was appointed publicity secretary of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), which had been formed on August 8, 1963. On September 26, 1964, he was arrested and restricted to Wha Wha and Sikombela prisons for one year. During this time, he studied for and obtained an LLM degree from the University of London.

Dr Sithole was awarded a Doctor of Laws degree by the University of South Africa. His thesis was entitled, “A comparative Study of the Republican Constitutions of Zambia and Malawi”, which also has important insights and lessons on Zimbabwe’s post-independence constitutional development. Most of Dr Sithole’s university study was done during the ten years he spent as a political detainee, he never had the opportunity to attend a formal university. The diminutive lawyer and politician started as a newspaper vendor and studied privately until he obtained his doctorate.

He stayed at Sikombela from December 5, 1964 until June 4, 1966 when he was transferred to Salisbury prison. Dr Sithole stayed in Salisbury prison up to March 15, 1971 when he was released ahead of the Pearce Commission’s Anglo-Rhodesian Settlement Proposals. He was restricted to a 4,8km radius of the Salisbury police station to which he had to report daily as well as observing a 1900hrs curfew. When the African National Council was formed on December 16, 1971, Dr Sithole was appointed the party’s publicity secretary. At the time that the Anglo-Rhodesian Settlement proposals were announced, there was no viable African political party within the country. This state of affairs had obtained since the ban on ZANU and the PCC (ZAPU) and the subsequent incarceration of most nationalist leaders in 1964. As such, while exiled, liberation organisations (ZANU, ZAPU and FROLIZI) were engaged in guerrilla efforts along Rhodesia’s northern borders and a nationalist vacuum existed in the country.

The Pearce Commission, which was testing the acceptability of the proposals, would have conducted its inquiry in the midst of this vacuum had the African National Council not been formed at the opportune moment. So confident of a “Yes” vote was the Rhodesian government that it even released several ZANU and ZAPU nationalists from prison in the latter part of 1971, including Dr Sithole.

To be continued.

Isaya Muriwo Sithole is a legal practitioner practising in Harare. He is the founder and executive director of the Dr Edson F.C Sithole Foundation, which will be launched soon. He is also the Sithole family spokesperson. He can be contacted on [email protected]