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Ndabaningi Sithole: Founding Father

Ndabaningi Sithole, a towering figure in the history of Zimbabwe’s nationalist movement and a leader in its independence struggle, died on Dec. 12 at 80 in Pennsylvania, where he had gone for medical treatment.

Teacher, nationalist, Methodist minister, parliamentarian, political mentor, father, and author: These were the many caps Sithole wore in his lifetime. Eulogized as one of the founding fathers of the Zimbabwean nation, Sithole was the founder in 1963 and first president of the Zimbabwe African National Union, the main pro-independence guerrilla movement and later the country’s leading political party.

Sithole came close to achieving the hopes of many Zimbabweans. Yet he fell short of securing their lasting support as a political leader. In the mid-1970s, he lost the leadership of ZANU to fellow revolutionary Robert Mugabe, now Zimbabwe’s president, who formed the breakaway ZANU-Patriotic Front. Sithole was branded a political sell-out for accepting the ill-fated 1978 Internal Settlement with the Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith and repudiating the policy of armed struggle against the white minority government. After Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, Sithole was ostracized from political life and became an ardent opponent of Mugabe.

In 1984, as Sithole was gradually losing his political footing in Zimbabwe, he left for the United States. When he returned home in 1992, he launched his own opposition party, ZANU–Ndonga. Sithole’s party won only two seats in the 1995 general elections from his Chipinge homeland. But that achievement kept Sithole in politics.

In 1997, Sithole was convicted of conspiring to assassinate Mugabe. At the time of his death, he was awaiting appeal of a two-year prison sentence. In December, Harare’s Daily News charged that the case against Sithole was a well-crafted plot by the govern ment’s Central Intelligence Organization. “The plot was so incredible, it would have qualified for a hilarious spoof: ‘The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,’ ” wrote the News’s editor Bill Saidi.

Sithole’s battle with the party he founded followed him to his grave, when the politburo of ZANU-PF ruled that Sithole should not be honored as a “national hero,” the country’s highest award. National heroes usually receive a state funeral with full military honors and are buried at Heroes Acre, the ornate cemetery just outside Harare.

The ruling party’s denial of honors to Sithole stirred a hornets’ nest. The party used a double standard, political commentators said, and the government opened itself to accusations of fostering disunity and making the Heroes Acre an exclusive cemetery for its supporters.

The opposition weekly Zimbabwe Independent declared that Mugabe lost a rare opportunity to display a spirit of generosity. “It must have occurred to many people that the late Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole was an obvious candidate for burial at the Heroes Acre. Whatever his poor judgment in support of the Internal Settlement, he was one of the founders of ZANU....Couldn’t President Mugabe...have called for a minute’s silence for this father of the nationalist struggle?”

“Thus the old warrior remained to the end a loner,” wrote Diana Mitchell in Harare’s independent Zimbabwe Standard, “a man who believed in his destiny as a leader, but who was overtaken by another in whose power it still remains to decide, for the moment, how we shall view our history.”

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