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Profound, empirical research needed to understand Zimbabwe liberation struggle

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A Brutal State of Affairs – The Rise and fall of Rhodesia by Henrik Ellert and Dennis Anderson (Weaver Press, Harare, Zimbabwe, 2020 pp 412)

TREVOR GRUNDY

TOWARDS the end of the Spanish Civil War, Ernest Hemingway described the three-year conflict between republican and nationalist forces as “a carnival of rottenness and treachery on both sides . . . an idiocy without bounds.”

African nationalists will never accept that sort of description for their struggle against white rule, which was a protracted fight that ended in a negotiated victory for Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo who, on 18 April 1980, turned white-ruled Rhodesia into black-led Zimbabwe.

But plenty of whites do see things in Rhodesia the way Hemingway saw them in Spain and they include the authors of this aptly titled book, Henrik Ellert and Dennis Anderson.

As someone who lived and worked in Rhodesia (1977-1980) and then Zimbabwe (1980–1996), I welcome the arrival of A Brutal State of Affairs which sits next to a long line of books about Africa, works that bend and buckle creaking bookshelves in a room I laughingly call my library in Kent, England.

I write this so far away from Africa, remembering what a poet called “old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago.”

Future African historians might find some of it quite useful because it is written by two men who supported Ian Smith, who served the Rhodesian Special Branch (SB) for years and who were eye-witnesses to events they see  now as “hinge moments” in the Rhodesian War (1966-1979).

That is, I believe, the value of this well-written, carefully edited and beautifully presented (with pictures of leading figures and clear maps) book published by Weaver Press, Zimbabwe’s most imaginative publishing house.

But I think it is a pity that the foreword is written by the authors and not someone with a bullet-proof reputation when it comes to African affairs. Not that there are many of those around.

But its 15 chapters do a reasonable job telling the Rhodesian side of the story and what motivated a relatively tiny minority of Europeans living in Africa to cling to the past while their leaders convinced them they were fast-forwarding into the future.

The book also highlights several events outside Rhodesia – the Lisbon coup in 1974 probably the most important – which sapped European morale and distanced Ian Smith’s Rhodesia from John Vorster’s South Africa.

Britain’s insidious role in all of this is hardly mentioned.

Ellert and Anderson used primary source material when  available, supplemented by reports from SB archives. Sadly, so much of what we need to know was destroyed by Smith’s CIO people during the closing stages of the war.

Or so we’re led to believe.

In his review of this book, the Zimbabwean academic Martin Revayi Rupiya pointed out that  its authors benefited from documents gathered from foreign intelligence agencies in South Africa, Belgium, France, Portugal and Malawi, information that was entrusted to senior police and intelligence institutions and used in their engagement with  various metropoles, including Lisbon and Pretoria.

So did Stuart Doran in his seminal book Kingdom, Power, Glory – Mugabe, Zanu and the quest for supremacy 1960 -1987 (Sithata, 2017 pp. 842)Rupiya wrote: “Given the shroud of unexplained and vexing developments during the liberation war, the significance of this book is that it offers reasoned explanations, based on empirically verifiable evidence and allows closure, decades later. This may be regarded as the greatest contribution made by the book on the way forward.”

Rupiya pointed to two incidents placed, yet again, under the microscope by Ellert and Anderson – the mysterious disappearance and murder of Edson Sithole on the night of 15 October 1975  in the then Salisbury, Rhodesia and the massacre of missionaries at the Elim Pentecostal Mission on the border with Mozambique in Inyanga North near the town of Umtali on 23 June 1978.

Decades after his disappearance outside the Ambassador Hotel in Salisbury (now Harare), we still do not know who abducted and then killed Sithole. Speculation that he was to be snatched and turned so he would feed information about black nationalists to the white-run SB remains just that – speculation.

On the Elim Mission massacre, we learn next to nothing that is fresh and are pointed to a book many have read, The Axe and the Tree’ by Stephen Griffith. That one,  plus a book that might be harder to get hold of called Stoning the Dogs: Guerrilla mobilisation and violence in Rhodesia (un-published thesis, Israeli Defence Forces).

What surprised me most  about this new book is how similar so much of it is to another one by Henrick Ellert,  The Rhodesian Front War published by Mambo Press, Gweru in 1989.
That was a time in Zimbabwe when the memoir of Ken Flower was clarifying or confusing the collective European understanding of what they had gone through during the war and why.  

And the fact that Ellert was a former Special Branch operative caused  interest, along with a handful of other  repentant  memoirs written by whites who had fought against Zanu and Zapu during Chimurenga Two and who wanted their stories, which some might call confessions, told.

One white man, so angry about being forced to fight his black brothers, demanded that there should be a Nuremberg trial in Harare.

In parts of that book, Ellert concentrated on the Portuguese and South African connections and the Selous Scouts who, according to an unnamed reviewer in the Financial Gazette of 22 September 1989 “are now judged to be the enfants terrible and convenient scapegoats allegedly responsible for actions from which many now wish to distance themselves.”

It said: “Mr Ellert himself strives to be  as fair as possible and indeed in doing so leaves one with the thought that he himself has doubts (unprovable though they may be) about some of the less savoury incidents in what was a very dirty war.’

That reviewer touched on something I was particularly interested in when I spent over a week reading A Brutal State of Affairs. That was the assassination of Herbert Chitepo.

I was in Lusaka working for the Times of Zambia and correspondent for the BBC’s Focus on Africa and the Financial Times when it happened.

Said the FG reviewer: ”Predictably, Chitepo’s assassination in Lusaka in March 1975 is dismissed in one sentence and that is a quotation from a book published by authors who were more likely to represent the African Nationalist point of view than that of the Rhodesian Government.”

He or she went on ,  “Ken Flower, in his version of the killing, took arm’s length responsibility, but it is regrettable that Mr Ellert, who must have had inside information – either gained at the time or consequently – did not give his opinion.”

The reviewer went on to say that on the abduction and murder of Edson Sithole eight months later, “Mr Ellert was prepared to give much more detail.  He stated that Mr Sithole was apprehended as he and his secretary arrived in a car to visit the Quill Club at the Ambassador Hotel in Harare. Two Selous Scouts, posing as Special Branch men, arrested Mr Sithole and his secretary and they were never seen again.”

The writer, without naming himself/herself, revealed that he/she was in the Quill Club that very evening and that Mr Sithole was already in that drinking den and was called away by a phone call and that he was arrested after he left the hotel.

“Mr Ellert should have known this for he was one of two Special Branch men who were permanently assigned to the Quill Club. They were there almost every evening to listen in on the conversation and report indiscreet remarks.”

The reviewer said that while Ellert was definite about the Selous Scouts’ responsibility for Mr Edson Sithole’s disappearance and obvious murder, he was unconsciously equivocal about the identity of those responsible for the St Paul’s and Elim massacre of missionaries.

The review was headlined New Book lifts the veil slightly on RF war.

I found it disturbing that both authors initially believed that Chitepo was assassinated by Josiah Tongogara, military commander of Zanla forces, but that after they’d read a single book by a couple of Zanu PF special pleaders they changed their minds.

But without any fresh evidence, no new interviews.

The book that made them see the light was The Chitepo Assassination by  David Martin and Phyllis Johnson.

It was published 10 years after Chitepo’s murder by the Zimbabwe Publishing House, which they ran. The book’s English (Martin) and Canadian (Johnson) writers modestly said that the purpose of their work was “laying to rest the spirits that have remained disturbed for a decade.”

I find it hard to take seriously authors who are able of change their minds so easily concerning a subject that remains potentially explosive on the strength of a single book written almost half a century ago.

The first book by Martin and Johnson was called The Struggle for Zimbabwe (Faber & Faber, 1981 pp 378).

It was dedicated to Josiah Tongogara and was, largely, the Zanu/Mugabe interpretation of the Rhodesian War and the issues that caused it.

Their second came out at the same time as a paperback called See You in November was published in South Africa and written by a former White CIO agent who wrote under the name of  Peter Stiff.

His book and his thesis that whites murdered Chitepo bore an uncanny resemblance to the one written by Martin and Johnson.

Now, almost every white journalist I know sings from the same hymn sheet penned  by the “the whites what done it, gov” trio, Martin/Johnson and Stiff.

The historian Professor Terence Range told me during a visit I made to Oxford University several years when he went round Zimbabwe talking to pupils in secondary schools in Manicaland that the first question he was always asked was ‘Who killed Herbert Chitepo?’

When it comes to the death of a man of great status and true value, the matter is far from over. Closure?

Not in a thousands years, to coin a phrase. How I wish Ellert and Anderson had done some homework and taken to heart the view of black Zimbabweans on this subject not the tiresome political correctness of people like Martin/Johnson and Stiff.

Pity Ellert and Anderson made no mention of what Africans said when the Martin Johnson book appeared.

For example, the editorial written by Willie Musaruwa in the Sunday Mail of 24 March 1985.

“There can be no doubt that the recently published book on the tragic death in March 1975 of Herbert Chitepo will be a commercial success for the authors without achieving its stated objective: and that turns the whole thing into a most cynical tragedy.

“The authors claim that their objective was to ‘reveal the truth about a very important part of Zimbabwe’s history, laying to rest the spirits that have remained disturbed for a decade.’

“But precisely because it is indeed a very important and controversial part of our ‘history’, it might both be polite and prudent for foreigners among us to leave the Government and people of Zimbabwe to make such a lofty claim of finality.

“In any case, any information can always be made available to the government and its agencies for verification, analysis and judgment. In as much as we have, at great cost to ourselves, provided a most dignified burial place for our fallen heroes, so must we strive to account properly and respectfully for their deaths.

“On this touchy subject of our heroes, we maintain that it is our own government which has the legitimate right and authority to lay to rest whatever spirits have been disturbed for a decade.

“This is hardly a matter for foreign commercial interests. In the circumstances the present book (TG writes-  the reference is to The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo by David  Martin and Phyllis Johnson) may well succeed in disturbing more spirits than it helps to rest.’’

Ellert and Anderson would also have done themselves some good and helped readers understand more had they made reference to what was being said by prominent African historians, academics and authors at the time of the publication of the Martin/Johnson book.

One of them was Ibbo Mandaza who, under the name of The Scrutator, wrote in The Herald of March 23, 1985  that in his opinion the two authors “have simply cashed in on a political issue that they thereby rendered sensational in a book that will therefore sell very well.”

Concerning some of the book’s sources, he said: “In the absence of an authenticated report, I am afraid the book is likely to fuel more controversy about the Chitepo assassination than has been the case up until now. How dependable is the evidence of an uunamed former Rhodesian CIO source?”

And this is the book that made Ellert and Anderson change their minds about who killed Chitepo.

Did they open, read,  even know about Masipula Sithole’s magnificent book Struggles within the Struggle?

I doubt it, having examined the bibliography.

Nearly every book listed is written by a European.

How little anyone – especially me – knew what was really going on when a bomb exploded under the car of Chitepo’s pale blue VW early on 18 March 1975. Fresh minds with clear voices on this terrible event would have enlivened this book so much. Any effort to dig deeper is absent in this new book.

So, we must thank Marda Fairlie, daughter of the late head of the CIO Ken Flower, who allowed the authors to use her notes from the “archives” that were included in her father’s book Serving Secretly (John Murray, 1987).

But sadly, much of Flower’s unpublished material remains a tightly guarded secret in London and won’t be seen by anyone with an inquisitive mind  about Britain’s role in all this for a long time to come, if ever.

A Brutal State of Affairs isn’t a start-up book for new-comers to the Rhodesia tragedy. But if you’re an African aficionado and curious to hear the stories and learn about the insights of two former SB men who served rebel-Rhodesia for so long and so well, then this is one for you.

*About the book reviewer: Trevor Grundy is an English author and journalist who lived and worked in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa, including in Zimbabwe, from 1966-1996. He worked for various African publications including The Times of Zambia, The Standard (Tanzania), The Nation (Kenya) Drum (London/Nigeria), Argus Africa News Service (South Africa), The Star (South Africa), Financial Mail (South Africa), Time magazine (New York, US), SABC and Beeld (South Arica), Deutsche Welle (Bonn/Berlin), Financial Times (UK), BBC’s – Focus on Africa (UK) and the SABC’s Radio Today (Johannesburg).

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