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Freedom Fighter Exposes Unsung Heroes of Zimbabwe

A former guerilla fighter in Zimbabwe, Vesta Sithole, has written a book to expose what she says is the “truth” about the country’s struggle against white domination. Zimbabwe became independent of Prime Minister Ian Smith’s white Rhodesian government in 1980, and current President Robert Mugabe has received most of the credit for this. But Sithole’s book, entitled ‘My Life with an Unsung Hero – Memoirs of a Zimbabwean Woman Freedom Fighter’ seeks to highlight the role played by her late husband in gaining freedom for Zimbabweans from the white colonialists. In her book, Sithole claims that Mugabe deliberately sidelined Zimbabwean nationalist leader, Ndabaningi Sithole, as the president became increasingly dictatorial. In the final part of his series on new African authors, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on Vesta Sithole’s expose.

In her narrative, Sithole tells how her late husband, Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, created the Zimbabwe African National Union Party (ZANU) in 1963 in opposition to Smith’s administration, but later lost control of it to Robert Mugabe. Her book is largely characterized by rancor for Mugabe – a man she has known for decades since they met in exile in the 1960’s.

“I left my career as a nurse to fight the white supremacists. I was harassed and imprisoned by the Rhodesian forces and later by my own people,” Sithole reflects.

She penned her memoir in her home in Maryland, in the United States, where she now lives in exile – once again, having originally fled Rhodesia in the 1960’s for Tanzania, where she was part of the resistance against white supremacy in her homeland.

“In 1980, we thought that freedom had arrived for all Zimbabweans. But it was Mugabe who ended up persecuting myself and my husband, because he saw as a political threat,” Sithole says.

The Smith administration imprisoned her husband and Mugabe in 1964, and only released them a decade later.

“In my book, I want to tell the world about the thousands of people – including my husband – who fought for freedom for Zimbabwe, but never got any recognition for it. We sacrificed our lives for Zimbabwe – a Zimbabwe that to this day is not free from tyranny. I am not free to return to the Zimbabwe I love. I am regarded by Mugabe as an enemy of the state.”

The love Sithole still has for her husband, who died in 2000, shines through the book. ‘My Life….’ is therefore part political intrigue, part love story, and part lament for the Zimbabwe of today: A country in economic chaos, with the highest inflation rate in the world, mass poverty and the negation of political freedoms that Sithole says she, her husband – and even Mugabe himself – once fought so hard to secure.

“It’s a tragedy,” she says.

Sithole, despite finding herself in exile in America, is in a unique position to comment on Zimbabwe’s past.

In addition to the years she spent in exile helping to accelerate the eventual downfall of the Smith administration, she was present at all the major negotiations between the Rhodesian authorities, the British government and the liberation movements that led to Zimbabwe’s independence.

But her book also describes her impoverished childhood in a township in Rhodesia’s eastern highlands, and her political awakening as a young nurse in Bulawayo, when she began attending meetings held by activists.

After the Rhodesian government banned ZANU, Sithole jumped at the chance to join the movement in exile.

“I left the country in secret. No one knew where I had gone, not even my mother,” she recalls.

In the book, she writes about the “dangerous and uncertain” cross-border journey she was forced to undertake in order to contribute to freedom for her people. A ZANU agent accompanied her on a bus to a post at Rhodesia’s border with Zambia.

“I didn’t know what was going on. I was totally confused. We had no passports. We waited at a fishing village near the border. When night fell, I was taken to the Zambezi River…. Later in the night, we crossed, through little boats. I was scared to death. I couldn’t imagine traveling on that river. I had gone to school, I knew about the Zambezi River. I knew about all the crocodiles and the hippopotamus along that river. It was just frightening!” Sithole exclaims.

“God was with us, and we managed to cross, and as the years would go on I would realize that sometimes it is people you should be afraid of, not animals!” she quips.

Eventually she reached the Zambian capital of Lusaka, where other Zimbabweans were waiting to be transported to guerilla bases in Tanzania.

“We were all packed in like sardines in those trucks. Then we traveled through Zaire. It was such a long journey, the longest and strangest and most painful of my life…. We met different kinds of people. And we didn’t understand any language. For me it was just so strange. I was thinking: If the end comes for me here, no one will ever find my body,” says Sithole.

But the intrepid band of freedom fighters later reached Dar es Salaam.

The book, however, is dominated by reflections on her husband.

“Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole was a freedom fighter, through and through. He believed that people should be free in their homelands, and that no tribe should be made the elite ahead of another.”

Sithole says her husband always seemed a “very soft person” but that when it came to “issues of freedom, he was on the hard line. He is the one who started the armed struggle in our country. He decided to go to China in the early sixties to go and seek weapons of war, for the first time. And he brought those things and he trained young men and women to fight.”

But, according to Sithole, Reverend Ndabaningi always said that the armed struggle against the Smith government had been a “last resort. When it looked like Ian Smith wanted to negotiate, my husband was the first political leader to agree to talks. His philosophy was when two men fight, they must always shake hands afterwards.”

But Robert Mugabe, Sithole claims, was a very different character.

“I met Mugabe in Dar es Salaam for the first time…. The impression has been created that everyone loved Mugabe. But to tell you the truth, many people distrusted him, even back then. He wanted power, and at any cost. He was a ruthless man. He always promoted people from his Shona (ethnic) group ahead of those from the Ndebele group.”

Ironically, says Sithole, it was her husband’s desire to negotiate for peace and to avoid “full on” armed conflict that led to his eventual marginalization.

“(In the late 1970’s), Smith invited him, as ZANU president, to talks. Some people, like Mugabe, then said he was a sell-out when my husband talked with Smith,” she says.

Reverend Sithole was seen by many in Zimbabwe’s liberation movement as having betrayed the cause, when – at Smith’s invitation - he joined a transitional government of whites and blacks in 1979.

But, as far as Sithole’s concerned, her husband completed “all the groundwork” that laid the foundation for an independent Zimbabwe, by “working with Smith and softening the white hardcore in Rhodesia.”

But, once all the hard work had been done, Mugabe, Sithole claims, “usurped this power from Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole and he became the leader of ZANU and after liberation (in 1980) he was the president. But he (Mugabe) didn’t give full recognition to all those people who fought for freedom. He didn’t praise them, he didn’t say anything (about them); it was just as if there he was; he is the one who did it (all). My late husband was the president of this (ZANU) party also, and when he died Mugabe decided that he was not a hero.”

In her book, Sithole slams Mugabe for excluding some Zimbabwean freedom fighters from the Heroes Acre burial ground in Harare.

“Anyone who has gone against Mugabe in any way, is not buried there. There’s no one who is a trade unionist who is laid there. I just felt it was just unfair for him to do that; I should write something and bring up his (Rev. Sithole’s) name plus names of others who have not been mentioned by Mugabe,” Sithole says.

“I want to show everyone, especially Zimbabweans, that Robert Mugabe was not the only fighter in this war.

All the time Zimbabwean history is skewed to make it as if Mugabe was the only man who fought for freedom from white domination, when this isn’t the case!” she maintains, emphatically.

In the 1980’s, says Sithole, Mugabe immediately began targeting his perceived political enemies. Thousands of Ndebeles were massacred in Matabeleland. She says Reverend Sithole was also “on top of Mugabe’s list” and he was “in and out” of prison.

In the 1990’s, the persecution against her husband escalated. Mugabe jailed him for “instigating treason” – a charge Sithole says was “completely false.”

“A lot of things just happened. The government had decided to take our farm, like the way they are taking the (white-owned) farms now. They started during that time by taking our own farm.”

The Sithole’s fled into exile in the US in 2000, when Reverend Sithole died, “forgotten and empty,” of heart failure.

“He had developed heart problems while in prison in Zimbabwe,” says Sithole.

She fears dying in America, like her husband, never having felt the ground of her homeland under her feet once again.

“I am an old woman now. I want to go back to Zimbabwe, to enjoy that beautiful country. I don’t want to die on foreign soil like my husband. I am praying for a leader who understands the people, and gives them the freedom they deserve. I pray for Zimbabwe to once again prosper. It’s a very rich country. If everybody who is outside in the diaspora goes back, it s going to flourish and bloom. But more than anything, what I want to see in my lifetime is dignity for all Zimbabweans.”

But right now, Sithole says, all she has are her memories, contained in a book that’s she’s “happy” to have written - but still finds insufficient.

“It’s not enough, it’s not enough,” she says. “I want to be a Zimbabwean again.”