The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo: Text and Politics in Zimbabwe

By Limb, Peter | African Studies Review, September 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo: Text and Politics in Zimbabwe


Limb, Peter, African Studies Review


HISTORY Luise White. The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo: Text and Politics in Zimbabwe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press/Cape Town: Double Storey, 2003. xiii + 139 pp. Endnotes. Bibliography. Index. $39.95. Cloth. $15.95. Paper.

Africa has had too many assassinations, but none is more enigmatic than the one that is the focus of this book. In 1975, the ZANU leader Herbert Chitepo was assassinated by a car bomb in Zambia. In The Chitepo Assassination (Zimbabwe, 1985) David Martin and Phyllis Johnson explored the circumstances of and motives behind the killing. Dissatisfied both with this somewhat sanitized version and with the ambiguous Report of the Special International Commission (1976) commissioned by Kenneth Kaunda, Luise White has written a far more nuanced and complex account, not only of the motives but also of the myths surrounding the murder and their lingering presence in Zimbabwean politics.

The book comprises six short but intense chapters. The first outlines the events and their significance, briefly touching on wider writings on assassination. Later chapters detail the politics, engage with other accounts, analyze claims of "ethnic" and Rhodesian plots, explain the affair's continuing significance, and muse over the conundrum that there have been at least four very different confessions to the murder. The multiplicity of confessions is a puzzle worth pondering. Did Rhodesians or ZANU opponents kill Chitepo? White does not tell us "whodunit" but presents plenty of material for readers to make up their own minds. This book is more about the construction and power of narrative and how nationalist myths emerge than about the "truth" of an historical event. In this regard, it resembles the author's recent book on rumor in Zimbabwe, Speaking with Vampires (Berkeley, 2000). Here, however, she speaks not with vampires but with a similarly diverse collection of informants debating similarly bloody events.

White's archival sources far outnumber those used by the more partisan Martin and Johnson, and she includes new material such as Chitepo's correspondence and Rhodesian Army Association Trust Papers. Her other main source is a "mysterious" body of conversations with anonymous informants, referred to as "field notes." This anonymity may frustrate historians eager to weigh the evidence, but it enhances the safety of those sources: In 2000-2001, opposition MDC parliamentarians received death threats after calling for an enquiry into Chitepo's death.

The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo unpacks the inconsistencies in accounts of the murder. Martin and Johnson, White argues, relied on interviews influenced by traveling "texts" of the rumor mill (22). The Zambian Commission report blamed "ethnic" infighting but has serious flaws.

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