By Jan Raath
WHEN the 30-year-old James Chikerema addressed onlookers in the rough recreational halls in Salisbury’s townships in 1955, he shocked them not only with his incendiary delivery, but with his use of an expression they had never heard befo
re: one-man, one-vote.
Chikerema was the first of a generation of African revolutionaries to articulate the notion of black majority rule in Rhodesia, and was the catalyst that launched nearly two decades of civil unrest and seven years of guerilla war that ended with the Independence of Zimbabwe in 1980.
Uniquely, he lacked the blinding ambition for absolute leadership that has littered post-colonial Africa with failed states controlled by unbalanced, violent despots — including his cousin, President Robert Mugabe.
Chikerema was committed to “the struggle” and had a rare willingness to play second fiddle to political leaders he believed were more able than he.
To whites, he was a dangerous, offensive, inflammatory, rabble-rouser. His surname means “scoundrel” in Shona.
The rangy, bearded, pipe-smoking trouble-maker with a jackal-pelt cap that he made an emblem of the black nationalist movement (which the Rhodesian government banned), inspired black Rhodesians with his abusive effrontery to white administrators.
James Robert Dambaza Chikerema was born on April 2, 1925, at Kutama Mission where his father taught at the school under the severity of the Catholic Marist Brothers.
He and Robert Mugabe, to whom, in Shona tradition, Chikerema was a maternal uncle, were fellow students. They herded the family’s cattle together, but James had little in common with his aloof and withdrawn relative.
After completing primary school at Kutama, he was sent to St Francis College at Mariannhill in Natal where the precocious Chikerema quickly absorbed the political atmosphere of the upper forms and was an adherent of the African National Congress.
He came into contact with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other established ANC activists, whose focus was on the agitations of Kwame Nkrumah in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya.
In 1955, Chikerema and his friends founded the City Youth League in Salisbury at a meeting in the Mai Musodzi hall in Harare township, and launched themselves on to the quiescent townships.
They clamoured for universal suffrage and fulminated against the white man’s laws.
A year later the Youth League was formalised with Chikerema as its president.
“Do not go on the backs of Europeans like babies,” he said at the inaugural meeting.
They raised their campaign with protests and civil disobedience, particularly against the Land Husbandry Act which they believed would force Africans out of their traditional rural homes.
Later in the year, authorities raised bus fares in Salisbury by two pence. Chikerema organised a bus boycott and on September 17 complacent white Rhodesia found itself staring at the first violent uprising among its African population in 55 years.
Troops and reservists were called out to squash the commotion. The governor declared a state of emergency. But radical black nationalism had slapped the face of white authority and shown its efficacy. The bus fare increase was dropped.
Chikerema realised the impetus of support was enough now to carry the campaign out of Salisbury and across the country, but did not believe he had the prestige and dignity for a national leader.
After a few failed approaches, they found Joshua Nkomo, a social welfare officer in the railways.
They deliberately chose September 12 in 1957 for the launch in Salisbury of the new Southern Rhodesian African National Congress, because it was Pioneer Day, commemorating the arrival of the first settlers in 1890. Nkomo, an Ndebele, was president, and Chikerema his deputy.
Their manifesto was simply to secure the swift transfer of power to the African majority.
They swept into Rhodesia’s countryside, urging people to flout the law, and organised boycotts and worked to undermine the authority of white native commissioners who controlled the tribal areas.
Chikerema was accused of slandering the Minister of Native Affairs, Patrick Fletcher, by calling him “a thief”.
Chikerema’s claim that he had said “chief” was not accepted by the magistrate who fined him the immense sum of £100.
The unrest stirred up by Nkomo and Chikerema in 1959 brought another state of emergency, from prime minister Edgar Whitehead.
Chikerema was among the first victims of new repressive laws of detention without trial. He was first detained at Khami prison in Bulawayo and then restricted to the district of Gokwe in the remote north of Rhodesia for a total of four years.
He was released in 1963 to find the ANC had been banned, as had its two successors, Zanu and Zapu, now bitter rivals.
Anarchy hitherto unseen in Rhodesia erupted, mostly in Salisbury’s townships as the two factions went to war with firebombs, stones, knobkerries (African cudgels) and spears.
In 1964 the government of Winston Field took unprecedented action by rounding up almost the entire ranking membership of the African nationalist movement, running into thousands and including Nkomo and Mugabe, and put them away in prisons and remote restriction camps.
Chikerema and a few others were able to flee and Rhodesia’s townships were relatively calm for the next 10 years.
Chikerema remained loyal to Nkomo.
He set up a Zapu headquarters-in-exile in Dar es Salaam but before long had roused the ire of Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere when he promised in 1965 “a reign of terror” against whites in Rhodesia if the new government of prime minister Ian Smith carried out its threat to declare independence unilaterally.
Nyerere said it was “absurd” of Chikerema to expect he could run a war in Rhodesia from Dar es Salaam.
By 1971 Chikerema’s unconventional way of doing things had lost him his influence in the exiled Zapu leadership.
With a few other disaffected black nationalists he founded the Front for the Liberation of Zimbabwe (Frolizi) to unite the guerillas of Zapu and Zanu into a single army.
That too failed.
He attended the first talks between Smith and senior representatives of all the black nationalist groups in the spectacular setting of the Victoria Falls bridge, seated in the South African president’s official White Train.
Chikerema took pleasure in relating afterwards how most of the nationalists — many of whom had just emerged from a decade in austere custody — raided the amply-stocked bar, got legless and returned to the Zambian side of the bridge with scores of bottles of expensive imported liquor.
His hopes for a military role finally evaporated in 1975 when the men in the largest guerilla camp, in Mgagao in Tanzania, signed a document of no confidence in him, and declared their loyalty to Mugabe.
He returned to Rhodesia and joined the “internal settlement” between Smith and Bishop Abel Muzorewa that in 1979 won him a cabinet post in Muzorewa’s 10-month rule.
He all but disappeared from the political scene after Independence in 1980, working for Lonrho, making one last, unsuccessful stab in an election in 1995 for the shortlived Forum Party, and spent the rest of his time as something of a gentleman farmer on a property he bought near his home at Kutama.
Shortly after Mugabe in 2000 mounted his lawless seizure of white-owned land, he also had Chikerema’s listed for seizure. “It’s a punishment,” said Chikerema, “because I stood against him and have never been a member of his party.”
The punishment continued after his death. Mugabe, mean-spirited to the core, refused to accord Chikerema, the spark that ignited the 25-year struggle for emanicipation, a burial at Heroes Acre, the shrine outside Harare meant to be reserved for “heroes of the struggle”.
In fact, it has long been established as a repository for Mugabe’s party hacks, and Chikerema knew this well.
“I do not want to be buried among thieves and murderers,” he often told friends. He leaves his wife, Philda, and seven children.
Jan Raath is The Times correspondent.
By Jan Raath