Remembering nationalist hero Dr Edson Sithole who never returned
Sifelani Tsiko, Agriculture, Environment and Innovations Editor
When Zimbabwe gained its independence in April 1980, Mbuya Chiwoniso Sithole and her husband Sekuru Chisingaitwi Sithole had high hopes that they would see their son — Dr Edson Sithole — who was abducted together with his secretary Miriam Mhlanga by Rhodesian state security agents on October 15, 1975.
The return of freedom fighters and the wild celebrations that marked the birth of Zimbabwe, created hope for the parents of the nationalist hero.
Edson Sithole Jnr, the only surviving son of the veteran nationalist who disappeared nearly five decades ago, recalls his grandparents’ misery and pain.
“I was only three months old when my father was abducted and having been born and initially raised in Lower Gweru, I only became aware of his physical absence in my life in 1980 at independence when I met the Sithole family in Southerton, Harare,” said Sithole Jnr in an interview.
“I was staying in Glen View with my late mum and my father’s youngest brother John Muriwo Sithole brought my maternal grandmother MaNcube and I to meet my father’s parents. My mother was not feeling well then so she didn’t join us.
“It was on Independence eve in 1980 and Sekuru Chisingaitwi and Mbuya Chiwoniso Sithole had come to Harare, then Salisbury, with the expectation that their son, Furatidzayi, (Dr Edison Sithole) would be among those freedom fighters to be released from colonial Rhodesian detention centres and prisons around the country.”
Sithole Jnr said his grandparents were so buoyant that they would reunite with their son.
“I remember Mbuya Chiwoniso kept pacing around the living room restlessly with her hands on her back sobbing continuously. She was not convinced that she would see her son again. I was so young then and didn’t know what to make of the situation.
“Mbuya would look at me and as if talking to my father, she would curse him for walking away from his young son’s life . . . it was such an emotional encounter. Relatives in the house would restrain her, while simultaneously warning her that I was too young to understand what was going on. They all said she should stop being too emotional,” he said.
Sithole Jnr had little or no childhood memories of his father. He thought reuniting with the Sithole family would bring the most exciting news that every child with a father who had been away for a long time was always waiting to hear – “Father is coming home. Today!”
“I must have been visibly unsettled all the while. To ease the tension Babamunini John would take me outside to join the celebrating crowds in the neighbourhood as we listened to the quite distant Bob Marley sound system from the neighbouring Mbare’s Rufaro Stadium,” recalls Sithole Jnr
“The small crowds were quite jubilant and as we tagged along with my uncle, I had no idea of what exactly was the occasion and all this changed when we returned indoors. Within the house people would continue with their conversations but it was not easy for me to keep my eyes off Mbuya Chiwoniso, watching if she would come again and try to talk to me. I could speak both Shona and Ndebele at the time but ChiNdau was totally new to me and I could hardly grasp most of what Mbuya was saying.
“It was that evening that I actually became aware that I was also Furatidzayi and had inherited my father’s names. At that time, I had no idea of what all that signified or why everyone was making a big deal out of my presence in the house.
“We slept in the early hours of the morning and I remember that Gogo MaNcube and I were escorted to another house where we put up for the night. I was later told that the house was later to be occupied by the late Professor Aaron Mutiti, my father’s friend, who was to play a critical role in my life.”
His father never returned. While other families were rejoicing the return of their sons and daughters from the bush, Independence Day was an anti-climax for the Sithole family.
Dr Edson Sithole was eventually declared dead when Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980.
And as Zimbabwe celebrates its 43rd independence anniversary, the memory of Dr Sithole, one of the finest legal minds in the history of Africa is back in the public limelight.
“Dr Edson Sithole is remembered more as the firebrand Zimbabwean nationalist politician who mysteriously disappeared during the liberation struggle. It’s his disappearance 48 years ago that has gained prominence over everything else he represented and stood for in life, particularly, as the freedom fighter that he was,” said Sithole Jnr detailing his thoughts on the life of his late father.
“As we celebrate our independence, let’s remember that it all started as an idea. The idea that it was not enough to demand that the colonial master should rule us fairly but that there was, in fact, a compelling demand to rule ourselves as black people.
“And this was almost two years before Ghana gained independence! That’s what distinguished the African National Youth League from all other earlier African political organisations in then Rhodesia when it was launched at Chaminuka Square in Mbare in August 1955 (Dr Sithole was 20yrs old then). It was also known as the City Youth League and it is the idea of self-rule, or the concept of self-determination that established the ANYL as the first recognised African political party in the history of Zimbabwe.” Dr Edson Sithole was born on 5 June 1935 in the Eastern Districts of the then Rhodesia.
His parents were peasant farmers.
He struggled to get education in Bikita, Tanganda and in Salisbury, first working on a tea estate in the eastern Highlands under harsh conditions to pay for his schooling. The road to his education and professional career was never easy. It was full of hardship, struggle and resilience.
He soon became interested in politics and took part in the campaign mounted in 1951 and 1952 against the proposed Central African Federation.
Analysts say there was no active nationalist party at that time in Mashonaland and he campaigned as a member of the Nyasaland African National Congress.
In 1952, Dr Sithole joined an African newspaper concern as a news vendor at a wage of $8,75 per month – “the highest I had ever earned”. After a year he was promoted to the post of clerk.
During this period, he continued his private studies, passing the Junior Certificate in 1954 and the General Certificate of Education A-level in 1957. The absence in Mashonaland of any proper African political party is said to have worried him since the days of the anti-Federation campaign, and in 1955 he assisted Dunduza Chisiza, Henry Hamadziripi, George Nyandoro, James Chikerema and Thomson Gonese to found the ANYL.
He held various political positions in the early nationalist movements – ANYL Harare Branch in 1957. This Salisbury branch became the most powerful organ of the African National Congress as black consciousness rose rapidly.
He returned to Salisbury (Harare) in 1957 and took up the post of Secretary of the Harare Branch of the ANYL.
When the old ANCongress was dissolved, Edson Sithole became Secretary of the same branch in the re-formed organisation. Because of the size and position of Harare, this branch became the most powerful organ of the ANCongress, and Sithole’s significance within the movement increased rapidly.
The ANYL gained national prominence following the successful staging of the 1956 bus boycott in protest against a rise in fares in Rhodesian cities. The following year on 12 September 1957 the party merged with the Bulawayo-based ANC and adopted the latter’s name and continued under the new leadership of Cde Joshua Nkomo.
The Rhodesian regime outlawed the party in 1959 and detained its leadership but at this stage there was no more turning back on the journey to Zimbabwe’s self-determination. “In essence, it is important to understand and appreciate our past as a people so that we are better prepared to handle the present as we focus on the future, initially as Zimbabweans and collectively as Africans,” said Sithole Jnr.
In June 1961 he was taken, with 14 others, and sent to the remote restriction area in the Gokwe District.
Here he remained until his release in July 1962. While in prison, Dr Sithole studied for the LL.B. degree of the University of London, completing Part II of the Final Examination in June 1962. On his release he studied for the Rhodesian Bar examination which he passed in April 1963. On 4 July, he was admitted to the Rhodesian Bar, being the second African (the first being Herbert Chitepo) to be so admitted.
It’s never easy to capture the full history of Dr Sithole, but perhaps what is more important is that he was part of the early crop of African nationalists who spearheaded Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence.
A cenotaph monument was installed at the National Heroes Acre in his memory in 1999.
In 2015, the University of South Africa (Unisa) honoured Dr Edson Furatidzayi Chisingaitwi Sithole for being the first black person in the entire southern and central African region to obtain a Doctor of Laws (LLD) degree from the institution of higher learning in 1974. He was 39 years of age when he obtained his doctorate.
Dr Sithole was honoured together with Professor Digby Sqhelo Koyana, a South African and second black LLD graduate from Unisa in 1989 at the campus.
He was the first black person in the then Rhodesia to hold such a qualification — whites included — and one of the founding fathers of the liberation struggle against white minority rule. Unisa council chairman Dr Matthews Phosa presented Edson Sithole Junior, son of the veteran nationalist, with the two-volume bound copies of his father’s LLD thesis. The thesis was titled: “A Comparative Study of the Republican Constitutions of Zambia and Malawi.”
“It was very humbling for my father to be honoured by such an esteemed institution of higher learning,” Sithole Jnr recalled. I felt a deep sense of contentment that for once my great father Dr Edson Sithole’s legacy would not be reduced to that Zimbabwean fire brand nationalist who suddenly vanished from the streets of colonial Salisbury. His place in history as a leading academic has been befittingly restored notwithstanding that it is 40 years since his abduction by the racist Smith regime.”
Edson Sithole Jnr worked as a Deputy Head of Mission and Head of Chancery in Accra, Ghana from 2017 to 2022. He is now back at head office until further reassignment.
“I want to be able to fulfil my father’s vision for Zimbabwe and the African continent to achieve a united and prosperous Africa in the shortest time possible. A Zimbabwe capable of playing a central role in delivering a united and prosperous Africa,” said Sithole Jnr.
His grandmother died in 1989, his grandfather in 1990 and his mother in February 2015. Throughout his lifetime, Dr Sithole devoted his time and energy to changing the ugly features of Rhodesia fighting against colonial injustices and the exploitation of man by man.
“My father has not returned ever since he disappeared in 1975 and on the occasion of the 43rd anniversary of Zimbabwe’s independence, let us all resolve, especially those of us who believe in the ideals he stood for, to unite and work together, to ensure that Dr Edson Sithole Snr and all those who fought for African freedom never died in vain,” Sithole Jnr said.