Although rarely mentioned in any college courses on Africa, the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole is literally the father of African Nationalism, the title of a book that he wrote in 1959 for the Oxford University Press. On July 20, he would have celebrated his 84th birthday.
In African Nationalism, Sithole wrote: “If the African can continue to hate communism with all his heart, and soul, and might, just as he does European imperialism, so much to the good, because to prefer one brand of imperialism to another is the very height of folly and a fatal miscalculation.”
He wrote this book before Marxist dictators overtook the continent, replacing European colonial governments. Sithole started the political party now in power in his native Zimbabwe.
“Africa can derive no more and no less benefit from communism than from European imperialism,” Sithole wrote in African Nationalism. “Her real welfare does not lie in preferring one or the other, but in rejecting both, since under one or the other she will continue to occupy a secondary position and suffer the indignities that go with such a position.”
At the time that he wrote African Nationalism, Sithole was an ordained minister and a schoolteacher. Soon after the publication of the book, Sithole formed the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), the political party now headed by Robert Mugabe, a political enemy of Sithole.
Mugabe, who has been chasing white farmers out of Zimbabwe since the new millennium began, took over ZANU about 30 years ago and has been president of the country for a quarter century. Mugabe’s party is now known as ZANU-PF: the last two initials in the acronym stand for Patriotic Front.
Although Mugabe has been reelected repeatedly, none of the elections he has won can pass muster with any human rights observers. Sithole himself never ran against Mugabe without putting his life at risk. He dodged bullets from AK-47s fired at him in the middle of campaign appearances.
Although Sithole made a bad career move by giving Mugabe his start in politics, he ended up running against him for the country’s highest office. Eventually, Sithole was jailed for his political activity, once by Mugabe and once by Ian Smith, the last white prime minister of Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia. Sithole spent the 1980s in exile in the United States. In a speech to Zimbabwe’s National Assembly, Mugabe called this exile “self-imposed” but then said Sithole’s political opposition was “illegal.”
When the Soviet Union, on whose support Mugabe depended, collapsed, Sithole returned to Zimbabwe. He won election to Parliament but was forced out of his seat by the government through a campaign of trumped-up charges and intimidation. The state-run newspaper reported at the time of his return home that he “faces charges of trying to overthrow the government if he returns.”
Sithole believed in “radical ideas” that unnerved the Mugabe government, namely, free elections and free markets. Sithole’s commitment to both was more than theoretical. As noted before, he ran for office repeatedly despite unending threats to his life.
He also used his savings to buy Churu farm near Harrare, the capital of Zimbabwe, on which he hired thousands of unemployed homeless men as tenant farmers, transforming them into working homeowners. Through this initiative, Sithole gave the capital, where the government admits to a 50 percent unemployment rate, virtually the only free enterprise that city has known in the Mugabe years and, not coincidentally, the only economic growth it has enjoyed.
Unfortunately, using a law that allowed the government to seize “underutilized land,” the Mugabe government took possession of Sithole’s farm and evicted the tenants. The law, by Mugabe’s own admission, was designed to take the farms of white farmers and redistribute them to poor blacks. It was not designed to take land from poor blacks like Sithole’s tenants.
The government sent 300 policemen armed with AK-47s to evict the Sithole tenants, giving them two hours to move, reported the Catholic Commission for Peace and Justice in Zimbabwe (CCPJZ). Members of the CCPJZ also were arrested, detained and assaulted periodically by ZANU-PF authorities and their cadres, according to State Department Country Reports.
“These families had invested approximately $2 million Zimbabwean in the building of their houses and, having previously been homeless, were now proud homeowners,” the CCPJZ reported. “At a time when the government’s efforts to provide housing for its people were not equal to the challenge, how could it have seen fit to allow existing homes to be destroyed and to add another 4,000 families to its already long list of people needing housing?” How, indeed.
One of Mugabe’s ministers gave an answer, of sorts. “Let the Churu Farm settlers join the ranks of their homeless colleagues on the streets and we will deal with them from there,” said Joseph Msika, Mugabe’s senior minister of local government and rural and urban development, at a press conference.
Sithole spent most of the last decade of his life in court fighting not only eviction but a trumped-up assassination charge the Mugabe government had leveled against him. He came back to the United States in the fall of 2000 to seek medical care but died here in December of that year in Philadelphia, Pa.
A true freedom fighter, Sithole drew on his experiences to write other books such as Hammer and Sickle Over Africa and The Secret of American Success: Africa’s Great Hope. These are books that he was uniquely qualified to write.
Sithole encountered a host of communist rulers ranging from China’s Mao Tse Tung to Ethiopia’s Haile Mengistu. The latter, who did not flinch at using food as a political weapon and contributing to Ethiopia’s famine, is currently hiding from his countrymen as Mugabe’s guest in a country that, in turn, is at risk of starvation.
Sithole’s encounters with these dictators ranged from brief visits with Chairman Mao to more extensive meetings with Ethiopia’s deposed Marxist dictator. “Mengistu once told me, ‘Anyone who gets in our way, we kill,'” Sithole remembered.
Unlike many of today’s teachers of African studies, but like many actual Africans, Sithole appreciated the United States. His books should be required texts in every African studies course, but with such politically incorrect titles, don’t bet that they will be any time soon.