African Nationalism by Ndabaningi Sithole


Ndabaningi Sithole Portrait

Ndabaningi Sithole Portrait

Reproduced for this project with kind permission of the Freedom Farm Trust

Often when people learn that Ndabaningi Sithole, the Zimbabwean nationalist and founder of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), was a writer they’re surprised.

His books have never been easily available or accessible, yet he is a pioneering figure of Zimbabwe’s literary history.

His book, African Nationalism, first published by Oxford University Press in 1959, was one of the first autobiographies by a black Zimbabwean of his generation. In many of his writings, Sithole reflected on the many issues he was preoccupied with as a political leader.  Though he could not read or write until he was fifteen years old, he recounted an episode in his life that made him decide to pursue education:

In 1935 I received a letter from a cousin of mine, London Sithole, who was five years my junior. The letter had been written in English. Although I had continued my schooling by attending night school, I had not progressed beyond the Sub B grade. I could not read the letter; my pride was deeply injured. ‘l can't read what a young boy writes!’  I cried in sheer [embarrassment]. The thought of being surpassed by someone five years younger than I was, was unbearable. It stung my soul, and for weeks as we say in Ndebele, ‘it ate me from inside’. 

Ndabaningi Sithole zimbabwean writer and leading nationalist embraces a crowd

Ndabaningi Sithole a pioneering Zimbabwean writer and leading African Nationalist

Reproduced with kind permission of the Freedom Farm Trust

The fire that lit up the young Sithole’s imagination stayed with him forever. His narrative voice is striking, balancing the raw observations and adventures of boyhood against the gentle archly nostalgic way he reports the colonial experience, like the arrival of the car in the colonies. He is a witness of transition from tradition to modernity. Between 1959 and 1963, Sithole wrote the first Zimbabwean English novel ‘to be published in any format’ according to Dr Rino Zhuwarara. The novel Busi, still unpublished to this day, was serialised for three years in African Parade magazine. The story about a child who runs away from his family to join a mission school was based on his life experiences. The interest in writing as a form of self-archiving became a political project to which Sithole was wholeheartedly dedicated. In large part owing to the success of African Nationalism, Sithole was also probably the most translated Zimbabwean author of his time with his book translated into more than a dozen languages including Arabic, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Swedish, and others. Despite this success, Sithole was not read as a writer but as a politician. 

Much later, as the leading nationalist in Rhodesia, he was detained for long periods without trial and he used the isolation of prison to write himself into African history, but also to conceptualise alternative worlds. For Sithole, politics needed to have a literary quality. He had a high regard for language which he believed was an instrument for tearing people out of their ordinary perceptions and forcing them to see and feel. He knew that history does not only exist except as it is composed. Sithole wrote as a teacher, his books are didactic, with the mission to educate. It is ironical that most of his books remain unavailable in Zimbabwean libraries and bookshops as they have been long out of print but were also considered dangerous contraband in Rhodesia where they were officially banned.

All Sithole’s books, fiction and nonfiction are about everyday heroes: a village farmer he met in prison, a Mozambican bodyguard who was assigned to protect him by his friend Samora Machel, a polygamous man and his wives, the poor and downtrodden. Sithole’s writings mostly originated from conversations with fellow political detainees, his bodyguards, and his friends. This is the hallmark of Sithole’s written archive: it is an archive formed from oral histories.

—Tinashe Mushakavanhu


Finding my way

This excerpt comes from Chapter 1 of African Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 1959), and is reproduced with kind permission of Freedom Farm Trust, which manages the Estate of Ndabaningi Sithole.


My father, Jim Sithole, at the age of 18, left Gazaland, his home district, to seek adventure and fortune in Umtali. He was only four months in Umtali when he decided to leave for Salisbury, where he worked as a ‘kitchen boy’ for two years. It was in Salisbury that he acquired a smattering of English and Afrikaans, which he could neither write nor read, just as he was unable to read or write any of the existing vernaculars of Southern Rhodesia. Allured by fortune stories told to him by his home boys who worked in Gwelo, he left Salisbury and found work with the Grand Hotel, Gwelo. Still spurred on by his love of adventure and fortune, he resigned his post and went to work in Bulawayo.

One fine morning as he was running an errand, an intelligent­-looking country girl drew his attention. He halted, as he always said, “to admire the killing beauty of this girl”. But however, the urgency of the errand demanded that he go on without stopping. He stood torn between his master's orders and his heart's desire. He soon forgot all about the errand and one and a half hours silently passed by unnoticed. He took all the particulars of this girl—her name Siyapi Tshuma, her home district Nyamandlovu. The girl was pleased that she had favourably impressed someone as handsome as my father.

Five visits to Nyamandlovu during weekends soon rewarded my father’s efforts. Six months after the engagement my father was married to Siyapi Tshuma according to native rites. On 21 July 1920, I was born to my father and mother—Siyapi Tshuma. I had a low mud-and-pole hut with a dirt floor for a maternity clinic, bits of old skins for my mattress, a reed mat for my bed, a goat's skin for my blanket, and a folded buckskin for my pillow. On the same day that I arrived I was made to inhale the smoke from a burning goat's horn so that no evil would befall me. This smoking process was continued for three weeks and after that I was considered immune from all the evil intentions of our neighbours.

I grew up to the age of seven playing hide-and-seek and making clay oxen. At night we gathered round granny to hear her tell us the wonderful stories of old. Granny was a thrilling story­ teller, and it was not easy to forget her stories-so vivid, so appealing, so hair-raising, and told with such animation. She could tell a story, then introduce some singing, then continue the story and even dance the story if it had some dancing in it. We could join the singing and dancing.  ‘Behave yourself, or no story from granny’ became a real warning that made us behave ourselves.

From the age seven onwards my life was spent among bellowing bulls, lowing oxen, bleating sheep and goats, and baaing lambs. Herding was one of those irksome drudgeries. Like all other boys I disliked it. I envied men because they had done their stint. I longed to grow into a man quickly and be done with it.

There were many difficulties incidental to herding. Hunger was the commonest hardship. We had breakfast at about ten in the morning. Then we drove the cattle to the pasture, usually between five and ten miles away from home. Except for the wild fruit when in season, we did not have anything to eat until late in the evening. We made many silent prayers that the sun should set quickly so that we might return home to fill our bellies. We were not allowed to bring the cattle home before sunset. The next trouble came from the senior boys. They were the bosses and we, juniors, did all the hard work of herding. They gave orders and we carried them out. We were forbidden on pain of severe thrashing to disclose to people at home any unsavoury happening of the forest, which usually included senior boys' bullyism, cruelty and garden-raiding.

I remember one day when Zenzo, our senior boy, warned us, ‘Don't tell anybody at home that we have taken watermelons from Menzelwa's garden’. We all promised not to. As we sat round the fire with some of our elders, I proudly remarked to Zenzo, ‘You thought we were going to tell the old people that we took some watermelons. You see, I haven't.’ Poor me!

I learned the lesson the hard way. The next day every boy gave me some whipping on the legs saying, 'We don't say such things at home'. I pleaded, 'I will never do it again'.

One day as we were herding cattle, we saw a very strange thing. We thought it was a hut, but then it was moving very fast. In great fear we dashed into the forest nearby, but curiosity checked our fear. We halted, and with panting hearts we carefully hid ourselves behind the bushes and made our observations from there. The strange moving hut then pulled up. 'It has seen us!' we cried in a chorus and rushed into the depths of the forest for dear life. Coming out through the other side of the forest we ran home as fast as our legs could carry us. Fearfully we reported the incident, and those who had been to Bulawayo and who had seen motorcars nearly split their sides with laughter!

Like most children of our district, I had amabetshu– cow skin aprons, one covering the back and the other the front. These amabetshu were tied round the waist so that they looked more like two rough triangular patches than clothing. The whole trunk remained bare. On cold days an old sack was used as a raincoat, by the simple method of pushing in one corner against the opposite corner so that the two corners stuck out at one point forming a kind of hood for my head. Round my neck was an intebe – talisman, supposed to protect me from the evil spirits believed to dwell in the big dark forests of Nyamandlovu. Round my waist was yet another intebe supposed to protect me from the evil intentions of our neighbours. These articles constituted the entire stock of my clothing. 


Some themes and questions to consider 

  • As Professor Ali A Mazrui once put it, ‘it was open to nationalists to treat the English language as a necessary evil or a temporary expedient.’

    While Sithole recognised English as the language of politics and influence, he was also committed to his mother tongue, isiNdebele. His novel, AmaNdebele kaMzilikazi was the first Ndebele novel to be published by a Zimbabwean writer with Longmans, Green and Co. The book was subsequently republished as Umvukela wamaNdebele by the newly established Rhodesia Literature Bureau. 

    What is the language of remembering the colonial past?

Full Text

The full text of African Nationalism (1959) is available via Internet Archive. A free account will allow readers to borrow the full e-text for a timed loan.

Also available here are two of Sithole's other works, Umvukela wamaNdebele (1957), and The Polygamist (1972).

‘Ndabaningi Sithole: Zimbabwe’s forgotten intellectual and leader'

An article on The Conversation about Ndabaningi Sithole as a politician and writer, written by Tinashe Mushakavanhu.

Writers and Resistance in Zimbabwe

An article by Gibson Ncube for The Conversation about Zimbabwe's writers and the place of literature in political resistance.

An Introduction to 7 classic Zimbabwean novels

An article for Electric Lit by writer Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, introducing other important books by Zimbabweans

An Introduction to Zimbabwean Literature

A text published by Rino Zhuwarara in 2003 (Harare College Press) accessible via Internet Archive. 

An excerpt from African nationalist leaders in Zimbabwe: Who’s who?

A selected profile of Ndabaningi Sithole from Diana Mitchell's text, African Nationalist Leaders (1980)

After The Drought and Hunger (film)

A shortened version of ‘After the Hunger and Drought’, directed by Olley Maruma (1985) with Zimbabwean writers.

Race and Resistance across Borders

This TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) research network and its blog facilitates conversations about race, racism, resistance, and liberation within Oxford and beyond. 

About the Contributor

Tinashe Mushakavanhu is a Junior Research Fellow in African & Comparative Literature with the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation (OCCT), St Anne’s College. He edited the first major biographical book on Ndabaningi Sithole published by the Human Sciences Research Council press in South Africa in their series focusing on Pan African intellectual figures, Voices of Liberation. Other figures featured include Franz Fanon, Albert Luthuli, Ruth First, Wangai Maathai, Steve Biko, Archie Mafeje, Fatima Meer. Mushakavanhu’s current investment has been tracking and tracing literary archives about southern African writers and this work manifests as books, exhibitions and public events. His forthcoming book is A Brief History of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. Mushakavanhu’s new monograph in progress, Oxford, Black Oxford, borrows its title from Dambudzo Marechera’s short story and maps five African writers who passed through Oxford as students but ended up being known for their contributions to twentieth-century African literary culture.