Cephas Msipa: Zimbabwe’s reluctant hero

Posted: 9 October, 2019 | Category: Obituaries

The African schoolteacher who became one of the most senior freedom fighters in Zimbabwe. Born: Zvishavane (formerly Shabani) on 7 July 1932: Died in Harare (formerly Salisbury) on 17 October 2016.


Cephas Msipa, the mild-mannered primary school teacher who left the classroom to help a generation of freedom fighters turn white-ruled Rhodesia into black-led Zimbabwe in 1980, has died in Harare at the age of 85 after a short battle with pneumonia and a long fight with liver disease. Apart from his impeccable revolutionary credentials, his other claim to fame is he is the only senior politician to have criticised Robert Mugabe to his face and lived a normal life to tell his story.

At his State Funeral on Saturday 22 October, the frail President of Zimbabwe said: “He was a man of his own mind, a mind driven by the principles of the party he was in at the time.”

With a smile on his face, the 92-year old de facto president life said -: “He even dared tell his President what he should do.”

How did Msipa get away with it? Africa’s hard for outsiders to understand family system, appears to be the answer.

Robert Mugabe and Cephas Msipa were close friends in the early 1960s during the early days of the struggle against European rule in Southern Rhodesia. Because of family connections, Mugabe called Msipa “Sekuru” (‘uncle’ in Shona). Msipa called the older Mugabe “muzukuru (‘sister’s child’).

They first met when in 1960 after Mugabe returned home from Ghana where he taught at a secondary school and married Sally (nee Heyfron), a leading family in Accra.

Funeral rites over, local newspaper editors praised Mugabe for acting out of character and tolerating a man who had advised him to step down from power.

Many were surprised but not Pius Wakatama, a respected journalist, freedom fighter and leading figure in the human rights organization. He was in London when his lifelong friend died. He told “The Times” – “Cephas criticized Mugabe to his face and lived to tell the story. Yes. But did Mugabe listen? No! Msipa didn’t want a state funeral and never hoped to become a National Hero. He wanted to be buried at a graveyard in Gweru next to Charlotte, his wife of 53 years, who died in 2013. Mugabe over-ruled the family’s wishes. Mugabe wants people to see him now as a man who tolerates criticism, even from a former political opponent, the universally respected Cephas Msipa.”

Msipa was born at Zvishavane (formerly Shabani) on 7 July, 1931, the youngest of ten children (seven boys, three girls). His parents were poor rural farmers. Cephas studied by candlelight and was given a place at the now famous Dadaya Mission School then run by two New Zealand missionaries representing the Church of Christ, Garfield (later Sir Garfield) and (Lady) Grace Todd.

“My father always liked Cephas who went on to become Chairman of the Board of Governors at Dadaya Mission,” said Judith, their daughter who lives in Bulawayo.

In his 2015 memoir “In Pursuit of Freedom and Justice“ (Weaver Press, Zimbabwe) Msipa told how much he respected the Todds. “I grew up thinking that all men are equal, regardless of colour. I found that things were completely different in the real world. I discovered that the colour of my skin determined what I could do and what I could not do.”

Msika qualified as a primary school teacher in 1953. He went on to lead the Rhodesia Teachers’ Association, an umbrella body which included the well-educated sons and daughters of peasants who could neither read nor write. G

In 1955, travelling salesmen came to his school at Que Que.

One of them was a big charismatic and self- confident young man named Joshua Nkomo, who was selling the Encyclopedia Britannica. “I bought ten of them, “said Msipa. “Little did I know that three years later, Nkomo would be back with a new role and clear mission – as politician and president of the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress (SRANC). I quickly established myself as the spokesman of the African people of Que Que.”

In 1959 there was a clamp-down on black nationalists throughout the Central African Federation (CAF), that linked the two Rhodesias (now Zambia and Zimbabwe) with Nyasaland (Malawi).

The SRANC was banned, it leaders jailed. The same happened to its follow-up organization the National Democratic Party (NDP) and in December 1961 the largest and most important party was formed by Nkomo, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). It was monolithic until in 1963 prominent supporters broke from Nkomo and formed its rival, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by Ndabaningi Sithole.

All hell broke out in the country’s townships.

The Prime Minister of Rhodesia, Ian Smith, watched, waited and in November 1965 pounced, declaring his infamous Universal Declaration of Independence (UDI).

Nkomo, Sithole and Mugabe (plus dozens of others) were imprisoned for over ten years.

Msipa was jailed from 1965-1970.

He stayed loyal to Zapu and Nkomo throughout, even though Mugabe personally asked him to join ZANU.

Out of prison, out of work with a young family to support Msipa entered one of the low points of his fairly long life.

He worked at a Salisbury bakery as an accounts clerk. The patronizing white owner called this grown, educated man with a wife and children “boy.”

When the British put their foot on the independence accelerator in 1979, Cephas Msipa was the key Zapu organizer in Salisbury.

He organized Nkomo’s welcome home rally that attracted a crowd of about 250,000.

When Mugabe returned, over a million descended on Salisbury’s Highfield Stadium.

It was clear who would win the February 1980 election, the first one man/one vote election in Rhodesia’s painful history. When the results were made known, Nkomo was in despair. He asked Msipa why the people of Zimbabwe had repaid his years of struggle and imprisonment by voting in his deadly rival, Mugabe?

Msipa advised him to cheer up. Mugabe included four ZAPU men in his first government of National Unity.

Nkomo was Minister of Home Affairs, Msipa Deputy Minister of Youth, Sport and Recreation.

Reconciliation didn’t last long.

In 1982 Mugabe sacked Nkomo who he accused of supporting “dissidents” trying to overthrow the government.

The following year, Nkomo fled, first to Botswana and then to London. He stayed away for three years returning home only to see his organization crushed in the interests of national unity. Mugabe had launched a military campaign against ZAPU in Matabeleland the Midlands. Between 1981 and 1987 around 20,000 people, most of the     civilians, were slaughtered by the Zimbabwe Army’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade. The war against “dissidents” was given the Shona name “Gukuruhundi.”

Surprisingly, Mugabe promoted Msipa making him Minister of Water Resources and Development “I was happy with my promotion,” he said in his memoir.

Later he held key positions in the country’s important agricultural marketing organisations at a time when Zimbabwe was seen as the nation’s food bread basket.

Msipa was on a roller and after Nkomo’s death in July 1999 he was made Governor of the Midland in 2000.

He strayed there until 2008 when he effectively retired from politics, devoting his life to charities and the governorship of Dadaya Mission School, so close to his heart until the day he died.

At his funeral, Mugabe praised Msipa for helping to take-over white owned farms during the widely-publicized “land grab” of 2000. Mugabe praised him for not helping white farmers. Over 4,000 of them lost their farms. Today, Zimbabwe is an importer of food on a massive scale, partly because of drought, mainly because of widespread corruption throughout the ruling party of which Msipa had found a new life – first as a member of its Central Committee in 1987 and later as a member of its Politburo.

In his short but fascinating memoir, Msipa says his greatest achievements was to draw Mugabe’s attention to Fifth Brigade atrocities in Matabeleland and his advice to the Mugabe to stand down because he was too old to rule.

Msipa cited the example of Tanzania’s President Nyerere who stood down before he was pushed.

Mugabe told his life-long pal and “Sekuru” that he would never retire and would stay where he until the end..

“That’s his philosophy” wrote Cephas Msipa.

“And our tragedy,” added Pius Wakatama.

Cephas Msipa is survived by his eight children, thirty one grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.