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Violence Variously Remembered: The Killing of Pieter Oberholzer in July 1964


In mid-1964 the Smith regime in Southern Rhodesia was moving towards a final ban on the African nationalist parties, ZAPU and ZANU. At the same time it was widely believed to be preparing for a Unilateral Declaration of Independence and the nationalist parties in their turn were trying to find ways to prevent this. Both chose to launch sabotage campaigns, so as to demonstrate African opposition. In late June 1964 there was a wave of sabotage in Chipinga and Melsetter in Rhodesia's eastern districts. Roadblocks were erected, the police camp was attacked, dynamite was laid at bridges. Notes were left at the scene of some of these actions purporting to come from “the Crocodile Gang.” On the early evening of 4 July 1964, a 45-year-old foreman at the Silver Streams Wattle Factory in Melsetter, Pieter Johannes Andries Oberholzer, was driving home with his wife and daughter along the Umtali/Melsetter road. He came to a low roadblock made of stones; he tried to ram it; the car turned over; Oberholzer was stabbed to death; his assailants dispersed when another vehicle approached. Police found two notes at the site of the attack. One read “Confrontation Smith. Crocodile Gang will soon kill all whites. Beware!” The other read: “Crocodile Group in Action. We shall kill all whites if they don't want to give back our country. Confrontation!”

How are we to read the significance of July 4? The events have been described in five main sources and they look very different from these varying perspectives. “What is Truth?” asks Ndabaningi Si thole, in the earliest of the sources. The Crocodile Gang's killing of Oberholzer constitutes a historical equivalent to the famous old Japanese film, Rashomon, with its presentation of different but equally plausible narratives of a violent event.

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1. Sithole Ndabaningi, Obed Mutezo. The Christian-Mudzimu Nationalist (London, 1970).

2. The Crocodile Gang” in Raeburn Michael, Black Fire (London, 1978); Tavuyanago B.J., “Ndangana and the Crocodile Group Operation” (B.A. honours thesis, University of Zimbabwe, 1985).

3. “The Murder of Petrus Johannes Andries Oberholzer,” S.3061 1071/64, N.A., Harare. This file was compiled in 1964 but deposited only in 1995.

4. Godwin Peter, Mukiwa (London, 1996).

5. Sithole , Obed Mutezo, 2122.

6. Ibid., 139.

7. Ibid., 150.

8. In February 1969 Sithole appeared in court to face charges that he had sent letters from prison instructing a ZANU supporter to “employ some of our hard-core criminals” to assasinate Smith. In his address to the court, Sithole said: “I wish publicly to dissociate myself in word, thought and deed from any subversive activities, from any terrrorist activities and from any form of violence.” Nyagumbo Maurice, With the People (London, 1980), 205.

9. Sithole , Obed Mutezo, 160.

10. Ibid., 161.

11. The 25 August 1964 Daily Information Sheet, which included a report of a note from “ZANU Crocodiles” after a Bulawayo attack, also reported stonings of buses and houses in Salisbury and burning of huts and attacks on dipt tank attendants in Marendellas. These Information Sheets are included in the CID file on the Oberholtzer killing.

12. Raeburn , “Crocodile Gang.” 6263.

13. Ibid., 67.

14. Ibid., 70.

15. Ibid., 74.

16. Tavuyanago B.J., “Ndangana,” 78.

17. The Crocodile Gang's incursion into Southern Rhodesia was not as isolated in time from other proto-guerrrilla activities as the standard histories of the guerrilla war suggest. The first ZAPU operation was rather similar in some ways to the Crocodile incursion. A group was sent in from Zambia to travel right through the country to the extreme southwest border with Botswana in order to “arrest” the white magistrate who had banned the NDP public meeting in Bulawayo in June 1960, which had been followed by riots and African deaths from shooting. The magistrate and his wife beat off their attacks with gunfire; the members of the group fled and were subsequently arrested. Maurice Nyagumbo writes that “during November 1964 [ZAPU] shipped in a lot of trained boys with weapons,” but due to “lack of orientation the boys and a lot of those weapons proved absolutely useless.” He gives examples of ZAPU groups arriving in Rusape and in Salisbury, threatening and robbing people, being denounced and being arrested. But ZAPU “was not alone in this misfortune. Our first batch of trained boys arrived in March of 1965. Unfortunately, one among them was a police spy who immediately reported their presence to the enemy. As a result, these boys were arrested before they were able to do anything.” Nyagumbo, With the People, 189-90. Nyagumbo's account of the famous Sinoia battle of 28 April 1966 shows it as a continuum with this series of misconceived enterprises: “In April 1966 another batch of seven boys arrived. Although these boys resisted the temptation of contacting anybody in the country, they were all out of cash and were without food and clothes. Faced with this plight, they decided to contact someone in Sinoia. Most unfortunately, this contact revealed their presence to the enemy. Soon, hundreds of police with dogs and with the aid of planes searched the whole area….The seven boys were located [and] a pitched battle was fought for nearly five hours.”

18. Nyamubaya Freedom, “War Prison” in Ndangaririro (Harare, n.d.), 87.

19. Testimony of Amos Kademaunga, 8 July 1964, S 3061 1071/64.

20. CID Memorandum, 7 July 1964; B.J. Tavuyanago reconstructs the Five Point Plan from ZANU. Central Committee Report to the Second Congress, August 1984.

21. Roberts' argument is summarized in the Introduction to Bhebe Ngwabi and Ranger Terence, eds., Soldiers in Zimbabwe's Liberation War (London, 1995).

22. Raeburn , “Crocodile Gang,” 74.

23. Shirley de Wolf of Christian Care, Mutare, told me this in 1995.

24. Godwin , Mukiwa, 3.

25. Ibid., 8-9.

26. Ibid., 10.

27. Ibid., 4.

28. Ibid., 20.

29. Ibid., 12-13.

30. In Bhebe Ngwabi and Ranger Terence, eds., Society in Zimbabwe's Liberation War (Harare, 1995).

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History in Africa
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