Sagging front gate

Love in the face of adversity

An extraordinary relationship grows between an elderly couple stuck in a suburban house in Zim and their servant of 50 years

Authors are always looking for the next book to write. But sometimes a subject comes at you when you’re least prepared to embrace it and the normally exciting process of beginning a new book becomes unexpectedly tormenting.
While in Zimbabwe a few months ago and still working indirectly on my book about Mugabe because its publicity had gone on much longer than usual, I visited a rundown suburban house for reasons unconnected to journalism or writing.
From the sagging front gate, improbably fastened to its post by a piece of string, the house appeared deserted. On closer inspection from the road, while scanning its surrounds for dogs that might spring out if a stranger entered unannounced, it was not only derelict but square and featureless, although a cage-like anti-burglar enclosure on its small verandah contradicted the futile gate.
Suddenly, out of the scrubbery came a miniature, ornamental chicken that looked frantically left, right and left again, one foot poised mid-air, before scurrying down the driveway. The parched garden was notable, like so many Zimbabwe properties, for several spectacular msasa trees, their fresh leaves forming a shimmering lime-green and orange frame over the neglected homestead.
My friend shouted a greeting. Unexpectedly, a dark figure popped up behind the iron bars. We signaled that we wished to enter, and he nodded. As we approached, he stepped into the open, wearing baggy khaki shorts and matching V-necked top, a uniform I recognized from my childhood as the kit in which male servants performed housework. He was a small, wiry man, very black and very old, who held a floor brush in one hand and had evidently been polishing the stoep.
Behind him from the living room came an older white man with a gaudy, hand-knitted tea-cosy on his head. Any wintery nip that such a hat might have been expected to combat had long left the August air. I stifled a laugh. My friend told him why we’d come. Replying in the poshest of English accents that his wife had fallen and broken her hip the week before, he apologized for not inviting us in. While I tried to explain, to his obvious confusion, where he could contact us once his wife was better, the servant laid a hand gently on his employer’s arm and said reassuring words to the effect, “I know where she’s directing you, don’t worry.”
It was the briefest of encounters but it left me with a tantalising sense of a master-servant role reversal that could never have happened in my youth, although both men and presumably the bedridden wife were much older than me.
I thought about the gentle black hand on a withered white arm for months. Needing to know more and mindful of the trio’s advancing years, I returned to Harare, having arranged an appointment with the couple by phone from Johannesburg. She, approaching from the passage on crutches when I walked in, was surprisingly agile for an injured woman in her Eighties. She wore a threadbare pink polka-dotted apron with frills at the shoulder over a faded floral summer dress. Her skin was pale and translucent; her eyes unexpectedly amused. He had just suffered a minor stroke and seemed more subdued than I remembered. He sat quickly back in his chair while she pointed with her crutch to the seat I should sit in which, unlike the others, was free of clutter.
The room was a mess. Piles of papers, letters, embroidery silks and pill boxes lay alongside baskets of mending and dried flowers, old magazines, empty jam jars, folded seed packets, family photographs, tools and toiletries. A glance into the adjoining rooms revealed more squalor. When she swept piles of junk off her own chair before sitting in it, I couldn’t help commenting. She waved her crutch around the room and said, “I’m a creative person so I never throw away things that might come in handy.”
“It’s called poverty,” he growled, though his eyes gleamed with good humour. When she handed me a dusty framed photograph of the elegant Edwardian country house in which she had grown up and I asked how the memory made her feel in their current circumstances, he replied, “Nostalgic”, but with no trace of bitterness in his derisory snort.
It turned out, as we chatted over cracked teacups and an infirm three-legged terrier stretched across a tatty rug, that they were British aristocrats descended from two august lines of lords and ladies dating way back into the colonial era. Their kind servant had been working for the couple for almost 50 years, signing on as a labourer employed from Malawi to toil on the lonely tract of “crown land” they had farmed unsuccessfully for most of their adult lives. Elijah, as he was called, later became their domestic worker and gardener and, more recently, their cook and extraordinarily devoted carer.
When I interviewed Elijah, a man of few words, privately the following day, he admitted reluctantly that the couple “can no longer pay but they need me. So I will stay.” (Several normally fair-minded colleagues to whom I related his story speculated that he was helping the couple only in order to seize their home when they died.)
The mistress of the house described in a series of short interviews – between which she had to lie down to catch her breath – their first home in the bush, a tent; then they lived in a pole-and-mud rondavel which leaked so much in the rainy season that her husband had to construct a separate corrugated iron roof over their bed. She had been trained as a professional singer in England and showed me pictures of herself sitting at a grand piano, smiling prettily in velvet and lace. Several of her relatives served with distinction in various colonial administrations, one of them becoming known as the Socrates of India. Two of his forebears were lord mayors of London.
Life on the farm in Zimbabwe was unbearably hard. She became depressed without knowing it. After perking up to play the lead in a Gilbert and Sullivan musical staged at the clubhouse where their farming neighbours gathered to play tennis and down too many lagers, she felt so overwhelmed by the combination of four small children and endless bank overdrafts that she was unable to get out of bed one morning. He carried her to the land rover in her night dress for a long journey to the ‘the barmy ward”, while Elijah looked after the kids.
Theirs is a story that turns many of Zimbabwe’s stereotypes upside-down. As they talked of a way of life that drew to an abrupt close for most white farmers in 2000, I realised it had never existed as the privileged dream of popular mythology in their case. What they had endured was relentless failure. I sensed the complexities of their marriage when she mentioned how shocked she’d been to hear in a letter from a relative in England that one of her cousins had got divorced. “I just didn’t realize that was a possiblity,” she said, shaking her grey curls.
It was clear that they seldom left the house nowadays, partly because neither she nor he is well enough to drive. My peek behind their curtains suggested a home that served as a shelter from the outside world but had also become a kind of prison. At one moment I thought I might write it like a William Faulkner novel, blurring time distinctions so that the past continually impinged on the present, keeping the reader off-balance. Sometimes, I saw it just as an end of Empire epic amusingly told by two self-deprecating off-beats.
Yet the edgy strangeness of the couple’s exaggerated vowels and instinctively superior attitudes despite their sagging flesh, painful recollections and obvious penury continued to pose endless editorial choices. There was something so humanly victorious in humble but magnificently supportive Elijah clearing away trails of cat food while eagerly asking to see photographs of their English grandchildren, just delivered by the postman, that the story could never be simply about three isolated people living in desperation anywhere, anytime. The fact that none of them asked for nor desired pity was at once ennobling and pathetic, offering the possibility of a tragic-comic eulogy for a passing way of life.
What struck me most in the story, however, was a fleeting aspect of African memoir that may well warrant closer attention: the possibility that there is more love between ordinary, albeit bizarre, people across the ravages of history and rigid social stratification than one would expect to find. That this trio had both succeeded and failed as members of the complex human network known as the Zimbabwe nation implicates us all.



Catch more flies with honey

Africans leaders – lugging huge chips on their shoulders – crave external validation

Hope in their president’s sincerity seems to linger among Zimbabweans. Predatory though Mugabe is know to be, it persist because, without it, such cautious optimism as exists in the country’s fragile unity government would not be sustainable. The hope hovers, mind you, alongside desperation and the ever-present fear that Mugabe is busy swallowing the country’s opposition MDC python-like, just as he did his earlier prey, Joshua Nkomo, many years ago.
Everybody knows how unlikely are the chances of Zimbabwe’s dictator becoming a reformed man at 85. What he clearly wants badly enough to play the game, though, is the Western development money that was hitherto proffered on condition of his departure. Only donors can kick-start the beleaguered nation’s economy, in the process keeping Mugabe in office until he dies.
It is an awkward situation for Western governments to resolve while struggling with daunting economic dilemmas of their own. Will they support the shakiest of political alliances out of pity for ordinary Zimbabweans at the risk of being outwitted by one of the least popular of the world’s dictators? Probably not.
The only way Zimbabwe will get international development dosh with Comrade Bob at the helm is if he succeeds in bamboozling the relevant foreign governments into thinking he is a reformed character. That he has undertaken such an apparently impossible public relations mission says much about Mugabe’s enduring belief in his ability to outsmart absolutely anybody.
Ironically, Mugabe’s biggest ally in the campaign to convince hard-nosed Western politicians that he cares all of a sudden for his people in the same way as Morgan Tsvangirai cares for Zimbabweans is none other than the country’s recently appointed prime minister, Tsvangirai himself.
During a press conference in Harare last month, Mugabe’s erstwhile enemy responded irritably when a journalist referred to Zimbabwe’s despot simply as Mugabe: “It’s President Mugabe,” Tsvangirai snapped. In an interview with me during the run-up to the power-sharing arrangement, the MDC leader described an hour-and-a-half dinner he had had with Mugabe in a Harare restaurant – when the two were up close and personal for the first time – as “a lost father-son reunion”. At a time when much of the global media was attacking Tsvangirai’s willingness to make peace with the dictator, he added forthrightly: “I actually have to admit that I have some respect for Mugabe, who used to be my hero.”
Tsvangirai’s unabashed respect for the much older Mugabe – based on a deeply-held African veneration of the aged, which comes naturally to the well-mannered opposition leader – is one of the unity government’s few strengths amid multiple potential deal-breakers. Continuing land grabs, human rights abuses, harassment and imprisonment of MDC supporters, as well as Mugabe’s fraudulent cabinet appointments, could yet derail the uneasy coalition.
It is Tsvangirai’s attitude towards Mugabe that will hold the unity government together. Mugabe will take full political advantage of his prime minister’s respect while also genuinely appreciating it – as is his contradictory wont. And, who knows, Tsvangirai may be wilier in his courtesy than we think.
If ever a man craved respect, it is Mugabe. Had British leader Tony Blair sized him up accurately in all his human frailty as well as bluster when the two first started spitting at each other back in the late Nineties, the British leader could have put an arm (metaphorically if not literally) around his African counterpart – who felt humiliated by New Labour’s rejection of old policy – and slipped Mugabe the disputed land redistribution funding promised by an earlier government, possibly sparing Zimbabwe a decade of suffering. Pragmatic reconciliations have been a feature of diplomacy throughout history, after all. Blair’s failure to patch things up with Mugabe before the situation in Zimbabwe became totally toxic probably had a bit to do with the British leader’s intuitive arrogance, something to do with New Labour’s unholy alliance with the right wing British media, and a lot to do with perceived as well as real  Western disrespect towards African leaders.
Well, hell, no, you might argue: discredited leaders, African or otherwise, forfeit respect. True. But there is little doubt that people like Mugabe, Mbeki and now Jacob Zuma – all of whom have come from a traditional leadership system akin to that of medieval England – become so accustomed to widespread deference, indeed adulation, at home that they simply cannot tolerate the slights of strangers. Add to that formidable narcissistic barrier the inferiority complexes bequeathed to so many in Africa by colonialism and white settler rule and you have a compelling psycho-drama for Western power-brokers (including the media) to fathom – or ignore at the African country’s peril.
A few months ago, a US diplomat told me how difficult it had been to engage with South Africa while Mbeki was at the helm because our former president, lugging a sizeable shoulder chip, simply refused to deal with anyone other than the supreme leader of the world’s superpower. “It makes doing international business very difficult,” the American sighed. Similarly, a British government official engaged in public health in South Africa says she felt obliged to bow and scrape to Manto Tshabalala Msimang while nowadays being free to treat Barbara Hogan, who understands Western manners, with normal rather than exaggerated respect.
On a day to day basis, it is the independent local media that bears the brunt of our leadership’s intolerance of criticism or, sometimes, of informal journalistic behaviour. You might argue that this sensitivity ought not to be factored into the methods and logic by which power and its abuses are challenged. True. But there are petty humiliations that could be resisted without remotely compromising press freedom. Such an unnecessary taunt, which ran on the front page of a Johannesburg newspaper recently, showed Zuma giving “the bird” to the camera. In fact, he was using his middle finger to push his glasses back onto his nose. Was this an example of amusing photography – or a cheap shot in the circumstances?

Rude signs that convey contempt to those with the muscle to react oppressively may not be the way to go in these days of reckless rule. Which reminds me: Zimbabwe’s draconian media laws remain unaltered, not surprisingly. Of all the unity government’s designated reforms, Mugabe can be expected to resist this one the longest. Why? Because journalism’s job is to confront politicians with their failures. Mugabe, having contemplated nothing but his omnipotence for decades, will hardly be keen to encounter an accurate view of himself now.

Power of one

The transforming power of one

Where politicians fail, ordinary citizens can display extraordinary heroism

Hands up those who believe in the political process to deliver us from evil. Considering the ANC’s long and illustrious history, there must still be some…  It’s true that hardly anybody in the chattering classes believes a single word spoken by the state. But ANC loyalists – albeit mainly the elderly and ill-educated in forgotten villages – can be relied on to keep the faith in all its glory.
Loads of us will be going to the polls forlornly, not expecting anything much to change for the better. Twas ever thus, here and elsewhere. Politicians tend as a breed to stand by their lies rather than their promises.
How astonished we would be if, for example, our rulers actually found the will and the means to conquer the dreaded crime wave that has grown into a tsunami of lawlessness. One of our worst economic handicaps, crime is the understandable preoccupation of those (including the international media) whose kith and contacts clutch the dollars, francs and roubles we sorely need in foreign investment of one sort or other. Call me cynical but I suspect that, even assuming such an important initiative as crime prevention were to be genuinely grasped in high places, it would founder on lack of resources like the skill, courage and vision that are demonstrably rare at the top of our political pyramid.
Part of the problem in the intractable case of crime may be an underlying conviction in the country’s post-liberation leadership that the people have suffered and are therefore entitled to redress by any means whatsoever. It is an aggrieved response – perilously close to vengeance, some might argue – which not only ignores the fact that most victims of crime are poor rather than rich but that crime robs the unemployed of untold opportunities as tourists stay away from our cities in droves.
Leaving so uncomfortable a psycho probe to someone higher up the moral ladder, however, we can’t just go on blaming others or wishing for miracles to improve our lives. What realistic alternatives do we have to inadequate political leadership? (Jacob Zuma recently assured Aljazera’s famous television interviewer David Frost that there was so little crime in South Africa that he could virtually guarantee its eradication by 2010 – gulp.)
How about the power of one as an option? Could the inspired intervention of individuals be better trusted to change our plughole prospects as a nation once we, the country’s citizens, acknowledge the overall inability of government to contain the forces that ravage our daily lives? I’m thinking particularly of South African youth’s tragic hopelessness, it being the primary source of crime in our midst – the result of widespread malnutrition, sub-standard schooling, as well as rampant sexual abuse and violence in homes where too many parents die from Aids and unemployment affects virtually everybody.
What if we stop the justifiable finger-pointing, on the grounds that feeling sorry for ourselves is disempowering, and ask instead who in the world is responsible for hungry, abused and abandoned kids once the political system has failed them. What if the answer turns out to be thee and me?  And what if the power of one were to become the power of many?
Among Hollywood’s most successful themes is the feel-good story of one person reaching out to others against the odds. The celebrated heroism of Brockevich, Milk and Schindler might remind South Africans of home-grown champions who have taken on our own neglected challenges. For example, one priest, Paul Verryn, chose to offer protection to Zimbabwe’s officially ignored, Johannesburg-based refugees and in the process helped to humanise a nation. One professor, Jonathan Jansen, believes so passionately in the potential of unreconstructed white Free State students to overcome their inherited racism that he is prepared to dedicate his respected talents to a discredited university. One housewife, Ethel Mabala, took scores of anti-social street kids into her home, giving them the inestimable benefit of a loving family environment over many years. One doctor, Gareth Japhet, decided to counter the damage inflicted on continent-wide values by history at its cruelest: he set up Soul City, a wonderfully entertaining health and development communications organization that beams important subliminal messages to 45 million Africans in ten countries.
Psychological research collected over many years in many parts of the world shows that the care of just one individual – regardless of how that concern is expressed – can make all the difference to deprived people.
Indeed, there are many examples of South Africans and foreigners who go out of their way to be kind to the weakest among us. Two women in Jozi, both called Bronwen, come to mind as typical of the generous individuals who make a real difference to the lives of others – and without expecting anything in return.
Bronwen Biles, a busy expat Briton with plenty of plans to pursue on her own account, has spent years helping Zimbabwe’s refugees in grand and small ways. When she discovered a group of orphans who had crawled through barbed wire at the border only to be robbed of the clothing on their backs once inside South Africa, she cared for them as if they were her own. Whenever one of the boys had a birthday, Bronwen baked a cake and took it into the city centre, where the kids were living together in a dark stairwell. Her candle-lit celebrations, fun for everyone in the wretched refugee community, will have done more to validate three distressed and potentially destructive lives than even the medicines and garments she also provided. (The image of Robert Mugabe clutching ballons and stuffing himself with cake during his outrageously extravagant annual birthday bashes is one of the more grotesque manifestations of childhood deprivation).
Bronwyn Greene, a local artist and photographer, kept seeing a small boy riding around her condo yard on a pink bike that was missing a tyre. The sight bothered her for months until she stopped one day in the driveway and spoke to the child, whose father was the security guard living on the Killarney premises. His mother had died, the boy told her shyly. So Bronwyn, unmarried and childless though far from rich, decided to step in. First, she bought the kid a blue bike. Then she found a school nearby and paid his fees. Now, he comes to her apartment every day to eat and do his homework, returning in the evenings to his grateful dad. “The child has enriched my own life”, says Bronwyn – while her intervention has totally transformed his future.

Perception vs reality

Air of hope amid desperation

Although he has ruined the country, Mugabe’s legacy on education informs the future

I was hoping to see Zimbabwe more clearly through the eyes of a couple of colleagues who accompanied me to Harare on a recent business trip. Our mission was to decide the fate of a proposed new guest house I’d been planning to set up there. To proceed with the project in a bottomed-out city or not: that was the question.
What followed was a foray into perception versus reality. At first, my companions were so intrigued to be entering a zany political zone that they peered around in search of Comrade Bob’s evil machinations. One received text messages from her husband in Ireland, imploring her to be careful, though what the world’s most odious tyrant would want with an interior decorator from Belfast is anybody’s guess.
By the end of a day in Harare’s sleepy streets, our closest shave being with a speeding wheelbarrow, my colleagues downed several glasses of South African chardonnay and issued verdicts that had swung from one extreme to the other. “I’m completely in love with the place,” sang my Irish friend. “It’s wonderful; so hopeful,” sighed the other, a well-known Jo’burg spin doctor.
I was amazed at their enthusiasm. While the B&B we were staying in had everything you’d need for an overnight visit, and the two blocks we’d trod between it and the site of my proposed development were rich in dazzling flowers, Harare is stripped to its bare bones. Piles of rubbish stank in the sun on a grassless field nearby. I can still see the hollow eyes of a woman who lay under a tree not far from my property’s entrance, a suckling baby clasped to her emaciated breast.
It’s true that the unity government formed with Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change earlier in the year had begun to reverse some of the destruction wrought by Mugabe’s dictatorship. Prices were no longer doubling every 24 hours, schools and hospitals were reopening, and industrial capacity was creeping up from a 10% low. But Mugabe’s retention of the apparatus of oppression has led more recently to the near collapse of the pragmatic agreement. Progress has ground to a halt.
So what, I enquired of my companions, had prompted their benign analysis of one of the world’s most forlorn cities? Answers ranged improbably from the “cheerfulness” of Zimbabweans to the resourcefulness we’d witnessed in the pop-up home-shops from which locals sold potted plants and hand-made Christmas bric-a-brac, or bartered eggs and chickens for bags of cement.
Neither of my colleagues had been to Zimbabwe in thirty years so I tried to explain why the façade they mistook for sang-froid was actually desperation. Brave faces hide broken lives as Zimbabweans enter a second decade of Mugabe’s catastrophic misrule, I told them. Had they not noticed the painful thinness of the polite, smiling people with whom we’d exchanged greetings on the sidewalks? Didn’t they wonder about the water-table beneath our feet as the gleamingly green lawns of Harare’s elite absorbed the city’s underground river system through private boreholes? But my companions were so convinced of a mutually-detected truth that they ganged up on me rather than conceding doubt. I was a cynic, they huffed. There was heaps of hope in Harare, they insisted.
Apart from feeling that my companions had perhaps mistaken courage for complacency – Zimbabweans being a stoic breed – their optimism nagged away at me for hours. But it wasn’t until my Irish companion, who had recently bolted back to her own country after living for 12 years in crime-ravaged Johannesburg, announced that she felt perfectly safe in Harare (once she’d realized that mad, bad Bob wasn’t going to pounce out of the tropical shrubbery) that I wondered if what the two were observing was not hope but, paradoxically, peace. Except for political activists, among them white farmers, people with dollars in their pockets aren’t physically endangered in Zimbabwe, which is perhaps why my friends could see Harare’s wide verandahs crammed with opportunities that don’t exist in the skeletal city.
After all, living in uber-violent South Africa entails the sort of fear that can wear you down to a quivering wreck, draining the trust that nurtures optimism and making you amenable to the pared-down promise of Harare. Life in Johannesburg involves the scariest of numbers games: sooner or later, bloody crime is going to strike you personally. Whereas in Zimbabwe, you’re extremely unlikely to be apprehended at gunpoint, never mind tied up and gagged whilst being burnt raw with an electric iron. Your cellphone might be snatched or your car driven off by whispering thieves at midnight, but nobody wants you dead unless you’re plotting to topple the government.
Quite why there is relatively little non-political violence up north is unclear. South Africa may be living with the consequences of a particularly brutal history yet Zimbabwe endured a full-on war. Both countries are bordered by states in which armed conflict raged for decades and guns became ruinously cheap. The police are more efficient at combating crime in the former British colony than their counterparts down south. And Zimbabweans in all sectors are much better educated than South Africans, with a resultant tendency towards mental rather than muscular dialogue.
What struck me as a possible explanation of the hopeful perceptions was Mugabe’s educational legacy. His beleaguered nation’s literacy rate, though lately threatened, is in the mid-90s – Africa’s highest. There is as a result a straight-backed confidence in Zimbabweans, even when they’re down and supposedly defeated. It could be described as pride or hope but, more than that, their attitude recalls what Winston Churchill said of wartime Britain: “If you are going through hell, keep going.”
Everyone you talk to in Harare seems to have migrated beyond grievance mode to the deeper resilience I suspect my friends could see shining through the gloom. That admirable quality plus time – Africa’s most abundant commodity – is guiding Zimbabweans through the abyss and persuading doubters like me to invest in the country.

Now that our government

A stranger in strange land

What does it mean to be a South African, and where are we in democratic terms, now that we’ve lost our glamour?

Now that our government has revealed its contempt for the people of South Africa in matters ranging from HIV/Aids denialism and apparently unstoppable crime to the shameful Selebi affair as well as our country’s role in Zimbabwe’s unresolved crisis – to name but a few of the state’s assaults on our fragile democracy – we need to strike back.

A recently invigorated public discourse in both Johannesburg and Cape Town reflects the growing belief among those who have not yet voted with their feet that enough is enough. With scant prospect of a better ANC government waiting in the wings, it is up to those citizens who feel strongly enough about the country’s slide into authoritarianism and indifference to speak up in anticipation of national elections next year.

In one of a series of public debates supported by Independent Newspapers and the Economic Justice Initiative at the University of Cape Town recently, Archbishop Desmond Tutu noted with despair that young South Africans were pledging to kill for ANC president Jacob Zuma. He told a packed auditorium, “We have to remind some in our country that there are those in Zimbabwe who have been ready to kill for Mr Mugabe. See what happens!

“They (the ANC’s Youth League) speak about a revolution,” he continued. “Now, I don’t know what that refers to but, whatever it is, that revolution is not going to be sustained and preserved by intemperate, almost inane utterances.

“That revolution, the dream that is South Africa, the promise that is South Africa, that is going to be preserved when you and I are vigilant, you and I preserve freedom, you and I stand up for justice…you and I say, hey, our people did not shed blood for nothing.”

Businesswoman and former University of Cape Town vice chancellor Mamphele Ramphele, sharing the same platform, said that both Zimbabwe and South Africa had cultures of personalised politics that invested too much power in leaders. “We are messing up big time is some areas,” she said. “The limits of impunity are within our power to set. The question is whether we are prepared to do so before it is too late.”

Reminding a packed auditorium that the limits of tyrants are set by the level of tolerance among those subjected to tyranny, Ramphele said, “In a sense the people of Zimbabwe waited too long before challenging Mugabe’s tyranny. It was a case of for whom the bell tolls. When it tolled for the 20 000 young people of Matabeleland in the 1980s, many kept their heads down. When it tolled for the white farmers, many even cheered for the false dawn. Now that the bell is tolling for each and every Zimbabwean who might be in the wrong place at the wrong time, there is no place to hide.”

Academic Wilmot James, another member of the panel, said he was tired of the “smug arrogance” of the South African government on the Zimbabwe issue. It was “hugging and coddling a dictator” for reasons that defied rationality and diplomatic progress.

My role on the same panel was to describe the psyche of Robert Mugabe: from the weedy, friendless and bookish boy, who hated his absent father but shunned conflict and wanted to help others, to the world’s most loathsome dictator. Understanding Mugabe’s mindset and motives helps to shed light on others among us with dangerous propensities.

Whether or not insight into the twisted nature of Zimbabwe’s president offers possible solutions to the current impasse in Zimbabwe via psycho-diplomacy – as I believe it might – the complexity of the tyrant’s wounded psyche does expose some of Africa’s leadership woes.

84-year-old Robert Mugabe’s love for Mother England, for example – despite what he bellows to the contrary – is transparent in the Savile Row-style suits both he and his cabinet wear, his passion for cricket, and the admiration of the British Royal Family recently expressed to me by Mugabe himself, with tears gleaming in his lonely eyes.

His childhood in a Catholic mission run by white priests imbued Mugabe with the idea that the English gentleman represented the highest stage of human development, which resulted in him disowning his African heritage. The Zimbabwe president’s quintessentially English identity, never more obvious than in his recent, sixth inauguration in a stiff ceremony featuring the incongruous white wigged, red-robed judges of the colonial era, hides Mugabe’s deep sense of inferiority and a disdain for his own people.

Mamphele Ramphele had much to say on the subject of the self-hatred a man like Mugabe typifies. Citing the root causes of Africa’s culture of impunity in denial of the ghosts of our past, she told the UCT meeting that Africans needed “a much more systematic exorcism than we have permitted ourselves to undergo”.

Racist scars have left the continent deeply wounded, she explained. “The equation of blackness with inferiority has created a deep sense of self-loathing that comes to the fore each time one is confronted by this image of the self that threatens whatever one is striving towards. How else can one explain how “war veterans” can mistake ordinary Zimbabweans as enemies to be maimed or killed with the brutality that is being visited on them across the country? How do we as South Africans explain the viciousness with which we attacked fellow Africans for the crime of being foreign and black?”

The strange psychological realities behind Robert Mugabe’s anti-colonial mask and some of the contradictory actions of our own government need to be acknowledged by all concerned. “The notion of young South Africans publicly pledging to ‘kill for Zuma’ is a symptom of extreme woundedness,” says Ramphele. “What kind of democracy can be built on such a foundation?”


Doubting stuff is not a crime

Nothing is what it seems, and demanding the truth – about people’s motives, for instance – is a universal right

It is strange to find yourself unsettled by a mythical creature. But after watching a modern choreography about mermaids in one of the annual Dance Umbrella festivals, I found myself brooding about things not being what they seem – the challenge posed artistically by this universal underwater legend being life’s perpetual illusions.
A dazzling multimedia and dance combo, it was called Ningyo, comprising in Japanese nin for man and gyo for fish, and I suppose its unexpected gender ambiguity was where the trouble began in my head. Nothing thereafter was what I expected. The performer writhed but hardly danced. The music oscillated between delicate nuances and deadening beats so that no rhythm emerged and discordance reigned.
Having assumed that mermaids were quintessentially female, here was a sexually ambivalent, repulsive and possibly dangerous version suddenly morphing into a blonde seductress – a mixture of attraction and repulsion, a woman-child between the waves covering much of the stage; then suddenly a femme fatale at the crest, sometimes prey but also huntress, alternately monstrous and beautiful.
Not that the confusion matters in the case of mythical mermaids but the show’s dramatic duality was, of course, meant to make us think about our own complex natures. Confoundingly for me, a journalist obsessed with news, the troubling Caster Semenya case was playing out at the time and my thoughts lingered on the visible and the invisible – one of the dance’s themes.
As global speculation fell on young Caster’s innocence or complicity, the story had started to spin rather like the dancer playing on stage with her shadow, dissolving it and then escaping from it. Was the runner fake or one of the fastest women alive? That was the unambiguous question.
Casting patriotism aside, we can surely all be forgiven for wondering if an athlete who improves her speed so dramatically over a brief period is concealing performance-enhancing secrets: how would anybody outside a laboratory know the truth? What I am absolutely sure about, however, is that the accusations made against her abroad were not motivated by racism, as some of my countrymen have incautiously claimed.
People everywhere are entitled to ask questions. Doubting stuff is not a crime, racist or otherwise. Indeed, demanding the truth is a universal right.
Frankly, I’m alarmed by the prevalence lately of racist paranoia in our midst (black and white being thankfully among Ningyo’s more symbiotic themes). The accusation that our financial executive is unfairly dominated by minorities is, for example, profoundly unnerving to those of us who champion meritocracy, particularly in specialist fields. Equally disconcerting is the insistence by the opportunistic Mr Justice Hlope’s supporters that judicial transformation, which has apparently happened very quickly indeed by many informed accounts, is not happening quickly enough. How on earth is one to judge?
Do we sweep such worrying racism charges under the carpet, as our president has recommended, or rather debate the culture of hatred from which they arise, as one of Zuma’s ministers suggested?
I believe our cruel history impels us to keep gazing into the multiple mirrors that reflect not only how far we’ve come but how far we have yet to go in reforming our attitudes towards each other. Apart from the politics of unreconstructed whiteness, we might usefully examine whether finger-pointers like Julius Malema and John Hlope are themselves racists. There was a time when the charge could be leveled only at whites because it reflected the prevailing power relationship between the races. But now that the country has a growing black middle class, are some of the accusers equally prey to bigotry?
I noticed when compiling this column that my own hyper-allergy to racist thought and deed made me hesitate over a sensitive description I found while researching the mythical qualities of southern Africa’s indigenous mermaid, the momlambo, who turns out to be indisputably the queen of love and desire but appears not only to demand violence from her suitors but to believe that the majority of men wander around thinking of nothing but sex all day. Was this a racist image, I pondered. Does a white writer discuss so dodgy a discovery in a country with stratospheric sexual abuse, or just leave it to the Xhosa storyteller, Dwali Nekompela, to explain blandly: “If he wants (the momlambo’s) body under the same blanket, he must cause the death of his own father. As a reward, she will be his lover, providing him with wonderful crops, rich herds, everything he desires.”
Inevitably, the eternal vigilance bequeathed to whites with the end of apartheid occasionally inhibits the honest investigation of our society and its opposing beliefs. That’s fair enough. But, hallelujah, how racially-free, guiltless, gender-neutral and generally liberating a relief it was to see the US Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps simply laughing off an accusation that he was actually a fish posing as a man, his accuser, a British journalist, fearlessly stating that “sport is increasingly the showground of the freakishly proportioned”. Boldly, she drew attention to his abnormal wingspan with arms outstretched, his weird torso and his odd little legs abbreviated by large flipper-like feet which, she said, would guarantee him a winning place in a shoal of black marlin.
Unfair advantages? Insensitivity towards the disabled? Envy of a winner? Or free comment in a free world?
People will always suspect celebrities of trying to push their God-given luck or cheating. Indeed, some players, especially in sport and politics, will use any plot or ploy to get ahead. One woman’s sense of fair play may be another’s shameful dodge: it isn’t always easy to tell the difference. As wise old Oscar Wilde observed: “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple”.
From mermaid myths to racism real or imagined, hardly a day goes by without “the facts” looking murky to me.  Nothing is but what is not, to paraphrase another literary prophet, Shakespeare.  The readiness with which some of our public servants have resorted lately to violence to achieve pay increases may well contain dishonest spin, for example. Seeing our soldiers marching on Union Buildings to protest against what they say are slave wages was designed to disturb us: the fact that they were resorting to self-interested violence when we trust them to be our ultimate national guarantee of law and order was calculated to unhinge, I realize in retrospect.
But it was only when officials told us that the rioting soldiers had not tried particularly hard to negotiate their grievances through appropriate channels before taking to the streets with sledgehammers, pangas, knobkieries and knives that I started to wonder. Are we being conned? Violence has been seen as a legitimate tool for achieving political ends for so long in South Africa, why wouldn’t it become the soldiers’ first rather than last resort in grabbing attention?
The uncertainty over people’s motives is enough to make you as dizzy as Ningyo’s whirling dancer. How to distinguish truth from daily lies? Illusion from reality? And without transgressing the shifting boundaries of public racism or private ambition. These are worrying questions.
The answer, I suppose, is that life’s as fathomless as the ocean, mermaids of indeterminate virtue, flat-footed fish, Malema and Hlope being just a few of the symbols of our perpetual perplexity.

Lost story

Revenge for years of torment

Loyal servant of 50 years halts plan for book on Zimbabwean farmers with “impressive” colonial roots

In the beginning, I thought I’d stumbled on a unique Zimbabwe story. It featured an elderly British couple from aristocratic origins and their touchingly loyal employee, Eliya, who continued to toil for them without pay after they mutually hit the hardest of times in the Mugabe era.
I was planning to write the ultimate end-of-Empire narrative, in which a few jaded stereotypes were destined to nose-dive – such as the alleged ease with which white African farmers grew rich – and wherein the infamously feudal master/servant relationship would acquire a kindly, albeit fleeting, face.
Part of my motive in pursuing the tale for over a year despite the most trying of circumstances – the interviewees being far away and too frail to concentrate for long periods – was a foolhardy hope that the mythology of the servant “who is an integral part of the family”, as I’ve heard so often in both Zimbabwe and South Africa, was at least occasionally true.
Eliya told me that he had come from Malawi to look for a job, and started working at the Skiltons’ farm in the year they tied the knot, 1960, when “the madam” was a pretty classical singer trained by the best British music academies for a different life entirely; her husband the younger son of an influential English family who would never inherit his father’s estate in the UK so decided to become an African country squire instead.
Both of the Skiltons’ lineages were impressive in colonial terms: one of his forebears saw distinguished service in Palestine, while another was decorated for bravery in Malaya, each becoming lord mayors of London. Her most illustrious relies were known as The Socrates of India and The Maker of Modern Nigeria respectively.
Over five decades that included guerrilla war in Rhodesia and the subsequent scorched earth politics of Zimbabwe, Eliya rose from labourer to gardener to cook, telling me with what seemed like pride when we first talked that he used to prepare roast chicken with crispy potatoes while whipping up a sherry trifle for Sunday lunch, after clearing the debris from a breakfast for six – the Skiltons having four children – making their beds, feeding their pets and sweeping the yard. Despite being overworked, he seemed to speak fondly of them.
Having chanced upon this apparently harmonized relationship in 2008, I returned to Harare several times to interview Eliya and the couple. She told me of her mental breakdown in the back of beyond, as her English relatives called Karoi; describing in tears how she’d managed to claw her way back into a daily routine only after an interminable stay in the “barmy ward”, where a psychiatrist explained that her crippling sorrow lay in dreaming lifelong of a brilliant singing career in Britain when her reality was to struggle against the dusty odds of a tick-infested, mosquito-ravaged farm in Africa.
The only time she’d actually made it on stage was in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado performed at the Karoi Club, which she remembered mostly for her battle to be on time for rehearsals after bathing and feeding the children and driving in her sumptuous Yum-Yum costume, hair piled high and held aloft Japanese-style by a pair of ivory chopsticks, while the kids squabbled in the back of the landrover.
But the main problem they seemed to have borne stoically was her husband’s ineptitude in his chosen career. He told me with typical English self-deprecation that the farm house he originally built for his bride, after they’d lived in a tent for a year, leaked so badly in the rainy season that he’d had to construct a tin shack inside it – and when that too sprang holes, another tin roof had to be erected on top of their Edwardian four-poster.
Amusingly, he described his access road as being so treacherous during the rains that he tired of towing half-buried cars out of the mud and put up a warning to hapless drivers. It stood next to the place’s official name, Quarry Farm. Over time, he recalled, the signpost to his pitiful pile fell down and it became known instead as Slippery When Wet.
It was not an enticing picture, but as those of us who grew up on Rhodesian farms know, life in the remote homesteads dotted across a lonely landscape was sometimes unpleasantly primitive – and certainly not for sissies. For a Brit with a keen sense of humour but scant resources of any other sort, and especially for his delicate wife, it proved a challenge too far. She admits that she never recovered from what she calls “personal fatigue”.
Both credited Eliya with helping to raise their children as well as nurturing tomato plants, beans and lettuces for the table, delivering calves, dipping dogs and dismantling bee hives. The couple always spoke to me glowingly about Eliya, once describing how he used to sprint from the postbox in later years clutching letters from Skilton children living abroad and begging to hear their news.
In the end, though, my proposed book collapsed recently on arrival in Harare for a week of serious interviewing, when Eliya presented me unexpectedly with a school exercise jotter titled The History of My Life – in which he completely trashed the family. Noting the pittance he’d been paid since signing on with them fifty years earlier, he described how the husband would refer him to the wife if he requested an increase, whereupon she’d send him back to “the boss”, and so on and on, until he gave up.
Bitterly, he listed his interminable chores, expressing outrage that the Skiltons had sometimes gone to England for several months but never rewarded him for keeping their home safe in their absence. His deepest grievance concerned a bicycle he thought he’d been given, until he was told out of the blue one day that it was required by a Skilton daughter still living in Harare. She never claimed it, however. Eliya described in a brittle tone how he’d hammered nails into the garage wall as instructed, on which the bicycle was to be hung so that its tyres wouldn’t perish – and where it remained as a trophy of his gravest disappointment.
I asked Eliya over and over again why he’d spent half a century working for people he loathed. There must have been alternative employment opportunities for a versatile man over so many years. But he seemed unable to grasp my bewilderment. It was god who had directed his actions, he told me repeatedly.
Not for the first time, I found myself at the mercy of cultural mysteries way beyond my comprehension. His painful testimony meant that the relationship I had seen as unique actually straddled the love/hate fault line as uneasily as most others of its kind. Long after explaining to him why his confession meant I could no longer write the proposed story, I was left with the disquieting feeling that Eliya had spotted in me a chance for revenge following a lifetime of powerlessness – and grabbed it.


Julius Malema

What have you done for us lately?

Malema may elicit admiration from the youth for his brash cheek, but for most, he’s a colourful one-off with very little clout

Those of us who fret about the numerous threats Julius Malema has made since becoming president of the ANC’s Youth League are worried because we don’t understand what it means politically to have such a wild card in our midst. His abrasive, confrontational style is not what we’ve come to expect of our national leaders in the post-apartheid era. From his “kill for Zuma” vow last year to more recent sexist and racist comments – as well as his Mugabe-like accusations against the opposition party he claims wants to “sell…the country to British colonialists” – Malema has become the most outspoken of South Africa’s politicians.
Watched warily abroad, he embarrasses many of us at home with his toe-curlingly crude comments. Various parts of the ruling party, including Zuma and the ANC’s National Executive Committee, have tried from time to time to rein him in, but Malema carries on abusing even his own senior political colleagues, accusing the dignified Education Minister Naledi Pandor of speaking with “a fake American accent” (much to Malema’s own grandmother’s dismay) and threatening the respected former Reserve Bank governor with political ostracism when Tito Mboweni insisted that South Africa’s mines were not going be nationalized.
After speculating about him for months, confused citizens like me would like to know what Malema represents in South African politics. He described himself during the recent presidential election as a decoy to “distract” the opposition while Zuma “sprinted to the Union Buildings”. What sort of dummy is he today?
Critics say he is simply an ill-educated 28-year-old who lacks struggle credentials so has modelled himself grandiosely on the youth activists of the 1976 generation. Or that he a mini Zuma making the radical pronouncements our populist leader has avoided in achieving his initial exemplary presidential report card from the media. Some observers believe Malema is a stalking horse for the SACP and Cosatu but nobody seems to know how much influence he actually has in the ANC alliance.
Is he, as other pundits contend, little more than a perverse celebrity; a vain young man hooked on publicity at any price? Could he be the ANC’s court jester, pointing jocularly to problems that require radical commentary under the new left-leaning dispensation; saying the provocative things no one else wants to say?
Or does Julius Malema represent something else entirely: an unexpected move away from the cultural schizophrenia that has been the norm on this continent for generations? I remember a trusty cook in a rural farmstead telling a journalist colleague years ago that Africans tried so hard to couch their conversations with employers in terms and values acceptable to whites that they ended up speaking in a completely different way when discussing the same subject with their fellow blacks. Has Malema, son of a domestic worker, caught us unawares by dispensing with the customary code-switching language “of the formerly whites-only institutions into which we have been inducted as honorary members”, as democracy analyst Eusebius McKaiser put it recently, in favour of saying exactly what he means (visceral hatred, dumb naivety, and all).
When I approached several Sowetans of Malema’s age and background who daily inhabit the parallel cultures of corporate world and township, they readily admitted applauding Malema’s remarks about Pandor’s accent. Such chauvinistic patriotism is the controversial youth leader’s speciality and appears to have earned him a following. But the same young, ANC-supporting South Africans openly scorned Malema’s double standards. “He lives in Sandton, smokes cigars and buys designer clothes so how radical can he be?” asked a computer programmer. “He’s just playing a role, like the new government. They blame Mbeki for everything but what are they actually doing differently?”
“And where does Malema get all the money he spends on his rich lifestyle?” asked another young man who markets computer software.
One pointedly unidentified member of the group of friends who had agreed to discuss Malema on condition of anonymity asked why the media gave what DA leader Helen Zille calls “this rude boy” so much attention. “It just encourages him,” agreed a beautician who is studying interior design part-time.
Answering for my profession, I said Malema was an elected leader of the ruling party with every right to express the often outrageous opinions we journalists report mainly because he is a public official, not only because he is the country’s top newsmaker.
A girl in the circle, a bank teller, suggested that Malema’s appetite for publicity might become problematic down the line. “A lot of people all around us here are getting bitter these days because they can’t get rich. They do not have the education or the background to find jobs. They might laugh at Malema but they listen to what he says. They do not want him to be made to look foolish by the newspapers. He is a kind of hero for them, although they would prefer him to do something for the youth, which he is not doing.”
She went on to suggest that Malema, whom she says she has observed on a number of occasions in the flesh, is too thin-skinned to tolerate the media lampooning his ill-advised statements attract. A satirical columnist, for example, has nick-named him “Jelly Tsotsi” after a brand of kids’ sweets called Jelly Tots. And a couple of cartoonists regularly draw him in diapers. “He laughs at the insults but underneath you can see he is angry because he wants to be taken seriously”, she claimed.
So what is the verdict: how will the alternately smiling and scowling Julius Malema impact on us as a nation?
“Malema is not a problem at all except for his own ego,” replied the teller. “He’s nobody important,” agreed the beautician.
“Just a colourful one-off?” I ventured, and they all nodded.




Why Bob still garners support

African leaders would rather risk the harshest fall-out in Zimbabwe, than conspire with the West to topple Mugabe

Hardly a day passed last year without yet more bad news from Zimbabwe in the local media. Leaving aside the fact that nothing much changed politically despite all the huffing and puffing, Robert Mugabe also dominated headlines internationally throughout 2008, further damaging Africa’s tarnished reputation abroad. But it was the region’s collective failure to condemn a cruel dictator’s appalling human rights record even in the bleakest days of his tyranny that dealt the “dark” continent a lasting blow.
Although Afro-pessimism had flourished in the wake of dire reports from Darfur and Kenya, Zimbabwe’s crisis was deepening on a daily basis with no achievable solution in sight. Untold reams focusing on the continent’s shameful complicity with Mugabe lingered worryingly even in fair minds. South Africa’s post-apartheid relations with Britain, once a staunch ally, were never more strained.
Outrage at the idea of Africa supporting Mugabe was nothing new, of course. For years, the leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) had been implored by civil society and Western governments to ditch him. What became increasingly damaging to the continent’s global image in 2008, however, was Africa’s prevailing indifference to the plight of Zimbabweans due to its overriding determination not to back the partially Western-funded Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) despite the obvious support Mugabe’s opposition had gained at the polls.
Analysts everywhere were not only angered but baffled by SADC mediator Thabo Mbeki’s refusal to criticize Mugabe, let alone to act decisively against him, after Zimbabwe’s president turned electoral defeat in March to bogus victory on his own bloody terms three months later.  Whether Mbeki’s derided “quiet diplomacy” was as much a miscalculation of Mugabe’s rigid personality as it was a deliberate political strategy on Mbeki’s part will be debated for years to come. Certainly, Mbeki’s much-lauded power-sharing brokerage proved a sham for the simple reason that Mugabe had never intended to share anything except empty titles with the MDC.
It is now obvious – though painful for a continent intent on sorting out its own problems – that Mugabe does not listen to anybody in Africa. While there are signs in some quarters of growing African impatience with the old man whose callous crisis is spilling into bordering countries in the form of xenophobic violence and cholera, there is still no indication of action from SADC or powerful neighbour South Africa against Zimbabwe’s dictator. Indeed, Mbeki’s successor Khalema Motlanthe has so far turned the same deaf ear and blind eye to Mugabe’s excesses.
One reason not often discussed in polite company is the regime change agenda championed by former British prime minister Tony Blair when he first came to office at the end of the Nineties. (The European Union traditionally takes its cue from Whitehall in respect of former British colonies, as does the US). It was no secret in the West in the run-up to the war in Iraq – and certainly very well-known in African leadership circles – that Britain planned to get rid of Mugabe. Blair said as much in the House of Commons. “It is in (the) interests (of Zimbabwe’s neighbours) not to support Mugabe and the Zimbabwe regime,” he told his colleagues after a trip to Abuja, “but to facilitate national reconciliation in the interests of changing the regime.” On that one afternoon in parliament, he used the term “regime change in Zimbabwe” seven times.
Mugabe remembers it well, and indeed continues to run his self-serving propaganda machinery on it. African leaders remember it, albeit passively as they have too much to lose to expose Western double-dealing in the direct way Mugabe calls hypocrisy. Regime change in the guise of democratic reform by Western countries may have lost its allure abroad, becoming an unfashionable topic of conversation in London over the past five years, but it is far from forgotten in the presidential palaces of Africa.
This is why few African leaders will support increasingly shrill British and American demands for Mugabe’s removal. They would rather face the harshest fall-out from Zimbabwe than conspire with the West to topple one of their own. While certainly not an admirable position for Africa to take in the face of human suffering, it is perhaps as understandable as Britain’s disinclination to acknowledge its problematic history in Zimbabwe despite Mugabe being so obviously hell-bent on point-scoring against Blair and Brown regardless of the human cost inside Zimbabwe. Almost everything Mugabe says makes reference to the now-discredited Western notion of regime change, including his recently mocked comments about “Brown’s cholera”, a skewed reference to the non-existent weapons of mass destruction that became so acute an embarrassment to Iraq’s invaders.
An eventual change of government in Britain might yet bring some acknowledgment of the consequences of Labour’s disastrous regime change aspirations in Zimbabwe, perhaps paving the way for a joint British/South African initiative towards sensible leadership in the crippled country through Britain’s active engagement with Zimbabwe’s president. Mugabe himself has said that the Tories comprehend the consequences of Britain’s colonial history better than Labour. But can Zimbabweans hang on in the faint hope that a Conservative government might take more responsibility for Mugabe’s rampage than Gordon Brown’s government has done? Clearly not.
While the full discussion in Pretoria with Britain’s Africa Minister Lord Malloch-Brown late last year has not been disclosed by the South African government except in so far as it concerned humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe, it ought to have included recognition of Blair’s blunder in glibly promoting regime change in Mugabe’s country.
Not that Mugabe isn’t to blame for what has happened in Zimbabwe – he is. But whereas Zimbabwe’s emotionally stunted despot is incapable of accepting responsibility for his actions, Britain’s leadership should be able to take the grown-up role in an escalating tragedy once Africa’s best efforts have failed.
Hopefully, we will see Mark Malloch-Brown return for more dialogue on Zimbabwe before long. Next time, though, he might consider stopping off in Harare to talk to Mugabe, who craves recognition from Britain above all else. The fact that Malloch-Brown is an eminent Briton as well as a lord – Mugabe having always been more inclined towards toffs than ordinary Brits – is a good start. He would, of course, have to treat the tyrant with the respect he does not deserve, a bitter pill for Britain to swallow. But is it really a diplomatic gulp too far if it helps save innocent lives in Zimbabwe?


Writing for Independent Newspapers, a well-known journalist/author explores ideas and issues affecting southern Africa in the wake of history at its most reckless. Her column appears every fortnight in Johannesburg’s The Star, the Pretoria NewsThe Argus in Cape Town and The Mercury in Durban.