Obituary: Heidi Holland, author
Born: 6 October, 1947, in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Died: 11 August, 2012, in Johannesburg, aged 64
The South African author Heidi Holland, who has died in disturbing circumstances at her home in Johannesburg, rose to international fame on the back of a book, Dinner with Mugabe, which took a controversially sympathetic but not uncritical look at the tyrannical Robert Mugabe, ruler of Holland’s own native Zimbabwe.
The title of her remarkable account derived from a clandestine chicken dinner she cooked in 1975 for Mugabe in Salisbury, the capital of white-ruled Rhodesia (now Harare, capital of black-ruled Zimbabwe), when Holland was in her twenties and a correspondent for the pre-Murdoch Sunday Times. Mugabe at that time was preparing to flee Rhodesia to wage a guerrilla war against the white government. Holland drove him from her home to a railway station before his escape.
The polite, shy and kind black political fugitive portrayed by Holland at that time was a cricket fanatic and great admirer of the British Royal Family and many other things British (he insisted his government ministers wear Saville Row suits rather than multi-coloured tie-free African shirts) who expressed great concern for Holland’s toddler son Jonah. Mugabe subsequently became a repressive and paranoid monster after his guerrillas won the Zimbabwean liberation war 32 years ago and he became head of state.
Because of the chicken dinner, Holland gained unprecedented access to president Mugabe and his colleagues in long interviews for her nuanced book. Holland said that in her conversations with Mugabe he would move between tears over his former friendship with the Queen, vehement hatred for Rhodesia/Zimbabwe’s white farming community and anger with successive British governments for isolating him and his corrupt regime.
Holland controversially argued in her book, now in its fifth reprint, and in many articles, that Britain needed to talk to Mugabe and engage with him if ever Zimbabwe’s descent into disaster was to be reversed. “Given the history and the behaviour of Britain, there is logic – a twisted logic – to his thinking,” she said. “It’s all very well for Britain to say he is beneath contempt. But it is they who have to talk to him if the crisis is to end.”
She also said: “I think he is in denial, I think he can’t face what he’s done in Zimbabwe because that isn’t what he intended to do. He did genuinely, I think, want to be the saviour of his people, the liberator of an oppressed nation.’’
Heidi Holland was born on a big farm in eastern Rhodesia where her father, an immigrant from Yorkshire married to a Swiss, was manager. Her father, a prisoner of war of the Germans in the 1940s and a sharp poker player, shared the racial attitudes towards black people of most of his white Rhodesian contemporaries.
But nevertheless she was hugely fond of him and recalled how when she misbehaved as a small girl he would walk her down to the black farm workers’ compound to show her the abject conditions there and tell her to take note that she had nothing to complain about concerning her own, much more privileged, life.
She was sent away to boarding school at the age of six. It made her fiercely independent as she fended for herself among farm owners’ and businessmen’s children from families much richer and more privileged than her own.
By her twenties she had become a journalist sympathetic to the Rhodesian black liberation movement and Robert Mugabe. She was a political organiser for an opponent of Ian Smith, the white Rhodesian prime minister who declared unilateral independence from Britain. While reporting for the Sunday Times she also edited a Rhodesian magazine, Illustrated Life, outraging the white population by putting a photograph of Mugabe on the cover just before her now-famous meeting with him over dinner.
She remained deeply opposed to racism – perhaps the zeitgeist of her life – after she moved with her first husband to South Africa in 1982-3. At the height of the 1986 uprisings in Soweto and other black townships, she began researching a book on the then banned African National Congress. The Struggle: A History of the African National Congress was a remarkable achievement because of the difficulty in obtaining information about the movement’s detained or exiled leaders. Holland travelled to Tanzania and Zambia, where most of the movement’s leaders were in exile.
When Nelson Mandela, whom she adored, was released from prison in 1990 he met her and asked: “How did you manage to write this book?”
When it was first published, the book gave many their first real understanding of the exiled political body that was to occupy acres of contemporary political space. An updated version was recently republished by Penguin under a new title, 100 Years of Struggle: Mandela’s ANC.
Holland published several other books, including a brilliant account of African traditional beliefs, including ancestor worship and witchcraft, titled African Magic. She was working when she died on a new book on universal racism, with the almost inevitable provisional title of I’m not a Racist, but …
I intended discussing her new book with her during a planned month-long stay at her Johannesburg home from early September. She was helping me research a new book of my own and had sent messages of encouragement about our mutual plans. Everything came to a halt when her body was found swinging from a rope slung over the branch of a tree in her garden. An autopsy is being performed and her funeral will be held on Saturday. An early police opinion is that she took her own life, but her friends do not rule out murder because she had given no indications of distress or depression.
However, she had told me of two hold-ups by gunmen outside her home. In the first a gun was held to her head. She was forced into a bathroom and locked in while the young black men looted her house. In the second, she was held up at gunpoint in her car and forced to drive into Soweto to access money from a cash point with her debit card. She was forced out of the car and the gunmen drove off with it, leaving her stranded in the township.
Such traumatic happenings are increasingly common in an ever-more corrupt post-Nelson Mandela South Africa. When asked if she was disappointed about how things have turned out in the Rainbow Nation, given the bright promise of majority rule, Holland replied: “Well, yes. But it could have come out so much worse after all.”
Heidi is survived by her mother, her two sons – Jonah, an international television reporter, and Nick, a sports scientist – her daughter-in-law Nicky, grandson Hugo and her first husband. Her second husband, a distinguished surgeon, died in a car crash and she never remarried.
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