IAN Smith’s government had rebelled against the authority of the Queen, nationalist guerrilla forces were infiltrating the country’s borders, the economy was under United Nations sanctions, and “insurgents” were playing cat and mouse with the secret police.
Rhodesia in the 1970s was an exhilarating environment for journalists. British and American newspapers and agencies dispatched their best foreign correspondents to Salisbury, the capital.
They risked ambushes and being blown up by landmines in the war zones, and their reports were frequently sensational. The atmosphere was jittery, and they lived high in rented colonial mansions and drank hard at the Quill Club, Salisbury’s gathering point for journalists. Many marriages were put under strain.
Heidi Holland was a striking, vivacious young white Rhodesian woman who was quickly absorbed into this unique, often exclusive group. She quickly moved from local magazine journalism to reporting for international newspapers, and was in constant trouble with Rhodesian Prime Minister Smith’s censors and the Special Branch.
Forced to flee the country after Zimbabwe’s Independence in 1980 following an astonishing gaffe by her orthopaedic surgeon husband, she moved to South Africa and became a prolific author –– known chiefly for her book Dinner with Mugabe –– while she maintained a steady output of regular columns.
Her death at the weekend, reportedly by suicide –– police say she hanged herself in her garden –– stunned a wide circle of friends and readers around the world.
Heidi was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1947. She was a young child when her right-wing father and Swiss mother moved to Rhodesia, and she grew up on a tobacco farm in the Umvukwes (now Mvurwi) district in the fertile north of the country. A bright but rebellious teenager, she refused to study further after her O-level examinations at Salisbury’s Lord Malvern high school and took a secretarial job.
She married early to wealthy hotelier Tony Hull, and found herself next door to liberal politician and author Diana Mitchell. The older woman repeatedly warned the naïve Rhodesian that “she had better get used to the idea that we are going to be ruled by a black man”.
Heidi, who said that each morning of her youth she imbibed “a spoonful of prejudice with her breakfast cereal,” had her awakening when Mitchell held a party for a large crowd of black academics and politicians. Until then, like many white Rhodesians, the only blacks she had spoken to were cooks or gardeners.
Her horizons were also expanded by working closely in Salisbury with Nonie Niesewand, wife of Guardian journalist Peter Niesewand who was detained in solitary confinement in 1973 for 10 weeks over his reporting on Rhodesian security force operations.
In 1975, she used her house for a secret rendezvous between Robert Mugabe, just released from 11 years of detention, and liberal politician Ahrn Palley, to plan for the nationalist leader’s flight to Mozambique where he later took over the leadership of the banned Zanu and its guerrilla army, Zanla. The encounter was the source of the title of Dinner with Mugabe, widely acclaimed as probably the most insightful book to have ever been written so far about the Zimbabwean ruler.
Heidi edited the hitherto staid Illustrated Life Rhodesia and outraged authorities in 1978 by defying censorship and publishing on its front cover the first photograph of Mugabe to appear in Rhodesia.
Her marriage to Hull ended after five years when she fell in love with the married George Patrikios, the surgeon who had played rugby for Trinity College.
In 1983, after they married, he invited a crew from the United States television show, That’s Incredible, to film Heidi’s 10-year-old-son, Jonah, assisting him in an amputation. Jonah held the retractor, the surgical instrument holding apart incised tissue, as Patrikios sawed through a black Zimbabwean’s leg.
In the ensuing racial uproar, the family fled to South Africa. A year later, Patrikios was critically injured in a car accident, and died two years after that. Heidi fell into a depression that lasted several years.
But she roused herself and began research on her first book, The Struggle: A history of the African National Congress. By extraordinary coincidence, the book was published the day in 1990, February 11, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The resourceful Heidi tracked him down and presented him with a copy.
She wrote quickly, and four more books followed until 2008 when Dinner with Mugabe was published, a series of interviews with 14 people who had had close dealings with him. The book serves as probably the most comprehensive depiction of the Zimbabwean leader’s complex background and personality.
Among the interviewees was Lady Mary Soames, wife of Lord Christopher Soames, the last British governor of Rhodesia. She told Heidi that initially she had been very fond of Mugabe, and quotes him as saying, “We had the very good fortune to have been colonised by Britain”. Days before Independence, Lady Soames said, Mugabe implored Lord Soames to arrange for the British transitional contingent to stay, because, he said, “I don’t know anything about running a country and none of my people do either.”
Lady Soames told Heidi that she had since “crossed him off my Christmas card list.”
Heidi also secured an interview with Mugabe. After being told to fly up from Johannesburg, she spent a month kicking her heels in a lodge, waiting to be called. She gives a hilarious account of being interrogated for an hour by George Charamba, Mugabe’s spokesman, about herself and the proposed book while six identically suited officials –– one of whom fell asleep –– recorded her answers.
The three-hour exchange with Mugabe reveals him as an old man slumped in his chair, badly out of touch with reality and the state of the country, and angrily denying that anything had gone wrong, let alone that he was responsible.
Heidi had a revised edition of her book on the ANC published earlier this year. She also ran a popular bed and breakfast establishment in the suburb of Melville in Johannesburg where journalists, academics and diplomats regularly gathered.
Heidi was born on October 6, 1947 and died on August 10, 2012, aged 63. She leaves behind two sons, Jonah Hull, war correspondent for Al jazeera, and Niko Patrikios.