Brave but gentle

By Maureen Johnson


WITH the death of Michael Hartnack, Zimbabwe has lost a fine and brave journalist, an indefatigable reporter and an insightful columnist who did his job, despite the inherent dangers and official harassment, simply because it was the right thing to do.

Above all, he was a journalist of integrity.

Mike’s friends and colleagues have lost a charming, clever and kind man — ever generous in sharing his huge knowledge of the country where he lived and worked for some four decades; and equally generous with his care and concern for others.

Through power cuts, water cuts, fuel queues and all the rest that are part of daily life in present day Zimbabwe, Mike characteristically remarked in a recent email to a friend that he was one of the lucky ones. “The unlucky ones are out there in the freezing night dying at 3 200 a week, which is a lot more than Lebanon.”

Through the trials and turmoils of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, his love for the country endured. It was, he once said, “the only place that I have ever felt alive”.

He was born in Barotseland in then Northern Rhodesia and died, aged 60, in Harare on August 2 after suffering a massive stroke. Apart from secondary schooling in England and a spell on a Cambridge newspaper, his life was in southern Africa, and southern Africa was his life.

I remember him when he was a young reporter on Iana (later Ziana) in the early 70s. He was the one whose enthusiasm never flagged; whether it was a tedious parliamentary debate about what could only seem irrelevancies as the Rhodesian Front took the country inexorably toward civil war, a meticulously researched obituary on an obscure black nationalist figure, or a town councillor’s speech.

Former colleague Heather Silk put it this way: “I actually can’t imagine this country without Mike Hartnack recording our lives; without us being able to tap into that elephantine store of historical facts, and the riveting trivia he had ferreted away . . . a thoroughly good, God-fearing, gentle soul.”

He worked on the Rhodesia Herald, Ziana, and then freelanced for South African newspapers, including Business Day, and for the Associated Press, the London Times, and Deutsche Welle.

“Michael was an accurate, sensitive and incredibly able correspondent. We will all miss him terribly,” said Deutsche Welle African editor Susan Killick.

His weekly columns in South African newspapers, including the Natal Witness, Eastern Province Herald, Cape Times and Daily Despatch, provided a unique chronicle of his troubled country.

In 2003, Mike received an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University which cited his working life “in service of the truth and the vision of a just and non-racial Zimbabwe, displaying courage and integrity”.

And then there were things no one would notice. Mike did them because he was quite simply a good person and a devoted family man. Anne, his wife of 33 years, and their children, Richard, Andrew and Jennifer, were his mainstay.

His last published column, written July 24, has a special poignancy. No great occasion, just the funeral at Epworth Mission of a 79-year-old with whom Mike had worked as a court reporter on the Rhodesia Herald 40 years ago. He described the congregation staring as he squeezed into the church — “one last, solitary, surviving white face from all the host of Andrew Kanyowa’s former colleagues”.

They had known each other at the apogee of white supremacy. Through Andy “I became aware that it was not possible for any African to live in Rhodesia without being daily, hourly reminded he belonged to a conquered people,” wrote Mike. And how it is now.

“The new elite holds its country cousins in a new kind of servile relationship . . . Teenage girls work for wealthy urban families under conditions close to slavery. New farm owners pay their labourers far less than the statutory minimum wage, and erratically … This is not the sort of society for which black or white people like Andrew Kanyowa hoped and worked.”

Andy, Mike added, was “gentle, understated, subtle, tasteful.” Mike too.

* Maureen Johnson is based in London.

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