Interview and Video with Heidi Holland
South African-born journalist Heidi Holland, author of The Colour of Murder, recently chatted to Penguin about her latest book, Dinner with Mugabe, and gave a short reading from it. (Please see the video, below.)
Startling and insightful, Holland’s biography paints a remarkable portrait of Robert Mugabe. At a time when there is great hostility towards Zimbabwe’s leader, her work attempts to understand the man behind the monster. Dinner with Mugabe stands out for its maturity of perception and compassion.
Here’s the author on her book:
What prompted you to write Dinner with Mugabe?
My initial impetus was two-fold. It was motivated by the observation that the story of Zimbabwe’s recent past hasn’t been covered in any significant depth in the media. There was obviously a much more complicated story to tell, I felt, not least because I met him myself many years ago, and once admired him very much.
The second thing that struck me was that he’d become a stereotyped monster in the public perception globally, and that’s not helpful. I wanted to find out who the three-dimensional character behind the stereotype was because the implication if he is a monster is that he is a one-off, an aberration that has nothing to do with us and won’t happen again.
Yet there have been a number of monsters throughout Africa, and it really does have a lot to do with us – as white Rhodesians, as white South Africans, and as British people. I wanted to explore in this book the ways in which other people colluded with Mugabe to create the mess that he’s in today.
Video: reading from Dinner with Mugabe
Do you think anybody has the capacity to see their collusion? Do you think that sort of understanding can come?
The initial response has been very good. People seem really interested in accessing a more nuanced account of what happened to the man, and the country. Everybody is puzzled by him, recognising that there’s more to him than simply the one-dimensional villain. He was once a good guy.
But will people recognise their own role in what’s happened? I hope this book helps us all to be more realistic about what happened there. There’s a case to be made for talking to Mugabe. Perhaps a delegation from the United Nations, for example? I’m certainly no emissary for Mugabe, and don’t wish to create that impression, but it behoves us to explore absolutely every possibility for dialogue. At the moment nobody in the west appears to be talking to Mugabe. We never solve problems by freezing people out, by refusing to engage for decades.
Have you had any response from Mugabe?
Nothing at all. I know he won’t like the book. I sent copies to him, George Charamba and Father Mukonori. They were the first people who saw it, but there’s been no word.
How did writing the book affect you?
There were certainly some anxious moments in some of the interviews, and times when I felt I was in personal danger. You don’t ask questions in Zimbabwe. Journalists are not welcome, are not permitted to be there, in fact. Nobody at the helm wants to face the questions. Or the answers…
Going to see Donato, Mugabe’s brother, was the biggest risk I took, and I was scared that day. A priest took me to meet him. That was Br Kasito Bute, who was very elderly, in his nineties. I asked him to network for me, as it was hard to get around. Travel is expensive. It would have been a blow to travel all the way to his remote village and not be able to see him. But I kept on phoning. The reason I think I succeeded was my absolute dogged persistence.
Donato and his wife were wary of me, mistrusting. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that every time a cockerel crowed in the yard, I’d reach to answer my cell phone –which my son had set with a crowing rooster ring tone!
How did you feel in the run up to the final interview?
After I approached Father Fidelis Mukonori for assistance, I felt safer. He is very close to Mugabe and the process was certainly easier with his intervention.
Nevertheless, it was traumatic, sitting there for five weeks, waiting for the final interview. I was severed from my life and family, in limbo. As an independent author, without any financing for this project, the long wait in an expensive city like Harare really set me back; my bank balance suffered.
By contrast to the visit with Donato Mugabe, the cell phone ring tone provoked hoots of mirth when my phone rang while waiting outside Mugabe’s office. His bodyguards, all members of Zanu-PF, appreciated the rooster presence as it is their party’s emblem.
The long wait was ultimately worth it, though. The result was astonishing, making all the difference to the insights offered in the book.
From a technical perspective what was a significant challenge?
I recorded every interview, then transcribed it and sent a copy to the three psychologists I worked with. Once I received their analysis of the interview, I had to remove any traces of ‘psychobabble’ from the work. It was a hugely time-consuming process but I really didn’t want a ‘psychobiography’ that merely pathologised the man. It’s too easy to label him a psychopath, or a narcissist, but there is much more to the tragedy of Zimbabwe than a single individual. I wanted a multi-layered and nuanced text that bore witness to the multiple factors that contributed to the nation’s destruction.
Time was a factor too. I was mindful that many of the people – indeed, the main subject himself – were getting on in years. I’m glad I was able to interview Ian Smith and Donato Mugabe before they died.
Will you ever go back there? Will you be allowed in?
Mugabe probably won’t like what I’ve written, but I hope to go back and I probably won’t be prevented from re-entering the country.