The Woman Who Got Inside the Dictator’s Head

Mugabe biographer Heidi Holland was a unique force among southern African journalists -- independent and fierce, but understanding.


On Saturday, Aug. 11, the southern African journalist Heidi Holland died suddenly in her Johannesburg home. She was 64. With her passing, South Africa — Holland’s home for decades, though she was born in Zimbabwe — lost its most believable independent voice, perhaps the only white commentator who managed to hold the ruling African National Congress to account for its post-apartheid lapses without suggesting governance was better under white rule.

Holland was born in 1947 on a farm in what was then Southern Rhodesia, the British colony on the fertile plateau north of South Africa. A fiercely independent child who proudly told me of being packed away to a boarding school at age 6 to fend for herself among planters’ and businessmen’s children much richer than she was, by her twenties she had become sympathetic to the Rhodesian black liberation movement and its young leader, Robert Mugabe.

In 1975, just before Mugabe fled the country to organize armed struggle against white rule from a safer base in neighboring Mozambique, the young Holland secretly cooked a chicken dinner in Harare for him and a constitutional lawyer who wanted to help his cause. That brief meeting — at which Mugabe struck her as shy, soft-spoken, even kind — would 30 years later form a bookend for her 2008 book Dinner with Mugabe, the portrait of the dictator that made her famous. In 2007, Holland flew back to Harare from South Africa and waited five weeks at a hotel to interview Mugabe again. With input from his boyhood friends and family as well as professional psychologists, she pieced together a penetrating psychoanalysis of the African leader whose apparent recklessness Westerners just couldn’t understand.

The soft-spoken, eager-to-please young Mugabe, she wrote, had staked everything on his acceptance as a liberator by his early heroes: the British. Abandoned by his biological father at age 10, he found a father figure in an Anglo-Irish priest who taught him, wrote Holland, that "the English gentleman represented the highest stage of human civilization" and that respectability "required him to disown his African heritage." Mugabe imbibed this philosophy deeply: At his first meeting with his cabinet as Zimbabwe’s first black president in the early 1980s, he was appalled that some of his ministers were dressed in African-style tunics and demanded they return to work in suits tailored on London’s Savile Row. When Holland interviewed Mugabe in 2007, he still got tears in his eyes when recounting his affection for the British Queen. But by then he had also been spouting anti-Western rhetoric for seven years as his country reeled from hyperinflation and agricultural ruin.

The U.K. government had rejected his initial plan to accelerate the redistribution of land to black peasants, which it had initially indicated it would support. That stung him deeply and convinced him the West would never fully respect a black African in power. In the face of that abandonment, he supported groups of self-styled "war veterans" to invade and take over white farms and withdrew Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth. Mugabe’s bitterness committed him to doubling down endlessly on anti-Westernness, even if doing so threatened to destroy his country.

In 2008, Mugabe’s destruction of Zimbabwe finally broke into the world’s consciousness with a disastrous presidential election he stole using violence. And Holland, the only journalist not living in Zimbabwe who’d managed to wring a timely interview out of him, became his unofficial interpreter. She warned the West in outlets like the New York Times to recognize the "futility of [its] punitive diplomacy" towards Mugabe, since that only fed his worldview. "I left Mr. Mugabe’s office with [the feeling] that he was going to stop at nothing to prove that he had been wronged," she wrote. "Indeed, he told me that he was prepared to sacrifice the welfare of his country to prove his case against Britain."

Dinner with Mugabe had remarkable life beyond 2008. Earlier this year, it was translated into Spanish and became a surprise hit in Venezuela, where presumably residents found it a useful key to decode their own anti-Western ruler. The book was so important because, unlike the vast majority of biographies of post-colonial African leaders, it did not portray Mugabe as impenetrably "African," born with a dark psychology and peculiar palette for horror that only this continent can provide. Rather, her Mugabe was a universal figure — he was human, dangerously human, a man caught between worlds, who could have emerged anywhere there are dueling cultures. She pleaded for us to understand him as a psychologically wounded brother, though she held absolutely no admiration for his actions. To her friends, she often bluntly referred to his recent rule as the period in which Zimbabwe went "tits up."

Holland’s message was to treat African leaders no differently than any others — neither as special beasts nor as special saints. This vision of African leadership is what makes her death such a loss for South Africa, her adopted home. Recently, in energetically-written columns for the Star, a prominent Johannesburg daily newspaper, Holland had taken the African National Congress to task for failures like its belated response to the outbreak of a devastating HIV-AIDS epidemic and the entrenchment of rampant corruption that is damaging its ability to deliver services to South Africa’s poor.

Nearly 20 years after apartheid’s end, many South African commentators either still shy away from criticizing the party of the saintly Nelson Mandela or — particularly if they are white — descend into full-blown declinism, suggesting South Africa is doomed to follow the trail of deterioration and tears walked by every other black-run country. (Recently, a white filmmaker just back from some African travels described to me the parlous state of the Angolan roads and then confessed he was sure South Africa’s excellent roads "will look the same soon enough. Just give it 20 more years.") Holland fearlessly attacked South Africa’s new government when it was "corrupt" and "incompetent" — but she also warned South African whites not to get too cockily contemptuous of the new government’s stumbles. "We whites are undoubtedly in denial about the damage inflicted by us on black South Africans," she wrote in a widely read 2009 column after a white opposition leader made a ruckus by condemning South African President Jacob Zuma as a "womanizer with sexist views." Whites had to be careful not to fall into the trap of dismissing black politicians as primitive, Holland warned; not only was it wrong, it also fed a narrative of white contempt that imperiled the fragile advances the country had made towards racial reconciliation. It was a perspective born of her investigation of the sources of Mugabe’s bitterness, and it allowed her to speak truth to both sides, a rare feat in a still-racially divided South Africa.

Holland’s capacity to speak to all kinds extended beyond her writing into embodied life. It’s no exaggeration to say she nearly singlehandedly made Johannesburg a city of unusual intellectual exchange with the daily salons she hosted in the bed and breakfast she also ran. Every afternoon around 5:30 p.m. she cracked open a bottle of South African white wine and set up a table in her dining room — decorated with funky wooden statues made by street artists and fading political posters for Haile Selassie and the martyred South African black thinker Steve Biko — for both her guests and her neighbors to congregate and talk about South Africa, their travels, and their lives. The bed and breakfast became a hub for local and foreign journalists alike, as well as historians, anthropologists, scientists, artists, dancers, HIV/AIDS activists, and mere nomads. For many wanderers, it was the highlight of any trip to Africa. I met more than one American writer there who admitted his assignment was in Kenya or Nigeria, but he couldn’t miss out on a trip to Johannesburg to see Holland and get her input on his work.

In 2009, traveling to Johannesburg for the first time, I asked the veteran foreign correspondent who’d recommended I stay at Holland’s bed and breakfast for the phone numbers of interesting people in the city. He gave me a few, but concluded, "Honestly, I met the most interesting people just sitting at Heidi’s in the evenings." Three years later I can say the same — from the criminologist who rode night shifts with the private police services sprouting up in South Africa’s most crime-plagued neighborhoods to the British-born educator making a soulful pilgrimage back to his dead Nigerian father’s village. When I eventually moved to Johannesburg early this year, I realized I was subconsciously only considering apartments within a few blocks of her bed and breakfast. I didn’t want to miss a single opportunity for the drink that might turn into a lingering, laugh-filled dinner at the pizza place across the street, during which Holland would turn her keen perception from politics to literature, romance, or our own wacky, beloved families.

For many observers, the complexity of post-apartheid politics is wearying. Living in South Africa, I have heard several writers with impeccable credentials in the anti-apartheid struggle confess that there’s one thing they actually miss about the apartheid era: the way right and wrong seemed perfectly clear, the moral excitement and intensity of a great cause. With that gone, it sometimes seemed better to just write about something else. With her lively columns and her gatherings at the bed and breakfast, though, Holland made post-liberation South Africa’s battle to realize its dreams seem just as thrilling and important as its pre-liberation one.

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