The Rhodesians have always been a dubious people.

Monday, November 8.

It was just two months ago, in the South African resort town of Hartbeespoort, that I played my first round of golf not prefixed by the word “mini.” Jacques, a roommate, had taken me to visit a friend staying at the posh West Lake Country & Safari Estate, an exclusive housing development on the shores of the Hartbeespoort Dam. This was a long way from my crowded commune in Auckland Park. The villas were ornamented with fountains and statuary and trophy wives; the grounds populated by springbucks, impala, red hartebeest, blue wildebeest, and white people. You took in those bearded Tritons and potted palms and expansive lawns and thought that some epic melodramas of South African Carringtons and Kardashians were playing out inside. On the golf course, though, it was an unheroic afternoon. My posture poor, my swing crooked, my drives of the low-lying variety, I spent the better part of the day thwacking balls into and out of sand traps, fretting for the neighbors’ windows, while Jacques and Broadley tapped in for par or birdie, exchanging good-natured claps on the back like a pair of junior executives.

It is thus not for pure sporting purposes that I arrive this morning at the Royal Harare Golf Club, a venerable institution with a pedigree dating back to the 19th century. I have been invited by friends – George and Gerald – caddies who I met at a bar across from my hotel last week. Monday, they explained, is the day when the caddies of Royal Harare get to play the course for themselves, so I’ve come to join them for a friendly round on the back nine – a chummy confab under the sun, followed, if all goes well, by a post-game tipple in the clubhouse.

As the story goes, the first fairway of Royal Harare is almost as old as colonial-era Rhodesia itself. The club’s first architects gathered in September of 1898 to design what would become the Salisbury Golf Club, just three years after the British South Africa Company, carving up its colonial concessions between the Limpopo River and Lake Tanganyika, had settled on the name of Rhodesia for the vast territory. This was an impressive feat of imagination for the first generation of Rhodies. Just a year after the Shona/Ndebele uprising – the First Chimurenga – had been quashed, these African whites were already eager to place a genteel stamp on their newly civilized territories. The natives were pacified; how else to pass the time on a Saturday afternoon? While my Greek forefathers were shunting sheep across mountain pastures in the Pierians, Cecil Rhodes’ contemporaries were driving a fleet of ox-drawn ploughs across what would become the front nine. Thus, Salisbury Golf Club was born.

The founders’ fustiness is still on display. As I greet George at the caddy station, he regards my outfit – my untucked shirt and calf-length shorts – with alarm. On the wall behind him, a sign lists the club’s extensive dress code. What is permissible: collared golf shirts, polo shirts, high neck T-shirts (“Tiger style”), polo neck winter shirts, tailored shorts with belt loops, 3/4 shorts with belt loops, and “predominantly white, ankle length or longer socks with shorts.” What is not: round neck T-shirts, V-neck T-shirts, denim shirts and vests (damn!), shorts with “elasticated” waist, tracksuit bottoms, denim trousers, dark socks with shorts, and something called “secret socks.” This, it should be noted, is the dress code for the course alone. The clubhouse rules are even more stringent.

There is something to be said for this rigor, this propriety, in a nation that, just two years ago, was printing new currency so fast that it devalued as soon as it left the presses. Outside Royal Harare, Zimbabwe might be burning; inside, sir, would you please tuck in that shirt? At the reception desk, someone known as the Caddy Master gives my outfit a disapproving once-over, settling on my bare ankles. I have discovered what exactly “secret socks” are, as mine are hidden below the line of my low-top sneakers. The Caddy Master confers with George, who looks decidedly more uptight when he doesn’t have a half-dozen Castles in him. “White socks,” says the Caddy Master. “Let me see what I can do for you.” He disappears into the back room and reappears some anxious moments later with a pair of mismatched socks. About the only thing going for them is the fact that they are white and long. They are also torn and filthy, which leads me to wonder if someone else’s dirty white socks are really a step up from the freshly laundered secret socks hidden in my sneakers.

White-socked, shirt tucked in, thus outfitted like a total jackass, I join the rest of my foursome outside. Along with George there is Thomas, a Royal Harare instructor with a shark-like smile and an eight handicap; and Nick, a baby-faced youth of some 21 years, a part-time caddy and university student who just took up the game last year. It is a hot, bright, cloudless afternoon; even a short round on the back nine suddenly seems a bit ambitious. Thomas, as the most serious golfer among us, is the first to plant his tee in the ground and line up his shot. His arms are long and muscled, his waist, I’m guessing, a trim 28. He looks every bit the athlete until he takes a pack of Madisons from his pocket and lights up. Tucking the cigarette into the corner of his mouth, hitching up his pants, and blowing out a few puffs of smoke, he proceeds to whack the shit out of the ball, which jumps off the tee with a mighty ping. We watch it, a tiny white speck, vanishing over the treetops and into the clear blue sky. Then it reappears, taking a few dainty bounces before resting snugly on the fairway, roughly four miles from where Thomas has just teed off.

We stand there admiring the shot, Thomas holding his pose just long enough to insist we admire that, too. Nick follows, sending a low, screaming drive into the rough to the right of the fairway. I’m next. I spend a minute or two adjusting my grip, shifting my feet, coming to terms with the fact that a golf swing is a lot more complicated than it looks on TV. George approaches, moving my hips, tucking my elbow, tilting my chin. It is like a buttress propping a derelict building: remove the support and the whole thing comes tumbling down. As soon as George removes his steadying hand from my elbow, it jerks up; once he’s aligned my head with the ball, I look up to figure out which part of the fairway I want to aim for. My first swing sends the ball skipping across the fairway and into the rough. My second makes a beeline to the rough on the other side of the fairway. It is in this way, zigging and zagging my way toward the green, that I position myself for a neat putt from a few feet out. “Call it 10,” I say, no doubt being charitable to myself on this brutal par 5.

Already I can feel the strength of the sun on my neck and face. No doubt this is a fine day to be sipping gins and tonic in the shade and comfort of the clubhouse, but it’s a tough morning to be schlepping around the back nine. George and Thomas, eager to share their wisdom, position me with care before each of my shots, dispensing little golfing koans as I proceed to make a mess of the scorecard. “Keep your head down,” says George, tilting my head forward. “Don’t doubt your swing. Just trust it.” For a few minutes I manage to find a Zenlike place from which to send my little Precept soaring; once I convince a handsome chip shot to settle neatly on the green. Otherwise, it’s sheer chaos. Tee shots go zinging into the bushes and caroming off trees; putts ring the lip of the cup but refuse to drop. On the 11th, stuck in a sand trap, I take a mighty swing that sends a clump of sand skyward. The ball doesn’t budge. George sighs and shakes his head. “It is part of the course,” he says.

Slogging between holes, the golf bag feeling like a sack full of anvils, I ask George if many politicians visit the club. It turns out Morgan Tsvangirai himself comes to Royal Harare four or five times a week for a round with fellow MDC heavyweights. George, chest out, tells me that just last Friday, he had a chance to caddie for the man they call Morgan. “He has a 14 handicap,” says George, letting it be known, in his admiration, that this is a fine handicap for a prime minister. I can picture MT and his inner circle using the quiet greens and expansive fairways of Royal Harare to plot strategies, make plans for the next election. I ask George what they talked about, and he shrugs. “Anything. He is very open with his life,” he says. “He is a very kind man. A gentleman. He comes here just like you.” He pauses and adds, “Maybe with three, four bodyguards.” I ask if they’d ever entertained President Mugabe on the links, and everybody laughs. “We cannot have the president here, or there would be soldiers everywhere,” says George.

On the 13th I get a call from Andrew Moyse, a media watchdog, about an interview we’d arranged for the afternoon. It seems we’ll have to cut things short at Royal Harare. This is probably for the best: it is easy to see our enthusiasm flagging in the midday heat. Thomas has managed to squeeze in a few pars and birdies around his chain-smoking, and Nick, perpetually in the rough, has been hacking at the grass like he’s on a Mississippi chain gang. George, meanwhile, hitching up his blue jeans and adjusting his cap, sends a few wayward shots far off the fairway. He has not played competitively in months, he says. Today’s excursion was more for my benefit: he wanted to take me out onto Zimbabwe’s most famous golf course and teach me how to swing. Walking along the 17th fairway, making our way back to the clubhouse, two duykers go prancing through the shade, zigging and zagging. In Vic Falls, says George, the game surrounds the course – you can see them just beyond the fencing, elephant and zebra and giraffe craning their necks, perhaps to get a better view of the 18th green. Once, driving from the course, their car was stopped by a pack of buffalo, a long dark heavy line trudging across the road.

Back at the clubhouse, on the practice green, six geriatric men – their faces ruddy, their shins like polished ivory – send putts back and forth across the tightly clipped grass. Thin, leathery women in sun hats sit drinking and chattering in the shade. The pennants flap lazily atop their flag poles. For a brief moment as we pass the putting green, I have a powerful intimation, as if I’m witnessing the end of something: the dying gasps of the colonial era, perhaps, the only thing missing from the tableau being the black waiter in white coat-tails, serving canapés. But the feeling passes; I know I’m being unfair, lazy and ahistorical. Thirty years after the death of Rhodesia, the whites who remained to become a part of the new Zimbabwe aren’t an easy caricature of colonial-era privilege. They’ve braved the bullying and provocations of the government; they’ve faced farm invasions, threats, violence. Three decades ago, their friends and family “took the gap” to South Africa, afraid of what black majority rule would mean to the colonial order of Rhodesia. The old way was undone a long time ago. It’s not hard to see in these survivors traces of that old pioneering stock – Rhodes’ men who drove their ox-ploughs across the untamed greens – hitching their fortunes to a leap of faith in the only country they’ve ever known.

At the clubhouse, tired and wrung out by the sun and heat, I propose a quick drink to boost our spirits, to put some vigorous stamp of commemoration on the afternoon. This is a miscalculation on my part. The others, of course, are still on the clock – Thomas no doubt with lessons to give, George obliged to hang around with the other caddies, waiting for someone to request his services. Suddenly I feel ridiculous, every bit the creature of leisure as the old pensioners putting on the practice green. But there seem to be no hard feelings on their end. I buy a round of Cokes to rescue the mood, and we part warmly, graciously, thick-as-thieves – as if we’d just pulled a fast one on Royal Harare, and the old dinosaur were none the wiser.

It is a fine afternoon, the first, since my arrival last week, untroubled by rain. But the day veers off-course in the dwindling hour before dusk. I am obliged to put on my journalist’s hat for my chat with Andrew Moyse, but the afternoon mood – the drowsy heat, the lethargy of the golf course – has left me disjointed. My thoughts are scattered, my mood suddenly downcast. It will take a great act of courage, I realize, to rise to the occasion – to present myself to this media watchdog and old-school hack as one worthy of bearing the mantle of our profession.

Moyse greets me at the offices of the Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe sitting at his desk, finishing off a late lunch of rice and stew. Handsome, cocksure, with something mischievous and swaggering about the eyes, he strikes me as the sort of erstwhile foreign correspondent who’s seen a few coups, screwed a few ambassadors’ wives, and now settled into a happy career as a thorn in Robert Mugabe’s side. I’m quickly unnerved in his presence. His graying hair, his assuredness, his hard, clear, pool-hustler’s eyes, all conspire to remind me of my greenness as a reporter. From my first softball question about the media climate in Zimbabwe, I feel like a boy playing dress-up in the mirror, slouching beneath the broad shoulders of his father’s oversized suit. Moyse seems to take this all in stride. He is happy to brush aside my village-idiot questions and discourse on his own, with great passion and at great length, about the corrupt institutions that undermine the country’s media bodies. “The public media are being used as propaganda weapons of ZANU-PF, and they’re not likely to make any concessions,” he says. “It’s like any dictatorship. You don’t expect to get any concessions from a dictatorship.”

As with most of its decisions since the formation of the ill-fated unity government, Mugabe’s party has skillfully toed the line between public concessions – whether it involves the divvying up of government portfolios with the MDC or the liberalization of the press – and private muscle. ZANU-PF is still calling the shots, with state media – the daily Herald and the sycophantic Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) – playing the role of Pied Piper. Whatever initial optimism surfaced this June, when the government issued licenses for five new independent newspapers to begin printing, has quickly given way to the usual cynicism and despair. Only one new daily has gone to press in the five months since; the same repressive media laws still hang over editors’ heads like Damocles’ sword. “They could be closed down tomorrow under exactly the same laws that they were closed down under in 2003,” says Moyse. “Nothing has been locked down in legal terms with regard to reforming the legislation.”

Moyse knows that civil-society and media watchdog groups like the MMPZ are facing an uphill climb. The legal groundwork in Zimbabwe has to change, so that a genuine commitment to a free and independent press is entrenched in the language of the constitution. Just as necessary, he says, is an overhaul of the recently restructured Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe – the legislative body that oversees the granting of broadcasting licenses, which is stocked full of ZANU-PF appointees. Despite government promises to liberalize the airwaves and allow private broadcasters to compete with ZBC, not a single license has been issued. “What we’re asking for is an independent commission, and not a biased one,” says Moyse, to allow for private broadcasters to enter the arena. While he knows a dramatic shake-up of the public broadcaster seems unlikely, he hopes that organizations like the MMPZ can keep the government mouthpiece in check. “The idea is to cut down on the rampant abuses on the public airwaves, and to keep the idea of public broadcasting on the agenda,” he says.

This is all the more urgent as Zimbabwe prepares for another election season. Already Moyse has seen the rhetoric turned up a notch on ZBC news broadcasts. “They just report on the activities of ZANU-PF politicians,” he says, “and they rarely report on MDC – only negatively.” His concerns come in the wake of a study published by MMPZ, “The Propaganda War on Electoral Democracy,” which documented the abuses and failures of public media during the 2008 election. Among its findings:

Not only did the official media abandon their public mandate to provide a fair, adequate and credible news service to the people of Zimbabwe in complete disregard for local, regional and international guidelines on fair and equitable media coverage of contestants during elections; they were complicit in suffocating any news of what evidently became a national campaign of extreme violence to liquidate the opposition party’s structures and terrorise the electorate in general against voting for MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

In addition, these media also played a crucial role in fanning the flames of hatred and intolerance against the MDC, a legitimate political movement, at a time when mobs of mostly ZANU-PF militia under military instruction roamed the countryside conducting a campaign of violent retribution against opposition supporters. The violence resulted in the deaths of more than 140 opposition activists and the brutal beatings, arson, torture and displacement of many thousands of innocent citizens.

“Everyone has half a hope that this election will make a difference,” says Moyse, “but we’re not really sure about it.”

Back at the hotel, as if to underscore his point, I catch a few minutes of the evening news. It is a remarkable program, one that could have easily been culled from a Soviet-era newsreel. The segments are heavy on references to ruling-party comrades, bland statements from the politburo, and the occasional tirade against Western imperialists. One story begins with the observation, “The Rhodesians have always been a dubious people.” Referring to an “alleged” increase in farm invasions, the ZANU-PF talking heads go on to discredit such reports on the rather philosophical grounds that the very notion of farm invasions by black Zimbabweans is ludicrous; in the words of one official, “It is like saying you are invading your own home.”

That night, groggy from the day’s athletic and journalistic exertions, I again find myself at Book Café, my happy little second home in Harare. The caffeine and the cheery commotion of young musicians and poets offers a much-needed pick-me-up. I’m well into my second cup of coffee by the time the open-mic night begins to gather steam. There are some nervous poets and off-key rastas and a beautiful young vocalist with a voice like Erykah Badu c. “Tyrone.” Throughout the performances a grave young man sits by himself near the stage, fidgeting with a sheet of paper folded into quarters. Finally, with what can only be described as heroic effort, he lurches from the table – from whatever depths of solitude he occupies on these Harare nights – until he finds himself panic-stricken in front of the microphone. The atmosphere in the café is somewhere between light mockery and encouragement. At last he summons up the nerve and begins, in a warbling voice, to sing a patriotic song – its rousing chorus full of exhortations and desperate love for Zimbabwe. It is a terrible song, sung terribly, but the sweet poignancy of this brave patriot’s performance, the bright shine of his sweat-slick face, carries the night. The applause thunders and showers down on him like summer rains, and in his eyes is the joyful awareness of what it is to love and be loved.

One response to “The Rhodesians have always been a dubious people.

  1. Barbara Soloski Albin

    Just to let you know I still read your posts – started when you talked about Botswana and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Always keeping up hopes for new shows, but still reading your posts. They are great :-)

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