Don’t you carry?

R.W. Johnson

In Harare to watch Mugabe steal the election I quickly got some reminders I didn’t really need that I wasn’t too welcome. The state-owned media repeatedly declared that foreign spies posing as journalists were flooding into Zimbabwe and would be harshly dealt with. The Minister of Information, Jonathan Moyo, went on TV to say that such people had better be prepared to spend a very long time in Zimbabwe and we knew what he meant. Mr Moyo had several times made it clear that he regards me with particular loathing so I wasn’t too surprised to find myself watching a ZTV programme about myself as the evil genius of the whole Zimbabwe crisis. When I told the paper I was writing for they got quite excited: ‘We’ll send a photographer around,’ they said.

‘Christ, don’t do that,’ I said. ‘The last thing I need is to have a mugshot over an article at this point.’

‘Don’t worry,’ they said, ‘it’s only for use if you get put in the slammer. Or for your obit.’

At this stage I decided I’d better go somewhere a bit more defensible, to the little compound of my friend Dave the hunter. Dave’s house was, from that point of view, reassuring: Kalashnikov rounds on the mantelpiece, crossed Martini-Henrys on the wall and pictures of the Pioneer Column, of Selous, the greatest of all hunters, and of First World War fighter aces in the hall. On the floor, a hyena skin, the mouth still gaping wide with carnivorous lust. Across the compound lived Barry, getting on now but still a legendary crocodile hunter. Barry’s wife, Jane, insisted on giving me a haircut as I sat under the giant baobab and listened to Barry. ‘Only got bitten twice by crocs,’ he said, ‘but both times my own stupid fault for just wounding ‘em. A wounded croc is like a wounded tiger, bound to come back and get you.’

‘How do you know?’ I asked.

‘When it’s wounded it just closes its eyes and sinks to the bottom, tries to make you think it’s dead.’

‘How do you know when it’s really dead?’ I asked.

‘Can’t miss that,’ says Barry. ‘Shoot one through the brain and they throw themselves round on top of the water: somersaults, handsprings, what have you. The big thing then is to catch hold of its tail or one of its legs while it’s still thrashing about or else it will just die and sink to the bottom and you won’t get the meat or the skin or anything.’

‘Isn’t that a bit risky, I mean catching hold of it when it’s still full of energy?’

‘Not really,’ says Barry. ‘It can’t fake the somersaults: that really does mean you’ve blasted its brain out. It beats the hell out of just wounding it so that it comes back under your boat, knocks you into the water, forcing you to shoot the bugger while it’s trying to eat you. Take my word for it, that can be quite unnerving.’

Dave and Barry both carry guns all the time, small personal revolvers or pistols tightly and invisibly clamped to their bodies. ‘Don’t you carry?’ they ask. Dave talks to me very seriously about the merits of carrying. Given their fascination with guns and the books about the Rhodesian Air Force and the Special Forces of the old South Africa lying round the house, it would be easy to write off Dave and Barry and their white hunting friends as recalcitrant Old Rhodies. But quite wrong. They are all in Africa because, like me, they can’t imagine being anywhere else and have happily embraced majority rule as the only right thing. They speak Shona and SiNdebele just as fluently as their black girlfriends and sometimes, after explosive bursts of laughter, I have to ask lamely for a translation.

Which is not to say there wasn’t something unsettling about several of them. Dave pushed weights every morning and I asked what the big white scar across his shoulder was. ‘Poacher, AK-47,’ he said. ‘He’d just killed an elephant and thought, quite rightly, that I’d turn him in. Damn near took off my shoulder. But I was with Zeno and Zeno nailed him, filled him full of holes. There’s a shoot-to-kill policy with poachers in Zim, and Zeno takes full advantage of that. Helluva good guy but maybe a bit of a psychopath.’

‘You mean,’ I say, ‘the guy I met at dinner: the Canadian, the nice gentle wildlife enthusiast?’

‘Yup, that’s Zeno. Been here more than twenty years. One time in Hwange Reserve we had these poacher gangs who were too damn good for us, killed scores of elephant and rhino, but we couldn’t catch them. Zeno gets these infrared direction-finders from some US Vietnam vets and at night we’d set them up on a ridge in two or three different spots and then triangulate their camp fires. At dawn we’d come in with a helicopter, shoot the hell out of them. They never could work out how we knew where they were. Zeno’s passionate about elephants and rhinos. He says he’s killed 18 poachers but I’ve personally seen him slot more than twenty: I think his real count must be thirty or more. Mind you, no one can hold the poachers now that Mugabe’s sent the war vets in. Places we thought we’d made safe for wildlife for keeps are deserts now.’

Then there was Jimmy, the police inspector. A regulation policeman: shorts, long khaki socks, soft-spoken, fiftyish. But what was he doing in Comrade Bob’s police? ‘It was the British South African Police when I joined,’ he says proudly. ‘On a par then with the LAPD and the RCMP. The LA police are still pretty hot and so are the Mounties but these days the force I belong to are mainly just Mugabe’s thugs.’ Jimmy had been shot nearly to bits in an ambush during the war in the late 1970s and walks today only because of a lot of metal placed throughout his body. He had an unhappy marriage and his wife took off to New Zealand with their only child. Which just leaves him with his job, at which he is so supremely good that he has several times been headhunted as a ballistics expert by police forces abroad. But he sticks where he is with his mates and what he knows. Dave and he had once shared a prison cell for a week. Dave had put the finger on an ivory poacher who was in with the chief of police, while Jimmy had shot dead a drug-dealer who turned out to be a Cabinet minister’s son. Both Dave and Jimmy are keen churchgoers and pride themselves on an upright, old-fashioned morality, but a spot in jail was taken as an occupational hazard, something most of your friends had done at one time or another.

‘Now that Zimbabwe has become a rogue state the drug trade’s got big,’ Dave explains. ‘It’s like we have all these Libyans and terrorists around now. The Government hasn’t got many friends left and will do a deal with anyone offering cash. Deals done in hell, a lot of them. So lots of drugs coming in from all over and getting funnelled down south. Jimmy’s got a real thing about drug-dealers. He’s a gentle chap really but he has very strong feelings of gallantry. You don’t want to get in the way of that. Something to do with losing his wife and child, I guess. He can’t abide people who prey on women or children – which is to say, drug-dealers or rapists. He always slots them. At last count he’d killed 84 of them.’

There is anger and sadness as well as relentlessness in the way Jimmy does his job. He was, I decided, a metaphor for Zimbabwe. For this is a country where the Government itself is deliberately destroying the economy (by the end of 2002 it will have shrunk 30 per cent in three years); where famine is man-made; and where the President uses rape, torture and murder as instruments of state policy. President Mbeki next-door makes himself a willing accomplice to this reign of terror, embraces Mugabe, publicly holds hands with him, insists on his legitimacy, even tried for a long time to argue that the election was free and fair.

When Mugabe first sent troops to fight in the Congo war many of Harare’s black professionals were shocked: what was the Congo to do with them, it was so, well, primitive. You actually heard the phrase ‘heart of darkness’. Dave told me he’d taken a hunting party there and come across a stall in a village market where human flesh was on sale alongside the usual carcases of buck and warthog. ‘If you think about that for a moment,’ he said, ‘you realise that means not just that there are still cannibals about but that there’s no rule of law at all.’ But now there’s no rule of law in Zimbabwe either. It’s not much over a hundred years since the colonial powers arrived in force in Africa and summarily ended a thousand little wars, put a stop to cannibalism, made people obey their law and established a paix coloniale. Now that colonialism is gone it often seems as if Africa is reverting to a pre-colonial lawlessness, little wars mushrooming everywhere, disease re-establishing itself, life expectancy shortening.

One day I have to go on a rather dangerous trip, smuggling food supplies to starving farmworkers through a cordon of war vets and youth militia who would rather see them die. I wonder about a bit of extra security. ‘What you need is Ricky,’ Dave says. Ricky arrives wearing a long black coat despite the searing sun. He is far too professional for anything to be bulging visibly under the coat but you realise that he’s carrying, and heavily. As we drive, Ricky tells me he’s a professionally qualified personal bodyguard and that for some time now he’s been one of a small unit guarding Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader. It’s only because Morgan is out of the country for a few days that Ricky is available to protect me. ‘Let’s face it,’ he says, ‘the bottom line is that if Mugabe thinks he’s in danger of losing power he’ll try to kill Morgan. By our reckoning there have been three attempts so far.’

‘Where does that leave you?’ I ask.

‘In the end this job is totally personal,’ says Ricky. ‘To protect him you’ve got to be willing to put your own life on the line. You can’t but ask yourself: is the guy worth it? We’ve spent a lot of time with him, had to think hard about it. Our feeling is yes, this guy is well worth it. So that’s what we do.’

As far as Dave and Ricky were concerned, nothing was more ridiculous than the idea, put about by the Government in the last days of the campaign, that Tsvangirai had been involved in a plot to kill Mugabe. The whole thing was a set-up. ‘Just not his style,’ Ricky says. ‘The thing Morgan is most passionate about is the rule of law. He’ll never break that.’ On top of that, Tsvangirai, according to the official script, is supposed to have gone to a Montreal outfit run by an Israeli fixer, Ari Ben-Menashe, to take out a contract on Comrade Bob. ‘You’d never do that,’ they say: ‘this Israeli guy is just a PR man. If you want to take out a contract all the expertise and local knowledge you need is right here. And,’ Dave adds, ‘there’s so much kit about.’ By ‘kit’ he means weaponry. AK-47s, RPG-7s, grenades, hunting rifles and all manner of small arms. ‘We’ve still got arms caches from our own war,’ they say, ‘but Mozambique and Angola are awash with weapons. So is the Congo, so is South Africa. You can get any weapon you want here.’ Dave tells me one of his friends has a boat on Caborra Bassa and that there is still a lot of piracy there, so he has mounted a Yugoslav-made double-barrel anti-aircraft gun on top of his boat, which, firing level, can blow anything out of the water. A weapon like that, Dave points out, is so intimidating you hardly ever have to use it.

Not for the first time, I think this is the Wild West. Jimmy is a figure out of the 1840s. And very little separates Barry from Jim Bowie. The big difference, you realise, is the hardware – the AK-47s and the MiGs. An idle thought strikes me: Mugabe’s helicopter criss-crosses the sky all day and for security reasons no one else is allowed to fly one. But you do see big four-engined Ilyushins straining upwards, overloaded by a factor of two with arms and supplies for the Congo. Taking off with such loads is apparently a trick their Russian pilots learned in Afghanistan. ‘Is there any kit to deal with planes?’ I ask.

‘What do you want?’ Dave laughs. ‘Sam-1s, Sam-2s? Less than a kilometre from where you’re sitting there’s a cache with two Sam-7s. You’ll need to pay in US dollars of course.’ I pass.

Next morning Ricky drops by. ‘You’ll never believe it,’ he says, ‘but some joker in the MDC seems to have hired a rival team of bodyguards for Morgan. A guy called Ronnie Suggett has rolled up from Jo’burg, talking big. Says he’s been hired to jack things up to a higher level of security now that the election is on us.’

‘So what are you going to do?’ Dave asks.

‘We’re just sitting tight,’ Ricky says. ‘Far as we’re concerned we’re the A-team and there isn’t any other team.’

Next morning Ricky’s back. ‘This is getting serious,’ he says. ‘Suggett has installed himself in Meikles Hotel and has got ten guys with him, says they’re just an advance guard, that more are coming up from South Africa. Mainly white guys so far, just a few blacks. Eleven guys putting up in Meikles costs a fair bit: someone is paying for all this and I smell a rat. Money is changing hands somewhere. I think someone in MDC must have a private deal going with these guys. The idea is clearly to squeeze us out. But no one quite seems to know who’s in charge. Someone in Morgan’s private office probably took a decision without telling us. Typical, absolutely bloody typical.’ I offer to phone some senior people I know in the MDC. They all sound a bit puzzled.

Late that night Ricky rings me. ‘This is getting out of hand,’ he says. ‘Suggett is talking a blue streak, says altogether he’s got as many as a hundred men coming up from South Africa. He’s talking 28-seater helicopters, private airstrips, armoured cars and heavy machine-guns with belts. Real Johnny Rambo stuff.’ Ricky wants me to organise an investigation into Suggett’s background back in Jo’burg. I say: ‘Look, that will take too long.’

‘Put it this way,’ says Ricky heavily, ‘protecting Morgan means that if there are guys seriously endangering his safety we have to take them down. If Suggett and his mob get to that point we’ll just have to take them down.’

I ring the same senior MDC people as before. ‘Look,’ I say, ‘it’s another set-up. It’s quite clear this guy Suggett is aiming to import a whole private army and it’ll be mainly white South Africans. You can bet your life that they’ll be completely wrong guys, right-wing crazies. And they’re talking about bringing in heavy machine-guns which are completely out of line: these guys are only supposed to carry revolvers. It’s at least twenty to one that the guy who’s really hired Suggett is Mugabe. They may even hope to trigger a shoot-out with the present team of bodyguards. This is just what Mugabe needs to dramatise his claim that Morgan is trying to kill him. He’ll point to a whole big conspiracy with right-wing South African whites and then he can lock Morgan up for ever. This is just part two of the whole Ben-Menashe affair.’

Next day Ricky is as happy as a sandboy. ‘They’ve all gone back to Jo’burg, Suggett and his whole mob,’ he says. ‘Finish and klaar. Some MDC guys came and accused them of being hired by Mugabe, part of a set-up. They just took off.’

‘Do you think they were hired by Mugabe?’ I ask.

‘Could be,’ he says. ‘Could just be fly-by-nights. In this business you often don’t know. But it doesn’t matter: they’ve gone.’

Later, I saw Morgan and asked how he was feeling. ‘To tell the truth, exalted,’ he said. ‘It’s a huge responsibility when so many people put so much hope in you.’ The fact that Mugabe went on to steal the election hasn’t really changed anything in that regard. Jomo Kenyatta was notoriously misdescribed by the colonial authorities as ‘a leader unto darkness and to death’: Kenya under Kenyatta was at peace and flourished. But the description fits Robert Mugabe all too well. Mugabe and Mbeki think that provided the Government is a self-described ‘national liberation movement’, people ought to be content, but they aren’t. Zimbabweans, black and white, want a liberal democratic society – all the polls show that. Nobody wants to undo national liberation, but they do want desperately to escape from the historical straitjacket of a ‘national liberation movement’ which believes that it should rule them for ever while leading them ever deeper into lawless misery. Whether Morgan Tsvangirai would make a good President, no one knows: for the moment his courage is enough to make him a repository of popular hope, a means of expressing people’s passionate desire to escape from the straitjacket and make their own history.