2012 Sydney Peace Prize Recipient Sekai Holland in SMH Good Weekend: Our Torture was a Victory
In Zimbabwe, can murder and terror ever be replaced by healing and reconciliation? Nikki Barrowclough meets Sekai Holland, the woman charged with the herculean task of bringing peace to her homeland.
Late one afternoon, Sekai Holland is in the back seat of a government Mercedes being driven at high speed along the main road leading out of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Wearing one of her spectacular African headscarves, the winner of the 2012 Sydney Peace Prize is explaining in her passionate, emphatic, occasionally imperious manner her job as a Co-minister of State for National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration.
It’s one of several times we’ve discussed the precarious power-sharing arrangement put in place in 2008, which created the current so-called unity government with strongman Robert Mugabe as President and democracy leader Morgan Tsvangirai as Prime Minister. But like so many Western observers, it’s how this fierce, extraordinarily courageous woman comes to terms with the circumstances that require her to have a relationship with the 88-year-old Mugabe that intrigues me far more. However, it’s a subject that needs to be approached delicately, not immediately.
Holland, formerly one of the country’s best-known opposition supporters and, like Mugabe, prominent in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle back in the ’70s, is far more inclined to talk about her all-consuming work attending meetings and travelling the country talking to people as she helps build “an infrastructure of peace”.
The job she has taken on is a formidable challenge in a country where the population remains terrorised and traumatised by the extreme, state-sponsored political violence that has made Zimbabwe such a frightening place for years. Even now, there are no guarantees that Holland is safe. “No one is safe,” she says at one point. But hers is a wide-ranging role, encompassing everything from talking to all sides about ending that violence, to making sure that elderly white people are looked after, to introducing empowerment programs for women.
As the car crosses a desolate-looking landscape lined with ruined farms long abandoned by white owners, Holland talks volubly, often over my interruptions. Her wonderfully throaty, raucous laughter rings out often. She can be deadly serious, defiant and audacious all at the same time.
People continue to be amazed that Holland ran for election at all, after she was tortured, whipped and beaten for hours in a Harare police station five years ago at age 64. But when she discusses the treatment that was meted out to her, and which caused international outrage at the time, she turns the appalling episode on its head.
“Our torture was a victory!” she declares, referring to herself and her fellow torture victims, all members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) which Holland helped set up with Morgan Tsvangirai in 1999. Holland had gone to the police station to ask about fellow MDC members who’d been arrested while trying to attend a prayer vigil. Moments after she arrived she made an urgent phone call to Tsvangirai. When his wife answered the phone, Holland told her, “I need your permission to let him come here because I think we are going to be killed – and if we got killed it would just be some [MDC] executive women. But if Tsvangirai was killed, it would have an impact.”
Tsvangirai came to the station immediately and was also beaten savagely. (A Zimbabwean freelance cameraman who distributed TV images of Tsvangirai’s injuries was abducted and found murdered a few days later.) But it was Holland whose injuries were the worst. She suffered a broken arm, a broken leg, smashed ribs and lacerations that later needed skin grafts.
“Our torture was a victory,” continues Holland, “because it forced people to meet the challenge of removing all torture from our society. You have to always remember when you’re a politician the objective of why you’re in politics. If you don’t do that, I don’t think you survive. So when we were tortured, the objective for Tsvangirai and me was to stop the torture. Stop this violence. Stop all forms of violence wherever it occurs. We have to find mechanisms to get rid of it. The only way it can go is for society to make a resolution that it has to go, and build systems and institutions [to make it happen]. That’s what we’re doing. That’s why there’s no point in worrying about being beaten to death – the urgency is to get these things working!
“So, why I am here,” she adds, “knowing that any day Morgan Tsvangirai and I could be wiped out, is that for me the important thing is that we’re contributing to the infrastructure of peace. All these other things are almost irrelevant.”
Returning to Zimbabwe in February 2008, when she hadn’t yet fully recovered from her injuries, was incredibly brave, I tell her.
“If you run away, that gives a lot of people pleasure!” says Holland. “It frays the nerves if you stay! So you stay!” She adds that soon after she arrived back in Harare she was rearrested and held for several tense hours at the central police station (during which time she managed to SMS everyone from Jim Holland to Kevin Rudd’s office). She was eventually let go without having been ill-treated.
She describes walking down endless corridors with one of her minders, as the police came out of their offices to watch. “I had on flowing robes and stilettos. I think they thought, ‘That witch!’ ” Her laughter rings out again.
Jim Holland, the engineer son of career diplomats, is as courageous as the woman he has been married to for 47 years. He, too, was arrested during the period leading up to the 2008 elections and taken for interrogation. He says he told the men holding him, “Look, I’m in your hands. I know you can do anything you want – torture me, kill me. But I think you should think about the consequences of that. Remember the last time you did that, to my wife, it went all over the world. And I am an Australian citizen, and I think my government will have a few words to say, so if you weigh up the pros and cons you’ll realise it’s not a good idea.” They released him.
Sekai Holland’s phone rings often during the car journey that is taking us to Bulawayo and, ultimately, to Matabeleland North, many hours’ drive from Harare. Nairobi-based photographer Frederic Courbet, who flew in the previous day, is also in the car. “Ah! It’s Jim!” she announces. “He’ll be checking that everything’s all right!”
The one time we both fall silent is when Omega, our driver, slows right down – after nightfall – as we encounter the second of several police roadblocks whose primary purpose is to demand money from motorists. Our government car is waved through by unsmiling men in uniforms. A short time later comes a different kind of hazard: the great glow of a bushfire burning perilously close to the road. A split-second glimpse of a man holding the hand of a child as they run in front of the flames is unnerving. Fires like these may indicate some sort of violence, or else people hunting rats for food, says Holland. Our car accelerates, racing ahead through the darkness until we’re clear of sparks.
The high speed at which we’re travelling is a metaphor for Holland’s life: she packs a lot into her days, despite the pain she still clearly suffers from her injuries. One of the first things she said to me after I arrived in Harare was, “How early do you get up?” Almost immediately, after announcing we were meeting the mayor, Muchadeyi Masunda, in a couple of hours, she whisked me off to a youth group meeting in an inner-city suburb, where she presided with gusto, clapping the speeches of teenage representatives from the so-called coloured community (people of mixed race). Ending the marginalisation of coloured people and making sure they’re included in mainstream Zimbabwean society is just one part of the healing and reconciliation process, she says.
Holland is very much a mother when it comes to Zimbabwe’s young people, and she’s concerned about their freedom and opportunities. She speaks movingly about the MDC youth, and the need for a monument to honour “all those kids who have given their lives” in the struggle for democracy.
Perhaps this is partly the reason for her sudden contemplative mood when we halt the journey briefly around 9pm in a bustling town, and the car pulls up next to a small boy who’s selling ZANU-PF flags on the pavement.
The Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) is the party Mugabe has led since independence in 1980. It controls the army, the police and the dreaded Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), and has a capacity for savagery that has long damned Zimbabwe’s president in the eyes of Western nations.
The boy on the pavement comes over and introduces himself in exquisite English. He looks about nine, but says he’s 12. He has no idea who Holland is, of course: no idea that the fear instilled in people by the party whose flags he’s selling so conscientiously is the real reason why Mugabe has stayed in power for so long.
Holland will tell me that she believes Mugabe, now suffering ill health, genuinely supports the healing and reconciliation process. However, she also says she believesthat the coming elections will see more of the same sort of violence that shocked the world during the last, bitterly contested polls in 2008. “Of course they won’t be peaceful,” she says. “The coercive machinery is still there. Everyone knows it!”
I tell her that I sat next to a Zimbabwean expat businessman on the plane from South Africa to Harare who predicted the opposite because “everyone is sick of that crap”. Holland disagrees. “There is going to be a lot of violence,” she says.
Mugabe lost the 2008 elections to Morgan Tsvangirai, but refused to stand down. He “won” the presidential run-off vote after Tsvangirai withdrew because of a campaign of military-led torture and killings carried out by ZANU-PF youth gangs and militias against his supporters. Ultimately, Mugabe signed “a memorandum of understanding” drawn up by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), agreeing to share power with Tsvangirai. According to the terms of this pact, electoral reforms and a new constitution must be in place by the time an election is called. But as The Economist recently reported, “Few of the reforms agreed on … have been implemented, rampant human rights abuses continue and many ministries barely function.”
Mugabe himself has reportedly mocked the term “national unity government” and, despite the recent lifting of sanctions by Britain and the European Union in an effort to persuade him to hold free and fair elections, many Zimbabweans fear that ZANU-PF hardliners will make sure that doesn’t happen.
But Holland mentions Mugabe’s Independence Day speech in April this year, when he said that all political party leaders should encourage their supporters to promote the spirit of peace, tranquillity and harmony through social dialogue. Mugabe, she also points out, co-signed the 2008 Global Political Agreement (GPA) with Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara (the leader of an MDC faction), requiring that all sides come together to help Zimbabwe heal. The formation of the current power-sharing government came out of the GPA, and also led to the Organ on National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration – or The Organ, as everyone calls it.
“They guide what we’re doing,” she says.
Nevertheless, the day that Holland was sworn in as a minister, in February 2009, she admits she was “shaking” because she was among ZANU-PF people – though she also says that many of them are embarrassed about her torture. “And there was Mugabe. It was very, very formal. We took the oath, we sat back, and Mugabe came around [and said], ‘Congratulations.’ He gave me a hug.”
A month later, Morgan Tsvangirai called Holland and the man he’d appointed as Organ chairman, Zimbabwe’s Vice-President, John Nkomo, to his office. From there, they were taken to a room where Mugabe was waiting to tell them his thoughts about the work they’d be doing. Once again, Holland felt fear. “But when he started to talk, I was shocked at how brilliant he was. I said, ‘Can I write?’ I wrote everything down.
That the dictator is a man of contradictions was made clear by the late South African journalist Heidi Holland (no relation), in her 2008 book, Dinner with Mugabe. Holland was found dead in her Johannesburg home this August, apparently from suicide. Morgan Tsvangirai had told her that Mugabe seemed completely unaware or feigned ignorance of the atrocities committed by his own people when the two dined together after the 2008 election. Mugabe, wrote Holland, divided himself “in such a way that one side does not know about the other”.
Sekai Holland describes another meeting with Mugabe, this time at a ceremony to mark World Water Day, in March.
“I was standing with the other ministers. Our eyes met. He held both my hands and said, ‘Well done.’ He [was speaking about] our work with the infrastructure of peace. When he was leaving after lunch he held my hands again and gave me a pat on the back, and said, ‘Keep up the good work.’ ”
But as I point out to her, it’s widely believed that it was Mugabe who ordered her torture. Does she have evidence that he did?
Holland says no, she doesn’t. “If you’re stubborn, you know that one day you will be picked up. Jim and I, my parents – everyone knew that one day I would be tortured! I just didn’t know when. So when it happened, I knew, ‘This is it!’ And because it came so late [in my life], I thought I would be killed. Because I am stubborn I have very firm views about politics, justice, equality, a fair go for everybody,” adds Holland. “We should all be treated well.”
It’s something else she says about Mugabe that makes me wonder whether she’s trying to make her own peace with him – even if only for herself. “He’s from the nationalist movement, I’m from the nationalist movement. It doesn’t matter what happens between us,” she comments. “There’s a bond – an affinity. We know where we’ve come from. We know where we want to go.”
Sekai and Jim Holland’s home in Harare is literally full of children. Orphaned children, the children of absent parents, relatives’ children. The numbers go up and down, but it seems there are usually about 30 children at any one time. This is how the Holland household has run for years.
It also became a refuge for more than 100 women and children during the horrific violence leading up to the 2008 elections. Jim Holland helped ferry them all to safe places. The couple have two adopted children of their own – now adults – plus a grandson, all of whom live in Sydney.
Sekai Holland is the eldest of six children. Her father, Masotsha Mike Hove, who died in June this year, was a well-known newspaper editor who became a politician and then a diplomat. Her mother, Maroma Bappelile Nkomo, was a headmistress before marrying.
We pay a fleeting visit to the peaceful old family home near Bulawayo, eating a late meal there with Holland’s sisters, Sukoluhle and Busisiwe, and looking at family photos. Next January, on the lawn beneath the jacaranda trees planted by their father, and according to his wishes, they’ll hold a gathering of family friends on the anniversary of their parents’ wedding.
Holland’s mother passed away in 2005, two years before her daughter was almost beaten to death by the authorities. “I am so glad that my mother was dead when I was tortured, because it would have killed her,” she says suddenly, softly. “She would have died a very sad death because she would have seen the photos on TV.”
One can only imagine how many times Maroma was anxious about the fiery Sekai. Encouraged by her family to study in Australia, where she met and married Jim Holland in 1965, the young Zimbabwean woman threw herself into the anti-apartheid movement, the Aboriginal land rights movement (when she was tortured, the fact that Aboriginal leaders joined the worldwide condemnation of her treatment with an outspoken letter shocked ZANU-PF, she says), and completed a BA (Communications) at the University of Technology, Sydney, in 1979.
At the same time, though, she was deeply involved in the Zimbabwean independence movement, and became Zanu’s representative in Australia (the party was reborn as ZANU-PF in 1987). Zanu’s leader in exile, Herbert Chitepo, operated from Zambia, and Holland travelled there in 1974. Chitepo was assassinated in 1975, allegedly by allies of Mugabe (who was Zanu’s secretary-general). Holland herself was condemned to death by a Zanu faction for speaking out against the sexual abuse of female recruits, and the violence practised against all recruits, but had already fled back to Australia.
Yet it’s the very fact that she’s a former member of Zanu, spent time in Zambia and played a major role in the liberation struggle that gives her a credibility that others in the opposition lack, suggests Jim Holland.
With independence won in 1980, she returned to Zimbabwe with Jim and their two children, where she helped rebuild the Association of Women’s Clubs (AWC), a rural women’s development organisation. As the national chairwoman from 1986 until 2000, she started speaking out for the rights of women as the Mugabe regime became increasingly intimidating. When the AWC leadership was banned from running the organisation, she launched a Supreme Court challenge against the government’s action – and won. This triumph still gives her enormous pleasure.
Once you know her history, it seems obvious that of course Holland would go straight back to Zimbabwe from the safety of Australia after being tortured, against the advice of everyone except Jim, who encouraged her to run in the elections. She now represents Chizhanje, a poverty-stricken township in Harare, where she’s flat out organising everything from a new library and outside reading centres to planning to line the roads with flame trees and jacarandas. But she’s in demand all over the country.
At one stage of our journey together, I watch her – a revered politician, a commanding woman – standing in the dust in a remote part of Matabeleland North, a province in western Zimbabwe, addressing a crowd who have walked from their isolated villages to watch football games being played in the name of peace. They’re completely still, listening to every word she says.
Watching her, too, is Senator Lot Mbambo from ZANU-PF. He and Holland are the two VIPs. A grandfatherly-looking man, he tells me that everyone believes people must live in peace in Zimbabwe. “Whatever happens to you, you must not run away from your country,” he adds. “She did the right thing to come back.”
As vivid an impression as his words leave, it’s still the memory of the small boy selling ZANU-PF flags that resonates more. Frederic Courbet and I bought some, before telling the young merchant he could keep them and resell them.
There was no childish hoot of glee in response. Instead, the boy addressed us in an oddly grown-up way. “Thank you very much,” he said with heart-rending sweetness. “God bless. Tomorrow will be a better day.”
While we were still in Harare, Holland was one of the official guests at the 102nd Harare Agricultural Show, which is a major event on the political calendar in the Zimbabwean capital. Mugabe would be there. It seemed a good opportunity to meet him, and Holland agreed. But once we’d arrived, she was immediately ushered through one entrance, while Courbet and I were made to go to another. There the atmosphere quickly became tense after we were surrounded by Mugabe’s men who told us to go. Another man appeared: smoothly spoken, smiling, apparently friendly. He quizzed me about what the Sydney Peace Prize was. He’d never heard of it, he said.
Later, waiting for Holland to leave the ceremony, we spot the tall, intriguing figure of Dr Timothy Stamps making his way through the milling crowd of departing VIPs to his car. Not much is ever written about Stamps, who was born and raised in Wales, where he qualified as a doctor before leaving in 1962 to live in colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Stamps was Zimbabwe’s health minister for 15 years and, for most of that time, the only white in Mugabe’s cabinet.
Holland had introduced me to Stamps earlier in the day, in his office next to hers in the Club Chambers Building in central Harare. (Startlingly, this is also where the Central Intelligence Organisation is headquartered.)
“The word I’d use about her is humble,” says Stamps, when I ask him how he regards the woman he’s only now getting to know. “She’s one of those rare people who knows when her life comes to an end that her work will continue.”
Holland’s office looks completely unoccupied. There’s no sign of any files. The desk is bare. Earlier, she’d remarked, only partly joking, that she’d chosen an office with “an escape window”, because of the proximity of the CIO. But the presence of the secret police in the same building isn’t the reason for the spartan atmosphere.
“One day, when Mugabe goes into a trance and expels us, I’ll simply get up and leave,” she says.
This often happens: even when she’s at her most defiant or optimistic, a note of foreboding will slip into Holland’s voice. She says that the MDC “lost its heroism” by joining with ZANU-PF in a coalition government. But at the same time she clearly believes with all her heart that a non-violent, democratic Zimbabwe is achievable.
“Zimbabwe’s story takes time to understand,” she says, with a shrewd glance at me, before comparing the current state of affairs in the country with dipping sheep. “The dip is there. You go into a hole and come out on the other side, into the dip of national healing, herded by SADC! They’re blowing the whistle and shouting, ‘Get in! Get in!’ And eventually everyone will get in! And I tell you,” she adds, becoming serious, “this will be the best place in the world. I’m not joking. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. Every rung goes higher and higher, and in the end we will get there.”
Nikki Barrowclough was flown to Zimbabwe courtesy of the Sydney Peace Foundation.
Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend, Saturday 6 October.