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."