14 August 2012

South Africa: Heidi Holland Hailed As Herald of Democracy

Photo: IRIN
President Robert Mugabe. Heidi Holland rose to fame with her 2008 controversial biography titled "Dinner with Mugabe" of Zimbabwean President Mugabe.

Three days after Heidi Holland's death, South Africa is struggling to accept the news. The 64-year-old journalist was after all well respected and seen as an example for future generations of reporters. The fact that her views on race relations were at times met with fierce criticism seems to be forgotten.

Speculations were rife when the story broke on Saturday morning. While some media reported how a gardener found Holland's body hanging from a tree in the garden of her Johannesburg home, others claimed she had been discovered dead in her garage.

Whatever the story is: everything points towards suicide and there is nothing that can make her death easier to digest. "Holland was tenacious and tireless in pursuit of a story. She always did her research properly before setting out to report something," says Ray Joseph, a journalist for over 30 years and founding member of the South African Professional Journalists' Association.

Ability to make people talk

According to Joseph, many of these skills are in short supply among younger journalists. "They too often depend too much on the Internet," he says. "Many of them are busking their way through a story without doing real research."

One of Holland's most exceptional skills must have been her ability to make people talk in order to get to the heart of the story. 'Dinner with Mugabe' is a good example. For this book, which tells the tale of the rise of Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe, Holland even spoke to the man himself - someone who normally refuses to talk to foreign journalists.

Holland was granted a two-and-a-half-hour interview to a large extent because of her sympathies for those who fought white colonial rule in Zimbabwe, including Mugabe himself. She even hosted him for dinner at her home in 1975, hence the title of the book. It's important to realise that this was a different era, long before Mugabe seized power in the 1980s and turned from a freedom fighter into a power-hungry tyrant.

Empathic approach

'Dinner with Mugabe' can therefore not be classified as a book of admiration and adoration for the Zimbabwean strongman. On the contrary. According to critics it is even one of the most balanced works available on Mugabe.

Mlungisi Mthembu, journalist in training at a Cape Town newspaper, admires Holland most for her empathic approach, which she chose over one of confrontation.

"What struck with me was how she wasn't judgemental when she spoke of and to Mugabe, and therefore managed to get to the bottom of the story. She fell out of favour with some people for this, but she didn't cave in and stuck to her guns."

There was more controversy. In May 2009, Holland and Helen Zille, head of the oppositional Democratic Alliance (DA), exchanged some harsh words after the latter called president Jacob Zuma a "self-confessed womanizer with sexist views, who puts his wives at risk by having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman."

Public spat

In her column 'A disservice to white citizens' Holland, a fierce opponent of white supremacy rule in both South Africa and Zimbabwe, dismissed Zille's outburst as a humiliating moment in South Africa's racial history.

"She should have demonstrated a rare political (and for that matter white) humility by apologizing. Has she forgotten that disdain for the dignity of others gives impetus to rampant nationalism? Surely apartheid taught us that," Holland wrote.

She added that white South Africans were still in denial and would be in denial for decades about the damage they had inflicted on their black counterparts.

Zille retaliated in an open letter and replied that she would not apologize because of her white skin: "In seeking to be a champion of non-racialism, Holland provided an outstanding example of racist thinking in its purest form."

Quest for truth

But today it all seems forgotten. In a statement, the DA hailed Holland as one of the serious democratic voices around: "South Africa has lost a warm host to the global family of progressive individuals."

That is also how Joseph and Mthembu, two journalists from two different generations of reporters, remember the author. "Most of all, what I as a young journalist choose to take from Heidi Holland, is her quest for the truth," Mthembu notes.

It is therefore ironic that Holland, with her deeply-rooted admiration for the truth and aversion to vagueness, left so many people guessing about what happened last weekend - and most importantly why.

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