There are few words that can capture the inside of an African bar; that mix of noise, laughter, danger with the whiff of stale beer and the stench of smoke; the clatter of metal tables and chairs; a place where beer flows and tongues loosen faster than the frames of the fading pictures on the wall.
From Lusaka to Kigali and beyond, bar floors are scattered with the ashes of cigarettes and thousands of conversations – most forgotten – that launched scores of stories – most untrue – into African folklore.
The abdication of Robert Mugabe in November reminded me of one such tale told in a warm, smoky corner of an African bar.
The priceless tale was of Mugabe’s visit to London in 1994 on a mission to encourage more foreign investment into his, then, robust economy.
On the day Mugabe and his team set out their stall in a presentation to narrow-eyed investors, in London, a hand went up at the back of the room.
“If I put my money into Zimbabwe will it be nationalized at a later date?”
It was not the question Mugabe had traveled thousands of miles to hear, even though it was a portent of the troubles to come in Zimbabwe.
The tale I heard, in the African bar, was that Zimbabwe and Mugabe had the last laugh on their former colonial masters. The Queen invited Mugabe and his ministers to Buckingham Palace for a state banquet in their honor.
It was a glittering evening beneath the chandeliers with the cutlery glinting in the lights of the night. Each plate had half a dozen knives and forks on each side.
This caused considerable consternation for the former vice president, the late Simon Muzenda, who frowned down at the line of implements on either side of his plate. Now Muzenda was a good guerrilla fighter who distinguished himself in the liberation war in Zimbabwe. Yet, the man himself would have admitted he was not a great sophisticate when it came to state banquets in palaces.
“What do I do?” says Muzenda in his mother tongue of chiShona.
Mugabe replied patiently that Muzenda was to start on the outside and work his way in with every course that the waiters delivered. Then Mugabe, ever the pragmatist, turned to Her Majesty and said it was customary for his comrades to say a prayer, in chiShona, before a meal; she gave the royal assent. Mugabe clasped his hands and said something, roughly translated, like this.
“We thank you God for our safe journey and the food on the table. We also pray to God that Muzenda uses the right fork at the right moment!”
The Zimbabwe contingent collapsed into laughter; the Queen looked on bemused.
Poor Muzenda would also have been the first to admit he maybe lacked a little education. His training consisted of a short period studying carpentry at a mission school in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province.
The latter gave rise to another tale in an African bar.
In the mid-1990s Mugabe was speaking at a dinner in South Africa when he paid tribute to the education the country had lent himself and his vice-presidents Joshua Nkomo and Muzenda. Mugabe listed the degrees that Nkomo had earned at South African universities.
“My other vice-president Muzenda has also had some training here,” says Mugabe, to a few snickers from his aides.
So, both tales great fodder for a night out in an African bar. True? Why should they be when so many spurious tales are born among beer suds and the cackle of the African night.
One sunny afternoon I was hanging out with the presidential spokesman George Charamba in Harare. In those more principled days of the Mugabe regime the charming Charamba played it fairly straight.
“You have got your story,” was his usual retort when you had your facts straight.
I put the Muzenda stories to him and on this occasion he was more emphatic.
“You write those and you will be on the fastest plane out of here,” smiled Charamba.
It was true. So, not all bar tales in Africa are to be thrown away with the dregs of the night before.
Zimbabwe: Two Realities In One Country
The grandeur of the Victoria Falls is in stark contrast to the rest of Zimbabwe.
It is eight days before Christmas. We take the 1,300-kilometer drive from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls for a short vacation. As we arrive in Beitbridge, the border connecting South Africa and Zimbabwe, the sun is shining its warm golden light over the bridge. There are no birds chirping over the Limpopo River. It seems like a peaceful morning, until you get closer.
There is pandemonium as hundreds of cars line up to be stripped and searched before proceeding into Zimbabwe. Most here are Zimbabwean nationals working in South Africa traveling home for the holidays.
They are bringing with them many supplies like cooking oil, fuel, stationery, furniture, clothing, drinks, building material and even Christmas trees. These items are scarce and overpriced in Zimbabwe.
Some want to sell them to hurried customers and others want to use them at home. The problem is, most of them require as much as 40% duty and others can’t be imported.
“Is your friend here today? I would like him to help me cross with my goods,” I overhear a man in the autumn of his life say over the phone.
He isn’t the only one trying to smuggle goods into Zimbabwe. According to local reports, the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) loses over $1 billion due to smuggling each year. With hundreds trying to make their way across, a journey to Victoria Falls is delayed by at least five hours.
As we drive into Beitbridge, we can see and almost smell struggle. This place is seized by an oppressive gloom. Our first stop is an Engine Garage that now operates almost like a tuckshop. Here, fuel tanks are dry and the shop inside has only bread, water, cold drinks, biscuits and chips.
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Outside, it is filled by a crowd of people pushing, shoving, shouting, buying and selling. There is dirty water flowing down the street and litter fills the potholes. Yet, this grubby place is seeing more trade than Zimbabwe’s biggest banks. Here, the black market is king and the bond notes are pawns.
In 2016, the government introduced bond notes in hopes to ease the cash crisis that saw the US dollar become scarce. The Reserve Bank may say bond notes are 1:1 to the US dollar; the free market says no. The black market traders are selling 1 US dollar for three bond notes.
“I used to be an accountant with a good job but our company closed down and now I am jobless. I have to make a living somehow so I rather sell cash on the streets to put food on the table,” says Bongani Moyo.
As we drive further into Zimbabwe, the situation gets worse. Stores are packed with imported goods; roads and buildings are dilapidated. One of the biggest problems is fuel.
“I just came out of a two-day fuel queue. The situation is bad. People can’t go to work and sometimes people hire [other] people to spend the day queueing for them,” says Given Mwale, as he directs us to a garage that sells fuel in foreign currency so we can continue our journey to Victoria Falls.
“That is the only garage that doesn’t get many queues and doesn’t run out of fuel. It is a private garage. They import their fuel from Botswana and they only sell in forex,” he says.
Shocked by the scarcity of cash, we drive towards Victoria Falls. On the way, many businesses are boarded up, their paint peeling and doors closed. As we arrive in Victoria Falls, there are jaw-dropping scenes.
The place looks nothing like the rest of Zimbabwe. Fueled by the tourist economy, the streets are clean and the business district buzzing. People are relaxed in summer clothing and look like they have no worry. It is a true holiday destination.
At Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River plummets over a cliff and into the boiling pot before flowing through a series of gorges. It has a width of 1,708 meters and a height of 108 meters, making it the world’s largest sheet of falling water.
As nature lovers, we experience the falls while walking through a rainforest and playing with monkeys. We also get to watch the sunset while drinking champagne in an open boat.
For a few hours, we forgot the troubles that belie Zimbabwe; until we drove out of Victoria Falls, back to Bulawayo. There may be laughter and foreign currency near the smoke that thunders but the rest of the country continues to cry for an economic breakthrough.
The Class Of 1976 – Soweto Uprising
It’s not often I find myself driving past the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in Orlando West, in Soweto, an urban township in Johannesburg.
But come June every year, I inevitably steer my car to the site, mentally revisiting the carnage that happened here in 1976; the student protest and the police firing that led to an iconic photograph the world came to associate with South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime.
Two years ago, one of my assignments with FORBES AFRICA was to pursue a story on the ‘Soweto Uprising’. Thankfully, the museum gave me three vital leads to reconstruct the events of June 16, a day etched in blood in South African history.
It was a Tuesday when I met my first contact, Oupa Moloto, who then was a student at the Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto where it all started.
“On the day of the event, the school started a little earlier; the mood was different, the students were excited but the teachers couldn’t pick it up,” recalled Moloto of the first stirrings of the protest against the mandatory use of Afrikaans as a language of instruction in black secondary schools.
After the interview, I visited the school and walking around, could sense around me the nervous excitement of the students like it was 42 years ago. I could hear their voices, singing and chanting as we stood where the last assembly was held, before the shots were fired at them.
I photographed Moloto at their then assembly point and his face was a picture of sorrow. The school has been renovated since but in the older building, are still some vestiges of that time – broken windows and furniture.
A few weeks later, I met with Barney Mokgatle at his home in Alexandra, another township. He was one of the students who went into exile after the tragic march.
“The police were hunting for us, we could not sleep in one place for two nights because there were people selling us out,” said Mokgatle.
Mokgatle was the right hand man to Tsietsi Mashinini who led the march and later died in exile.
He talked me through every detail; he also said Pieterson was not the first student shot at the march.
Perhaps more intriguing was his recounting of their escape and journey to Botswana through the bushes without fear of the wilderness, with their other friend Selby Semela.
He started singing, the masculine man had a voice of the angels; it was remarkable. As soon as the humming started, I almost shed a tear, I could feel their struggle and strength as they dodged bullets and teargas in the Soweto streets wearing blazers and ties, some running with missing shoes.
But at that moment, they were crossing serene bushes unaware of the hungry beasts around them lurking in the dark all the way to the borders of Botswana.
A few days later, we met again for a shoot where a statue of his friend Mashinini was erected not far from the Morris Isaacson school. He didn’t come to Soweto often but when he saw the statue, he paused, staring at it. He finally turned and we continued walking to a wall where he showed me a collage of his two friends and himself.
The story wouldn’t be complete without speaking to the ‘girl’ in the iconic photograph of Pieterson taken by Sam Nzima. Antoinette Pieterson, the older sister, who is 58 today.
“I saw Mbuyisa [Makhubu, the boy carrying Pieterson in the famous photograph] coming from nowhere; I didn’t know him at the time. He was running towards me, he passed me. I saw he was carrying a person and I could recognize Pieterson’s shoe, I ran with him,” she recounted.
Today, as I walk the streets of Orlando, I think of the privilege I enjoyed of choosing between either isiZulu or Afrikaans as a second language in school.
Thanks to the class of 1976, we had the freedom.
The Sad Road Trip On An Empty Wallet
As soon as I heard of my aunt’s death, I knew straight away that I had to make a plan to fill my petrol tank and attend the funeral. I hadn’t seen her in months and felt bad about not getting her the mobile phone I had promised her months earlier. Guilt was flowing through my body with the blood pumped by my hurting heart.
Back to the tank issue – I was broke and could barely afford to get enough petrol to drive 175kms to Ledig, in the North West province. After fetching my uncle in Midrand, north of Johannesburg, and with just a 1.5-liter bottle of Valpre water in the car, we began our journey.
Fifty kilometers into our trip, we drove through Hartbeespoort, a scenic holiday spot in the North West known for its dam. We were stunned to see the narrow bridge in the area; it was like being in a different country for the first time, looking at everything with a new eye. It looked like one of those bridges from the movies depicting ancient Europe. It was beautiful.
We didn’t have time to stop and take pictures; it was 6:15PM and we didn’t want to drive in the rain, especially as it was getting dark.
After driving past the Sun City resort, we knew we had arrived. Far from home, our Tswana dialect wouldn’t go unnoticed by locals; they would know we were from Johannesburg.
At Ledig, we were greeted by three men who were expecting us. I was interested in learning more about the guy wearing the white Marikana mine overall with an X marked at the back. He was loud and funny, but also useful. He helped carry the chairs and tables from the van to the house.
The only thing I found out about the guy is his age, his jokes and that he is known in the area for his pantsula (a culture originating from black townships during apartheid) dress sense. He also wants to go to Johannesburg; a common desire among many youths in the area.
On Saturday, the day of the funeral, I couldn’t hear a word at the service. What was strange was seeing people waiting at the graveyard for the burial. Even stranger, men were not allowed into the graveyard if they weren’t wearing a jacket; to be fair my parents had warned me about that.
At most black funerals, there is a culture that has evolved over the last couple of years where music is played and alcohol is consumed after the burial. It is called ‘after tears’ and is done as a celebration of life for the deceased.
This ‘after tears’ ceremony in the rural area of Ledig was no different from the one we have in the townships, where I live.
It is now Sunday morning and I have just enough petrol to get us back home to Soweto. It wasn’t the most pleasant drive back to Johannesburg because we had nothing to nibble on, nor drink. Just a dry mouth, a hangover, and a dirty car.
Finally, we get home. I freshen up while my uncle heads to bed. I was tired but felt it was important to go to church with a friend after what was a sad weekend.
I never heard the sermon – I was too tired. Instead I took my shoes and socks off, rested in the car and passed out. I was woken by a knock on the window; my friend told me I embarrassed her because people saw me sleeping in the car outside church.
I didn’t care – I had rested and was officially back in Johannesburg.
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