There is not much that can be said about notable journalist Heidi Holland that hasn’t already been written in the hundreds of publications that remembered her in writing. But, six years after her passing, it is but fitting to remind the world of her unparalleled contribution to the world of journalism and of politics particularly in South Africa. In fact, many have probably forgotten, while the younger generation probably needs a refresher.
To sum up all the Heidi Holland is in one sentence would undermine everything that she has accomplished. But if it must be done, we can say that Heidi is an amazing woman who has done amazing things for the world.
“Dinner With Mugabe”
There is none the most captive of the rise and fall of Zimbabwe’s controversial leader than Heidi’s book titled “Dinner With Mugabe,” published in 2008. Arguably the best ever written piece of non-fiction that details the country’s descent into a state of tyranny, her writing gave readers an intimate and compelling experience of then-president Robert Mugabe’s rise as a freedom fighter and his eventual downfall into thuggery.
The content was so sincere and authentic that it is perhaps the only book that has managed to get that close to the president himself and the people around him; not in an outsider’s point-of-view kind of way, but as a person who has experienced being welcomed into their private lives with open arms. The book also gave the rest of the world a better understanding of what happening to country from the inside – back when no one else would probably dare to do so.
Heidi Holland was not a political figure, nor was she a socialite, to be running in the same circles as the president to get this first-hand take. In fact, to prove how more “of the people” she is, everyone called her by her first name and she seemed to be more comfortable with calling even the most high-profile individuals “doll face,” “babe,” or “sugar lips.” Heidi, a single parent, owned and ran a guesthouse in Melville, Johannesburg, where most journalists and political visitors stayed.
With the amount of brain power and spirit that was present at her house at any given time, it is not surprising that it was a melting pot of agreeing and opposing views. To be at Heidi’s home at a high time in Zimbabwe was tantamount to being at the center of it all — and everybody who has had the pleasure of meeting her in person can say it was one of the best experiences of their lives. Apart from being a parent, investigative journalist, freelance diplomat, real estate dealer, and vivacious innkeeper and hostess, it was her gift for putting people at ease and making them laugh that made her even more memorable.
In fact, the young journalists who flocked to her inn remember with fondness all the lessons they learned from the experienced writer. One of them even wrote about it in one of his articles, saying that Heidi was always telling them about being careful not to turn dispassionate, especially at a time of unrest. Journalism is not merely about reporting things that happened. Writers must have genuine care how their words make an impact on readers.
Remembering Heidi Holland
“Dinner With Mugabe” did not just come from one interview, although the title comes from a simple dinner with Mugabe back when he was still a freedom fighter, more than 30 years before he became president in 2007. Between these key periods, Heidi became a reporter for a local publication, a staunch critic of the Rhodesian government’s stance against having black people in politics, a vocal supporter of the Centre party, a key figure in the transition and movement of refugees outside of Zimbabwe, and an advocate of journalistic morals and press freedom.
She has also been valuable to many journalists writing about the African experience from the ground. She reportedly served as an outstanding guide, from travelling with writers to the Zimbabwe itself to arrange working lunches with the likes of Nelson Mandela. Heidi’s voice also came out in the book “From Jo’burg to Jozi,” which she co-write a correspondent for The Economist.
This list is innumerable and rich. That’s why when Heidi passed away in August 2012, not just Zimbabwe but the world mourned. Her family and friends surely miss her to this day, and the country forever grateful.