The Last Resort: A Film-maker’s Journey
By Isa-Lee Jacobson
If I’d known what the next three years would be like, would I have taken it on? Who knows? Hindsight is a curse and isn’t that the point: that we don’t know what the future holds and so we’re given the choice to plunge headlong into the Great Unknown or stare fearfully on the edge of the precipice, too paralysed to move? When in doubt, isn’t it always best to just leap?
South Africans have an undeniable connection with Zimbabwe. It sits uncomfortably on the borders of our consciousness, pointing a finger down south. On one hand is the accusation against South Africans that we were apathetic when ours was the one voice that could have cried out, ‘Enough’ to Robert Mugabe, and on the other hand is the fear of many South Africans that South Africa ‘will go the same way’ as Zimbabwe. This means that South Africa, too, could land up with a greedy power-hungry dictator who will care nothing for the general population and will rape the land, leaving the economy defunct.
It seemed that the gods had ordained that I would go to Zimbabwe. In mid-2008, the outbreak of xenophobic violence hit Cape Town. The targets were largely Zimbabwean. Since the demise of the country’s economy after the land invasions began in 2000, streams of well-educated, hard-working Zimbabweans had been taking jobs away from badly educated South Africans. It was bound to blow up. They weren’t the only targets, but when I went out to the halls in Khayelitsha, the poverty-ridden shack-land 35 kilometres outside Cape Town, the overwhelming majority of those displaced were Zimbabwean. At the time my friends at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) were dealing with the crisis and I volunteered. After that I brought my camera. I got to know some of the people in those halls. Despite everything, none of those people were going back home. They would rather live cheek by jowl with people who hated them than go back: just how awful must life be in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe?
At the very same time a friend from the US came out to South Africa and told me that my old friend Douglas Rogers was writing a book about his parent’s backpackers lodge, Drifters. Lyn and Ros had been forced to succumb to some pretty unorthodox methods in order to keep Drifters going and I thought, ‘Wow, great documentary’. I had started to feel that the film I wanted to make was not about Zimbabweans in South Africa, but those that had chosen to stay in Zimbabwe. What makes someone leap across that horrendous border, with its reputation for bribery, rape and lions now accustomed to human flesh into a country where you will be hated, while others stay and make do? Lyn and Ros had adapted to the new unknowns: with no backpackers the rooms had been used by fatcats and their mistresses from the local town, Mutare, then by local opposition leaders who used Drifters to hide from Zanu-PF henchmen before the 2008 election and then by diamond dealers looking for a quiet place to do illicit deals after the huge diamond find down the road. And so it was that I contacted Doug for the first time in a long time. By now he was married and living in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and child and his book, The Last Resort was a few months from being published. Doug loved the idea, sent me his early draft and in March 2009 I went to Zimbabwe for the first time in twenty years.
The first time I went to Zimbabwe it was 1988, I was still at university and we weren’t quite aware of how close we were to the end of apartheid. Zimbabwe was our ideal as students who were politically active or, at the very least, against the apartheid regime, and an extraordinary concert was about to take place. Tracy Chapman, Sting, Bruce Sprigsteen, Peter Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour were to play at the Human Rights Concert in Harare. It’s incredible to think now that only a year and a half after I made that 2,000 km car journey to Harare, Mandela would be released. At the time South Africa was a pariah state and we were making a pilgrimage to what we desperately hoped our future would be. It’s also astonishing to consider that the same stadium that looked so slick at the time would be considered about as dangerous to enter twenty years later as the country would be – and under the very same leader. The Chinese had built a collapsible white elephant as their gift to the God, Mugabe.
The journey I made in 2009 was very different. I was scared. I needed to bring a camera into Zimbabwe and get the tapes out, and Mugabe’s government is well known for hating all media who don’t tow the party line. My friend at MSF warned me that, despite appearances, Zimbabwe was a police state. In a way, a far more frightening reality. And she was right: you arrive at a neat, clean, albeit pretty basic, airport. No one tries immediately to extort money from you or arrest you, but being in that line at passport control is still deeply unsettling. The question on the ‘arrival’ form (which is obligatory to fill out), ‘What is your reason for being here?’ signals your entry into a world where lying and obfuscation are simply the norm. In this world no one can behave as they wish and all normal moral paradigms have shifted so far out that it is hard to imagine them coming back in line – and that’s the line you yourself must tow.
My first shock came soon after the arrivals hall and might seem fairly inane, but it wasn’t to me because it made me feel utterly helpless. This would be my first real introduction into a world in which I would never fully know how to operat. It took place when I walked up to the seemingly normal-looking Europcar counter. Harare International Airport is unusually dark because of the power cuts, but otherwise it seemed to operate just like any other airport. I’d even managed to book my car online. However, in 2009 there were no credit card facilities and the car hire company needed US$2,000 in cash in order to release their car. I had come on a look-see, borrowing money from my brother for the ticket, believing this was a documentary I needed to make. I certainly didn’t have $2,000 in my pocket. I had $200. The friendly man behind the counter, who might or might not have become used to this as he was utterly phlegmatic in his approach – but then so are most Zimbabweans – took me to his manager. And so the nice white manager, seeing my stricken expression, took that $200 and gave me the car. I would get it back when I returned the car. But now I would have to borrow money from Doug’s sister, who I was staying with and yet had never met. With this experience I was immediately hurtled into the world of ‘make a plan’. In this world, people help complete strangers. But it is also a world where you can never tell when someone might turn against you. It leaves one feeling wary, uneasy and permanently on guard.
‘How are things looking here?’, I asked the guy who had helped me get from the Europcar counter into my Citi Golf. ‘Things are looking up’, he said with a smile, but not much conviction. Zimbabweans are an optimistic lot, but within two years I would see the optimism wane and be replaced with a sense of defeat and complacency.
Driving out of the airport one is struck by all the classic signs of dictatorship: the signage paying homage to the dictator, homage to his struggle for liberation and to the length of time he has managed to remain in power through whatever means he deemed necessary. And then there’s the road from the dictator’s house to the airport that is in good nick, but every other road is plagued with potholes, dead street lamps and traffic lights as defunct as the economy. Borrowdale, near Mugabe’s fortress palace where a French journalist was arrested for getting a little too close, is an oasis of calm. At the time, with a cholera outbreak, the people of Borrowdale had their own boreholes and drinking water in bottles imported from South Africa.
I am used to living in Africa. I enter into Khayeliitsha and then hop back to my world for a glass of sauvignon blanc and spaghetti vongole at La Perla restaurant with its retro décor and view of the Sea Point Promenade. Far be it for me to judge or cast aspersions on the privileged white minority of Harare. But still I did wonder what keeps them there. After all, they don’t have to brave the man-eating lions. They can just hop on a plane to Johannesburg and even if they’re sick of the vagaries of Africa or don’t want to deal with the crime, they can just continue on from Oliver Tambo International (provided their luggage hasn’t been stolen or rifled through) to pretty much anywhere in the world.
Attending Doug’s book launch in Harare at the end of 2009, I met friends of his from school who had stayed behind. One friend who attended was a farmer – well, he was until he’d been kicked off his land the day before. The book launch, you must understand, wasn’t exactly advertised. In fact, Doug was never sure whom the book would affect and we could not be sure if the drunken uninvited guest who was there that night might be attending on behalf of the notorious Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). When I asked a friend of Doug’s who works in insurance in Harare (that’s an article in and of itself) why he stayed, he said it was ‘for the lifestyle’. I nodded politely. I simply didn’t get it.
It has been a conundrum since Hamlet first uttered the words ‘to be or not to be’ to know ‘whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them’. Most Zimbabweans aren’t opposing much, but then Hamlet was dealing with an Oedipal Complex (though, of course, no one knew that then) and Zimbabweans are dealing with a ruthless dictator, so it might be absurd to be comparing the issues. But it helps to highlight the very real contrast between living in a First World country where there’s a semblance of normality (even though your mother has married your uncle) and living in a Third World country where anything goes. I learned on that trip to admire the MDC (The Movement for Democratic Change) enormously. While I was there, their leader, Morgan Tsvingarai, lost his wife in an accident that was certainly meant to be an attempt to assassinate him. The MDC are a brave and tireless lot and while it might not seem obvious to the rest of the world that they’re ‘taking arms’, they take their lives into their own hands every time they get on the road. Mugabe’s hit men love to use the roads as a means of murder.
On two trips I followed the highly intelligent and engaging Pishai Muchauraya, now a member of parliament in the (not intentionally) ironically named Government of National Unity. Because he used Drifters as a hide out, he is part of the story I chose to follow. The old backpackers lodge is a microcosm of Zimbabwe, with the story bringing together white farmers who have been kicked off their land, diamond dealers, political activists and land invaders. It is a story waiting for a happy ending, the death of the evil king, without knowing whether the heirs in his court, clamouring for their piece of the spoils, might be even worse.
Each time I go back, I worry. The first trip set me up for a number of trips that would always feel dangerous. I drove the two hours back from Drifters to Harare on that first trip with the news of Susan Tsvinagarai’s death still echoing in my head. I had been at a soccer match with one of the diamond dealers from Drifters, Fatso. He’s a wonderful man, who is inventive, resourceful and smart, just doing what needs to be done to feed his family. He asked me how I was getting back to Harare and I said I was driving alone. He nodded thoughtfully, pausing before he said, ‘You should be ok’. It did not reassure me at all.
I made it back to the comfort of Borrowdale and left Doug’s sister’s place at five o’clock the next morning, looking forward to getting on the plane to Jo’burg. On the way to the airport in the half-light of dawn with a car filled with shot tapes and camera gear, I was stopped at a roadblock. My own heart almost stopped at the same time. I am not a morning person at the best of times but the night before I’d tossed and turned over images of Zimbabwean prison cells and so I was particularly anxious and not thinking straight. A very young, gun-wielding soldier came up to me demanding to see my driver’s licence, which I handed to him. A South African driver’s licence is valid in Zimbabwe but he told me it was not. I had to make that plane and I had to avoid my car getting searched. It took me a while to see through the fog of anxiety to the calm light of day. ‘Would you like a gift?’ I asked tentatively, never having negotiated a bribe before, no matter what they say about South African cops. This confused him. I realised I was being too obtuse and, instead, handed over a R50 note which was worth about US$5 then. (South African currency is widely used in Zimbabwe, even if it isn’t the official currency, and Zimbabwean currency…well, that’s the stuff of legends and fairy tales.) His whole face lit up and he thanked me enthusiastically. I got out of there like a bat out of hell. At a party, after I got back to South Africa, someone working for MSF berated me for offering a bribe. Alone, unsupported by a massive international organisation, I refused to even enter into an argument. It is the moral fine-line that I crossed in order to get myself out. The sad truth is that the line gets blurred and what we risk by staying on the ‘correct’ side of it becomes so overwhelming that there is no debate to be had about what the ‘right’ thing to do might be.
At Jo’burg airport I almost kissed the ground. Shaken and exhausted, carrying all my tapes with me, I crossed the newly renovated Oliver Tambo International airport, where the toilets actually flush, and headed for Vida e Caffe for a decent cappuccino. Could all this go? Could South Africa follow the same fate? Ah no. The relief of being home would stay with me until the next visit, the next time I faced the journey into the inferno.
Even now, as I write, I wonder if this is clever. I wonder if I’m jeopardising my next entry into the country. Am I somehow endangering Pishai or Doug or his sister or his parents or Fatso? How do I live with myself if I am? Ultimately, we either choose to stay on one side of the precipice, or simply launch ourselves into the abyss and, with some sense of moral responsibility, do the best we can.
Isa-Lee Jacobson is a filmmaker from Cape Town, South Africa. She is presently making a film in Zimbabwe called The Last Resort, based on Douglas Rogers’ memoir by the same name. For more about her films and work please visit www.flyingfilms.co.za orwww.thelastresortdocumentary.