Heidi Holland & Charles Mogale: Two too many farewells

Jeremy Gordin on a sad thinning of the disorganised, untidy line of Fourth Estaters

When trying to finish my biography of Jacob Zuma during the last months of 2008, I was so far past my deadline that I suspected my publisher had a contract out on my life.

So I didn't have time then for anybody or anything else, least of all a book on Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe titled Dinner with Mugabe: The Untold Story of a Freedom Fighter who Became a Tyrant, by someone called Heidi Holland.

I knew vaguely about Heidi; that she apparently ran a BnB in Melville frequented by journalists, especially foreign ones. But I was intensely focused on South Africa. I do remember wondering, though I hadn't read Heidi's book, how anyone could find something positive to write about Mugabe.

This was not without its irony, since many who read my book on Zuma at the end of 2008 wondered how I could have found something worthwhile to say about him. And many people still have the same view. What can I tell you? Without necessarily reading or knowing anything, people (including me) hold all sorts of opinions ...

Anyway, in June, just two-and-a-bit months ago, I was kindly asked by the organisers of the Kingsmead Book Festival to be the facilitator (which always makes me feel as though I am a small pot of Vaseline) at one of the sessions at the Kingsmead Book Fair.

The session was called "Staying Power" and panelists Mandy Wiener (Killing Kebble), Rian Malan (My Traitor's Heart, Resident Alien) and  Holland discussed "the challenges of translating the hurly-burly of news and political commentary into books with staying power".

So I then met Holland properly and also read her book - and very fascinating it is indeed. As I wrote on Politicsweb at the time, I don't think that it ever does, or possibly can, answer its founding question: what turned an ostensibly decent, idealistic young man (Mugabe) into a monster? But it's a remarkable one nonetheless.

Though not optimistic about the future of Zimbabwe and, a little surprisingly, not about South Africa's either, Holland was generally upbeat and chirpy.

On Saturday she was found dead. There are suggestions that she committed suicide; but there was apparently no note or letter.

In 1978 I worked as a cadet journalist on the Sunday Express. The editor was Rex "sexy Rexy" Gibson; Koos "stubby fingers" Viviers was the deputy; Kitt Katzin was the chief assistant editor; Ray Woodley was an assistant editor; and Peter Wellman was news editor. Of these men, only Gibson is alive.

One of my fellow cadets - he joined a year after me and was three years younger - was Charles Mogale. He went on to become editor of the Sowetan Sunday World. Some of us did better than others ...

Wellman was inordinately tough on all reporters but especially tough on black interns - it was his way of showing that he did not discriminate. Some took it badly, but Charles, besides being a good reporter, had far too good a sense of humour to let boot camp get him down.

Charles died on Friday of a stroke and of complications following a car accident.     

Two (too) many farewells this week; a sad thinning of the disorganised, untidy line of Fourth Estaters with printer's ink in their veins.

This article first appeared in The Citizen.

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