The Africa Diaries
1995 August: Thursday
‘11am: With huge good fortune, as it turned out, just as my two Harare supporters Gil and Jacqui disappeared off to Lake Kariba, a new one arrived in the welcome shape of Margaret, fresh from Bulawayo and at the wheel of a station wagon.
Ignoring my hangover, she drove me into central Harare for lunch and some shopping. We called into the main bookshop in town – in comparison to the UK, the choice was sparse. The main difference, though, was the fact that the counter area was entirely covered by protective wire mesh. It was depressing to find that it was impossible to avoid reminders of violent crime even in a bookshop.
‘2pm: We returned to the multi-storey car-park after lunch and walked up to the second level. Suddenly a blare of sirens shattered the humdrum noise of the city. I crossed and looked down to the street below.
A phalanx of police motorcycles were edging the traffic into the kerbs, clearing the way for a cavalcade of expensive looking black saloons. Margaret muttered:
And fresh from being given a very rough ride by the South African pro-gay demonstrations. In the largest of the saloons, I spotted the sullen features of the Zimbabwean president as he glared ahead, ignoring the waves from his subjects. So – we meet at last!
‘7pm: Relaxed with a beer on the patio. Ann and Alan sat and dozed as the budgerigars kept up a dulcet twitter in the background. A peaceful evening in Africa.
The phone rang – it was the Johannesburg promoter and she sounded highly agitated:
“Mr Titley, we’ve only just realised here that you don’t have a work permit for South Africa. I’ve tried to apply but there’s no time. The Ministry says that if you perform here, they’ll deport you! And they’ll close down the theatre! And I’ve got a press conference arranged for Monday! We’re going to have to cancel, I tell you!”
Her voice started to sound quite panicky – not surprisingly. Tried to think fast.
“It would be best if you held off till tomorrow and I’ll try to get through to the South African Trade Commission.”
I said this with far more reassurance than I was feeling. She agreed and rang off.
Bloody hell fire! I related the news to Ann and Alan.
Ann gasped: “So you didn’t have a work permit for Zimbabwe either?”
“Er…. Well, no.”
Or for Ethiopia for that matter, though that was best kept quiet.
“But this is really serious! We’ll have to bury the accounts in the paperwork. But I don’t know about the Alliance Francaise or Bulawayo. This could be a major scandal. And it’s even worse for you – you are in real danger if they find out, you know! What you’ve done is completely illegal.”
Thinking about it, she was dead right. Mugabe could have a field day. I’d already tweaked his nose by performing what on the surface looked like a gay show right next door to his mistress a week after his much-publicised attack on gay culture. And now he had the perfect opportunity to hit back and arrest me.
Alan intervened: “Of course, so far there’s no sign that they know anything about the shows. Nobody from the government has been snooping around or anything like that. And the Bulawayo authorities don’t seem to know either. The main job is to make sure they don’t realise what’s been happening.”
I replied: “There is one snag about that. The reviews are due out soon. All they have to do is put two and two together and it’ll be bloody obvious what’s been going on.”
Ann gave another gasp.
“Oh yes – and they’d love to put a white man in prison!”
‘11pm: The whole tour had been done on a wing and a prayer but I was under real attack now. I’d been in the position before of awaiting a review that could make or break a production. But this was the first time I’d been awaiting a review that could result in my ending up in an African prison!
I felt that the prospect of being able to compose ‘The Ballad of Harare Gaol’ would be an inadequate consolation.
Surprisingly, dropped off to sleep almost immediately.
1995 August: Friday
‘8am: Ate bacon and eggs on the terrace. Ann emerged carrying a copy of the Harare Herald. Seized it and ripped my way through to the arts pages. Thankfully, so far the critic had only reported the previous week’s events. I’d got to get out of this place soon though.
‘9 30am: Margaret arrived and, on hearing of the emergency, appointed herself as my guide and driver, bless her. We headed into central Harare for what turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare of a day.
Outside the South African Commission, there was a queue for registration of papers that stretched round half a city block. After twenty minutes of standing in it, I realised that there was a vastly smaller queue waiting for the Cultural Affairs department. By sheer luck it turned out to be the one that we wanted. We passed about ten armed security guards lounging around on the stairs till we reached the main office.
A grizzled old Boer was sitting at the front desk and, on enquiry, courteously directed us to a seat in a further office. While we waited, a young black man also arrived. He stood puzzled at the Boer’s instructions, whereupon the Boer stood up, grabbed him by the shoulders, and shoved him down into a chair, shouting: “Stay!”
‘11am: A black South African official listened to my story quite sympathetically. He made enquiries at a further office and returned to say that I must contact the Pretoria Cultural Affairs office and there might be a chance of getting a permit.
‘11 30: Retired to the office of one of Margaret’s business friends and tried to phone the South African Culture people. I’d heard of the Zimbabwe phone system before – now I was subjected to its full labyrinthine complexity. Spent an hour and a half trying to get through to Pretoria. Finally, the operator rang back to say that there was no such number as the one that we’d been given.
Instead I phoned the Johannesburg theatre promoter who said that she had already contacted Pretoria and that there was no way that they would grant a work permit in time.
“I really can’t put the theatre in danger. We will have to cancel the shows.”
Oh well, the luck had run out – fair enough. I wished her well.
‘1pm: However, this left me in a further fix. My flight back to the UK was not for another fortnight – and I didn’t have enough money to last in Jo’burg without any show income. I had nowhere to stay in South Africa and by repute it was a very dangerous spot, especially if you were broke.
On the other hand, I’d got to get out of Zimbabwe before the bloody theatre reviews were published, which could be any day. I said to Margaret:
“It’s a choice of prison here or being murdered there.”
Margaret suggested a more practical alternative – why not just bring forward the dates of the UK flight?
‘2pm: The KLM offices. They told me that the earliest flight to which I could change was the Jo’burg to Amsterdam one at 7pm on the coming Sunday. But they couldn’t change my Harare to Jo’burg flight. They suggested trying another airline – and charged me £75 to alter the Amsterdam plane.
‘3 20pm: The South African Airlines offices. No available flights and they wouldn’t transfer anyway.
‘4pm: The Air Zimbabwe offices. A breakthrough. For a suitable fee, they could switch my Harare to Jo’burg flight to 10 30am on Sunday morning.
Wow, at last I could see my way clear. As long as Fate, in the form of a weekend review, didn’t decide to take a hand.
1995 August: Saturday
‘7 30am: Another fraught breakfast out on the patio, awaiting the arrival of the newspapers. Still nothing in the review section – breathed a sigh of relief and downed a boiled egg.
‘8 20am: Margaret arrived to take me to the Harare Agricultural Show – she said it was the big event of the Zimbabwe year. We drove into town, parked up by the Sheraton Hotel, and joined the crowds strolling into the main enclosure. The perimeter was packed with stands, curio shops, and exhibitions.
The musical ‘Evita’ was opening in Harare tonight, and the British minor royal, Prince Edward, was in town to promote it; he appeared to be turning into a travelling sales rep for Lloyd-Webber. However, a side effect was that one of the food stalls here, (selling yams and bush meat), had been renamed ‘Prince Edward’s Tuck Shop’.
Right next door to this was an exhibition stand entitled ‘The Zimbabwean Prison Service Display’. Decided to give that one a miss.
We reached the main arena and sat under the club house canopy – the only bit of shade around. The morning events were mostly horse trials. This could easily have been Hickstead (except for the clear blue sky and searing sun). Even the trees around the perimeter were English – all oaks and beeches and not a boabab in sight. A man strode down the club steps in full hunting pink and slapping a crop against his thigh. The impeccably fruity tones of the loudspeaker commentator floated across: “Oh, jolly bad luck, Sophy” – as a chubby, jodhpured rider ended up sprawling in a pile of scattered poles.
I mean, this was meant to be Africa!
Harare Show‘2 15pm: The main parade began with a march past of massed drum majorettes, followed by a band playing ‘The Skye Boat Song’ (given its Jordanian popularity, an international hit, it appeared). These were followed by the Police Lancers – white pith helmets over black faces, jangling, polished harness, and the gleaming sheen of the horses. One horse bolted with its rider frantically jerking at the reins. The other police glared at his disappearing back.
After a pause, two motorcycle acrobats performed on a high wire stretched across the arena. They were very good but received little applause from the by now 20,000-plus crowd of spectators. Margaret snorted: “That’s because they are white. If they were black, the crowd would love it.”
This was followed by the aerobatics of a small Piper plane making low level passes over the arena. Its engines screamed past just twenty feet above the club canopy. As the aircraft dwindled away to the west in the shimmering hot air, two hundred African schoolgirls marched out to perform precision gymnastics.
The main event of the day was the Zimbabwean Police Show, a series of performances designed to display the range of their prowess. This involved dog handling skills, cars hurtling through burning hoops, and more gymnastics. During this section some trouble broke out in the crowd – one group pelting another with beer cans, etc. It was ironic that this should be happening while the police were performing conjuring tricks down below them.
Ignoring the brawl in the stands, the police continued with the last part of their exhibition. This consisted of a motorcycle team of eight men standing on each other’s shoulders with arms outstretched while riding on one bike. I murmured to Margaret: “It looks like an Ethiopian taxi.”
The crowd at the Harare Show
Next Tuesday September 4th – Mugabe’s Revenge and the trickiest spot ever.