You would think that a man who lost his livelihood and whose life was gravely threatened would go on a rancorous rant and berate the man who forced him to flee his country and live in exile for what could very well be the rest of his life.
But not Henry Olonga, whose story is inextricably linked to Robert Mugabe’s tyrannical years as Zimbabwean president.
Almost a decade and a half before American footballer Colin Kaepernick stole the world’s attention with a kneeling protest that brought the world to its feet, Zimbabwean fastbowler Olonga strapped on a black armband in protest against the late statesman’s despotic regime.
But the protest that he staged in tandem with former captain Andy Flower during the 2003 ICC World Cup, which Zimbabwe co-hosted with South Africa, not only put Olonga’s livelihood in dire jeopardy but also his life.
Like a rodent through a Newtown drainpipe, Olonga fled at the end of Zimbabwe’s cricketing campaign in a way unbefitting of a person who had represented their country 80 times in all formats, least of all one who was the first representative of the black Zimbabwean majority in national cricket colours.
Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe for almost 40 years from its independence in 1980, died this year at the age of 95. Columns full of conjecture about his legacy filled pages and websites the world over.
In spite of everything he lost, starting a new life first in England and then Adelaide, Australia, where he now lives with his wife and two children, Olonga found no joy in Mugabe’s death.
“I’m very quick to tell people that it’s not as if I derived any pleasure from it,” says Olonga. “A lot of people think I would have had some sense of relief or some sense of closure or justice. But as a committed Christian that’s very vocal about their faith, the sad thing for me is that Mugabe probably died a man who took all his misdeeds with him to the other side.
“He left behind many victims, too, whose estimates range in the thousands of people that were murdered under his command in the early 1980s in Zimbabwe. He had a lot of blood on his hands.
“It gives me no pleasure for the death of a man like him, because I know what awaits on the other side is not pleasant for anyone [with such misdeeds]. Having said that, I certainly hope it brings some kind of closure for all of his victims.”
Olonga was a rangy fastbowler in his day, with streaky locks that dangled curiously in a fringe over his forehead and flayed in delight with every long, languid run-up. He made his Test debut for Zimbabwe against Pakistan in Harare in 1995 and was heralded as the big hope for transformation of the sport in the country.
He was the first black player to don whites and pyjamas for his country. But his start belied his finish. A line in Olonga’s tell-all autobiography, Blood, Sweat and Treason, sends chills down your spine:
“So, it came down to my life-or-death game against Pakistan, a game I wasn’t even going to be playing. So I wouldn’t even have the opportunity to play the match of a lifetime to save my skin.”
Sport shouldn’t be that important but for Olonga, it was. He needed to find a way to cross the border into South Africa and fly out to England after receiving more than just subtle hints that his life was in grave danger after his protest. His father, John, got a message saying as much.
A treason charge, which carries a death sentence in Zimbabwe, loomed.
Yet the protest against Mugabe’s iron-fisted grip on the country and its resources – dubbed Death of Democracy – would never have happened if Olonga hadn’t had the stroke of luck (depending on how you see it) that saw him return to national team favour at the end of 2002, just months before the 2003 showpiece.
“Stephen Mangongo was the selector and he didn’t like me much by this stage. In Harare, I’d taken five wickets [5/93 in the second innings] against Pakistan in the first Test. It put me back in the fold because I don’t think they were even considering me for the World Cup until I played well in that Test match. Then I played well in the ODI [one-day international] against Kenya [6/28 in Bulawayo].
“That was the game when the infamous Ozias Bvute came up to me and said, ‘Well done, you’ve just bowled your way into the World Cup.’ This black armband protest and all that other stuff would never have happened if they hadn’t picked me for those December ODIs against Kenya. My story could have been very different if I hadn’t been picked. But I never knew they were my last.”
‘A nation of gentlemen’
The irony – and perhaps the curse – was that Mugabe was an avid cricket follower. He is famously quoted as having said: “Cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe; I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen.”
He then proceeded to allow cronyism to dig its claws into Zimbabwe Cricket in a way not too dissimilar to the so-called land grabs that contrived to decimate the economy. Zimbabwe, once a fine cricketing nation, has not been the same since 2003.
In July this year, the International Cricket Council (ICC) suspended the country from all international cricket for political interference, but reinstated them three months later.
“I’ve been keeping a close-ish eye on world cricket as a whole,” Olonga says. “There have been a few unsavoury characters who’ve been involved in the sport as well. Some of them have moved on. Of course, Ozias Bvute has moved on after the whole financial mismanagement thing he was embroiled in, along with Peter Chingoka, who since passed away [in August 2019].
“When you’ve got a sport that was in the black when Chingoka took over and ended up millions in debt [reportedly $14.3 million, about R210 million], something’s gone wrong. In a short space of time, relatively, we’ve seen a lot of good work undone by a whole host of people.
“Ultimately the buck has to stop somewhere and I would put the blame squarely on the administrators, who’ve been incompetent financially and they’ve treated players as if they aren’t major stakeholders in the industry.
He continued, “I am not trying to be unkind to anyone but the folk in Zimbabwe have no idea what they are trying to do or achieve with the sport. From my perspective, as a former player, your best asset is the players. Without the players you’ve got no sport. But they’ve treated the players appallingly over the last few years.
“They pay them late, sometimes never paying them, treating them like children and not treating them with the respect that professionals should be treated with.”
Olonga’s only reward for eight years of cricketing service was that he escaped with his life. By the sounds of things, there were times it was patchwork stuff trying to rebuild it.
“I discovered very quickly that it’s so easy to be forgotten in sport. And I don’t mind that. I’m not complaining in any way,” he says.
While exiled in the United Kingdom, he played for the Lashings World XI – the Harlem Globetrotters of cricket – for as long as his legs could carry him. He commentated a bit for broadcasters as his public profile petered out.
“Other people get the chance to play a hundred Test matches and a guard of honour and all that kind of stuff. Well, it never happened with me because I just sunk into the background. I’ve just enjoyed the background ever since.”
Not quite. In May, he made a stunning re-entry into public view during a blind audition for televised singing competition The Voice Australia, regaling American singing sensation Kelly Roland with his rendition of This is the Moment by Anthony Warlow.
It turns out he’d been secretly warming up his voice for that very moment, which had millions on the internet gushing, during lunchtime breaks and fundraisers while he played for the Lashings XI.
‘Kind of weird’
It culminated in a serendipitous, melodic reminder that one of Zimbabwe’s most courageous cricketing children – now a full-time, stay-at-home dad and part-time musician – was still out there making his voice heard.
“Yeah, I paid a price and still, to some extent, pay a price today. You reap what you sow. Robert Mugabe has a legacy that is very divisive. People were, on the one hand, very happy. Other people were very sad and broken.
“However, he didn’t face justice. In a funny kind of way, he died a very embittered man in a foreign country, and he couldn’t even die in his own country.
“I’m not sure whether that’s a testament to the failing healthcare system he left behind, which couldn’t even treat him, or whether he felt so hurt that his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, took over in a way that left him feeling backstabbed.
“He went to the grave hurt. Yet the weird thing, that’s exactly what he did throughout his life. He showed no mercy to anyone who opposed him.
“It’s kind of weird, isn’t it?”