Sekai Holland is a grandmother. At 64, and at first glance (and ignoring the walking frame), you'd think she'd be most comfortable playing with the grandkids, chinwagging with the neighbours over the back fence or settling down in front of the telly with a nice cup of tea and a piece of cake.
Well, not this grandma. Her forte is taking on the "secret police" of one of the world's greatest despots: Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. It was a decision that almost cost her life. After a prayer meeting and pro-democracy rally in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare on March 11, Mrs Holland, the courageous policy secretary for Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change, was dragged away with some of her compatriots for questioning by Mugabe's thugs.
What followed was a travesty made all the worse by her age: she was tortured for seven hours, flogged at least 81 times with a rhinocerous hide whip, and bashed so hard with an iron bar her abusers shattered one of her knees, broke her left arm, her left leg, and three ribs. She was accused of being "a lover of white men" (her husband, Jim, is Australian) and "Tony Blair's whore". But the best was yet to come.
A female member of the secret police stomped on Mrs Holland with spiked boots. The mauling from this was so severe, she required skin grafts to repair the damage. She didn't get them straight away, though. Despite her agony, the Zimbabwean government refused to allow any of those arrested and bashed at the rally to receive medical treatment. Only diplomatic representation by the Australian Government secured her release, likely only granted because the Australian cricket team had a tour scheduled there for later this year.
The Hollands fled to neighbouring South Africa, where her story had elicited much concern, and Mrs Holland finally received her skin grafts. Last week, the couple flew back to Australia and Mrs Holland – who says she will nevertheless return to Harare to continue the fight – now remains in hospital undergoing rehabilitation for her injuries.
The upshot: this week, the Australian Government held up her plight as a classic example of why it decided over the weekend to stop Cricket Australia, flush with success and with dollar signs seemingly clouding its vision after Australia's recent victory at the World Cup, from going ahead with the planned tour to Zimbabwe.
The government had been urging CA to pull out, but under the terms of their International Cricket Council contract, they would be liable to a heavy fine if they did. But under the agreed code of the game, if a government decided to ban its players from a tour the fine would be waived by the ICC. The Government duly came to the party. CA got their out, and the right-wing Liberal Party Prime Minister John Howard, who is staring down the barrel of a federal election defeat at the hands of Labor's Kevin Rudd later this year on the back of his unpopular and draconian industrial relations policies, for once did the right thing.
Despite the usual whining about the need to separate sport and politics (remember apartheid?) and the predictable counter-claim by Mugabe that the Australian government was racist for cancelling the tour, the decision to abandon it was widely seen around the world as a victory against a murderous thug who is somehow hanging onto power by the skin of teeth after destroying Zimbabwe's economy and ruining its capacity to produce food in any quantity after forcibly removing farmers (white and black) from their properties and handing them over to his cronies.
Zimbabwe was once the food bowl of Africa. It fed and employed millions across the continent. Today, it is can barely feed itself. Inflation now runs at nearly 1700 percent, and nine out of 10 Zimbabweans are unemployed. Mugabe and his thugs haven't suffered, though. They live nicely in their barbed-wire compounds, while a quarter of the country's children are AIDS orphans. Violence is commomplace on the streets of Harare, and for many Zimbabweans, it's become the only way to put food on the table.
A subsequent proposed deal by CA to play the matches at a neutral venue was rejected by Zimbabwe, and for her part, Mrs Holland is pleased with the outcome. She told Sydney's The Daily Telegraph this week: "It's the right decision, and Mr Howard and Mr Downer (the Australian Foreign Minister who led the push to cancel the tour) should be congratulated … they have consistently supported democracy in Zimbabwe and Mugabe will suffer for it. Did you hear Mugabe going on about Australia being racist? It might only be a game of cricket but it is the sort of action that hurts him.''
The decision didn't go unnoticed in Britain, either, where the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair has shown a marked reluctance to criticise too harshly the regime of Mugabe's brutal Zanu-PF party. Absurdly, Blair has even suggested that Zimbabwe's government should be represented at the coming EU-Africa summit in Portugal later this year.
No doubt Blair's thinking is on humanitarian lines, but there is also no doubt Britain's guilt over its colonial role in Rhodesia plays a part in British thinking and stops it sometimes from acknowledging the truth about Zimbabwe. Even more absurd is that Mugabe is only there because the British government went out of its way to bring an end to white post-colonial rule in Rhodesia and install Mugabe as Zimbabwe's president. His promise to bring the country an inclusive, multi-cultural/multi-racial style of government like that of South Africa's never enventuated, and in latter years the violence against his own people has grown steadily worse. Of late, it's been so bad, there have been calls within South Africa – even among prominent blacks who at one time supported him – to intervene.
Melanie Phillips, of London's The Daily Mail, suggesting that Howard and Australians generally are not encumbered by such needless notions of colonial guilt, wrote this week: "In such a morally degraded world, John Howard's initiative is so rare as to be absolutely startling … this confident outspokeness derives from a quality that is rare in Western leaders – being entirely comfortable in his own cultural skin.
" … he believes in Australia and its Western values. He thinks these values are superior to any alternatives and it is this total absence of equivocation in upholding the national interest which explains his robust defence of both Australian identity and Western civilisation against attack.''
Whatever anyone thinks of Howard's divisive politics at home, his thinking on this, without doubt, is to deny what he has called the "appalling regime" of Mugabe a propaganda victory by having the world's top cricket team touring his country. It is confrontation with purpose, and he has not minced words in the past about Zimbabwe's litany of internal terror.
And for those who think cancelling a cricket tour is a bizarre way of expressing displeasure, there's another twist: Howard, a short, bespectacled and unlikely looking politician once described by George W.Bush as a "man of steel" (to much tittering in Australia), is also a self-confessed "cricket tragic". So much so, he once suggested that part of a test for Australian citizenship should be a set of Aussie-values questions that included the legendary Sir Donald Bradman's batting average (an answer most born-and-bred Aussies don't know off the top of their heads).
As a result, Howard is well aware that the path he's on with this is well-trodden. Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, two of Zimbabwe's top cricketers, had their team wear black armbands at the 2003 World Cup to "mourn the death of democracy" in their country, a move that took a ton of courage. This year, after the suspicious hotel-room death of Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer, all World Cup teams were asked to wear them, which probably gave the Zimbabweans the best excuse they've ever had to stick on an armband. In the past few years, the national selection policy in Zimbabwe has been of a racist character, with many of its top white players – and black players who opposed Mugabe's policies – excluded from the side.
So it must irk Mugabe that once again, it's cricket, the country's second national sport after soccer, that has propelled the horror of life in in his country back into international headlines – and even worse, that it was Howard once again who hit him for six and completed the humiliation by raising a finger to send him skulking red-faced back to the sheds for another well-deserved duck – and all while the world watched.