Henry Olonga is wary about commenting on reports of Robert Mugabe’s 37-year-long reign in Zimbabwe coming to an end, till he hears an “official” announcement from the man himself. Olonga, the first black cricketer to represent his country, was the face of the first public protest against Mugabe in 2003, when he and Andy Flower sported black armbands during a World Cup match. The former Zimbabwe fast bowler is now an Englishman living in Adelaide, his exile triggered by the wrath of Mugabe.
Over the years, Olonga has been a vocal critic of the longstanding Zimbabwean President, despite having spent his first few years in England with the constant paranoia of retribution from the man he opposed.
Speaking to The Indian Express from Adelaide, where he settled down with his Australian wife Tara and two daughters in 2015, he said: “Frankly I don’t think they care about me now. Or I hope they don’t. Of course I am disparaging in my comments about Mugabe, and so I should be. If he had bowed down when it was time, no Henry Olonga would have had to protest against him. He would have been respected. It could have been a very different set of millions of people back home.”
“Zimbabweans have been badly let down by Mugabe and his cronies. It’s a conversation people don’t want to have in Zimbabwe because you’re not allowed to. How’s he different from Kim Jong-Un,” said Olonga.
He said that instead of thinking about the bigger picture and the country, Mugabe just focussed on himself and his reign.
The 93-year-old should have invested in the youth and passed on the torch at least two decades ago, like Nelson Mandela did after serving just one term in office as the President of South Africa.
“Mentoring someone to take your place is an important part of leadership. You can’t focus on yourself the whole time. When you have been in power for 37 years and people have tried to tell you it’s time now… There’s probably someone younger than you to do this. Instead, you are falling asleep in meetings and tripping on steps,” he said.
Olonga’s decision to protest against Mugabe’s policies was triggered by the “farm invasions” against white farmers in the early 2000s, which saw violence and deaths across Zimbabwe. Politics in Zimbabwe has always polarised people, said Olonga, adding that apart from being “corrupt”, Mugabe was “doing exactly what the government he fought against was doing”.
“You can’t be harking back to those days and saying they were better. There were millions of black Zimbabweans living under subjugation. It was like apartheid in South Africa. Then you have these people, who can’t open their eyes and see this man who keeps reminding them about how bad it was. There is elitism, there is corruption, they have got their little clubs, all millionaires now. They said the land invasion was to empower landless blacks, but they have given them (the land) to their cronies and friends,” said Olonga.
After his public protest, Olonga faced a number of death threats. Many believed that he got saved because Zimbabwe qualified for the second stage of the World Cup, which was to be held in South Africa.
Olonga managed to get safe passage to England. After his Zimbabwean passport expired in 2006, he could not leave England for nine years, before finally getting his citizenship. Looking back, he said what hurts him the most was that the people who turned on him and called him a “sell-out” were those he was protesting for.
“I came from a middle-class family, and I didn’t have to protest. I had a good life and I was earning foreign currency at a time when it was impossible to get. When I was protesting, I was thinking about the same people who later turned on me,” recalled Olonga, who has played 30 Tests and 50 ODIs.
“There was this indoctrinated youth militia called the Green Bombers. They would shave their heads and do the government’s bidding. They were all at the clubhouse jeering me the day I played the one match that I was allowed to play in Harare after the protest,” he said.
Over the years, Olonga has recounted his story to audiences around England, and now in Australia, many times. At times, he said, he does get bored with having to retell his story for the “10,000th time”, but added that it remains relevant.
“I was never a political activist. I dipped my toe in that world for 10 seconds and that’s all I get remembered for, as the man who protested against his President and lived to tell the tale,” he said.