The Death of Rex Nhongo

BOOK: The Death of Rex Nhongo
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“All that is very well,” answered Candide.
“But let us cultivate our garden.”

—
Candide,
Voltaire

 

On 15 August 2011, fire engulfed Alamein, a farmhouse in Beatrice, about forty minutes out of Harare, Zimbabwe. Inside was the body of General Solomon Mujuru, also known by his “Chimurenga name” or
nom de guerre,
Rex Nhongo. The general was a hero of the Zimbabwean War of Independence, former chief of the army, then MP, businessman, husband of Vice President Joice Mujuru and one of the most powerful men in the country. In 2002, he had seized Alamein from a white farmer, Guy Watson-Smith, at the height of the government's Fast-track Land Reform Program. Almost a decade later, this was where he died, his body burned to a state in which his remains could be identified only through dental records. He was sixty-two.

On 15 March 2012, following an eight-week inquest, the coroner's court in Harare ruled that the general had died of smoke inhalation. However, many people, not least members of his family, believe he was murdered, whether as a result of his business dealings or a plot within the political establishment. Certainly, the Zimbabwean rumor mill, a productive operation at the best of times, has been working at full capacity ever since.

Whatever the truth, the inquest revealed remarkable, and inconsistent, testimonies. A maid and private security guards reported hearing gunshots two hours before the fire was discovered. Police on the VIP security detail just meters from the farmhouse denied hearing anything, though they admitted they might have been asleep. The same police claimed they'd been unable to raise the alarm because their radio was broken and they had no airtime (pre-paid credit) on their mobile phones. There was uncertainty as to whether the general had arrived alone or with another man because it was dark and there was a power cut. The fire engines dispatched from Harare were forced to turn back because of their leaking water tanks. The broken radio, the power cut and the faulty fire engines give the death of one of Zimbabwe's most influential figures an ironic twist.

Several of those who were first on the scene reported that, while the general's body was burned to a cinder, the surrounding carpet remained largely undamaged. Speaking in South Africa, Alamein's former owner, Watson-Smith, said: “Our house was a sprawling single-story building, roofed entirely with asbestos sheeting. That makes it absolutely fire-proof…Our main bedroom alone had three doors out of it and four double windows. How do you get trapped inside that?”

What follows happened in Harare in the months after Rex Nhongo's death. The story begins on 19 August 2011.

T
he guy in the back of the cab was an Indian: Salim. He was one of Patson's regulars, a gambler who played the blackjack tables at the Showgrounds casino. Generally, he called at two or three in the morning and Patson had to judge from his tone of voice how the night had gone—how many times had he picked him up only to discover the guy had no money? Salim would say, “Next time, my friend,” and laugh in a way that showed he understood it was no laughing matter. He always did pay next time, but that wasn't much use if Patson was stuck in Belvedere without enough fuel to get home. Then he had to ease into town and hope that one of the other fellows on the rank would lend him a buck or two. Or else he spent another night in the car, knowing that when he finally got back to Sunningdale, Fadzai would be bursting with unspoken accusations and for a couple of days they'd skirt each other like unfamiliar dogs. Patson often thought how remarkable it was that he and his wife could spend so little time in the same room when they had only a three-room house.

But tonight, Friday night, it was still early, so the taxi driver had no such worries. He collected Salim from the Queens where the Indian liked to drink and flirt with the bar girls. He was maybe two whiskies down and his mood was good—nothing could go wrong at seven o'clock on the weekend when you had money in your pocket and Harare at your mercy.

The guy was talking non-stop. He said, “You saw that girl I was with the other night? You took us to Beer Engine. She had a blue dress. You remember?”

Patson grunted. He was only half listening. The downtown traffic required concentration.

“Beauty. Her name was Beauty. I could lose my heart to a girl like that. And she was beautiful, isn't it? I said, isn't it, Patson?”

“Yes, Uncle,” Patson replied, as he wrestled the wheel left and swerved wildly across the road to avoid an oncoming ET. As the minibus passed, the conductor swung out and slapped the taxi's roof, whooping. Salim was thrown sideways by the sudden maneuver and cursed in his own language. He dropped his mobile phone and scrabbled on the floor beneath the passenger seat.

Patson checked the rearview mirror. “Sorry, Uncle.”

Salim sat back and straightened his jacket, parting his hair with one hand and putting his phone into his inside pocket with the other. “Fucking driving,” he said. “What's wrong with this place? People are not scared to die. People die for nothing.”

“Fucking driving,” Patson agreed, unwrapping a stick of gum with one hand. He put it into his mouth and began to chew vigorously. He wanted a cigarette but Dr. Gapu, who owned the cab, had told him he couldn't smoke in the car.

“Beauty,” Salim said. “You remember her?”

“I remember.”

“I really think she likes me, that one. The way we talked. We had such a good time. She could take my heart, a girl like that. I think she likes me. Do you think so?”

“Yes, Uncle,” Patson said.

He pulled a right onto Samora Machel Avenue, forcing an SUV with diplomatic plates to slow down, sounding its horn. As he turned, Patson got a glimpse of the driver, a white woman. Her expression shocked him: a rictus of fear and anger.

Patson dropped Salim outside Mokador on Nelson Mandela Avenue. It wasn't so long ago that this restaurant was a first-class place to pick up business—white kids out for a good time, looking for a ride back to the suburbs. But those good times were gone. Now it was just another city-center joint, unloved and unloving; the same dozen waiters from that previous era, wearing the same waistcoats and black bow ties, shuffling slowly from table to table as if they hoped nobody would notice their profligate under-employment.

Salim leaned in at the driver's side, his wallet in his hand. His breath was sour with the grain. He handed Patson a five. He said, “Thanks, my friend.” Patson began to reach for change but thought better of it.

“Can you wait for me?” Salim asked.

“No problem, Uncle. Just ring when you want a pick-up.”

“But I don't want to be waiting half an hour because you've gone on a job. You wait for me.”

“How long?”

Salim shrugged. “Half an hour? An hour? Just wait, OK? You know I always look after you, isn't it?”

“You look after me, Uncle,” Patson said. He glanced up and down the road. There was nowhere to park. “I'll stay local,” he said. “Don't worry. Just ring.”

P
atson dawdled up Nelson Mandela. He tried double-parking outside Standard Chartered but was quickly moved on by a cop. He turned at Second Street, again at Samora Machel, and slowed to walking pace outside the looming block on the corner. There were spaces here—there were always spaces here, because every cab driver in the city had heard the rumors. Nobody knew the truth and nobody wanted to be the one to find out. Patson weighed his alternatives. He wasn't by nature a superstitious man. There were few lights on in the building, none on the ground floor, so he decided to take a chance and pulled in.

Patson flicked off his beam and reclined the seat. If anyone came they'd think he was sleeping. He told himself that no one would be so bored as to give him trouble on a Friday night. He sat back in his chair and pulled his cap low over his eyes—he could certainly use the rest. But maybe he was too cold to sleep or maybe, subconsciously, he knew he was making a mistake. Either way, he couldn't seem to get comfortable so he stepped out of the car to smoke.

He stood behind the taxi, lurking in the shadows. The cigarette brought back his cough. Perhaps it was a good thing Dr. Gapu didn't let him smoke in the car—perhaps he was thinking as a doctor, not as a businessman. These days, everyone wore as many professional hats as they thought could turn a profit. Sometimes it was hard to work out to whom you were talking.

The glass double doors of the building were black mirrors, and when they swung open, Patson glimpsed the amber cherry of his cigarette in reflection. From the darkness a man emerged—a young man in a black suit with a white shirt and dark tie. Patson cupped the cigarette tip in his hand and walked a few steps away until he was hidden behind a Range Rover—he was just a passerby, smoking. He heard the beep of an alarm and saw the lights flash on a BMW parked half a dozen spaces down. The man walked towards his car and Patson dropped his head. He heard the clunk of the BMW's door opening. It sounded weighty and expensive. The door shut again and Patson dared look up. But the man hadn't got in. Instead he was approaching. Patson dropped his cigarette and squashed it with his toe. He buried his hands deep in his pockets.

“Who are you?” the man said.

Patson kept his chin down as he raised his eyes cautiously. “Me? I am just…Nobody.”

The man stood next to Patson's car, his hands behind his back. Up close, he was even younger than Patson had thought, maybe no more than twenty-five. His expression was contemptuous.

“Your name,” the man said.

“Chisinga,” Patson answered immediately, and immediately regretted telling the truth.

“Where do you stay?”

“Sunningdale.” Patson moved towards the driver's door and opened it casually, looking at the ground. “Sorry, sorry. You know, I thought everyone was gone now. I will move my car. I have a customer to collect.”

“You can't stop here.”

“I know, Comrade. Sorry, sorry. I thought everyone was gone home.”

The man stepped around the car and took hold of the open door. Patson had no choice but to look at him. The man was smiling.

“Comrade?” the man mused. “Are we comrades?” Patson shook his head quickly. His heart was beginning to race. “You know you can't stop here,
Comrade,
but you stop here. I don't understand that. Perhaps you can explain it to me inside.”

“No. I cannot explain it, Boss. I was not thinking clearly.”

“Boss? I am your boss now? Do you know what this building is?”

“No.”

“You don't know what this building is?”

“No.”

“You just know you cannot stop here?”

“Yes.”

The man touched Patson on the shoulder. “You should look me in the eye when you talk to me, Chisinga. Men look each other in the eye when they talk. Otherwise how can they know what the other is thinking?”

Patson cautiously raised himself upright and looked squarely at the man. He was surprised to find they were exactly the same height. The man was still smiling. But some men—such men—have learned to make this the very cruelest expression available to the human face. “What am I thinking, Chisinga?” the man asked.

Patson felt compelled to look away. As he did so, he saw another man approaching from the doorway of the dark building. His mind began to kaleidoscope scenarios. None looked anything short of desperate. Despite the cold, Patson noticed he was beginning to sweat. He knew he had to stay calm. Either he would talk his way out of this in the next two minutes or everything was going to go very badly wrong. He turned back to the first man and affected confidence. “You are wondering if I am one of us,” he said and he thought he saw something else flicker behind that smile.

The man nodded abruptly. “You are right, Chisinga. That is exactly what I am thinking.”

“What is happening here?” This was the second man speaking. He was now just five meters away; older, heavyset, carrying a briefcase, out of breath, like he'd been running.

Patson's mobile rang in his pocket. The jollity of the ringtone and its insistence seemed like an insult to all present. The first man said, “Answer your phone.”

Patson took out the phone. The display said, “Salim.” He made excuses. Salim was angry. Patson had bigger problems.

The two men were talking. Occasionally they glanced in his direction. He returned the phone to his pocket. He didn't know what to do. Should he just stand there and wait? Did he dare get into the cab and turn on the ignition? He remembered something Salim had once said to him about gambling: “Every time you make a bad bet, it is easy to start chasing it with worse.” He had never fully understood this before. He chose to stand and wait.

The two men finished their conversation. The first walked away towards his BMW and didn't look back. The second now approached the cab and, without a glance towards the driver, got into the back seat. He then leaned through and slapped the horn at the center of the steering wheel. “So,” he said. “Let's go.”

BOOK: The Death of Rex Nhongo
10.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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