Welcome to Zimbabwe’s new, old country clubs

A little while ago, Zimbabwe-born photographer Lisa King suggested it might be interesting to revisit Zimbabwe’s country clubs. I was intrigued by the idea but also hesitant. The humiliation of black Zimbabwean employees was fairly routine in Zimbabwe’s rural country clubs right up to the point at which most of them ceased to operate as clubs in the early to mid-2000s, following the state-sanctioned “invasions” of white-owned farms that began in ­earnest in 2001.

I was complicit to a degree, having spent many carefree childhood weekends on the clay courts at Norton Country Club, 50km southwest of Harare, where, whenever a tennis ball careened off a racket frame and over the fence, the players would collectively shout “tenniiiiissss” until the caretaker of the courts in his starched white uniform would explode from the kitchen in the direction of the pine windbreak. The caretaker of the cricket field, needless to say, was “crickeeeet” to all who donned flannels on winter weekends.

But then Lisa was not proposing a paean to the club scene but rather a survey of how the colonial DNA of these spaces has changed after a major national trauma. I signed up the moment we heard that a sailing club on former Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith’s farm was being used as a base for a bream-netting co-operative. This is what we found.

The Bulawayo Club
Corner 8th Avenue and Fort Street, Bulawayo

In Burmese Days, George Orwell described the European club in India as “a spiritual citadel … the Nirvana for which native officials and millionaires pine in vain”, which would have been an accurate definition of our first destination in the decades before Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980.

When Oxford-based historian Terence Ranger stayed in what he describes as the “gloriously anachronistic” Bulawayo Club in the early 2000s, it still did not allow women into its members’ bar.

At the recent launch in Harare of his social history of Bulawayo, Ranger described a visit to the club in the company of his late friend, the celebrated novelist Yvonne Vera. “She gazed around in astonishment,” said Ranger, “and then called to the manager: ‘We’ll take this as it stands.’ Then, pointing at some club members gathered around for tea, she added: ‘And we’ll have them too.’ ”

We were met between the club’s gigantic Doric columns by local historian Paul Hubbard, who said he had been through the club minutes that had been recorded in the months leading up to black majority rule three decades before, and said the transition had hardly been noted. In 2008, however, hyperinflation had done what the overthrow of a white supremacist government could not — it compelled the club management to bend its masonic rules.

 “You would not believe what misery an inflation rate of 80-trillion percent portends for an institution accustomed to extending month-long credit lines,” said Hubbard, who works for a local safari company called Amalinda, on whose business he visited the club in 2009.

“I went there to see about using the atrium for a colonial-style tourist lunch, but found only steak and Mazoe Orange Crush on the menu. We arranged to bring in our own chefs, and a week after staging a successful high tea we had taken over the running of the club at the express request of the club president,” he said.


Vera would have been delighted because Amalinda is owned by a woman, Sharon Stead, who clicked through the lobby on high heels at some point, straight into the supposedly gender-discriminative bar, where she consulted with a female associate working away on a laptop.

In terms of the new management deal, the surviving 50 or so members ostensibly retain control of the long bar, the billiards room, and may still, if they wish, repair of an evening to the relative quiet of the club library, and the transport of any of 400 volumes of Punch magazine.

Saunders Park Golf Club
Shurugwi, Midlands Province

The town of Shurugwi in Zimbabwe’s Midlands Province is best known for its mineral wealth and for Saunders Park Golf Club, which is still described on some online golfing sites as “one of Zimbabwe’s most picturesque”. Prior to the land occupations in 2001, rural country clubs abounded in Zimbabwe, most of which were founded by colonial-era farmers. Around Shurugwi, however, there have always been more miners than farmers, and in fact all three of the sports clubs in and around town, including Saunders Park, were established by ferrochrome producer Zimasco to cater for its employees’ leisure interests.

“My parents would go to Saunders Park for parties most Wednesday and Saturday nights,” Zimasco contractor Emmanuel Rensburg told to us as we drove out of town in his bakkie to a lookout structure above an enormous open-cast pit.

“It was a mecca for Zimbabwean golfers; the greens were perfect. The first green was about on a line with that man down there, in fact,” said Rensburg, pointing into the void at a tiny hard-hatted figure who was trying to get an obdurate generator to pump out ground water. Just beyond the pit, pine trees marching through a fur of tall golden grass gave the lie to what were once groomed fairways.

“The last white managers knew there was chrome beneath the course, but they were such avid golfers there was never a question of digging it up,” said Rensburg. “When the current manager came he looked at slipping productivity levels and said it had to go, and so we’ve dug it up, the entire par four.”

Rensburg reckoned his parents would turn in their graves to hear him say the decision was a pragmatic one, but with Shurugwi’s chrome reserves almost depleted and the international price for chrome in a slump, he admits there were few alternatives.  “Plus golf was a white thing to do, and there is only one white person left working for Zimasco,” he explained while driving us around to the clubhouse, which stands under enormous mopani trees at the lip of the open-cast pit.

When blasting commenced, auriferous rocks came through the clubhouse roof and disordered the parquetry. A sound board from a grand piano and a mural of the once manicured view from the clubhouse veranda lent the scene an element of pathos. Through a paneless window, Rensburg pointed to men and women standing around on what he said had been the 9th and 13th fairways.

“When we dewatered the pit, people used the runoff to pan the fairways for gold, and they found it, quite a lot in fact,” he said. There are now about 1 000 illegal panners in the hills surrounding Saunders Park, and according to Rensburg the only thing keeping their numbers in check are Zimasco’s security guards, and they won’t be patrolling for much longer.

“Zimasco is winding down here, and when the company goes, the people in this town will be back to digging gold with basic tools, like the first settlers in the 1890s. In another 50 years, who knows, maybe there will be golf courses again,” said the earth-mover, wearing the smile of a man who has just sold a clapped-out 4×4 to a newly rich panner for twice its market value.

Norton Country Club
Mashonaland West

The turn for the Norton Country Club is marked by a new sign: Norton Golf Resort. Preserving Nature, Preserving Rural Golf. The property is no longer owned by the district’s commercial farmers because nearly all of these were run off their farms in the mid-2000s. It was bought by the owners of the gigantic adjacent piggery, ­Triple C Pigs, because it was felt, or so explained one manager, that maintaining the 18-hole golf course might endear the piggery to certain politically connected businessmen from the nearby town of Norton.

By 2010 the Rileys, Skeas, Normans and Dobsons who once populated the membership roll had been replaced by Dzires, Karamelas and Chiutas, though the roll remained depleted. The facilities inevitably deteriorated. On the day we visited, however, golfers could be seen on the course fairways downing acacia pods with miscued drives. A mechanical floor polisher hummed in the theatre and uniformed staff were setting out tables ahead of Korea Day, a booking for 100-plus Korean expats.

All of this might have stemmed organically from the piggery’s self-serving conservation efforts, but there were signs of another league of capitalisation entirely: zebra and impala grazing the 7th; a new irrigation system for the entire course and a tiled finish to the once dank change rooms equal to any in Harare’s swish Meikles Hotel. Fortunately, Amon Kaseke*, once the club’s barman and now its manager, was on hand to explain the changes.

“Look at the tee-boxes,” he said, leading us to the 9th, where he read aloud from a placard staked in the ground: “This Hole Sponsored by Zimplats.” Zimplats is the subsidiary of South African platinum producer Impala Platinum, or Implats, which produces approximately 25% of the world’s platinum. We knew this because the company has been in local and international news as it tries to navigate around Zimbabwe’s Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act, which compels all foreign-owned businesses in Zimbabwe to extend majority ownership to indigenous Zimbabwean partners.

After a year of negotiations, Implats brokered a less haemorrhagic deal in March 2012, though quite what it entailed remained a mystery to analysts and shareholders alike. (In January this year Zimplats renogiated the deal.) But Kaseke was versed in its minutiae.

“Zimplats has agreed to invest in community projects in 11 chieftaincies surrounding its nearby refinery. Norton falls within the Chivero chieftaincy, and which community project do you think they chose to support here with their money?” Kaseke asked, and, satisfied that the penny had dropped, said: “Yes, it was very clever of them, indeed it was. And all their managers have free membership at our club now.”

The interior of the clubhouse had been repainted, but team photos that once crowded the walls had not been rehung. Curiously, the one frame that had been reinstated depicted a Norton Country Club staff variety show in 1993, a collage of men and women I remember with fondness, grinning and laughing, arms over each other’s shoulders, dressed in drag.

Enterprise Country Club and Beatrice Country Club
Mashonaland East Province

Sports are no longer played at most of the country clubs in Zimbabwe, though this is not to say the social function has been lost. The bar at Harare South Country Club, for example, is very popular with the new farm owners in the district, who have started a soccer team called the Boozers XI and who use the cricket oval for social games.

The fields and courts surrounding Marondera Country Club sprout weeds, but the restaurant is still somebody’s pride. And the Goromonzi War Veterans Association has a weekly meeting in the tearoom at the Enterprise Country Club, which is on the northern outskirts of Harare.

We walked in on one of these, much to the surprise of a grizzled man in a cap branded The Third Chimurenga, which is what the association dubbed the land occupations — the third revolutionary struggle to liberate the country from the control of whites.

The veterans must have taken us for foreign correspondents and wasted no time in calling their suspicions through to the Goromonzi Central Intelligence Officer, in Shona, while reassuring us in English that we were most welcome at the club, which had been without electricity and water for a decade but still smelled as all Zimbabwean country clubs once smelled: of spilled beer, cigarettes and Cobra Wax.

Believing they had us fooled, the main group repaired to the gloom of the bar for a discussion, leaving a particularly frail veteran to watch over us. We gave him the slip and motored back to the main road, only to be stopped at a police roadblock 3km away, where we were told to await our would-be captors. The three veterans who finally pulled up in an ancient Peugeot failed to convince the police officers of our malevolence, and left assuring us we were welcome to return to the clubhouse. We declined the offer with feigned calm.

Enterprise is not the only country club in Zimbabwe to have found a second life as political headquarters, but then the country clubs weren’t entirely apolitical before. In his recently published farmer ethnography The Unbearable Whiteness of Being, Zimbabwean historian Rory Pilossof recounts how, in 2000 when the ruling party called a referendum on proposed constitutional changes, many white farmers, after two decades of kowtowing to the government, brazenly opposed the proposed changes and enjoined their labourers to do the same, triggering the land occupations that destroyed their way of life.

Memories of this time are still vivid for dairy farmer Stoff Hawgood, who agreed to unlock and show us around the Beatrice Country Club, 60km south of Harare. “Some Commercial Farmer’s Union leaders visited the club in 2000 and handed out a whole lot of pamphlets detailing 10 reasons why farmers should vote a certain way in the referendum,” said Hawgood, shaking his head in disbelief.

For their brief role as political fora, the country clubs were not overlooked when the land occupations — or what many Zimbabweans referred to as the Jambanja, a byword for state-sponsored lawlessness — began.

 “On June 9 2001, the ladies of Beatrice were having a cricket match when a band of war veterans marched in and ordered everyone off the property, telling us farmers we had relinquished our rights to the club by choosing to celebrate the death the previous day of their national leader, Chenjerai ‘Hitler’ Hunzvi.”

Pointing to a smudge on the crumbly red brickwork of the clubhouse facade, he said: “That’s where they painted the club’s new name: Chenjerai Hunzvi Country Club. It took the police three weeks to get them out.”

Similar episodes took place all over the country, and as recently as 2011 the sports clubs on the shores of Lake Chivero were “invaded” by a group led by president Robert Mugabe’s nephew, who justified his actions on the grounds that “there is gross social injustice that continues to be perpetrated by remnants of racists in most of the clubs”.

In Whiteness in Zimbabwe, David Hughes suggests that the farming communities weren’t so much ­racist as lacking in humility. His advice to Zimbabwe’s remaining whites was that they should try to “belong ­awkwardly” — controversial advice he added to in person, explaining that several farmers had told him “that they were too rich and too visible, and should have integrated all of the clubs or done away with these institutions altogether”.

Hawgood, who now chairs both the Beatrice Country Club and the local farmer’s association, might well be the embodiment of a white farmer “belonging awkwardly” in Zimbabwe. What he calls the “land issue” is decidedly not on the agenda of local farmer meetings. To be doubly sure that “everyone knows there are no subversive activities going on here”, he invites the police and area councillors to each meeting, and sends them minutes if they don’t attend. When a local Zanu-PF councillor asked to use the club for “youth training” (a decidedly undemocratic enterprise that the ruling party reliably undertakes before national elections), Hawgood agreed.

“These things make you nervous but in the end they came and ran around the rugby field a few times a month, and then left, whereas it might have become something else if I’d said no.”

The present value of the Beatrice Club to the district’s handful of remaining commercial farmers has little to do, it seems, with the fact that the light in the squash court still works. It does more work as a demonstration site for good intentions, peaceable motives, awkward belonging, if you will.

“But was it so different back in the day?” Hawgood asked. “In the 1970s, we had the ultra-English guys from Harare South on the one side of us, and on the other side it was the Afrikaners at Enkeldoorn. The boere [Afrikaners] and the rooinekke [English] didn’t really see eye to eye. But then there was this old Afrikaans couple, Jaap and Connie Smith, who joined our club and became the glue that sort of fused these very different communities together. I still think their example is so instructive.”

Hawgood would happily see the rugby posts replaced with soccer nets if it meant the community had come to regard the club as an asset again, “rather than a shebeen that serves only one blokes’ interests”.

Making to leave after two warm beers from the old Schweppes-sponsored fridge, Hawgood points to a picture of a smiling couple on the wall beside the bar. “Ah, there’s Jaap and Connie. Tragically, they were killed on their farm in the last year of the war.”

*Name withheld for safety reasons

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