Heidi Holland was born on 6 October 1947 in Johannesburg, South Africa, the daughter of a British father and a Swiss mother. When she was three years old, the family moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), then a British colony, where she attended Ellis Robins School in Salisbury. She grew up on a tobacco farm in the Umvukwes (now Mvurwi) district in the north of the country.
After her O-level examinations at Salisbury’s Lord Malvern high school, she took on a secretarial job. Holland then became a journalist, working for a magazine called Illustrated Life Rhodesia.
She later edited Illustrated Life Rhodesia and outraged authorities in 1978 when she defied censorship laws and published the first photograph of Robert Mugabe to appear in Rhodesia on the front cover.
She quickly moved from local magazine journalism to reporting for international newspapers, and was in constant trouble with then Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith’s censors and the Special Branch.
In 1973 a Rhodesian journalist, Peter Niesewand, was locked up in solitary confinement for 73 days and then deported after he embarrassed Smith on television by asking some pointed questions.
Holland, a friend of Niesewand’s wife, Nonie, was horrified by this episode. She signed up with the Centre Party, which opposed Smith’s Rhodesian Front, and favoured a negotiated transition to majority rule. In 1974, she was the election agent for Diana Mitchell, a leading figure in the Centre Party who unsuccessfully stood for parliament in that year.
Following this, she began research on her first book, The Struggle: A History of the African National Congress. By coincidence, the book was published on 11 February 1990, the day former President Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Holland tracked him down and presented him with a copy.
In 1975, she used her house for a secret rendezvous between Robert Mugabe, just released from 11 years of detention, and liberal politician Ahrn Palley, to plan for Mugabe’s flight to Mozambique. From here, Mugabe later took over the leadership of the banned Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and its guerrilla army, Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA). This encounter was the source of the title of Dinner with Mugabe, widely acclaimed as probably the most insightful book to have ever been written so far about the Zimbabwean ruler.
Mugabe, who had just emerged from 11 years in prison, was about to escape over the border into Mozambique and take command of the war against white rule. Yet the guerrilla-leader-in-waiting was a model houseguest. After the meal, Holland drove Mugabe to the railway station, worried because she had left her baby son asleep in an empty house. The following day, her phone rang. It was Mugabe, offering thanks for Holland’s hospitality and inquiring after her child.
Her first marriage to Tony Hull ended after five years after which she married George Patrikios, an orthopaedic surgeon.
In 1983, after they married, he invited a crew from the United States television show, That’s Incredible, to film Heidi’s 10-year-old-son, Jonah, assisting him in an amputation. During this surgical procedure, Jonah held the retractor, the surgical instrument holding apart, incised tissue, as Patrikios sawed through a black Zimbabwean’s leg.
In the ensuing racial uproar, the family fled to South Africa. A year later, Patrikios was critically injured in a car accident and died two years after that.
She wrote four more books until 2008. When Dinner with Mugabe was published, a series of interviews with 14 people who had had close dealings with him accompanied the text. The book serves as probably the most comprehensive depiction of the Zimbabwean leader’s complex background and personality.
In 2007, after being told to fly up from Johannesburg, she spent a month waiting in a lodge, to be called. She then managed to obtain a lengthy interview with Mugabe, however not before being interrogated for an hour by George Charamba, Mugabe’s spokesperson, about herself and the proposed book while six identically suited officials –– one of whom fell asleep –– recorded her answers.
Holland had a revised edition of her book on the African National Congress (ANC) published earlier in 2012.
She also ran a popular bed and breakfast establishment in the suburb of Melville in Johannesburg where journalists, academics and diplomats regularly gathered.
She leaves behind two sons, Jonah Hull, a war correspondent for Al Jazeera television, and Niko Patrikios.
Holland’s reportedly died by suicide.Police say she hanged herself in her garden. Her body was discovered by her gardener on 11 August 2012 at the guesthouse that she ran in Melville, Johannesburg.