A heroine and a healer

Sekai HollandZimbabwean senator Sekai Holland has repeatedly put her life on the line to improve the lot of underprivileged people – and she would not have it any other way.

In a colourful life, Sekai Holland has been shot at, almost beaten to death and the subject of constant harassment.

Not once, however, has she been tempted to give up on her goal of delivering justice and a better life for people, especially her compatriots in strife-torn Zimbabwe.

Holland is the former Zimbabwean Co-Minister of State for National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration in the government of President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, which was formed as part of a power-sharing deal following elections in 2008.

The path to such recognition has been full of potholes. Asked if anyone had ever threatened her, the UTS graduate and former Zimbabwean senator is forthright: “Yes, all the time, because I talk a lot – I am always being threatened, all the time.”

Holland has done much to attract attention over the years, earning derision and threats from dubious types who have been hell bent on stalling her noble aspirations.

Holland was announced the 2012 Sydney Peace Prize in a ceremony hosted by the Australian Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe. Holland travelled to Australia last November to give the City of Sydney Peace Prize Lecture at the Sydney Town Hall, and to accept the Peace Prize at the awards ceremony. The award puts her in the company of earlier winners such as Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Patrick Dodson, Arundhati Roy and Desmond Tutu.

Like many unique, courageous human beings who stand out from the crowd and put their life on the line for others, Holland is underwhelmed with herself. Indeed, she could not believe she had won the Peace Prize, but felt honoured by the acknowledgement and was also proud to be invited to be a member of the UTS Luminaries program, an initiative that recognises a select group of alumni at the University who have a sustained record of outstanding achievement.

“I think the Luminaries idea gives me a very good opportunity to actually go to them and ask for different ideas about how to do my job as a co-patron and fundraiser for the Midlands State University,” says Holland, referring to the innovative learning institution, which has a mission to contribute to the education and development of Zimbabwean people. “From the meagre support in Zimbabwe, we built our administrative building, we’ve done our library and we are now going to go for a walk on 16 October to build the first hostels because there are no hostels for students.”

Still a work in progress, the university aims to have 10 faculties by 2015.

Holland believes the ideas and input she receives from the Luminaries program will make a big difference to what she can bring to her role in healing Zimbabwe’s challenged political system.

In a further nod to the profound impact and commitment Holland has on human rights, democracy, leadership, and the empowerment of women, in 2013 she was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) from UTS, further deepening her close and ongoing connection to the University.

Australian story

Before looking to the future, however, let us profile the remarkable woman herself. Holland’s first taste of Australia was via a Commonwealth scholarship she won when Sir Robert Menzies was Prime Minister in the 1960s. Unluckily, when she arrived in the country, it was Australia Day.

“Nothing was open and so I sat outside the embassy and luckily some students from my country came looking for their mail and so I went home with them,” Holland recalls.

She quickly found her feet in Australia and married engineer Jim Holland in 1965 and together they had two children. Along the way she completed a Bachelor of Arts in Communication at the NSW Institute of Technology, UTS's predecessor institution, before returning with her family to Zimbabwe in 1980 to be part of the post-liberation nation-building movement.

Ultimately, history tells us that Holland would become a champion for the rights of others. She cut her teeth in these endeavours in Australia as a founder of the anti-Apartheid movement in the late 1960s, and also through other initiatives such as being the driving force behind the creation of Redfern’s Murrawina Child Care Centre, a facility catering for indigenous children.

Born to fight

Holland had once been the most senior woman in Robert Mugabe’s guerilla organisation during the 1970s struggle against the Rhodesian government of Ian Smith.

However, on the back of her outspoken call for democracy, she was expelled from the organisation, listed as a dissident, shot at and beaten up by police before joining Morgan Tsvangirai in his bid to establish the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to provide a real alternative to one-party rule in Zimbabwe.

Listening to her life story, it is clear that it was inevitable Holland would take an active role in the human rights struggle.

“I didn’t decide!” she insists. “I was born into a family where that was the trajectory to go. I come from a family of politicians. My father and mother, my grandmother, my grandfather – they were people who were always in their society ahead of their time.”

As the former minister, Holland faced some horrendous pressures.

“Working with people that you know that if your back is turned they would probably just stab you to death!” she says. “And really knowing that they’d do that, it’s not just talk … but knowing that politically we cannot follow the normal Western way of waiting for elections to then take office.”

People power

It is hard for Australians to grasp what drives a woman like Holland, but then few of us have put our life on the line for a better future for our fellow countrymen and women.

Life is all about the big picture for her and the challenges are so huge that the normal human being might have difficulty appreciating their enormity and significance. Holland puts the issue into perspective, saying the Oorgan of the National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration ministry has the chance to promote genuine peace.

“Which I think it will because it’s a program from the people – the policies are based on what the people have told us. I will then say we, the Zimbabwean people, did that together and it took us out of the pit into the new Zimbabwe. The organ’s mandate was to produce an infrastructure for peace and to advise Mugabe, Tsvangirai and [Deputy Prime Minister Arthur] Mutambara on what they should do to administer transitional justice to Zimbabweans for the political damage done before independence and after independence. And we’ve produced the infrastructure for peace and the methodology we used was to have a grassroots-based national inclusive consultative process where we asked the Zimbabweans what it would take for them to have peace in Zimbabwe.”

True leader

After spending time with Holland, a question naturally surfaces – what qualities are required for someone to truly be a leader?

“You have to live the kind of life which ensures that you encourage rather than demoralise people. You ensure that the programs, the policies, all the things you’re coming up with, really improve the lives of the population,” she counsels. “And you yourself have to lead the kind of life that is exemplary! So that people know that they are not out there on their own; that you’re in it together.”

Listening to Holland, you cannot help but admire her courage. So her take on this important characteristic of leaders is insightful.

“Courage, I think, is a word which humans don’t understand. Because you only understand courage when you are put to the test. And I think all humans are endowed with that quality, but they do not know they have it until they are put (on) the spot.”

Story by Peter Switzer
Photography by Nick Cubbin