Obituary: Michael Haddon

Michael Haddon, who died in Harare on November 7 at the age of 81, knew all the agonies and ironies of the liberal in Africa but he was a man who contrived to laugh no matter what.

Michael Haddon, who died in Harare on November 7 at the age of 81, knew all the agonies and ironies of the liberal in Africa but he was a man who contrived to laugh no matter what.

He combined a rock-like integrity, unlimited courage - he was one of only two whites jailed by the Smith regime in Rhodesia - a keen sense of humour, and a capacity for warm-heartedness, even tenderness with a solid practical intelligence.

He was no mere political activist, a description nowadays too often taken for a profession, but a highly skilled mining engineer - and perhaps the greatest expert on small mines in southern Africa.

The epic of Cold Comfort Farm

Yet his political and human commitment was no part-time or armchair thing. In 1963, after the banning of ZAPU, Joshua Nkomo was refused permission to hold the inaugural congress of his People's Caretaker Council in any of Salisbury's public buildings, so Michael offered the use of his smallholding, Cold Comfort Farm. This involved making Herculean arrangements, including the digging of pit latrines, for the hundreds of delegates. Thereafter Cold Comfort Farm became synonymous with non-racial enterprise and a supportive base for politicians in exile.

Many of ZANU's leading lights also enjoyed the endless hospitality of the Haddon household, not just accommodation but the loan of vehicles and money, entrees and support through many a personal crisis. A materialistic expectation of future preferment was never Michael's motive, which was perhaps just as well given that the remembrance of past generosity was not to prove one of the more striking features of Zimbabwe's new ruling class.

Michael was born in 1915 in KweKwe, Southern Rhodesia, of wealthy parents and, until the age of eight, enjoyed an idyllic childhood, playing at the mine manager's residence at the family mine or on the family's 150 000 acre farm. But at eight he was exiled, first to the Dragon School, Oxford, and then to Harrow, thereafter seeing his parents only at widely separated intervals.

Those lonely schooldays and even lonelier vacations gave him a deep feeling for what real unhappiness and deprivation could be like, and the painful memory of those times informed not only his strong commitment to home life [he would have no truck with private or boarding schools for his two sons) but to the plight of the less fortunate as well.

After Harrow, Michael attended the Royal School of Mines, London. He returned south to work on the Rand mines, a move interrupted by war service with the South African Artillery and then the elite Royal Marines (where he reached the rank of Captain).

But in 1948 he returned with his wife, Eileen, to Southern Rhodesia where he established a mining consultancy business which helped develop many small mines, about which he felt an almost missionary zeal. There were, he was sure, many such mines about and, properly exploited by forces outside the usual giant conglomerates, they could increase the country's employment and wealth while diversifying ownership. But already there were other motives for the move. He and Eileen had become active members of the Institute of Race Relations in Johannesburg and had cast aside the usual racial prejudices of his family, his colleagues and the mining world in general. In Rhodesia they joined the Interracial Association, supported Garfield Todd, and came under the spell of Guy and Molly Clutton-Brock at St Faith's Mission. Not content with taking up the minority cause of colonial reform and non-racialism, the Haddons cheerfully risked total social ostracism by supporting the cause of African nationalism too.

That social ostracism never quite happened - the Haddons were too jolly, too much fun, and in any case Michael's unrivalled mining knowledge meant that he was universally respected and liked within the mining community. Moreover, Michael was deeply involved in the marriage guidance council, the scouting movement and much else besides. Notably, he was a wine lover, gourmet cook and chairman of the Wine and Food Society - and learned how to make non-grape wine, knowledge which was later to stand him in good stead.

Eileen was no mere help-mate in all this. As their house became one of the major meeting places of black and white, it was generally she who led the discussions for she was a distinguished liberal journalist in her own right. In 1962 she was to take over the editorship of the Central African Examiner, a model of informed and courageous journalism and one of the few real forums for African.opinion in Rhodesia.

Michael supported the journal, which earned the furious hostility of the Smith regime. For Smith was the Haddons' antithesis, almost their counter-factual. They had played a leading role in setting up the Legal Aid and Welfare Fund to assist political detainees and their families; under Smith detentions soared and war began. Cold Comfort Farm became famous for its multiracial co-operative and its support for political dissidents - so Smith was to close it in the early 1970s [after Smith it was re-opened and flourishes still).

Jailed by Smith

Before then, however, the Haddons had been driven out. On taking UD1 in November, 1965, almost the first act of the Smith regime was to force the closure of the Examiner by the simple expedient of censoring almost all its contents. The paper then brought the first legal case challenging the legality of UDI. But the next month Michael was arrested on a mining technicality and thrown into jail for three years - the real reason being that Smith suspected that Michael was passing information to MI5 about Rhodesian sanctions-busting, as indeed he was, though he was far too canny to be caught at it.

Sadly, this occurred at a point when, vindicating all his small mine theories, Michael had just struck gold at his own small mine. But with the Examiner closed, Michael's imprisonment left Eileen destitute - indeed, she had to live on what she could grow in her own garden. Michael was forced to sell his mine at a knockdown price to Lonrho who made a fortune from it.

On Michael's release from prison the Haddons, fearing immediate re-arrest, moved to Zambia where Michael taught at the University's School of Mines, worked for the M1NDECO parastatal and helped develop small mines all round Zambia. Once again the Haddon household became a magnet for exiled politicians from the south and a whole new generation learned of them as the Zambian Haddons.

An evening with Michael at the Haddon table -shared by a sprawling network of journalists, academics, lawyers, golfers, engineers and chance acquaintances passing through in the great kaleidoscope of those transitional moments of southern Africa - was always to be remembered. In the deprived days of Zambia as a frontline state, Michael's tool shed paw-paw wine kept the effects of Eileen's tree-tomato char at bay and softened the blow of his shrewd doubling of your apparently solid three no trumps. The political gossip was always stimulating; the tales hilarious; the pick-me-ups the following morning convincing.

Travelling with Michael in the remote parts of Zambia, where his much-loved small mines were located, brought one up against the frontiersman in the man. His engineering abilities enabled him literally to detect faulty bearings by ear and he took a delight in the many ingenious and makeshift devices for keeping these far-flung enterprises sing.

Michael and Eileen attended Zimbabwe's Independence celebrations in 1980 - an occasion for tears and joy - and returned immediately to live in Harare. Michael set up and dominated the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation until his retirement in 1990, aged 75.

His death signals the continuous thinning of a generation of white radicals whose commitment and open-heartedness have done much for many throughout southern Africa. In some ways this generation stands in ironic contrast to the world that has succeeded them - and which, occasionally, is not above reviling them. It is almost as if their crystalline quality offends today's more tawdry reality.

Michael knew all of this and had no illusions about the corruption and authoritarianism of the successor regimes in Zambia and Zimbabwe. He would laugh wryly at the fact that while no Zimbabwean whites had a good word for his nemesis, Ian Smith, to many Africans he was, after a decade and a half of Mugabe, 'good old Smithie'. He inevitably felt sad at the rapidity with which the new elites abandoned the values and personal integrity he and Eileen had stood for, but he never regretted the battles he had fought.

Tough choices never shirked

A life can be a work of art as surely as any painting, and much depends on what moral choices one faces and where, when - and whether - one faces them. The spectacular moral setting of Michael's life was the high colonial age of Africa's white south and then its agonising - and glorious - demise. The choices he made were to fight for an equitable, non-racial dispensation; not to run to England or South Africa when the going got too tough but to stay and fight for the 'two Rhodesians' he loved; and not to become a sycophantic praise-singer - a slide away liberal, if you like- of the new nationalist elites. He did all he could; a man can do no more; and there is a fineness in that.

Michael was, of course, the radical only in that he stood up, ramrod straight, for liberal decencies. He carried the torch for his generation - but the line passes on. For the seeds he and others like him sowed have continued to germinate. Throughout southern Africa - and perhaps particularly in Zambia and Zimbabwe - a new generation, tired of authoritarianism, corruption and the bankrupt rhetoric that covers for them, is again discovering that to stand up firmly for those decencies is, in a way, always radical.

However, many with such commitments become heavy, humourless folk and actively disapprove of many ways of enjoying life. Not so Michael. He did what he did politically because he believed in it and that was enough - but he believed in all the other things, too: the warm family life, the conviviality of fine wine, good food and bridge, the open, expansive friendship which so many will miss. For there was a richness in the style of friendship that he and Eileen offered which ran way beyond mere material generosity.

An educated man, with a keen analytic eye and a sharp sense of humour, Michael was able to invite one into a whole world of good conversation, intellectual understanding, hilarious irony and arcane knowledge. It was a great gift to bestow, a fine thing to receive.

Shortly before Michael's death I played bridge with the Haddons at their house, my partner being Dave Kitson, who served 20 years in jail for his work on the MK High Command, only to be expelled from the movement on his release. He and Michael were seated side by side as they played and there were moments, looking at them, when I felt that all the vicissitudes of southern African history were reflected in their fine, rugged faces.

The conversation never flagged. At one point, as Michael got up to pour us more wine, Dave asked him how his health was. 'Well, the doctor tells me I've got ...' and out poured a dreadful list of maladies, Michael then adding: 'The main thing is it's terminal, thank God. Now then, Bill, you really must try some of this very nice Shiraz - and by the way, I'm bidding three hearts.'

Eighty-one he may have been, but that night Dave and I went home the losers.

[I am grateful for the reminiscences of several of Michael's friends.)