Johannesburg - It was the look of bewilderment (interwoven with terror) which I will remember. The face of a man who has unwittingly put himself into mortal danger through no fault of his own.
As he stood next to his Transvaal-registered VW Golf on a street in the southern Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo, he haltingly told a tale of how a holiday visit to Victoria Falls had nearly ended in tragedy.
On the way back from the popular tourist spot – heading out of the country via Bulawayo and then Beitbridge – he had encountered a roadblock manned by what would later turn out to be members of the notorious North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade. Because he didn’t stop quickly enough, or because he looked like he might be a “Boer soldier”, his car was fired on.
Also, it turned out, cops had told him not to stop at any roadblocks, as these were likely to have been set up by dissidents.
Luckily, the Fifth Brigade were not such good shots when their targets were not lying on the ground in front of them or squatting on their haunches, hands on head. He was eventually allowed to continue his journey, after a harangue and a slap or two.
The question did not need to be asked: would you come back here again? And: would you recommend Zimbabwe as a destination to your friends?
In the 30-odd years since then, Zimbabwe tourism has never been the same – although it is starting to shake off the bad image.
I thought about that incident this week after two conversations with freelance writers who asked whether I would be interested in pieces from places to which they were going.
The first was about Sudan. Sudan – seriously? While the northern part of the country (North Sudan) may appear calm compared to the chaos and fighting which has plagued the only-recently independent state of South Sudan, I still believe that the number of South Africans who would visit such a place could be counted on the fingers of one of my hands.
It may be grossly unfair to Sudan which may be, for all I know, a nice place to have a holiday. But it may also be home to terrorist organisations who would think nothing of harming a Westerner (and like it or not, that is how we South Africans are perceived).
On the other hand, terrorism may strike anywhere and any time – that is the lesson of Nairobi’s Westgate Mall – yet I would not regard Kenya as a dodgy destination from a security point of view.
And, it is also true, that as South Africans, we know better than anyone else how perceptions from afar can be vastly different from the reality on the ground.
Yet… yet. I cannot in all conscience run a piece promoting tourism to a place like Sudan while I believe that part of Africa is still very much in flux. Granted, the chances of getting kidnapped in Sudan might be less than they were in Yemen (where al-Qaeda-linked groups abducted Pierre Korkie and his wife Yolande) – but why take chances if you are on holiday?
So I turned that offer down. Also, I believe it is important to bear in mind that while places like Sudan may be fascinating, I run a travel supplement. I am not National Geographic magazine. I want readers to be able to contemplate places they might realistically visit.
The next conversation with a freelancer was much more problematic – because it concerned our beautiful neighbour, Mozambique.
Late last year, we were offered a trip there and I had lined up a reporter for the assignment, only to have her pull out because she was worried about security.
And, honestly, who can blame her?
There have been a number of recent reports about a resurgence of violence in certain areas, which some say is caused by elements of former rebel movement Renamo (now part of the government) “going back to the bush”.
I hear the beautiful Gorongosa game reserve in the centre of the country has virtually closed down because of the increase in violence and that convoys are escorted by armed government troops in some areas.
Banditry and pure crime also appears to be on the increase – and it is accompanied by violence, as the reports of AK-toting gangs robbing South Africans at coastal resorts testify.
And we are still getting reports about roadside corruption which targets “rich” South Africans.
I heard a story of a man whose family was subjected to a harangue by AK-wielding government officers, accusing him of not complying with all of the detailed and arcane road regulations, which are only enforced for foreigners. He had to part with a few thousand rand to get away. His verdict: Never again.
Another man tells a tale of being stopped and told he did not have the required reflective circle or triangle – something he had ensured he stuck down before leaving home. Again: a few more (actually a lot more) rand passed over and he was on his way. Before they left the “roadblock”, his son pointed out something in the grass next to the road – the badge. It had been ripped off by the people at the roadblock.
Mozambique is a beautiful country – but it doesn’t have anything we don’t have in terms of beaches and sea. And more than a few people are turning their back on it in favour of exploring our own country which, though it has its own security moments, is still, subjectively at least, safer than our neighbour.
So, in the end, I said to the freelancer: go, write me the piece, but include a realistic assessment of the security situation, whether your hosts like it or not.
If that is not included, you won’t be seeing the piece on our pages any time soon.
I would be interested in hearing your experiences of Mozambique particularly and, the answer to the questions: would you go back? And would you recommend it? - Saturday Star
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