Book extract: ‘Two Weeks in November’ by Douglas Rogers
The astonishing untold story of the operation that toppled Robert Mugabe from power in Zimbabwe
Two Weeks in November (Jonathan Ball Publishers, R260) by Douglas Rogers is the thrilling, surreal, unbelievable and true story of four would-be enemies – a high-ranking politician, an exiled human rights lawyer, a dangerous spy and a white businessman turned political fixer – who team up to help unseat one of the world’s longest-serving dictators, Robert Mugabe. Rogers is a Zimbabwe-born journalist and travel writer based in the US. His book, The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe, was published to critical acclaim and went on to be a bestseller in the UK and SA.
EXCERPT, CHAPTER 1
ELLIS: THE WHO THE HELL IS HE MAN
On a bright afternoon in the spring of 2015, driving past the mall near his suburban Johannesburg home, Tom Ellis spotted his assassins. He didn’t know they were his assassins – they hadn’t introduced themselves to him yet – but for the past 20 minutes, since he’d left his meeting at a Sandton hotel, a white Toyota Hilux, two black men inside, had been on his tail, and Ellis knew they were bad news.
A good-looking man of 55 – slim, tall with a healthy mop of salt-and-pepper hair and hazel eyes that glistened like a leopard’s – Ellis (not his real name) had faced his share of danger. He had smuggled an activist in the boot of a car across the Zimbabwe–Botswana border, been arrested during a violent election season in Zimbabwe, met with fugitive exiles from the Mugabe regime in the sketchier parts of Johannesburg.
But this was different.This was blocks from his Randburg home, where his wife Clare and four kids would be waiting for him to get back. Clare had been followed recently – a black Merc with tinted windows had tailed her to the school gate on the kids’ run – and the couple were wary.Ellis had a good idea who the men were. He knew the game. He’d expected as much, ever since he and his friends had taken a new direction. When you set out to remove a dictator – when you reach out to those close to the dictator – the dictator is eventually going to find out about it.Approaching a set of lights at Northgate, Ellis made his move. He slowed his vehicle on green, watched the car behind him get close, then simply stopped and waited for red. The Toyota bakkie, unable to keep its distance, was forced to pull up behind him. Ellis exited his car and walked towards his tail. He could see the men were dressed casually in polo shirts. The passenger was in his late 30s: a slight, bony, clean-shaven man with thick wire-rimmed glasses and hollowed-out eyes; the driver was a bit older, in his early 40s, and thick-set, with the harder features – a scar on his left cheek, a missing front tooth – of someone who’d known a rough life. Ellis reckoned he might be handy with a knife or a gun.He walked to the driver’s side. “Guys,” he said, leaning in as the driver rolled down the window. “I know you’re following me. Let’s go get a drink.” The driver, irritated and aggressive, scowled at him; his passenger stared straight ahead, pretending he wasn’t there. “Shamwaris,” said Ellis, mangling a plural out of the Shona word for “friend”, “I know you’re following me. You’ve been on me since the hotel. So, let’s talk. I know a place.”
The men in the car looked awkwardly at each other for a while, then shrugged and nodded. They could use a beer. Ellis smiled and sauntered back to his car. The two vehicles pulled away as the light turned green. Ellis liked to work in bars. A builder by trade, he ran a small home maintenance company but, much to his wife’s alarm, he’d largely abandoned that over the years to focus on his “thing”.
His thing – his love, his passion, his all-consuming obsession – was the politics and business of Zimbabwe, the country of his birth, a country he’d left in 1980 as a 15-year-old kid and not lived in since.
He wasn’t built for desk work, though, and the Sundowner bar in Randburg had become an informal office for him over the years. It was a run down, working man’s joint with rugby on the TVs and the permanent smell of cigarette smoke and spilled beer. The Rundowner, he and his mates called it. They didn’t stand on ceremony. He’d held countless meetings here: with potential investors, opposition activists, human rights lawyers and displaced white farmers. He had planned visits to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, even brainstormed a visit to the Obama White House to press the case for human rights in Zimbabwe.
The vehicles parked and Ellis, wearing slim-fit jeans, a short-sleeved checked cotton shirt and the trademark veldskoens common to white Zimbabweans of his generation, led the way, the two men following awkwardly behind. Ellis clocked their well-worn trainers: footwear to move fast in. Ellis hugged Heidi, the owner, a bob-haired blonde, chose a table at the back by the pool tables, and ordered his usual drink, a cold Hansa. The two men ordered Castle. They introduced each other. As Ellis had guessed, they were Zimbabwean. The driver, Kasper, the senior of the two, said he was a plumber. The passenger, Magic, said he was an accountant.
Ellis knew they were more than that and these weren’t their real names. South Africa is a hotbed of Zimbabwean spies – freelance and fulltime agents for Mugabe’s expansive CIO, keeping an eye on the three-million-strong diaspora – but he didn’t push it. Besides, he was enjoying their company. They talked about work, family and home; how the country they loved was tearing itself apart. The two men were both supporting relatives back in Zimbabwe with remittances; Kasper had six children and a wife to feed in Harare. It was hard. He wished he was around for his young boy like his dad had been for him. He said his father had been a policeman in Harare. Ellis flinched a little. His father had been a policeman too, in a different era, when Zimbabwe had a different name, but he kept quiet about that.
It was during the third round of drinks, his guests switching to Johnnie Walker, that Ellis asked the question again. “So guys, why were you following me?” They looked embarrassed but denied it. “We are not, we are just driving to the shops,” muttered Kasper, who did most of the talking. Ellis smiled and gave them his pitch. “Just so you know. I’m not political. I don’t care what political party you are. All I want is good governance in Zimbabwe. Your families are hungry; you have to live here to feed your children back there. That’s stupid. People don’t even like us Zimbabweans in South Africa. Me, my sister lost her farm in Bindura in 2005. She’s now in Zambia. My family is broke. My wife is angry at me. I’m spending all our money on this game. The question is – how do we get a fair system in Zimbabwe? How do we get a fair election, one where the people’s choice wins and the military accept the results?”
They nodded their heads in agreement. It was the odd thing about Zimbabweans. Everyone, whatever their race or their politics, knew there was a problem – the disease had been diagnosed – but they all claimed someone else was to blame and that their man was the one to fix it. By 6pm Ellis was getting text messages from his wife, asking where he was. He wanted to keep talking but he had to go. He was about to ask for their contact details when Kasper requested his and said he’d like to see him again. And so they ended up communicating on WhatsApp.