On the Fields of Rhodesia


By Peter Walshe

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — One weekend recently, I found myself sorting through old high school photographs dating back to Rhodesia, circa 1950 portraits of rugby, cricket, rifle and tennis stiff-backed teams, There we all were in our sports gear, upright and serious in the studio of a Bulawayo photographer, with the head-master and coach in attendance. It was the 1st XV rugby photograph wanted to examine. Seated in the front row was Andy MacDonald – muscular, hefty and confident, with a touch of bravado about him as he looked the camera straight in the eye. 

I wanted to refresh my memory of Andy because he died last summer, in a hail of bullets. On a flight to Chicago, I read of the ambush in a British newspaper. Andy MacDonald, ex-international rugby player and manager of the veterinary section of a pharmaceutical company supplying products in the Bulawayo area, had been killed on a dusty road not far from Plumtree. 

The job had been done by black "dissidents," those rogue guerrillas , from Zimbabwe's independence in 1980. Since then the South African Government has kept them fed, armed and in training for destabilizing missions. Backed by Pretoria's dirty-tricks squad, they enter Zimbabwe periodically to blow up bridges and murder white farmers. All this is aimed at unsettling the Government of Robert Mugabe. It also delivers a warning not to assist the black liberation struggle in South Africa itself, or such attacks will be stepped up.

By an odd coincidence, flying out to Southern Africa 15 years ago, I read a news report of how Andy MacDonald had fought a lion with his hare hands and survived – just. He had been farming in Zambia and went out one morning to track down a marauding lioness that had been sustaining herself on his beef. Suddenly, in thick grass, she charged. Perhaps Andy's rifle jammed; certainly there was no alternative but thrust his arm right down her throat as she came upon e him. The vision of fury, of golden flashing eyes burnt itself into his brain. For what seemed several minutes, he wrestled with his head against her neck and tore at the base eees of the lioness' throat, desperately trying to throttle her from within. 

When he came to, Andy MacDonald was hooked to an I.V. and swathed in bandages. He had been so close to his attacker that his face and the front of his body were unscathed; but his back and thighs ware laeerated and his arm all but severed. The muscles from his right wrist to his shoulder had been badly torn. Andy survived because his enemy choked to death on the blood he gouged from bar throat. They had been found a few yards from each other by a tracker. 

I learned much of this detail in Rhodesia from a mutual friend. All three of us sat shoulder to shoulder in that old Milton School rugby photograph. The 1st XV had been particularly impressive in thole years, knocking the stuffing out of our archrivals, Plumtree. One reason for this triumph of macho youth was Andy MacDonald. Inside his gum guard, he knew how to grit his teeth, weighed 220 pounds, could sprint and became a daunting front-rank forward. Later he played international rugby for South Africa. 

I have experienced a persistent sadness about Andy's death. It was not simply that his luck ran out. He completed a tough, distinguished rugby career. He even survived that first ambush, although it was a tight finish with the lioness. A great deal has happened in Southern Africa since the early 50's and those care-free school days lived out in privilege on the playing fields of white Rhodesia. After a long bloody civil war, Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe, Now as one of the frontline states, it is under relentless pressure from apartheid South Africa.

By 1987, Andy's South African rugby jersey was no protection against apartheid's bullets.

Peter Walshe is professor of government and international relations at the University of Notre Dame.