- "But we were young and bold. We had a cause and we stuck to it. But I will say that the consequences far outweighed what we did. What we did was to criticise the government and their reaction was way over the top. But that’s politics for you in Zimbabwe. Some people love us for what we did, some of them hate us." - Olonga.
ZIMBABWE’S first-ever black cricketer, Henry Olonga, says the government of former President Robert Mugabe was too heavy-handed in dealing with him and then national cricket team captain Andy Flower when they staged the famous black-armband protest.
This was when they wore black armbands in their opening match against Namibia at the 2003 World Cup to mourn the “death of democracy” in Zimbabwe.
The protest came in the wake of white farmers’ lands being seized forcibly by the Robert Mugabe-led government, and the rise in cases of human rights abuse.
Olonga and Flower also attempted to recruit Kirsty Coventry to wear the black armbands during her swimming events, but she turned them down. Coventry is now the Minister of Youth, Sport, Arts and Recreation in President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government.
There were serious repercussions for both Olonga and Flower after they stood up against Mugabe. Both never played for Zimbabwe Cricket again, and Olonga retired prematurely from international cricket.
Initially charged with treason, punishable by death in Zimbabwe, Olonga faced multiple arrest warrants and death threats.
He fled the country in 2003 and lived in exile in Britain for 12 years.
Speaking to Forbes India published on 21 December 2019, Olonga, who now has British citizenship, said: “We knew the consequences. We did this 16 years ago. Long story short, we understood the situation in Zimbabwe and what Robert Mugabe was like. We wanted to protest.
“So, we met a few people to discuss the risks and potential fallout. We were aware about what was at stake and what kind of reaction we’d get from the government. We were advised by many people not to do it, with everyone saying it would not end well for us.
“But we were young and bold. We had a cause and we stuck to it. But I will say that the consequences far outweighed what we did.
“What we did was to criticise the government and their reaction was way over the top. But that’s politics for you in Zimbabwe. Some people love us for what we did, some of them hate us.”
Olonga said some Zimbabweans have not forgiven him for the incident, and still troll him and bully him on Twitter for the incident. However, he says his attachment to Zimbabwe is now waning.
“I have got British citizenship, and I will soon be a citizen of Australia as well. So, my allegiance, in a sense, has changed.
“Zimbabwe has given me a lot of hate. I have received a lot of love from a lot of people as well, but if you see my Twitter timeline from a few months ago, you will see many people in Zimbabwe giving me grief. So, it makes it hard to consider going back or consider a future there.
“But I do follow the developments in the country, and I am a keen fan of Zimbabwe cricket. It’s a beautiful country but it’s a troubled land,” said Olonga.
He adds: “I also don’t regret the black-armband protest, and I don’t regret that my career came to an end because of that.
“It may well have come to an end a year later anyway because of what was going on in Zimbabwe. So, it’s not something I regret in itself but I know that one moment changed my life.”
A part of the golden generation of Zimbabwean cricket of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Henry Olonga stands tall as one of the most audacious figures of the game. The country’s first-ever black cricketer, Olonga played 30 Tests and 50 ODIs in a career spanning eight years, picking up 126 wickets across both formats.
Olonga, aged 18, became the youngest to represent Zimbabwe when he made his Test debut against Pakistan in 1995. From ruffling Sachin Tendulkar’s feathers in Sharjah in 1998 to causing an upset in his 1999 World Cup encounter against India, he was on course to becoming Zimbabwe cricket’s poster boy, when his career was cut short by the black armband incident that would define his legacy more than anything.
Henry Olonga fled the country in 2003 and lived in exile in Britain for 12 years.
He subsequently moved to Australia in 2015, where he now lives in Adelaide with his wife, Tara, and two daughters.
After catching the imagination of the audience and judges at The Voice Australia, a singing competition, in 2019 with his beautiful rendition of Anthony Warlow’s This Is The Moment, Olonga today is a successful opera singer.
Labelled as a ‘traitor’ by some and ‘hero’ by others, he continues to divide opinions in his Zimbabwe.
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