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A man of the people: telling the story of Sir Garfield Todd

Stanley Makuwe at his Auckland home. Photo/Adrian Malloch

A new play, Black Lover, tells the story of Sir Garfield Todd, the New Zealander hailed as both a hero and a villain for opposing white minority rule in Rhodesia.

Black lives always mattered to Garfield Todd, whether it was delivering babies for African families at the medical clinic he set up with wife Grace, improving access to education for their children, or campaigning to increase their voting rights.

His opponents scathingly called him a “black lover”; in the 1950s, Todd’s own party forced him out of power as Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and he was later banned from leaving the country and repeatedly placed under house arrest for speaking out against the inequities of white rule. But to his supporters, the term, meant as an insult, had a very different meaning.

“His name is so big in Africa, but people here don’t realise it,” says Stanley Makuwe, a psychiatric nurse and award-winning playwright who came to Auckland from Zimbabwe in 2002. “I decided to write a play so New Zealanders get to know the story of this man who was so brave and did so much for Africans.”

Born in Invercargill, Todd arrived in Rhodesia as a missionary in 1934, naming the ranch where he lived “Hokonui” after a range of hills in Southland. Locals held him in such high esteem baby boys were often named after him. “Not Garfield; they liked Todd,” says Makuwe, who lived in the nearby Shurugwi district. “But the whites, they didn’t want him. He was opposed to everything they believed in.”

Sir Garfield Todd, 1967.

Black Lover imagines a day in Todd’s life under house arrest in 1965 (the season runs at Auckland’s Q Theatre from 6 March to 4 April). The play, with Cameron Rhodes in the lead role and Simbarashe Matshe as his servant Steady, is described by director Roy Ward as a “dynamic, intense and often very funny exchange between two men caught up in tumultuous times”.

The ability to leaven trauma and tragedy with laughter is a survival skill ingrained in Makuwe. He was only seven when the Rhodesian civil war ended in 1979, but his memories of that time are searingly vivid. His small village was surrounded by thick bush, where freedom fighters would often hide from army patrols. One night, a group of rebels were ambushed by white soldiers; the following day, their bodies were piled up on the back of a truck and displayed to all the villagers as a warning.

“At the time, it’s all you know,” says Makuwe, whose mother worked as a cleaner at a small mining town and only came home when it was safe to travel. “You don’t think of it as trauma. It’s a way of coping, and dealing with certain things. After the war, it was good to walk in the bush without finding a dead body. When [Robert] Mugabe came, we thought he was a saviour.”

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While working as a psychiatric nurse, Makuwe began writing plays as part of a protest theatre movement that rose up against an increasingly corrupt regime. In 2002, he applied for a nurses registration programme at Green Lane Hospital, arriving in Auckland with a bag over his shoulder and $100 in his pocket – lured by photographs he’d seen of the serene beauty of the South Island as much as the legacy of Todd, who died in Zimbabwe the same year, at the age of 94.

Todd’s nephew, Jeff Todd, lives in Auckland and shared his memories with Makuwe of a man who was larger than life. “He told me he was very tall,” says Makuwe. “And a storyteller – a very funny man.”           

This article was first published in the March 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to our fortnightly email for more arts stories.