A bridge quite far
Thursday 4 February 2021
I have only just caught up with the stories of how Reuters was in the 1960s and 70s, years overshadowed by the Cold War. Like Barry Moody, I remember it as more like Scoop than ‘the Circus’ - but there were strong elements of both.
One very strange experience for me did involve an exchange of crucial documents on the middle of an international bridge between countries who were fierce ideological rivals. It could have been something by Evelyn Waugh, and maybe John le Carré in his Africa novels.
Around 1970, I was the junior correspondent in the South Africa bureau in Johannesburg. I was told I was being promoted to replace the correspondent in Zambia, who was apparently being withdrawn under a cloud. They wanted me, my wife Rosemary and young son Marc to transfer to Lusaka as soon as possible.
A brilliant mind in London had looked at the map, and saw it as a logical and straightforward move. Like the bosses of the hero in Scoop, he seemed be ignorant of the geopolitical scene.
There were no official links between apartheid South Africa and landlocked Zambia. Between them lay white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Zambia was host to the armed African liberation movements who wanted to see their regimes overthrown.
Even to the brilliant mind, it must have become clear there were serious obstacles to our transfer - but the plan went ahead.
Our entry visas and work permit could only be got from the Zambian authorities in the capital, Lusaka, where they were issued. This meant forms and documents having to be posted back and forth via Reuters in London. It took very many weeks. As did making arrangements for our possessions to be shipped to an East African port for the long onward delivery by truck across African bush roads.
For ourselves, someone decided we should fly to the Rhodesian capital Salisbury (now Harare), then take a small plane to the town of Victoria Falls. We would hire a taxi to the spectacular Victoria Falls Bridge, high above the Zambezi river, which formed the border. We would walk across it to the small Zambian town of Livingstone.
The problem was that the outgoing correspondent had to fly from Lusaka and bring our entry documents to us on the bridge before we could get in to Zambia. The arched bridge was nearly a mile long and crossed the Zambezi just below the majestic falls.
I remember conflicting feelings as we stood in the middle of the empty bridge waiting for him. Our situation was weird. We were alone. Would he come? The river was far below. The falls were awesomely beautiful. Rosemary and I each carried a small suitcase. Marc clutched his favourite toy. We couldn’t go forward, and we couldn’t go back.
He did come after a delay and handed over the papers. We then all walked the rest of the bridge to the Livingstone border post. The guards were both confused and suspicious when we appeared. A white family group arriving on foot was rare. They couldn’t fathom why the correspondent had been stamped out of the country, but not gone anywhere. Eventually, after a lot of questioning, they let us catch a small plane to Lusaka.
In retrospect, it was an absurd choice of arranging a transfer. We could have flown from Johannesburg to London - and from there to Lusaka. Being young, I didn’t then question the brilliance of a manager in London.
Reaching Lusaka, I discovered why my fellow correspondent was being recalled. Embarrassing news had got back to London that he was having a tempestuous and public affair with a prominent Zambian girl. Their volatile romance, sometimes involving thrown objects, consumed so much time that he hardly filed any stories.
As for the world of John le Carré, I was tentatively approached in Zambia by both a Russian and an Israeli diplomat to become a secret informant. But that’s another story, and I guess many correspondents in developing countries had similar approaches in that era. Reuter people had access to people and places that diplomats did not. We were also a bunch of journalists that aggressively defended and prized our independence. ■