As things get tough, more and more Zimbabweans are looking to “prophets” to divine the future and sell them some hope.
From their pulpits, out on the streets and in large venues, they draw thousands by selling hope; something big is about to happen, God will raise a new leader imminently, a change is about to happen, pray and hold on.
It hasn’t always been like this, some say. Wrong.
Take, for instance, the Rhodesians. In the late 1970s, as the freedom fighters turned up the heat on the white settler regime, some Rhodies turned to the same sort of prophecies many are turning to today. They found a prophet to tell them it was all going to be OK.
His name was Bill McLeod. In 1978, his fame grew after he reportedly “predicted” the downing of two Viscount planes by the freedom fighters.
His fascinating story is told in the Illustrated Life Rhodesia, a magazine published for local whites and once edited by the late Heidi Holland, author of Dinner with Mugabe. In 1978, the magazine ran a cover on McLeod and how he had drawn many Rhodesians to him.
People pasted pages of his prophecies on windows, they put stickers of his face on cars, and businesses handed out pamphlets of his sermons to customers. His pronouncements were read more than the Bible itself, as it is in many circles today. These were hard, uncertain times, and McLeod, whose predictions were mostly of a bright, prosperous future, gave hope to his desperate followers.
As Holland wrote, McLeod was “guided by the spirit of Cecil John Rhodes and a Red Indian called Wise Owl”.
How well did he score on the prophecy scoreboard? Not very highly, looking back at his prophecies.
He predicted that Bishop Abel Muzorewa, leader of the UANC who was preferred by some whites and many in the West, would become Prime Minister at the 1980 elections. Many papers gleefully ran this prophecy, which must have warmed the hearts of a section of conservative whites who were scared stiff of “Marxist” Robert Mugabe coming to power.
Mugabe and ZANU PF won that election. Muzorewa got three out of 100 seats, winning just over 8% of the total vote.
But – and here’s yet another way in which McLeod sounds like the prophets of modern day Zimbabwe – he had an explanation for any big miss.
According to one account, published on one of the many Rhodesia nostalgia websites that litter the net, McLeod explained that he had in fact only predicted that “a small man with spectacles with a name beginning with the letter ‘M’ will become the prime minister of Zimbabwe”, and that “people had jumped on to Muzorewa”.
He, quite evidently, would not be out of place among today’s Zimbabwean prophets.
McLeod’s prophecies were not limited to his own country, or the continent. He “saw” beyond the region. He predicted that Edward Kennedy would become US President, and that Cuban leader Fidel Castro would be gone by the end of 1981, taken out by America.
Ted Kennedy never became US president. As for Fidel, he retired from office in 2008, on his own terms, and died in 2016.
Trying the odds, he also once predicted that Malawi’s Kamuzi Banda would be replaced by another Banda.
There are many more other eyeroll-inducing McLeod prophecies.
“A very spiritual and simple man will rise and unite Rhodesia. I think he is a white man,” he predicted in the early 1980s. It is plausible that McLeod was referring to himself.
A man whose name starts with a “G” would become an important black leader in Rhodesia, he also said.
And nationalist Edson Sithole would “return to Rhodesia” and become “a very important person”. Sithole, together with his assistant Miriam Mhlanga, were abducted from outside the Ambassador Hotel in then Salisbury in 1975. Both were never seen again.
He predicted that Chief Jeremiah Chirau, who had participated in the 1978 internal settlement with Ian Smith, would be in politics for “some time” as a “father figure”. Chirau died in 1985, still largely ostracised.
Some time on the eve of the transition in South Africa, just as Nelson Mandela was being released from prison, McLeod reemerged to shoot off another gem of a prophecy: “I do not think Mandela as such will rise to the top. I just feel he is an instrument for change.”
In the 1980s, he prophesied: “I believe Robert Mugabe has done the best job according to his ability and in time he will be swept away.”
That’s just about as close as he ever got, Bill McLeod, the prophet of Rhodesia.