From The New York Times, 9 August 2002:
Sports of The Times; One Family Still at Home In Zimbabwe
By Harvey Araton
When Don Black died, when his long tennis life was over, his wife and children were left with no specific directive on what to do with his ashes. Without much debate or fanfare, the family gathered to spread the remains around its lush compound in sub-Saharan splendor.
Even a visitor from the United States to Harare, Zimbabwe, in February 2000 for John McEnroe’s debut in a one-year run as the Americans’ Davis Cup captain would have known that’s what Don Black wanted. Asked that day if he feared for his property or for his safety as the troubled government of President Robert Mugabe began advocating seizing land from descendants of the British colonialists to place it back in black hands, Don Black made a sweeping gesture toward the perfectly manicured grass courts and the avocado pear trees swaying in the breeze and the 22 magnificent acres on which he reared three tennis pros. “I’ll die here, whatever happens,” he said, with no way of knowing he was, at 72, months from his permanent resting place.
It was October 2000 when Byron, Wayne and Cara – the Black family touring professionals – got the call from their mother, Veila, with news of the secret their father had been keeping. The cancer, she told them, needed surgery and now the operation had gone wrong. Byron Black, the oldest and most accomplished, tennis-wise, was in China. Cara, the youngest, was in Germany. “I was in London,” Wayne, 29, said from Mason, Ohio, where he and his countryman Kevin Ullyet were playing doubles this week in the Cincinnati Masters Series tournament. “I rushed right home but the doctor said there was a problem with his arteries, that not enough blood was circulating to allow for the surgery. It was too late. None of us got to see him.”
It was impossible to know why Don Black had not confided in his children, but knowing him, they guessed he convinced himself it was no big deal. “The father of a friend of mine had been taking tennis lessons from my dad for 10 years,” Wayne Black said. “My friend told me that the day he was going into the hospital, my dad got up and beat that guy, 6-0, 6-0.”
Don Black made the third round of Wimbledon one year but wound up a teacher, like his English mother, and a farmer, like his Scottish father, who settled in Zimbabwe in 1913, when it was the British colony of Rhodesia. The father retired with a pension at 40 to grow his vegetables and school his kids in tennis, a man at peace. His age, he had said, spared him the fight against Mugabe-led rebels. For years after, the country stabilized, and the whites who remained – less than one percent in a population of 12 million – lived as they had, far more luxuriously than the overwhelming majority of blacks.
Land redistribution was inevitable, supported by influential governments and even by the Commercial Farmers Union representing many of the 4,500 white farmers. But Mugabe, roundly accused of using the issue recklessly to help save himself politically, in May unilaterally set a deadline for 3,000 of the white farmers to vacate their land without compensation, or face fines and two years in jail. That deadline was now, though a court ruling Wednesday, which said a farm could not be taken without notification of the mortgage holder, could be a lifeline. “The farmers are mostly wealthy, so they’ll be all right,” Wayne Black said. “But if they can’t farm, people will starve.”
He was last home in April and experienced the long lines, the soaring prices, some farmers and workers under siege. “I just talked to my cousin, who is one of the most successful farmers in the country,” he said. “Some are leaving. He said he won’t. He just built a huge house.” So has Byron Black, married with children and planning to retire after one last Davis Cup competition, the kind his father lived for, at the raucous Harare Sports Center next fall. The Black family has been enormously popular in Zimbabwe, and the family compound, still home to Wayne and Cara and where Veila remains, is no commercial farm.
Yet the injustices of the past are inescapable, and the country’s future could be even more tumultuous and bleak. “All I know,” Wayne Black said, “is that it would break my heart to leave.”
That warm afternoon back in 2000, Don Black considered the potential repercussions of staying put and asked: “How could I ever leave this?” Fate had a plan for him, cruel but also, in a way, kind. For whatever awaits Zimbabwe’s white farmers, no one can take Don Black from the rich soil he loved.
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