When I saw Donald MacLean on that sunny summer afternoon in 1978, he was, wearing army combat trousers, a white t-shirt with the imprint “We Made Rhodesia Great, They Made Zimbabwe Ruins” and was carrying more or less a full set of 58 webbing, as he bounced down Byres Rd in Glasgow on his way to the student travel office. He was going to buy a ticket to Rhodesia a few months before it became Zimbabwe. Donald was going to join the Rhodesian Light Infantry for this horny handed son of toil had been affected by the airs and graces that invariably pounced on Glaswegian working class kids of limited ability when they went up to the city’s first university and, unlike Strathclyde and Glasgow College of Technology, the city’s main university had a tendency of transforming its working class students into “petite bourgeoisie” of an ilk similar to those who had ushered in the end of the Weimar Republic. “Well, if Mugabe wins the election, there will be civil war and if he doesn’t win it there will be civil war anyway, so I am going to kill communists and blacks.” Now whatever Donald had studied, I think he had enrolled on a Theology degree to stay at university, it certainly wasn’t logic. Mugabe won the elections in April 1979 and there was no civil war but Donald was to have his year and a bit in the Rhodesian Light Infantry before then.
It must have been about 1981 when I visited his mum and there he was, or at least a picture of him, which was sitting on the television and I have to confess he did look good; fit, tanned and wearing a lovely big hat with a plume in it and, oh, he had a sword in its saber and his wee mum went on to tell me how well he was doing. “Got an award for being the best recruit and, do you know James, they even have servants.” Well, what do you know, to the best of my knowledge they also had a kill rate of about 1,000 to 1. Her Donald, while not in the same league as Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or even Tony Blair was, in all probability, right up there with the Tony Sopranos and Al Capones of this world.
There is a sort of nice twist to this story. About eight years ago I bumped into Donald in a bar in Glasgow’s west end. No longer in Africa, but in love with that continent and no longer a racist, I actually found him quite pleasant and something told me that somewhere down the road and maybe somewhere back in Africa, something made him grow up. Actually, when I think about it, in Glasgow in the 70s a lot of us didn’t do very much growing up and I wasn’t a kick in the arse off of joining the Royal Hong Kong Police, attracted by a BBC documentary, which showed a lot of the force getting rich through the extra envelope that appeared on their desk every month.
The picture above is a poster for officer recruitment for the Rhodesian Light Infantry.