There was a time when Rusty Labuschagne, of Hout Bay, had pretty much everything a man could ask for – he ran a safari outfit, flew his own aircraft and had a luxury house in Bulawayo and a fishing resort on Lake Kariba.
But in 2003, the former Zimbabwean businessman lost everything after a court convicted him for drowning a man near his fishing resort.
He was sentenced to 15 years in a Zimbabwean jail and was moved around to various prisons in the country. He spent hundreds of thousands of rand trying to prove his innocence and fighting the system.
Eventually, after 10 years, he was released from prison.
In an interview with The Saturday Star last month, Mr Labuschagne described the circumstances leading to his imprisonment.
“I went on a fishing trip with friends to my fishing resort on Lake Kariba in December 2000. Late one afternoon, one of my mates (Spike Claasen) and I decided to go tiger fishing on the lake, leaving the other guys bream fishing in a river section.
“On our way back, we spotted two fish poachers in a steel boat, who immediately, upon seeing us, started paddling hastily for the shore in an effort to get away from us. Knowing that they were notorious poachers, I drove my boat towards them to scare them off, and the wake of my boat tilted theirs, causing them to jump out into the water, which was about 1.5m deep.
“They were about three metres from the shore and soon scrambled to dry land. Spike and I then watched as they ran away into the bush, and thought nothing more of it.
“The following day, the police arrived and accused us of drowning one of those poachers. I was framed by the poacher, the police, and the courts, in an ugly politically influenced conspiracy and sentenced to 15 years in prison, of which five were removed as remission.
“Unbelievably, Spike only got a $10 fine and was set free because he was not driving the boat.”
Mr Labuschagne’s 10-years behind bars included a stint in the notorious Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, where food shortages were common, there was no running water and people were dying around him daily.
“After eight years, I was transferred to a farm prison where I managed to acquire a smuggled iPhone,” he tells the Sentinel. “It occurred to me that my ordeal and the life lessons I learned from it would inspire people and change many lives, especially during the economic meltdown of Zimbabwe between 2005 and 2009.
“Being concerned about forgetting important details, I began scripting my experiences on my cellphone and emailing them to myself for safekeeping. There were hundreds of emails in no particular order.
“After five years of being free, I decided I was ready to confront the process, which was part of my healing, and put a book together.”
He says he hopes the book, Beating Chains, which was published last year, will not only record the injustice he suffered but also inspire others to overcome hardships
“It was an emotionally tough process but therapeutic,” he says. “Amazingly, I had very clear memories of the conditions and incidents that took place. During my first year, I had visions of writing my memoir after my release, so I began taking measurements of the prison, different cell sizes, etc.
“At each prison, I did the same which helped when recalling all the details for the book. The assorted colourful characters in prison were easily remembered.”
Beating Chains and the motivational talks he has given around the world have since had a huge impact on both his life and others, he says.
“I have been able to help thousands worldwide that feel that life has been unfair to them. I now have a purpose and have dedicated my future to inspiring people and making a difference wherever I can.
“This is my calling and I’m loving every minute of it.”
But he has been through hell to get to this point in his life, he says. Prison didn’t just take away all the trapping of his wealth, it also ate away at the very core of his being.
“I was living the life, flying high, full of confidence, thinking I was bullet-proof,” he recalls. “When you go in there, they crush you – your confidence, your spirit, your soul. When you are pushed so low that you have to dig really deep to find solutions to get through there, you grow. You learn lessons others never have to, as long as you take the good and leave the horrors behind.”
It took him five years to overcome post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and another eight to physically feel like himself again, he says.
“I’m a more humbled, grounded and focused person now. My ambition and drive have not changed, but I’m a lot more patient and filled with peace knowing that the Lord is using me to make a difference in people’s lives now.”
While he and his wife, Sandra, live in Hout Bay, they continue to visit family in Zimbabwe.
“Family and friends are everything to me now, especially my precious grandchildren. My amazing son lives in Harare and my beautiful daughter and her two adorable boys live in Bulawayo – I visit them about every six weeks, but chat on the phone daily.”
• Beating Chains is available at all Exclusive Books stores, Wordsworth Books, Reader’s Warehouse, and various online sites.