Reon Schutte was held captive in a notorious Zimbabwe prison for 12 years and eight months. When he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer during his internment he started off asking, “Why me?” Then came a day when he began to ask, “What for?” The “What for?” has become Schutte’s reason for living. He now spends his time exploring the world as a motivational speaker.
It’s been six years since Schutte was freed from Chikurubi, essentially a death camp near Zimbabwe’s capital of Harare, where only 10 percent of inmates survive. It’s been even longer since he received his fatal cancer diagnosis. Schutte calls wherever he’s speaking his home. Now Schutte, 50, is doing a speaking tour throughout Costa Rica.
He’s told his story more than 800 times now. Schutte remains awed by the reactions the story receives. “For some reason, my story just resonates everywhere I go,” Schutte said. “From billionaires and millionaires to gangs and prisoners.”
Mistakes in his own life led Schutte to Chikurubi. At age 12, he joined a gang in Cape Town. Four years later, he was in prison for killing a police officer. In prison, he was offered a chance to join the South African army, which he did. At age 32, he was on a cross-border mission for the South African Defense Force, when Zimbabwean forces caught him. Thus began his 26-year prison sentence.
Schutte calls his survival an act of God. And the South African says his core message is that any situation, no matter how dreary, can be improved (or made worse) by what you do with your mind. “How can you change your attitude – even in the harshest of situations?” he asks.
Schutte managed to do it. At first he wished for more than the one shirt and pair of pants and the three lice-infested blankets the guards had given him – until he decided that those things were more than enough.
Initially feeling he could barely subsist on his daily meal of rice and cabbage, he one day decided cabbage and rice made for a filling entrée. Where he once angrily endured daily beatings, he then decided those beatings were nothing to fear.
After five years of starving in prison, Schutte’s transformation began. He started telling himself he wasn’t hungry except at lunchtime. The nagging pangs of hunger eventually softened. He evened skipped meals to bribe guards with the rice in exchange for the chance to mail a letter. Schutte cleaned the toilet in his cell – shared with 49 other prisoners – with his bare hands for months.
Soon others followed his lead. He stopped worrying about his daily beatings – he had already lost all his teeth anyway – and the guards sensed his lack of fear and left him alone. Only the cancer diagnosis would send him spiraling again.
For years he clamored to receive operations on the tumor. When death felt near, he learned Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe was pardoning Schutte. One of the letters Schutte sent out from prison had been published in a magazine. A young boy who read the letter started campaigning for Schutte’s release. It took years for Schutte’s support group to garner enough attention to free him. It was just in time – he outlived his prison sentence and soon his cancer diagnosis.
Although Schutte said there’s no political message in his speeches – they’re more about faith and attitude – he does feel awful for the thousands of people still imprisoned in Chikurubi under Mugabe.
“I feel sorry for the people of Zimbabwe, and the world not doing anything for them. There are (resources) in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s nothing in Zimbabwe. There’s no gold, no diamonds, no oil. Nobody cares.”
Schutte looks wide-eyed and weary when he speaks. He has wisps of scraggly, gray hair and talks with a slow, cautious rhythm.
Schutte said he sleeps about three hours every night, and he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. When he first found an audience for his story, Schutte said it was difficult to maintain his composure. Now and again the anxiety still comes back, Schutte said. Schutte’s favorite audiences are children.
He’s collected letters throughout the years from children who were moved by his presentation.
If changing attitudes is to start anywhere, why not begin with inspiring future generations.
“Kids definitely always surprise me,” Schutte said. “Because you get 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds asking questions that make me stop in my tracks and go: ‘Oh, I’ve never been asked that before.’ …. It’s so innocent. Pure, pure questions – out of interest.
Youth is very important.”