Rusty Labuschagne is a Freedom Warrior speaker on the professional circuit. One is immediately struck by his sincerity and humility as he delivers a dramatic account of his transformational experience. Rusty has been through a trauma few have experienced. In 2003, the successful Zimbabwean businessman, who ran a safari outfit, flew his own aircraft, and had a fishing resort on Lake Kariba, was framed by a poacher, the police, and the courts, and wrongfully convicted of drowning a poacher.
He talks and writes about being subjected to conditions most people would find unbearable, having to draw on his inner resources and strengths to endure the unimaginable. In the process, he developed not only a life-saving resilience but also empathy and a keen desire to help his fellow inmates. His faith in God, positive mental attitude, leadership qualities, and lessons in forgiveness, gratitude, and humility bring a personal, transformative, and authentic message of hope and freedom.
In his book and to audiences, Rusty’s message is that everyone is faced with challenges, but it is who you are and the depth of your determination that will get you through life’s darkest moments. He shows how one can harness one’s inner strength and let go of what one cannot control. His talks have a broad audience appeal, from leadership lessons for CEOs and managers to inspiration and staff members’ motivation. They will all feel an impact.
Against police evidence, without a body and on presumptions, Rusty was convicted of drowning a fish poacher during Mugabe’s rule. He served 10 years in Zimbabwe’s prisons, including the notorious Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, where he suffered through the Zim dollar crash, with food shortages, no running water, and people dying around him daily.
Rusty Labuschagne – Freedom Warrior speaks eloquently about being subjected to conditions most people would find unendurable, having to dig deep within himself to find solutions to an unbearable situation. His resilience, ability to face adversity, and pure grit are an unparalleled inspiration.
Born on 2 November 1961 in a small well-known cattle ranching district called West Nicholson, in South Western Zimbabwe. At the tender age of 6, I was sent to a boarding school 200km away from home.
During school holidays, we enjoyed the most amazing lifestyle any kid could ever wish for. My dad being a building contractor, we moved from camp to camp in beautiful untouched, game-rich country, spending endless happy hours with my dad’s farmworkers’ children, using stick rods and katties in our perfect peaceful world, year after year – just natural healthy outdoor entertainment without cell phones, play stations, computers, or crime.
Tragically our larger-than-life dad, only 36 at the time, was killed on Nuanetsi Ranch in ’73, when a 5-ton trailer he was working under fell on him, shattering and changing our lives forever. He was our world like any dad is to his family; we idolized him in every way and adored his attention and love!!! I had just turned 12 and can still remember the hollow painful emptiness he left behind. We grew up struggling financially as a result but never went without, due to our ever considerate beautiful mother, who we very sadly lost to breast cancer in ’93. She was one in a million, with a heart of gold and a mother to so many during our schooling years. School holidays were enjoyed with my uncles on cattle ranches throughout the Rhodesian bush war. Being an avid rugby and water polo player, both rough sports and the war environment, created a wild, hardy character. It was a tough but exciting life.
After leaving school in 1980, I started an apprenticeship as a fitter and machinist, but it lasted only 18 months. During that time, I was rugby crazy and fortunate enough to make the national rugby squad in early ’82. With a never-ending love for the bush, in mid ’82, I ventured into the safari industry as a learner guide. Later that year, meeting only 9 months earlier, I surprised everyone and married. It was rocky from the start, with my darling wife unable to tame my wild ways and endless energy. Within 7 years, we had 2 beautiful children, Dusty and Sandy, who became my life. I showered them with love and affection when home from safaris, getting lost in that unconditional love and leaving my wife lonely and sidelined.
In 1988 I formed my own safari operation, Safari Trackers, which soon thrived, pushing me to diversify into founding Matabeleland Drilling and Contracting, a water well drilling business. In 1989 I bought Angus Ranch in Chiredzi, a 40,000-acre cattle ranch with 820 head of cattle, all on credit. Several other successful ventures followed, with a fantastic loyal crew who worked like machines beside me. With safaris booming, I felt the sky was my limit in business and, by now, was living in an upmarket 5 bedroom house in Bulawayo. Sadly, after 14 years, my marriage fell apart in ’96, leaving me longing for my precious children endlessly. But by the year 2000, through making the right business decisions, life couldn’t have been better. I was extremely happy, making plenty money in my safari business, flying my own aircraft, had a fishing resort on Lake Kariba, flashy cars, speed boats, houseboats, you name it. To top it off, I was engaged to the most beautiful woman.
Then in December 2000, after a dispute with an influential member of a neighboring fishing cooperative, who were forever poaching fish in a nearby breeding area, I was accused of drowning a fish poacher near my recently acquired fishing resort on Lake Kariba.
On the 3 April 2003, 2 years and 4 months later, during the height of the political lawless land invasion chaos in Zimbabwe, against police evidence, without a body, and on presumptions, I was convicted of drowning that poacher and sentenced to 15 years in prison of which 5 were suspended. The shock was inexpressible; I was innocent. I was a successful self-made businessman with a high standing in the community. Utterly humiliated, my life changed forever.
I spent 10 years in 4 different prisons – 5 and a half years in two maximum-security prisons, 2 and a half years in a medium-security prison, and then 2 years in a farm prison.
I shared a cell with 78 other inmates, 13 meters long, 3 meters wide. Each person had 33cm of space, marked out on the walls in chalk. The toilet was a stainless-steel bowl sunk into an open one-meter square cement block in one corner. We were packed like sardines with legs all crossing over in the middle. We all faced the same direction; when you turned over, it was all together. As cushioning against the cold concrete floor, you’d fold two of your paper-thin, worn-out, lice-ridden blankets several times to fit your space, then covered yourself with the 3rd one. Your clothes were wrapped around your toothbrush and toothpaste, or they’d get stolen, and that was your pillow. My hips had bruised black rings for years, and my shoulders still give trouble today from sleeping on those freezing, hard floors.
There was no furniture whatsoever in the first 3 prisons. No beds, no tables, no chairs, no cupboards, nothing. Just rows of filthy folded blankets and hundreds of well-used water bottles on bare concrete floors.
For the first eight years, the worst thing to deal with were the lice, thousands of them, that never went away. Ever. They would crawl and bite, day and night, leaving itchy weeping blisters. And because they never stopped, they were draining, both physically and mentally, and there is nothing you can do about it. But I tried; we all did. We spent hours killing them.
We had no basins or taps in the cells, and only one set of clothing was allowed at any one time, so we had to wash our clothes in the cell toilets at night wearing a blanket, then hang them on the walls with smuggled book staples to try dry by the next morning. Three or four of us would group together and take turns to wash our clothes because one garment had to be used to block the toilet, to allow the toilet bowl to fill up when attempting to flush (the water only ever dribbled in slowly), then we’d wash them on the cement block surrounding the toilet bowl, dipping the clothes in and out as we washed. At about 5 am, we’d place the slightly damp clothes on the cleanly swept concrete floor and rub the creases out with a prison-made sponge. Then fold them neatly, place them in a pile, put a hand towel over the pile, and stamp on it hard with bare feet, leaving them perfectly ironed. Another hour hanging on the walls, and they’d be ready to wear.
In 2005, during the Zimbabwe dollar crash, Harare City ran out of water. For three years, while in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, each prisoner was allocated only one plastic cup of water a day. One cup of dirty orange city runoff water from a nearby dam, carried by farm prisoners. That was to drink, clean your teeth, wash your face, bath, everything. For three years!
My first evening at Connemara Open Prison, which is a farm prison where I was transferred to after eight years, I spent sitting around an open fire on old logs and bleached cattle skulls, chatting with old Ndebele inmates, taking me back to what I loved so dearly as a child. I remember getting lost in their interesting stories, the beauty of the sunset, the dancing flames, the tranquil call of a nightjar, and the bright stars and the moon, which I hadn’t seen for eight lonely long years! Now, I appreciate the everyday little things in life. Like a hot bath, a soft bed, catching a fish, or a spontaneous cuddle from a loved one. Because those are the things you miss most when you have it all taken away.
Despite the hell I had gone through, physically and mentally, the worst part was knowing that my beloved children were growing up without me. We have always been extremely close. It is a bond I will cherish and protect to my dying day.
My proud son Dusty, only 18 at the time, was always full of ambition. We’d joyously discuss and dream of making millions and plan endless projects and adventures. He was following in my footsteps and loving every minute of it. Ready to take on the world with his dad, then I was ripped away. My precious 16yr old daughter Sandy and I had – and still have – an extraordinarily beautiful bond. Since a baby, she’s always been my shadow, and as special as she is to me, I am to her. But at 16, I was her anchor; I was everything in her eyes; she confided in me without boundaries and clung to everything I said and did. I loved them beyond expression. They loved me, and the times they needed me most, I wasn’t there. They went through first loves, crushes, dances, 21st birthdays, and entered the wide world. And I wasn’t there to see it. It is a gnawing feeling knowing that I am their father and should have been there, but I couldn’t be.
I was released on 3 April 2003 and went back into the safari industry, working for people who had once worked for me. It was tough picking up the pieces. I lost everything I had slaved my whole life for, except for my house. When you are flying high, full of confidence with plenty of money, thinking you are bulletproof, and you go to prison, they break you in every way. Your confidence, spirit, and soul, and no matter who you were before prison, it’s tough to pick yourself up again.
After 2 years in the safari business, Rusty Labuschagne – Freedom Warrior found his calling – to inspire people. On platforms internationally, I share many life lessons I learned in prison and realize its impact on people. I have made it my mission to master the art of public speaking, which was totally new to me, and this has resulted in me finding my purpose, my “why.” I was a big fish in a little pond before prison, going around and around like a hamster on a wheel. Now I’m a little fish in a whole wide world, making a huge difference.
Rusty Labuschagne has written a best-seller autobiography to put the injustice on record and help others going through tough times, especially after this Covid pandemic.
On 2 March 2019, I married the love of my life, who helps me with my speaking career, and we are working on taking my story to a different level worldwide.
If you are looking for a truly inspiring story about resilience, adversity, empathy, family values, leadership, the power of forgiveness, the importance and value of gratitude, and what a positive mental attitude can do for you, book me: keynotes, intervention sessions, team building activities, and life coaching courses.
- Resilience Learned: Bounce back with experience and grit. You have it in you!
- Inspiring Others: Are you making a difference? Find your purpose.
- Unanswered Prayers: Being prepared for where you are going.
- 15 minutes on how to forgive and let go of that which no longer serves you.
- 15 minutes on the healthiest of all human emotions – gratitude.
- 15 minutes on mapping a new vision of freedom.
5 different team-building activities, usually at a game lodge getaway.
Life coaching courses with my wife Sandra, based on “Get-a-life in 40 days.”
Rusty Labuschagne – Freedom Warrior
TESTIMONIALS | REVIEWS
“I can’t explain how your testimony today profoundly touched me with something I have been grappling with for the last 10 months. It is no comparison to your ordeal, but I guess we all have our own set of unique challenges we need to face along our path in life. Your message today certainly changed someone’s life in a meaningful way. You have released me from my anger and hurt today, and my spirit is once again free from my inner turmoil. Your story is truly inspiring and deeply terrifying as it touches on some of my biggest fears in my life. I lived through you today and had an awakening in me to get past my turmoil, as your ability to forgive is something I can learn from.” Marvin Cocker
“Rusty, thank you very much for speaking to my team this week. It was a very timely and inspirational message, especially as our Partners are front-line Behavioral Health workers trying tirelessly to meet an unprecedented demand. Thank you very much. Wishing you great health and happiness.”Jaclyn, Maryland, USA
“Never have I felt the presence of God in a business convention as I did that day. You ministered to the depth of my soul and changed my perspective on what’s really important. They say time is money, but after your testimony, I realized that time is life. Thank you, Rusty. God bless and increase you.” Bonga Sibisi
“We were incredibly moved and so very inspired!” SUCCESS ACADEMY
“Hi Rusty, I attended the Thinksales conference today at the Sandton convention center. I’m truly humbled and inspired by your story, probably the best presentation as it truly was authentic and spoke to the heart of leadership. I drove back home with a heart full of gratitude. Thank you. You went through all of that so that you may inspire and touch many, many lives.” Nozizwe Tshabuse