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Why we became an instant success

Alpha Media Holdings chairman Trevor Ncube was a guest on his own show In Conversation with Trevor where he went down memory lane, tracing the history of the country’s biggest independently-owned media house.

Ncube (TN) told Farai Mwakutuya (FM) in a wide-ranging interview to mark the 25th anniversary of the Zimbabwe Independent that the publication was set up at a time when it was risky to be critical of the government.

After initially starting with the Zimbabwe Independent, the AMH group now includes The Standard, a Sunday family paper, NewsDay, a daily publication,  Southern Eye, south-western Zimbabwe-focused publication, and Heart&Soul, a tele-radio service.

Ncube spoke at length about his journey in the media and industry and vision. Below are excerpts  from the interview.

FM: Welcome to your show. This time on the other side. How does that feel?

TN: It feels strange, Farai. It feels very strange, but thank you for organising this conversation, thank you.

FM: Great and congratulations on the milestone.

TN: It is a huge milestone, 25 years since we set up the Zimbabwe Independent.

I have been reflecting and sometimes it is very easy to say you know time flies when you are having fun, but looking back over 25 years a lot of things have happened.

The excitement of starting, tremendous excitement.

The pain that we experience at times operating in an environment that is very hostile to independent media.

Tears, excitement, ups and downs.

When I was told we are turning 25 years, it is not always top of mind.

It invites you to go back to 1996 and how we started.

If you had asked me then would we be here 25 years, there were times when I thought maybe we wouldn’t make it, but by God’s grace here we are.

FM: Let us go back to 1996 as you just mentioned. You were editor of the Financial Gazette, which at the time was the pinnacle of financial and business publication, but you left. Under what circumstances?

TN: I was fired, I did not leave. I was fired. I was fired because I had had run-ins with my publisher and proprietor Elias Rusike, who was convinced that I had a vendetta against (former president) Robert Mugabe.

He had written me a number of memos to tone down on the Financial Gazette’s criticism of (the late) Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF.

People remember that this was a time when Zanu PF and Robert Mugabe; first of all Zanu PF was pushing for a one-party state and Robert Mugabe was pushing for one-man rule.

The Financial Gazette at that time stood up against all those two things, the one-party state and the one-man rule of Robert Mugabe.

So I stood out like a sore thumb as far as Robert Mugabe was concerned and Zanu PF was concerned.

I actually recall a number of people would come to me and ask:  “Why are you doing this? Why are you appearing to be one of the few who are opposing this?”

For me, it was a matter of principle, it was a matter of conscience.

I had seen the damage that one-party state rule and one-man rule had done and I could see the potential that Robert Mugabe had to take us down to where we are right now, but a lot of people back then thought that I was absolutely crazy; that we were sponsored by the imperialists to stand up against Zanu PF and Robert Mugabe.

So I then got dismissed. It was a very painful episode of my life to be dismissed and told to go home.

I stayed home for about three months. I started looking for jobs in South Africa and in Zimbabwe. What do I do?

Interestingly, I always say to people that if you have never been fired you’ll never know who are your real friends.

The phone does not ring. You sit there and say I am Trevor Ncube and I was editor of the Financial Gazette, because there is lots of people that I knew and the phone never rang.

That teaches you a lesson about life and who are your friends and, yeah, I learned that lesson.

It took three months for me to sort of try and figure out what it is that I wanted to do.

When I was pretty desperate I was told that Clive Murphy and Clive Wilson actually saw my being fired from the Financial Gazette as an opportunity to introduce a new publication.

So I called Clive Murphy and Clive said he was expecting my call. To cut a long story short, we met at the Harare Club three or four times and they were determined that they wanted to start another weekly paper.

We debated what it was going to be called, eventually we settled on the Zimbabwe Independent.

Then on May 10th, 1996 we launched with initially seven members of staff.

Clive Murphy was determined that it would be seven, but I pushed hard to 13.

I was given the mandate to decide the editorial thrust of the Zimbabwe Independent.

FM: How easy was that? I mean you had just been fired from a big job, been accused of standing up and, as you said, being a sore thumb against the establishment? Did you think you would succeed?

TN: I had no doubt that we would succeed, because once a lot of people questioned what we were doing, questioned what I was doing, my stance against what Zanu PF was doing and what Robert Mugabe was doing, I saw that there was an audience.

There were people that valued democracy, freedom of expression and independent media, freedom of assembly, and multi-party democracy and that those people would support us.

Also one thing that we stood for was a market-based economy, and that business would support that kind of publication.

We were an instant success.

I mean six months after opening the doors of the Zimbabwe Independent we were profitable.

I had been offered a 2% stake in the business and I got a dividend in six months and was able to buy another 2%.

At the end of the year I got another dividend and managed to increase my stake in the publication.

I think also, Farai, what is interesting is there is something to be said about the three of us going out in business, which I think to a lot of people out there had lessons.

The three of us were people that had created a reputation in the industry, let me say the four of us actually.

Clive Murphy, Clive Wilson, Sarah Thompson and myself.

Sarah Thompson was perhaps the advertising and marketing guru in Zimbabwe.

Clive Murphy was respected as a publisher, Clive Wilson was respected as a former editor of the Financial Gazette and myself.

We actually got paid upfront by advertisers and subscribers.

So we were funded up front by subscribers and advertisers, and in a short space of time the business had enough money to buy our own printing press.

So we offered something to the market and the market was prepared to underwrite what we were doing.

FM: Were you concerned? I mean the fact that you partnered with these three individuals who were white, you are black.

Was that not feeding into the narrative that had already been established that you were anti-Zanu PF? At the time also this is when the anti-white sentiment was starting to pick up?

TN: You know, I think in life if you are going to be focused on what people are going to say, you will never be able to do anything.

So for me I would hear those murmurs, but for me what was important was what was in my heart.

What is it was I out to do? Why was I doing what I was doing?

Did I deliberately look out for those three white people?

Or circumstances had forced me to be in partnership with these people?

So for me it is fundamentally important, I do not always listen to what people say, I listen to my conscience,

I listen to my inner voice and I proceed regardless of what people say.

It was an issue that some people tried to use against us particularly in Zanu PF, “he’s in partnership with white people, he’s being used by the British and the Americans”.

That is something that I have carried most of my life, but inside of me I know what it is that I am passionate about.

I love this country, perhaps more patriotic than a lot of people and I realised just how important it was to have an independent media in this country, an independent publication and a group of newspapers that would be a partner in Zimbabwe’s economic and political development.

As opposed to the ruling Zanu PF that saw independent media as the enemy of the state.

FM: How bad was that perception?

TN: It, was pretty bad. To the extent that for instance, I’ll give you an example still happening right now: You are not invited to state occasions, you are not invited to state press conferences, you are seen as an enemy, you are seen as an enemy and there are dog whistles out there for people to come and get you.

There was an incident prior to me being fired from the Financial Gazette. We had run a story on Robert Mugabe’s marriage to Grace.

I got arrested because the president disputed it, a judge disputed that they were present in this marriage of Grace and so forth.

So I got arrested for that and served some time for that kind of thing.

However, the height of it was my colleague who was the editor of The Standard, Mark Chavunduka, who was abducted.

For seven days we did not know where Mark Chavunduka was. The crime that Mark Chavunduka had committed as the editor of the Standard, a sister publication to the Zimbabwe Independent, was to publish a story that said there had been an attempted army mutiny because of the opposition to the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo  by members of the army.

That’s a story that upset the establishment so much that the Military Intelligence, Central Intelligence Organisation  and so forth, put up this scheme where they abducted Mark Chavunduka and his deputy editor Ray Choto and they were disappeared for seven days and we did not know where they were.

I was the first person who saw Mark Chavunduka when he was released.

I went to his home in Mount Pleasant. I have never seen a man as frightened as he was, and he was telling me what they had done to him, torture and electric shocks to his private parts,  beating him under his bare feet and putting wet sacks around his head.

Sitting him in a dark room, dragging him in the mud behind a truck and so forth.

That is just how intolerant Robert Mugabe and those who were around him were to an independent media in Zimbabwe.

It is important to realise that we are where we are because of that culture.

Robert Mugabe was not just a person, he was a system, he was a culture.

Most of the leadership that we have right now are a product of that culture and it is not going to be easy for them to suddenly change from the overalls that Robert Mugabe put on them, and become democrats, because the thing that they have known all along has been this intolerance and they are not just going to be born again and become people who love the independent media.

We are still not invited to state press conferences. You have to fight for our guys to be invited to state functions. That mindset has not changed.

  • “In Conversation with Trevor” is a weekly show broadcast on YouTube.com//InConversationWithTrevor. Please get your free YouTube subscription to this channel. The conversations are sponsored by Titan Law.

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