HomeOpinion & AnalysisMy desperate plea to billionaire Masiyiwa

My desperate plea to billionaire Masiyiwa

GEOFFREY NYAROTA

Last Sunday I dwelt on the depressing theme of the hardship that journalists often endure for failing to toe the ill-defined line drawn by intolerant politicians.

Newspaper editors must be the most vulnerable of workers. Volumes have been written on that painful subject.

Less ventilated, though, are similar concerns over the suffering inflicted on journalists by players other than imperious politicians.

This other category includes the owners of privately-owned newspapers and other media platforms.

They often subject journalists to poor salaries and working conditions.

Unknown to his millions of admirers, London-based Zimbabwean billionaire businessman and philanthropist, Strive Masiyiwa, has contributed a statistic of his own to the database of journalists who were ruthlessly tormented by former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and his cohorts.

Masiyiwa, is the founder and executive chairman of the international technology group, Econet Global, as well as being, somewhere in his distant past, the short-term majority shareholder in a small but courageous Zimbabwean newspaper that posed the only serious challenge to Mugabe at the turn of the century.

That was before the publication in question, The Daily News, was banned.

Masiyiwa has since risen to astronomical heights of success as an entrepreneur of remarkable vision and resilience.

As he continues to climb up his ladder of phenomenal success, some of these microscopic details from his dim past may have perhaps faded from his overloaded memory.

Back in 1998, as Wilf Mbanga and I prepared for the registration of Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), prior to the launch of The Daily News, I approached as potential investors a number of Zimbabwe’s leading emerging businessmen of the day.

They included Masiyiwa, who had launched the now phenomenal corporate giant, Econet Wireless Zimbabwe.

Masiyiwa said, however, that it would be taking too great a risk for him to invest in a project such as a daily newspaper at a time when Econet was still a fledgling venture.

But he would certainly come on board if the ANZ venture successfully took off.

The Daily News did take off, and with a bang.

It soon became a force to reckon with on the Zimbabwean media establishment.

Meanwhile, Masiyiwa’s telecommunications project had taken off with an even bigger bang while Masiyiwa strategically relocated to Johannesburg, where he set up office.

While The Daily News was a runaway success on the streets, ANZ struggled as a business and soon the survival of the paper was threatened.

I approached Masiyiwa in Johannesburg and explained our predicament to him. He invited me over to see him.

Copies of our newspaper in the briefcase, I caught the next fight down south.

What was our proposal, he wanted to know.

We were desperately in need of a capital injection.

On the current performance of The Daily News on the streets, there was no doubt that, with adequate funding the newspaper would rise to unprecedented circulations in Zimbabwe.

We finally settled on a figure that would make Masiyiwa the majority shareholder of ANZ.

We both rose and shook hands and Masiyiwa became our proverbial knight in shining armour.

That became the beginning of a personal friendship that saw me becoming a regular visitor in the Masiyiwa home at Deinfern Estate, Johannesburg.

Our nocturnal palavers in the luxurious ambience of that mansion often lasted until well after midnight.

His interest in the Zimbabwean political landscape was colossal.

The highlight of my exciting but turbulent career as a journalist was the four-year period of enterprise, endurance and hardship that I spent as award-winning editor-in-chief of The Daily News.

But the authorities were far from happy.

Then disaster struck.

In a joint operation mounted by the Central Intelligence Organisation and the Zimbabwe National Army, a bomb was planted on the printing press in our factory in the Lochinvar industrial area.

The massive press was reduced to a pile of mangled metal.

There was absolutely no other way out of our sudden predicament but to procure a replacement printing press, if The Daily News was to survive, with the jobs of more than 300 employees being saved.

We appealed to the majority shareholder.

Masiyiwa was forthright. He said he had no funds available to rescue ANZ.

The prospect of raising from the donor community the $3,6 million required to purchase a new press in Sweden was discussed in a special board meeting.

When this proposal was conveyed to Masiyiwa he dismissed it out of hand.

He did not want his company to have anything to do with donor funding.

His attitude placed us in a predicament.

Acting in consultation with the board, chief executive officer, Much Masunda, and I took a decision to save the company from total collapse by approaching the donor community, nevertheless.

So painful was the spectre of the collapse of the company that I departed on a two week, five nation tour abroad.

I visited the United States of America, the United Kingdom and then the Nordic countries, Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

When I returned to Harare, I had secured the required US$3 million funding, the bulk of it being from the Nordic countries.

In New York Hungarian-born American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros made a donation, while US$100 000 was raised from contributions by individuals in London.

The total amount was transferred by all parties to the Stockholm account of the manufacturers of the Solna D40 offset full-colour printing machine that we had identified as ideal.

Several containers loaded with the new press soon arrived at our factory.

Masunda had raised in Harare the US$600 000 balance required for logistics and construction work at the factory.

The funds were raised by way of a loan obtained from a Dutch organisation.

With the wisdom of hindsight now, Masunda and I had too much faith in humanity.

Since the majority shareholder was not keen on donor funding for ANZ, we might as well have used the funds in hand to start another newspaper under own total control.

Masiyiwa would not have given our printing press on a platter to one Jethro Goko a short while later in mysterious circumstances.

The South African-based journalist proceeded to dismiss me in equally mysterious circumstances after he invited me back me to ANZ from the United States to relaunch The Daily News.

But while the printing press was being installed, another bombshell was dropped.

Masiyiwa suddenly decided to replace the affable, influential and well-connected Masunda with one Sam Sipepa Nkomo.

He was a rank outsider who was little known in the media industry.

He had been chief executive officer of the Mining Industry Pension Fund (MIPF).

When Sipepa Nkomo arrived at ANZ there was absolute consternation, particularly in the newsroom.

The Daily News had investigated and exposed its new boss for serious corruption at the MIPF in 1999, forcing him to resign.

He was prosecuted but escaped conviction on a technicality.

So the arrival of the new CEO was hardly an occasion for jubilant celebration.

He arrived in the final stages of the installation of our new printing press.

Sipepa Nkomo pounced in revenge in the New Year of 2003, two months after we commissioned the new printing press.

He dismissed me summarily from my position and on spurious grounds without according me any opportunity to present my own side of the story, as required by labour laws.

This happened after I negotiated with staff for them to return to work from a strike just before Christmas, I acted on instruction from Masiyiwa in the absence of Sipepa Nkomo on leave.

He had proceeded on leave while leaving workers on the streets.

Fortunately, Masiyiwa now rushed to my rescue.

The hiring or firing of the editor was his exclusive preserve, he pointed out in a memo to Sipepa Nkomo that he copied to me.

In fact, the majority shareholder was not entirely correct on this matter.

The contract of the editor-in-chief at ANZ was the responsibility of the board of directors, not that of Masiyiwa.

He, however, instructed that two airline tickets be issued for ANZ chairman, Norman Nyazema and I to travel to Johannesburg for a consultation with him.

There a solution to the crisis would be determined, so he said.

Failing that, a package would be worked out for me so that we would part on amicable terms, befitting the good friendship existing between the two of us.

I was surprised that Nyazema was not in the departure lounge, where I waited for our flight.

The bigger surprise was on arrival at the Johannesburg International Airport.

There was no vehicle waiting to pick me up, as was normal practice. More worryingly, Masiyiwa did not pick up his phone.

His office was not forthcoming and left me in no doubt that I was not particularly welcome.

The same office usually took care of my accommodation when I was in town.

The majority shareholder had apparently dumped his friend in a foreign country.

I never spoke to Masiyiwa again to this day.

And I never got to know what made my brother change his mind about seeing me.

As for the package or my terminal benefits, they have never been paid to me up to this day, 20 years later.

This was after my four years of loyal, enterprising, hazardous and award-winning service, including multiple arrests, two bombings and a death threat.

The terminal benefits must be worth a small fortune now when interest is factored in over 20 years.

My efforts to communicate with Masiyiwa through those I know to be linked to him have not born any fruit.

I made one particularly desperate but futile effort through Econet CEO, Douglas Mboweni, when I needed funds to pay for heart by-pass surgery outside Zimbabwe.

I had lost everything while fighting the same Daily News in a different matter and finally gave up after 10 years of a bruising war in the law-courts that eventually took a toll on my health.

I got to know both Strive and Tsitsi Masiyiwa very well.

They are good people and God-fearing Christians.

On each of the six occasions when I was arrested in Harare, he would phone my wife, Ursula, from Johannesburg to check on my welfare.

They are not the kind of people who would deliberately allow an innocent fellow human being, a friend at that, to endure the kind of suffering that we have gone through, while aware that they hold in their hands the key for its instant alleviation.

Because of The Daily News I have lost a source of income, as well as two properties, our beautiful home in Highlands and another house on a plot in Juliasdale in the Eastern Highlands; that is apart from motor vehicles.

The reputation of the Masiyiwas for kindness and philanthropy is legendary.

But I am not expecting to benefit from his benevolence.

I now merely wish to be finally paid my terminal benefits, which were unfortunately delayed through his own intervention.

I believe billionaires are not easily accessible.

But I also believe Masiyiwa possesses a touchable conscience, especially where the virtuous and devout Mrs Masiyiwa is involved.

In fact, it is out of my profound respect for her that I have maintained my painful silence for so long.

“Gentleman, it’s now 2am,” she used to chide us back then, “You need to go to bed.”

Then I would be rushed back from the Deinfern Estate mansion, through the empty roads of northern Johannesburg, on my way back to the hotel in Sandton.

Occupying the front seats of the armoured vehicle for my protection would be two burly bodyguards.

So happy was Masiyiwa with my work that he even proposed during my last visit that a bullet-proof vehicle be procured for my security in Harare.

I politely turned down the offer.

Then the Bible-waving Sipepa Nkomo arrived at ANZ with his wholly ruinous influence.

Not long after The Daily News was banned, a mysterious blaze at the newspaper’s head office allegedly destroyed records.

Sipepa Nkomo then abandoned the project. When he resurfaced it was as an MDC-T Member of Parliament and a Cabinet minister in the GNU.

When he initially arrived at ANZ we were printing and selling a total of up to a record 129 500 copies per day.

Now Goko has reduced the state-of-the-art press to the captured indignity of spitting out a miserable 5 000 copies per run.

The performance of The Daily News veritably diminishes today in inverse proportion to the awesome growth in the success of its former majority shareholder.

As for the so-called shares of the founding executives they must have gone up in the mysterious blaze.

Geoffrey Nyarota is an award-winning investigative journalist and founding editor-in-chief of the original Daily News. He can be contacted on gnyarota@gmail.com

Recent Posts

Stories you will enjoy

Recommended reading