THE Zimbabwe Independent is in part a result of my being fired as the editor-in-chief of the Financial Gazette in February 1996. While losing my job was painful then, there is no doubt that it was a blessing in disguise.
One of my favourite preachers, Pastor TD Jakes, once said many people need to go back to the bosses who fired them and say “thank you for firing me”. I can now honestly say I am grateful that Elias Rusike fired me in 1996, opening a whole new world for me.
In November 1989 he hired me to join the Financial Gazette regardless of the fact that I had never been to a school of journalism and had no experience in this profession. And after seven rewarding years at the helm of the Financial Gazette he fired me setting me on a new path as a newspaper owner.
I was paid three months’ salary and this together with my terminal benefits ensured I did not starve for the three months that I was without a job. But this was not enough to start any meaningful business.
Frankly I had no idea what to do next. My two options were to look for a job or explore the possibility of starting a business. Starting a newspaper was a possibility but a difficult one. Job-hunting appeared the easiest thing to do.
I fired off my CV to newspapers in South Africa including the Mail & Guardian to be considered for a senior position in their newsrooms. There were very few options in Zimbabwe and working for Zimpapers was out of the question. Two newspaper groups in South Africa invited me for interviews which appeared promising but nothing materialised. I received a regret letter from the Mail & Guardian.
In the meantime I had set in motion a parallel process exploring possibilities of starting a business in Zimbabwe.
While editor of the Fingaz, I had networked very well and I now made full use of these contacts. I met with bankers to try and raise funding for a newspaper and put out calls to stockbrokers who I thought would know of somebody with an interest to start a newspaper venture.
It was as a result of one of these calls that I got to learn that Clive Murphy and Clive Wilson had seen my departure at the Financial Gazette as an opportunity to get back into the newspaper industry. They had exited the industry in 1989 when they sold the Fingaz to Rusike, Fanwell Muhwati and Eric Kahari.
One Monday morning I phoned Murphy and I can still remember him saying: “I was expecting this call from you.” We met a number of times in between me attending interviews in South Africa. I never told this to my prospective partners. The prospect of going into business and starting something new was daunting.
Eventually I made up my mind that I would stay in Zimbabwe and start a newspaper with the two Clives and Sarah Thompson. Critical to this decision was a lunch I had with Much Masunda at Harare Club. Masunda convinced me that going to South Africa was abdicating my responsibilities to my country and that I was more useful in Zimbabwe.
What an exciting thing it was putting plans together for the launch of a newspaper whose title was not yet decided. Two meetings at Harare Club between me and the two Clives saw us deciding to call the new baby the Zimbabwe Independent.
I was charged with recruiting the editorial staff, getting correspondents and columnists. It was also my responsibility to determine the editorial thrust of the newspaper. As far as recruiting and getting columnists was concerned, the Financial Gazette was my natural hunting ground.
I managed to get the cream of the Financial Gazette, namely Iden Wetherell, Barnabas Thondhlana, Sunsleey Chamunorwa, Basildon Peta and later Vincent Kahiya.
One interesting thing is that almost all these guys joined us for no change in their salaries. Peter Lovemore and Eric Bloch agreed to move their columns from the Fingaz to the Independent which was a big coup for me. And we also migrated with the very popular and trendsetting Muckraker column, much to the chagrin of our colleagues at the Fingaz.
We also poached the Fingaz production staff of Sennie Musambasi, Nick Nyanhete, Mercy Moyo and Emelda Mungoni.
Sarah Thompsom was charged with putting together a dynamic sales and advertising team and she did a fantastic job given her experience and impressive network in the industry. And adverts of all shapes and sizes started rolling in. We managed to secure long-term advertising contracts.
Wilson was charged with the IT aspect of the business including the design and layout of the paper. Murphy as the majority shareholder took care of the finances, administration and strategy. And this was to be a lean, mean and efficient operation. And yes we turned a profit in the first month of our operation and the paper has been a tremendous success, bar the challenges occasioned by the political and economic crisis in the country.
The Independent received overwhelming support because of the calibre of the people running the publication and the professional team that we had assembled. A significant number of people took out long-term subscriptions for a newspaper that they had not even seen.
Our initial print run was 10 000 copies which were sold out before midday on Friday, May 10, 1996.
The founding shareholders were Murphy, Wilson, Thompson and myself. My initial shareholding in the project was 2,5% with an option to increase this to 5%. This stake in the business cost me a whole $25 000, which I had to borrow. I had a further option for another 2,5% which I duly exercised. By 2000 I owned 18% of the business including the Standard and finally acquired the entire equity in 2001.
Our objective was to establish a newspaper that was free from the government of the day, big business and advertisers and I believe we have achieved this. We also wanted our newspapers to be free from opposition political parties or special interest groups. Indeed, our brief was to help create a country where democracy flourished and where basic human rights were sacrosanct. We aimed to champion the rule of law and constitutionality. We stood for transparency and accountability in the governance of our country. We considered a vibrant economy as necessary for the fulfilment of the goals of the liberation struggle.
All in all, the past 10 years have been a mixed bag. Our journalists have had to work under one of the most difficult political environments on the continent where a raft of restrictive media laws have been enacted over the past four years. Our journalists and senior management have been harassed, abducted, beaten, and detained. The economic environment has been harsh to the publishing industry.
The business has grown under very difficult circumstances. From one newspaper we have grown to two and now own the largest privately-owned distribution company in Zimbabwe and own a significant stake in a printing company. We also have interests in South Africa where the business is growing. My vision is to build a pan-African media house which owns profitable assets across the continent. The foundations of that vision are now firmly in place.
We have succeeded first and foremost because God has been good to us. Our advertisers and readers have been absolutely wonderful. But we would not have achieved these results without the contribution of our committed, hard-working and loyal staff. We are hugely indebted to them.
While the here-and-now looks decidedly gloomy, I am very bullish about the next 10 years. I believe that God has a great plan for this country and He will bless the Zimbabwe Independent and the rest of the group in the years ahead. All the glory belongs to the Almighty who blesses and strengthens us.
This article was originally published in the Zimbabwe Independant