The Econet story is well known and well empathised with. The fact that I only have to say the Econet story and most readers will understand immediately what I mean shows just how powerful it is. Every David and Goliath story is like this: engaging, inspirational, moving.
Now it appears we didn’t know the full story and we still don’t. Apparently the bullying of Econet by the government of Zimbabwe (let’s say by the government of Robert Mugabe) did not end when Econet got their license to operate just before the turn of the millennium. Strive Masiyiwa blogged about an incident that happened several years after that time.
Here’s the story:
Reflection: A painful moment remembered
__And neighbourly kindness remembered, too.
Zimbabwe’s night is over and we must work together now to bring in the dawn. We must work hard to turn away from (and learn from) the pages of our pained past. This includes talking about it, because this is part of the healing process…
I was on my way to Singapore several years ago where some investors had promised me a huge investment fund for Africa. I was excited! This was my big break.
My flight connection from South Africa where I lived, was through Bangkok and as I ran to the gate, my phone started to ring. It was my brother-in-law who worked for the intelligence service in Zimbabwe. I could hear my cousin sister sobbing in the background.
“They are going to arrest all your directors and senior management tonight.”
“It is meant to force them all to resign so your company can collapse.”
I could not turn back because the door of the plane had closed. I switched off my phone and sat quietly. I did not eat or drink water the entire flight. It was time to pray and fast.
When we landed in Singapore, I called my brother-in-law. He confirmed that the arrests had been effected. Directors and executives (including CEO Douglas Mboweni) of the largest public company on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange had all been away to the maximum security prison in leg irons. Even retired former directors had been arrested.
I tried calling our leading lawyer. He, too, had been arrested. My brother-in-law suggested I not go to South Africa.
“There is a team there who have been sent to abduct you,” he warned. “They will say you came back to the country by yourself.”
My cousin sister grabbed the phone from him and begged me: “Please do as he says!”
I cancelled my meetings with investors. I sat in my hotel room making calls. I found Beatrice Mtetwa, a fearless human rights lawyer. She had already began to work on the case. They would not tell her what the issue was.
There would be no bail. They were held in a section of the prison which houses death row inmates. Years later, one of my executives was still traumatized by the wailings and lamentations of those on death row. (Like the new President of Zimbabwe, I’m a fierce opponent of the death penalty, and I hope he will push for its repeal in Zimbabwe, and anywhere else in Africa).
No one seemed to care about the fact that this was a company majority-owned by tens of thousands of ordinary people directly, and through their pension funds. At the time, I personally owned less than 40% of the company. Had it collapsed, anyone who held a pension plan or life policy would have been affected, including public sector workers.
Our lawyer finally managed to get a hearing for them after more than a week. They came to the court dressed as convicts with leg irons. I was sent TV footage of it. I continued my prayers. They were sent back to the prison. There were no charges pressed against any of them for anything.
I reached out to the prayer network that had always stood with me within the country and around the world. We agreed to “pray and fast without ceasing until they were released.” During the day, I would be on the phone with Beatrice, then I would have a light meal and go to join my wife in prayer until the early hours of the morning. All in all, they were held for 16 days. Then I broke my fast and finally got some real sleep!
After they were released, my team went back to work as though nothing had happened.
I flew first to England and then back to South Africa after getting security assurances from their government. (I’m grateful to the South African government even to this day for coming to my aid and protecting me and my family). When I finally met the entire team in South Africa, we agreed that as Christians we had a duty to forgive those who persecuted us, including the leader of the country.
With my team, we decided to redouble our efforts to help Zimbabwe through its dark night. This is just a “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to what we went through.
Wisdom (not fear) compelled me to develop business interests around the world, going even as far as New Zealand and South America.
Nigeria, Kenya, Lesotho, Botswana, Zambia, Burundi and Rwanda were some of the interests I developed during that time. All the leaders in these countries back then knew about my plight through their embassies, and went out of their way to make me welcome.
I appreciate it to this day. That is why I always stand so firmly with those countries, supporting them as though I am a citizen.
Although I never had a business in Senegal, then-President Wade and his foreign minister learnt about my plight, and even asked me to come and live there. I knew it was the grace of God that in the midst of such persecution, world leaders began to take notice of me.
President Wade and President Obasanjo were like fathers to me. Hey, I just hope I won’t have to watch Nigeria vs Senegal in the World Cup finals on Kwesé TV! (Actually, the perfect final for me is those two countries playing each other!)
We forgive always.
We love always.
This series of events had never been told before. It is quite interesting that the Econet directors chose to go back to work as if nothing had happened and never talked about this. That takes some character strength.
Since the story happened before Techzim’s time it is quite difficult to find it anywhere online. However, we did stumble upon some wikiliks details that confirm the incident and place the arrests in 2004. Apparently the Econet directors were arrested together with several other business leaders including James Makamba who was at fellow MONO, Telecel.
Masiyiwa is right that these stories must be told. They remind us of a past we don’t want to see again. I hope he will share the other stuff he implied happened.