Dr. Andrew Matibiri, the late Roger Boka and his daughter, Rudo Boka
The most controversial man in Zimbabwe, won’t give interviews. But a phone call to his office is revealing enough
Roger Boka is a mysterious Zimbabwean businessman who has taken out full-page advertisements in the state-controlled newspapers calling for the “indigenisation” of the country’s agricultural and industrial sectors.
The origin of his wealth is not generally known but he is being being investigated by the Zimbabwean police in connection with buying stolen gold.
This year Boka began developing a multi-million rand tobacco floor on the outskirts of Harare to sell Zimbabwe’s crop. Zimbabwe already has the largest tobacco auction floor in the world, but it and the industry are dominated by white growers and merchants. Boka wants to change all that and says his floors will eventually control the tobacco scene in Zimbabwe.
He has steadfastly refused to be interviewed by the media, particularly white journalists.
Horizon, Zimbabwe’s bravest news magazine, interviewed a man at Boka’s office who called himself “Mr Mabhunu,” but whom the interviewer, Ray Choto, suspected was Boka himself.
Ray Choto: May I please speak to Mr Boka?
Reply: May I know who is calling?
RC: My name is Ray Choto, a journalist at Horizon magazine.
Reply: Hold on, I will put you through to him [pause ... some inaudible voice says something]. I am sorry, Mr Boka is not in the office. Let me put you through to someone else.
Mabhunhu: Can I help you?
RC: My name is Ray Choto, a journalist at Horizon. May I please speak to Mr Boka?
Mabhunhu: Mr Boka doesn’t want to speak to people like you. He is a busy man trying to better his life.
RC: Are you speaking for Mr Boka, sir?
Mabhunhu: You said you are from Horizon, the paper that reported negatively about Mr Boka.
RC: I don’t think so, Mr Mabhunhu. Horizon is a bold and factual magazine. I want to speak to Mr Boka, please.
Mabhunhu: Mr Boka doesn’t speak to white-owned papers. Who owns your paper?
RC: It’s staff owned. Are you Mr Boka? (Silence)
Mabhunhu: An MP here tells me that Horizon is owned by Andrew Moyse. You are just a poor worker there! You are the people Mr Boka will never listen to. You want to play to the tune of 75 000 whites who stole our wealth. Why do you want to work for whites?
RC: I don’t work for whites, I work with whites, sir. I believe in the concept of reconciliation.
Mabhunhu: What is this animal called reconciliation? Then you are not the right person to talk to Mr Boka. I will tell him that a reporter from Horizon ... oh you are the people we are fighting to eliminate in our society. I am an ex-combatant, Choto, we didn’t go to war to maintain white supremacy. Anyway, leave Mr Boka alone. He won’t talk to you. Go and talk to Sithole or Mugabe, Boka is not a public figure.
RC: We think he is a public figure. He is a wealthy person, the first black to enter the tobacco-auction business, he is controversial too.
Mabhunhu: Let me tell you that the public is waiting for its day… people like you and whites will be crushed. We can put cyanide in your tea and die. Do you think we are happy with what is happening? You will see fire.
There is no reconciliation my friend. If you think that blacks and whites will reconcile, then you are fooling yourself.
Why don’t you do like Chikerema at the Sunday Mail or Tommy Sithole at the Herald? They know what we mean by black empowerment. That is why we advertise in these papers, not in the Independent where that Iden writes stories that denounce blacks. You think we are happy ... wait, you will be crushed to death one day. You will see it happening in the streets.
RC: But there are some papers that speak for the voiceless, but you don’t support them.
Mabhunu: We support black-owned papers ... we have set aside $17-million for advertising. Only, we have the money for our right people.
RC: I am sorry sir, I am not an advertiser but a journalist ... I hope you will put me through to Mr Boka. He is the man I want to talk to.
Mabhunhu: He’s not here but I will tell him that you phoned. I have to rush to the tobacco floors. But remember, Choto, that we will eliminate all of you.
Boka doesn’t like to speak to people who support reconciliation. If your child finishes school he won’t get employment. But the white man’s child has no problem and you talk about reconciliation. Mr Boka wants to talk to people with the right mind.
RC: But why are you denying me access to Mr Boka?
Mabhunhu: Not to proponents of reconciliation! Okay, Choto, you will see the day when whites and people like you will be crushed.
RC: We will report about that.
Mabhunhu: It’s a pity that only the future generation will realise the importance of Mr Boka’s stance. But they will have to go to archives to get the information.
RC: But if Mr Boka doesn’t want to be written about, how will the archives have data on his life if we are denied access to his business activities?
Mabhunhu: He has his supporters ... they will write about his struggles, not white-owned papers.
RC: But there are whites who are pro-blacks.
RC: You don’t want to believe in them.
Mabhunhu: I will never! Let me go to the floors, that’s where I work.
RC: Please tell Mr Boka that Horizon wants to talk to him.
Mabhunhu: I will tell him everything about Horizon, bye.
HARARE, Zimbabwe (Wall Street Journal) - Roger Boka often boasted that as the son of a poor black carpenter in white-ruled Rhodesia, he always won the best-math-student award at school. Later, the story continued, in black-ruled Zimbabwe, his math smarts helped him build a business empire encompassing interests in publishing, banking, mining and tobacco. To doubters of his acumen, he displayed ingots of gold from his own mines and stacks of photos of himself in the company of other national luminaries - photos developed by one his companies. To himself and to many others, his rise to prominence embodied the rare realization of the potential among Zimbabwe's mostly poor black majority to break the white minority's hold on the nation's business and wealth. Then, five months ago, his arithmetic failed him, and Zimbabwe is still reeling from the economic and political damage. On April 29, government regulators revoked the license of United Merchant Bank of Zimbabwe Ltd., wholly owned and controlled by Mr. Boka. The bank, officials said, was insolvent because of imprudent lending and debt-collection policies. The failure threatened to trigger a national debt crisis as it emerged that the bank had bounced checks totaling tens of millions of dollars and had improperly issued about $52 million of government-guaranteed promissory notes. Mr. Boka was declared the target of a government fraud investigation, and his companies were put under government supervision. Before the probe could make headway, Mr. Boka left the country. He left behind a broad political scandal, a collapsed tobacco market and several companies and banks teetering on the verge of ruin. Estimates of the damage to the economy range up to the equivalent of 2 percent of Zimbabwe's annual economic output. The debacle threatens to turn back the clock in this country of 12 million people, which until just a year ago was considered a beacon of economic progress in Africa. In letters to the government and according to his family, Mr. Boka lays the blame for the bank's collapse largely on government agencies and senior politicians who borrowed from his bank but never repaid their debts; if true, these countercharges would embarrass President Robert Mugabe and provide firepower to those demanding an end to his 18-year rule, which has become increasingly associated with corruption and economic mismanagement. The government itself has compounded the economic crisis by intervening in the civil war in nearby Congo on behalf of the government there - and promising to foot part of the bill for that conflict. Roger Basil Nyikadzino Marume Boka was the third of nine children born to a family in a poor rural area of eastern Zimbabwe. When he was young, according to an account of Mr. Boka's life published in his corporate group's in-house magazine, his father worked at a general store. When that burned down, the owners let workers pick over the remains, but by the time Mr. Boka's father arrived at the scene, all that was left was a chisel, a hammer and a wood plane. From these humble beginnings grew a furniture business that enabled Mr. Boka's father to buy a Ford truck, which for blacks in Rhodesia was a considerable accomplishment. His success attracted the ire of many whites, according to Mr. Boka's account, and on several occasions, his father was jailed at the whim of Rhodesian police. Mr. Boka's childhood collisions with prejudice left a deep mark, says his 21-year-old daughter, Rudo, who now runs the Boka tobacco business under government supervision. "The life my dad had in those days was one of apartheid and racism," she says in an interview. "You could say that the ambition that Roger Boka developed was because of the lifestyle that he knew." After graduating from a government agricultural-training college, Mr. Boka worked as a teacher in Highfield, the township in the capital, Harare (then known as Salisbury), where black nationalist politics were percolating around him in the early 1970s. But the wages were terrible, and he stayed only two years before going into business for himself, selling household cleaning oils. In 1980, black nationalist guerrillas led by Mr. Mugabe laid down their arms, beat their white-backed opponents at the polls, took power and renamed the country. Using the contacts Mr. Boka had made in Highfield, many of them now in positions of power, he won monopoly contracts to supply books and stationery to government schools. He later expanded into areas where blacks once never dared to tread, such as photo processing, cosmetics and gold mining. But it wasn't until Mr. Boka decided to break into tobacco - the last bastion of white dominance in Zimbabwe and the country's main export earner, at $600 million in 1997 - that he really began to make his mark. In 1986, Mr. Boka entered into a deal with a local trading company to export tobacco to East Germany. It turned sour, his daughter says, when his white business partners tried to deprive him of his share of the profits. That experience, she says, convinced him that his ambitions in tobacco were being thwarted because he was black. He began lobbying friends in government, claiming that Zimbabwe's most important export was held hostage by whites of questionable loyalty. He started taking out full-page ads in the local press, accusing Zimbabwe's 70,000 whites of conspiring to keep its 11 million blacks poor, and threatening drastic measures if they didn't loosen their grip on the economy. The campaign propelled Mr. Boka to national prominence. President Mugabe defended Mr. Boka's often hate-mongering language and praised him in speeches as a patriot and black-empowerment pioneer. The state-controlled media whipped up support for his endeavors. According to Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, which is leading calls for a political shakeup in the country, the president sensed benefit in the black-empowerment movement and adopted it as his own, beginning his "indigenization drive" to wrest economic influence from whites, Indians and foreign-controlled companies. "The policy was never clear how it meant to achieve empowering blacks," Mr. Tsvangirai says. "But the Roger Bokas of this world saw an opportunity and ran with it."
Reflection by Edgar Tekere, a Zimbabwean political leader.
Roger Boka: I did not know Boka until, on my return to Zimbabwe after independence, he sought me out and introduced himself to me. He was interested, he said, in improving my image, so as to fit me for the new role I was assuming.
It was as if he had listened to Samora Machel give me one of his lectures prior to my leaving Mozambique. And fit (find?) me out he did. I was taken to an outfitter’s and provided with three suits, several pairs of shoes, shirts, socks and ties.
When I was sacked from the Party, his concern mounted, and I would find that my rates had been paid, in credit. I would receive monthly cash payments, none amounting to less than Z$800,000.00, which was a goodly sum in those days.
I had not known how ill he was, when one day he arrived in Mutare in his new Rolls. He had come, he said, to see his old school at Old Mutare, and he wanted me to accompany him there. He told his driver to disembark, and instructed me to drive him to the school. He said to me, “You drive very embarrassing cars.” (I was then driving a Mazda 323). “Let’s see how you like the feel of a really good car.”
He was to make presentations to the school, the church and the orphanage, and these he handed to me to give to the recipients. By the time we got back to Mutare, Boka was really very ill. I took him to doctor Kangwende, and later he went on to the governor, Kenneth Manyonda’s home.
I did not see him again. Some time later, Tradex Marketing called to inform me that my new car was ready. What new car? I asked. The representative replied that they had been instructed by Roger Boka to have a Mitsubishi Twin Cab delivered to me forthwith. It was a 1997 model, fully paid for. This is the car that I drive to this day.
Roger Boka Death
HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) _ Roger Boka, a leading African black empowerment advocate whose bank collapsed last year amid questionable practices, is dead at age 54.
Boka died aboard a private jet Sunday as it approached Harare's airport, his family said. His daughter, Rudo, said Boka was returning from the United States where he sought treatment. She would not specify the illness.
Roger Boka died on a Private Jet
Zimbabwean newspapers reported he suffered from ailments often linked to AIDS, including Kaposi's sarcoma.
Boka was wanted for questioning over the alleged illegal transfer abroad of $25 million from his collapsed United Merchant Bank. Police said last month that their investigations into the operations of Boka's bank were hampered by his poor health.
President Robert Mugabe praised Boka as ``a man of action, a fearless voice and doughty fighter for black empowerment.''
Over the past decade he ``systematically broke into sectors hitherto dominated by multinationals and white commercial outfits,'' Mugabe said.
Boka's bank offered loans to blacks at favorable terms and accused multinational banks of discriminating against black entrepreneurs who lacked collateral.
He also headed a group of retail and tobacco marketing companies that were at forefront of a campaign for black advancement in business.
Boka's bank collapsed after it allegedly sold faked bonds, purportedly to raise capital for a state-owned slaughter and meat processing firm.