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How Fear Can Make You Rich

Many Africans cross borders for business—often with great success at a price. Zimbabwean newspaper owner Trevor Ncube has gone through poverty, prison, sackings and rejection to make it on both sides of the Limpopo River.

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Trevor Ncube, 49, a Zimbabwean publisher, looks a hard nut to crack. Perhaps he is tough as nails after navigating the murky waters of Zimbabwean politics to set up private papers that have clashed with President Robert Mugabe and given an alternative voice to state-owned media.

It has made Ncube rich, with an estimated fortune running into millions of rand. He prefers to keep this figure under lock and key, the legacy of humble beginnings.

Ncube was born into a poor household in colonial Zimbabwe in the 1960s, when there were few opportunities for black men. His father was an amazing cook, in his words, and his mother, Alima, a domestic servant, later an entrepreneur, who sold clothes to send six children to school.

“Our upbringing was tough… we struggled quite a lot. There were times when I didn’t have shoes, walked to school barefoot; there are times when I didn’t have a uniform, and friends would borrow me shirts. We would run out of things like Vaseline to oil our body and used margarine instead, so we would look good,” says Ncube.

To raise school fees, Ncube often worked as a gardener at the home of a white family, the Johnsons, where his parents worked, in the suburbs of the country’s second largest city, Bulawayo.

“It is this background that has made me humble,” Ncube said.

His mother gave Ncube a taste for making money, his background the motivation.

“I never wanted to live the kind of life we lived, I wanted my life to be different. The life of lack, the type of hand-to-mouth existence I endured, not because of my parents’ fault or anything. It is a life I said I didn’t want to endure. It’s fear of being poor, the fear of the hand-to-mouth existence,” he said.

Achieving this hasn’t been easy in the rough-and-tumble of Zimbabwean politics. Ncube has been in and out of police cells, starting with his student leader days at the University of Zimbabwe in the 1980s. Once, while detained at a police station in Harare, the former head of intelligence threw a pistol in Ncube’s face in anger over a student demonstration.

When he became a journalist, the cells awaited Ncube yet again, as his newspaper, The Financial Gazette, the country’s business weekly, trod on a few powerful toes.

“The discomfort of being in a room with 14 other suspects, with a toilet close by—the stench was awful. Sending us to prison was a way of showing us they could do anything they wished, that they were in charge. It was uncomfortable, it makes you very angry and think of a way to treat these people in kind for what they are doing to you. It was very frightening. I had never been in prison and I didn’t know what would happen next, given the unexplained disappearances of others in similar circumstances by the state,” says Ncube.

These days, Ncube is merely disappointed with Zimbabwe’s leaders whom, he says, had plenty of opportunities to turn things around since independence, but have little to show for it.

Beneath Ncube’s often acid look, as he narrates a painful past, is, in his own words, “a loving and caring man who fears God”.

Ncube also needed guts to set up a company now running three papers in Zimbabwe: a daily, financial weekly and Sunday paper. This, in addition to publishing South Africa’s second most popular paper, The Mail&Guardian, selling just over 51,000 copies every week. He holds 76% equity in the Mail&Guardian.

“Nothing happens at the M&G when I don’t want it to,” he says.

A climb down from chairperson to deputy chair of the M&G group raised whispers that he was being bought out.

“I’m not a CEO. I provide strategic support, wisdom, oversight. I’m not a manager, I’m terrible at management. I’m a leader, I’m not an entrepreneur. There are much smarter, better managers out there. I thought, ‘Well, let me stick to what I know best… I love making babies, I don’t like taking care of babies, so, well, I like conceiving ideas and projects, and letting them happen’.”

Ncube won the German Africa Award, from the German Africa Foundation, for press freedom, human rights and democracy in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa, a journalistic milestone on the road to riches.

Says Andy Moyse, a journalist who heads Zimbabwe Mass Media Monitoring Project, which scrutinizes news in the country for fair and professional coverage of events: “He (Ncube) is an astute businessman. He has created one of the biggest print media businesses the country has ever witnessed. He has brought his business acumen into the media environment. To be fair, he has created a very dominant single media house. We need this to deal with the repressive media climate.”

Ncube’s career has been eventful and often rocky, to say the least. It all began with a job as assistant editor of The Financial Gazette in 1991. He got fired by the publisher years later for not toeing the editorial line.

“It was a tough time. If you have never been fired, then you have no business being in business. Being fired is a university in itself. It toughens you, it makes you realise how life is like.”

Ncube got fired with a mortgage hanging over him and a family to take care of, despite the fact that he was once nominated Zimbabwe Editor of the Year.

Within months, Ncube had scouted for a financier to set up a private paper, The Zimbabwe Independent. Clive Murphy, a serial entrepreneur, got wind of that; a meeting was set up, and the rest is history. He was initially offered a 2% stake, but increased it to 5%. He paid it off when the business returns looked good.

“I’m scared of debt. When the first dividend of equity came, that was it, I became a capitalist. I never looked back,” Ncube said. After almost a decade, he took over the controlling shareholding of The Zimbabwe Independent.

From The Zimbabwe Independent are two off-shoots: a weekly, The Standard, and a daily, NewsDay, part of a media empire called Alpha Media Holdings.

Ncube smiles at the memory of the next step. When he lost The Financial Gazette job, Ncube applied for a job at South Africa’s Sunday Times and Mail&Guardian. He was turned down by both. The rich irony is that he now owns Mail&Guardian.

This is how it happened: During a trip to Cape Town, Govan Reddy, the previous owner, approached him, having caught wind that Ncube wanted to expand his media business portfolio into the region.

“They wanted someone with a pedigree, who would withstand political pressure but who is also even-handed to both government and opposition,” Ncube said.

Negotiating the deal wasn’t easy. Ncube had to shrug off the challenge from big-hitting potential suitors like Zwelake Sisulu and Anthony Harper. After acquiring it, Ncube says the challenge was to turn it around. The M&G, at the time, was making over R15 million ($1.95 million) in losses every year. “For me, it was the biggest test being in a foreign environment where the players are complete strangers,” he says.

Ncube applied for a New York-based foundation funding loan for media development. It provides seed capital, is run professionally, and they charge interest.

“We have since repaid the loan,” he said.

It’s not an easy job. At the time, the establishment was accusing the M&G of pandering to white interests.

“Naturally, we are bound to irritate the political establishment. That doesn’t worry us, it doesn’t concern us, it happens here in Zimbabwe. That is the nature of the beast. We would worry if the politicians weren’t complaining.”

What bothers the publisher is the politics of South Africa.

“The situation in South Africa is now beginning to approximate what happened here 20 years ago. That’s where South Africa is after 16 years of a new political dispensation—the intolerance around the media, this new secrecy bill. For me, watching South Africa play out is watching Zimbabwe play all over again. I know a lot of South Africans get irritated when you say that. South Africa is Zimbabwe again in slow motion in certain instances,”

says Ncube.

It could be tricky for Ncube, when it comes to speaking out about politics. He is known as a journalist who speaks his mind and has an analytical insight into the political machinations of Zimbabwe and South Africa. On the other hand, he is a man with media interests—which can often be vulnerable—both sides of the Limpopo River. This year, he is likely to field a flurry of questions, about the politics of the land of his birth, as Zimbabwe is expected to hold elections.

Referring to Zimbabwean politics, he says: “It is going to be turbulent. I don’t think the Movement for Democratic Change (under Morgan Tsvangirai) has a clue about governance. But (should it win an election) it will only provide that environment necessary for stability.”

A journalist at Alpha Media Holdings, who declined to be named, said: “His (Ncube’s) commitment to democracy and media freedom in particular is not driven by corporate or business interest. It is an ingrained conviction for him. He has this deep-seated belief that people must be free… his downside is his failure to create a balance between the workers’ interests and enlightened self-interest. He would do well if he became more sensitive to our remunerations; otherwise, he is a great guy.”

New Randela Notes
Cause A Stir

With South Africa’s rand under pressure, word on Friday afternoon that there would be an announcement of national importance on the following day, February 11, caused consternation in the markets.

The rand lost 2.5% of its value as traders got the jitters ahead of the mysterious announcement in Pretoria. The invitation said the South African President, Jacob Zuma, Reserve Bank Governor, Gill Marcus and Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan were all going to be there—something highly important, surely? Journalists stayed glued to their phones and laptops—maybe exchange controls were about to be abolished. Imagine?

In the end, it was merely an announcement that former President Nelson Mandela was to replace the big five game animals—lion, buffalo, rhino, elephant and leopard—on the front of South Africa’s bank notes.  “It’s the Randela!” joked one journalist.

The announcement was to coincide with the 22nd anniversary of the release of Mandela from Victor Verster Prison, near Cape Town, on February 11, 1990. The notes have improved security marks and  features to help the blind. They will be put into circulation before the end of the year and the  existing notes will remain legal tender.

Marcus apologised for the confusion around the announcement and quipped: “It shows how little we look to good news.”

As for the losses to the rand during the confusion? The CNBC Africa markets team assures FORBES AFRICA that most of the 2.5% loss to the value of the rand was largely down to the economic woes of Greece, rather than the PR clumsiness of the government officials behind the new face on the notes.

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