By a Special Corresponent
HARARE – When the late business mogul Roger Boka declared that he saw himself as “commander-in-chief of an indigenization movement” that would shake Zimbabwe to its roots in June 1995, little did he know that 16 years on, his dream would begin to be implemented.
For his part, Boka said at the time that he believed his methods were black Zimbabweans’ only chance to alter the status quo, when almost everything to do with business and the economy was in the hands of whites.
“When a big stone is in front of you, bring in dynamite. I tried to go through the door and they kicked me out. I tried to go through the window … and they kicked me out. So I then landed through the roof,” said Boka with a resounding booming laugh, according to an interview he gave at the time to America’s Tobacco Reporter Magazine.
Boka said he decided to be involved in the tobacco industry because it controlled 35 percent of Zimbabwe’s earnings in 1995 and was dominated by merchant companies owned by white multinational companies.
“There are 11 million blacks in Zimbabwe and 100 000 whites and yet 98 percent of the economy is controlled by 20 000 white businessmen,” he said, adding that he felt it was time for change.
“What is the concept of independence? Without economic independence, political independence makes no sense,” Boka said.
The tycoon – who owned almost everything from banks to gold mines – said he became involved in tobacco in 1987 when he brokered a barter deal with the then East Germany, involving US$10 million of tobacco. His said his share in the deal was 50 percent and other half was for businessman John Bredenkamp.
When it came time to supplying the Germans with the product, he tried to buy Zimbabwe tobacco but was barred from trading on the tobacco floors, then all controlled by white multi-nationals. Boka said in the end “they cooked” the figures and reported they had “ lost” the money. His profit was a whopping US$38 million.
“I sued them (the tobacco companies) and won in court. It was a bad experience, but it was an eye-opener,” he said.
“I began lobbying our government telling them all was not well, blacks would not be welcome in the tobacco industry unless they (government) amended the laws,” he said. In 1993 an amendment was eventually made, allowing competition in the industry.
“The first meetings were hell because I never agreed with what these people were saying. They always said you can’t challenge this or that … its tradition,” Boka said. “What tradition? Tradition has always denied me.”
He said what he was fighting for was not just to empower blacks but for local whites too. He said white tobacco growers he talked to after his successful lobby for the amendment later told him that they got better prices once blacks became accommodated.
When asked if he was successful in 1995, Boka said: “I survive extremely well in a very hostile environment. But without the hostile environment, I am not in business. You know what business is? Business is solving problems.”
Boka said his measure of successful transition in the tobacco industry would be when there was a satisfied farmer – black or white – and when buyers started competing openly to secure the next best crop.
Boka Tobacco Auction Floors, which the late Roger Boka built, has probably the world’s largest tobacco auction floors. His bank United Merchant Bank (UMB) – which later collapsed because of a mountain of bad debts – gave loans to a lot of politicians and businesses at the time, most of whom set up successful businesses but failed to pay back.
He is one of the first black businessmen to enter the lucrative large-scale mining sector which was also at the time regarded as a “no go area” because it required huge capital.
In October 1994, in what was definitely the largest single investment since independence by an indigenous businessman, Boka Group of Companies concluded a $78 million gold mining joint venture with a Russian company, Siberian Associates.
Boka injected $42 million in the form of cash and fixed assets which gave him a 54 percent control of the project. This paved way and gave confidence for other indigenous players to venture into mining at large scale. He at the time had many commercial buildings in Harare and Mutare, notably Boka Islip House along Samora Machel.
But of the legacy Boka bequeathed his family – and Zimbabwe – Boka Tobacco Auction Floors stands tallest.
Located along Simon Mazorodze Road on the periphery of the southern part of Harare – near the city council’s Granville Cemetery – stands the gigantic building, which looks like a massive shopping mall.
It is a building that tells a story; a building that looks into the future. It is so colossal that it overshadows other surrounding buildings. Hundreds of farmers converge on floors every year to sell their tobacco, resulting in a multitude of downstream industries.
Boka said he acquired the 10 ha of land to construct the auction floors in April 1996 from Harare City Council for $5 million.
Council agreed in February that year to sell the land to Boka Investments (Pvt) subject to conditions that the company would be responsible for the surveying, transfer and servicing costs, and that the minimum building cost was to be US$10 million. The price was adjusted when cadastral surveys were approved by the Surveyor-General’s Office.
After establishing that the 10ha was not enough for the auction floors, Boka sought 2.5 ha more of land which council agreed to sell to him for $750 000.
He died on 1999, but his children have ensured that his legacy lives on by running the family businesses in a professional manner. That is probably one thing that makes him rest in peace given the hypocritical behavior witnessed at his funeral and burial by many of those he assisted and who never repaid the loans they borrowed from his bank.
Only few of his former friends stood up to praise his good works when he died. Many chose to remain quiet and have their debts and allegiance interred with his bones.
Boka died a specified person, sunk by mounting debts and shunned by some of the powerful people in government and industry that he had fought together with in the arduous battle for the economic empowerment of black Zimbabweans.
As Boka’s empire crumbled and his health deteriorated so did the whole momentum for indigenization that he and others had fought for. The pressure groups that had sprung and flourished at the time went into hibernation, perhaps till political pressure forced the land redistribution programme and the current policies.
But Roger Boka’s dream and legacy still leaves on. One just has to drive along Simon Mazorodze towards Masvingo to realize that. There is no doubt that in many business circles, Roger Boka is still a revered business icon, 14 years after his death.