HomeLocal NewsEvans Ndebele 1959 – 2011

Evans Ndebele 1959 – 2011

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Former iconic Zimbabwe Express Airlines boss Evans Ndebele passed on this past Saturday.

We were childhood friends, but I will hardly slide into an orgy of uncontrolled mourning.

For me, it is a time to celebrate one of the true unsung heroes of uncontaminated Zimbabwean business acumen.

This is the man who proved how it is possible to create wealth out of sheer hard work and grit, without stealing from a white man in the name of “economic and social justice”.

It would be such a tragedy if those bestowed the honour of his graveside eulogy squandered captive moments on matters spiritual rather than memorable business exploits.

Unlike the legion of rogue present-day stalwarts of empowerment who glorify expropriation, Evans was a convert of innovation.

Even at the tender age of nineteen as Zapu refugees at “The Farm” in Botswana, he summoned enough courage to operate a butchery in a village outside Gaborone.

At college in Nairobi, it took him less than three months to secure a holiday job in Peter Colmore’s advertising agency where entertainment mogul Allan Riddell once settled.

Within a year of our academic safari in Kenya, Evans was managing a study centre with a local Kikuyu woman whom he fondly introduced to us as a “wealthy widow”!

Back in Zimbabwe in the mid-’80s when the rest of us were gloating over “good jobs” inherited from Rhodesians, Ndebele opted to establish a brokerage company that eventually blossomed into horticulture farming.

Endowed with a crude sense of humour, he would constantly chide me for lodging: “If the landlord sees you with a beautiful woman, he will also demand his own pound of flesh since he owns you too!”

By the time I was 25, he had convinced me to own a one-bedroom flat in Harare’s Avenues.

“There is money floating everywhere,” he would say.

“The challenge is how to funnel it into your account”.

Or the classic: “I want to be a millionaire before the age of thirty!” And this happened sooner than I thought. From one of his frequent trips to Nairobi, he told me that his old friend Colmore had introduced him to the managing director of Barclays Bank (UK) who personally knew Ian Khama, now President of Botswana.

Evans travelled to Gaborone and returned beaming with an idea to clean passenger aeroplanes and eventually own one!

After stringing together a complex rental agreement with a South African aviation company, it was not long before Zimbabwe Express Lines was traversing the regional skies.

One lesson I gleaned early from my now-departed friend was that there is no such thing as good luck in business.

The other is that once one assumes a particular entrepreneurial orbit, one becomes vulnerable to corruptive behaviour.

I discarded formal employment in the late ’80s because his advice was that local authority, railway and army tenders were the best way of entry into serious business.

We then “took on” the big political “guns” by tendering for firefighters and related equipment for the national army.

After several trips to Godiva and Carmichael in England to secure an agency, we waited patiently for the Government Tender Board to “announce” the winner. A colleague inside “the system” told us the tender had been awarded to a party loyalist.

This left me indebted to the bank which had permitted an overdraft for my frolic to Europe. It took almost 10 years of prostrate persuasion for the bank to get my name out of the Dunn and Bradstreet “black book” for bad debtors!

But like all “indigenous” businesspeople, it was difficult for Evans to resist the temptation of offering “everyone” a job. I personally attribute the collapse of his airline to spiralling overheads caused by the strenuous rentals paid in foreign currency to the South African company.

Other analysts accused him of rapid expansion, inept business decisions and a bloated human capital base with no value addition.

And yet when it came to innovation, there is nothing that this man set out to do that was not successful. Perhaps he did not take on board business partners who were capable, or he was just a victim of an oversized ego.

Owning and running an airline is fraught with explosives, if one has a weakness for beautiful women.

My friend found it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a stable marital institution. But whether or not that had a direct bearing on his business survival we will never know.

What I know is that here is a man who bought his own farm, ran his own airline and shunned patronage.

Evans was a true liberal capitalist who exalted profits and hated corruption. If ever there is going to be another African Richard Branson, my late friend, Evans Mantshontsho Ndebele, was already one!

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