On a quaint Saturday afternoon last week I received an email from Professor Fred Zindi that sent a chill up my spine.
Professor Zindi’s message was simple — Ben Zulu, a giant in the media, film and arts world in Zimbabwe, Southern Africa and beyond — was no more. The sun dimmed for me. BZ had been taken by cancer in New York on Friday July 15. He was 61.
Irish poet W B Yeats may well have been speaking of someone like Bernard Andrew Zulu (“Mr Zulu” or BZ, we called him) when he wrote the poem In Memory of Major Robert Gregory:
Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
And all he did done perfectly
As though he had but that one trade alone.
In his six decades on earth BZ played so many roles that it has been a bit of a nightmare for me to write this article and begin to coherently list all he did outside of his day job.
He had been chairman of the College of Music, co-founder of the Ethnomusicology Programme, chairperson of the Advertising Association of Zimbabwe, chairman of the Southampton Foundation, chairman of the Zimbabwe Film Producers’ Association and chairperson of the Harare International School.
He was also a board member of the National Arts Council at one point.
In terms of his day job, BZ was brand manager for Colgate Palmolive from 1982 to 1984 and then business development manager from 1984-1987.
From 1990–1997 he was executive director of Media for Development Trust and from 1997-1999 he was managing director of Michael Hogg, Young and Rubicam Advertising Agency.
In 1999 he became executive director of the African Script Development Fund — a trust he had founded in 1997 for the purposes of training screenplay writers.
In between all these roles, BZ was involved as a consultant in many health communication campaigns across Africa for a variety of partners including Zimbabwe National Family Planning, Unicef and John Hopkins University Centre for Communication Programmes. He also taught marketing in the MBA programme of University of Zimbabwe.
BZ was born in Bulawayo and then, in his teen years following UDI, moved to Zambia, where he did his “A” Levels. He then worked between 1970 and 1976 for Roan Consolidated Mines, Shell BP and IBM in various capacities including being the first black O and M officer, before proceeding to the UK where he attended the Cranfield Institute of Technology.
He then proceeded to Columbia University where he obtained a Bachelor of Economics degree and a Master’s in Economics and Business. Upon completion he worked for Colgate Palmolive in the US and then relocated to Harare on lateral transfer with the same company.
A man of many interests — radio, television, music, theatre, advertising — and all delivered with exacting standards, he was executive producer of the Zimbabwean feature films More Time (1993) and Everyone’s Child (1996) and he directed a number of documentaries (Fraud and Corruption) and short films (Mwanasikana – Girl Child). In the past five years he had been working with Kenyan and Nigerian filmmakers and one of the short films he produced, Babu’s Babes, had a mention in the Cannes Film Festival Cinéma du Sud in 2006.
He used to be proud of his early radio social dramas like Akarumwa Nechokuchera (You reap what you sow) — a 39-part series focusing on men’s role in family planning methods that won an international award.
But how did I get to know BZ? In my early working life, I was exceedingly fortunate to have not one, but three key mentors – Angeline Kamba, John Riber and Ben Zulu. All three came at different points in my life and left a deep impression.
In the early 1990s I had come out of the University of Zimbabwe pretty much like my compatriots — rough at the edges and totally unprepared for the world of work. Mrs Angeline Kamba instilled discipline in my work – I managed to become a tolerable researcher and writer. BZ and John Riber would provide a ground for me to grow with the opportunities to travel and represent the organisation.
I began to model myself very much around BZ, just like in those old kung fu movies where the Old Master has the rather skill-challenged student and he has to show the upstart a few tricks. And a few tricks did he show me!
In 1994 and 1995, BZ organised two editions of what he termed the Southern Africa Film & TV Workshop. These two events literally brought South African filmmakers out of the cocoon that apartheid had created.
BZ’s vision would see the birth of Sithengi (the Southern Africa Film & TV Market based in Cape Town) and the African Script Development Fund (Harare). But he wanted more — he wanted to see the whole value chain of scriptwriting, production, post-production and distribution organised in a self-sustaining market.
It is this desire that would finally take him to Kenya and Nigeria as he sought to realise his quest to make quality African films that found a market.
Armed with his formidable intellect and a love for discourse, you could always be guaranteed of a good chat with him.
I remember on one occasion BZ and I were in Rosebank, Johannesburg, when we bumped into a Western diplomat who had recently left Zimbabwe for a posting elsewhere. Politely BZ pushed the conversation to the land question and asked: “With hindsight, what things could you have done differently?” The response, delivered in confidence, was most revealing. These were some of the privileges of being BZ’s protégé.
But the last word belongs to Zindi: “He was a close friend. He would stop over at my house and we would have a long chat. He was a keen golfer, witty, intelligent and articulate business man. A good man indeed!”
BZ’s friends have set up a Facebook account under “Ben Zulu Memorial” and for those who knew this dynamo of a man please post your messages there.
Ben Zulu is survived by his wife, Mary Symmonds and their two children, Tandiwe and Mijon.
Go well, BZ. Pako pose wasakura wazunza (Your life’s work is done).
About the Author
Chris Kabwato is the publisher of ww.zimbabweinpictures.com