James Makamba is a Zimbabwean businessman with interests in the retail, telecommunications, mining, agricultural, and professional consultancy sectors. He is chairman of Telecel Zimbabwe, a subsidiary of Telecel International, the first cellular phone company to establish operations on the African continent, in 1986.
Father of four, with homes in Zimbabwe, the United Kingdom, and South African, a high school education provided by Catholic Jesuits, and a reputation as a maverick, James Makamba was a Zanu-PF political activist during the white-dominated regime of Ian Smith in what was then Rhodesia and, after independence in 1980, spent two decades in elected office, serving on, among others, the national government’s central committee, the public accounts committee, and the national fund raising committee.
His business career includes consulting across multiple portfolios for Lonhro (now Lonhro plc), a London based company whose diverse interests in Africa are focused on enabling development on the continent. In 2005, the Zimbabwean government declared Makamba a specified person, following three court cases in which James Makamba was accused and found not guilty of externalising foreign currency. In 2009, he was ‘despecified’ and is free to re-enter the country.
In 2012, James Makamba was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Business Leadership from St Linus University, Dominica.
Background and family life
Life as a child
The youngest of ten children (four boys, six girls), James Makamba was born in 1952 in a rural village in Shamva district of what was then the British colony known as Rhodesia. The Shamva district is some 70 kms north of the country’s capital, Harare, and close to the Mozambican border. The family subsequently moved closer to the border, to the Mount Darwin district, whose location made it an ideal operational centre for guerilla fighters during the extended Chimurenga (liberation struggle). Growing up and participating in a struggle for independence would strongly influence Makamba’s life in commerce and public office. From the outset of his business career, for instance, he insisted on running his own businesses rather than being employed.
The need for personal as well as political independence was also nurtured by what Makamba observed in his father, Jinja, who, after retiring as a policeman, undertook contract ploughing and the grinding of grain for his community. Jinja Makamba also distinguished himself as a farmer capable of commercial production, causing the colonial government to assimilate him into the so-called African Purchase Area programme and allow him to own land freehold in the Chesa area, 40kms north of Mount Darwin. James Makamba has followed his father’s example, farming very successfully on a commercial scale.
Makamba says that he was fascinated by his father’s determination to be self-sufficient, thereby earning the respect of community elders, who consulted him frequently on a wide variety of issues. Jinja Makamba was also a strict disciplinarian, who taught his children that they had to be focused in order to succeed in life and be accountable for all their actions in order to be respected.
Makamba’s mother, Victoria, was a housewife, tending to her children and the family home and working on the land beside her husband.
As was usual in colonial times, a child’s first five years were spent at primary school, followed by two years of ‘upper primary’, and the final five years at high school.
Before the family moved to the Chesa district, James Makamba attended the Mupfurudzi Primary School, along with Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi, who became a globally renowned musician. After the move, Makamba attended the Kujuwara School near Mount Darwin and then one of his older brothers, Raphael, invited him to live with his family in Tomlinson Depot, Harare, where he finished his upper primary education.The theme of strict discipline, focus, and accountability reappears in Makamba’s life with his attendance at the Jesuit mission school, in Bulawayo, for his high schooling. “You tend to see the ten commandments in everything you do,” Makamba says of the Jesuit influence on his life.
The Jesuit fathers suggested to Makamba that he study in Ireland to be a priest. The idea appealed to him partly because it offered a way for him, as a practising Christian, to become closer to God and partly because young black Rhodesians of the time had very few career options beyond teaching, nursing, and police work. A far bigger attraction, however, was the idea of international travel.
Although as a dutiful son Makamba gave in to his mother’s objections to Ireland, on the grounds that, as a priest, he would produce no grandchildren for her, he did end up doing a great deal of international travel during his career.
Marriage and children
Makamba met his wife-to-be, Irene, in 1976 when he was the DJ for her school’s Christmas party. They married in 1978 and had two sons and two daughters. The couple share similar backgrounds, a drive to achieve, and a profound belief in the importance of education.
Irene initially trained as a teacher but switched to nursing, becoming a state registered nurse and winning the Nurse of the Year award. After the birth of their second child, she felt that she needed more time to spend with the children than night duty would allow and turned to studying accounting. She also became a distributor for Herbalife, which piqued her interest in business management, and she went on to obtain her MBA. She now runs the family’s businesses in Zimbabwe. These range from property portfolios and a chain of retail stores know as Blue Ridge, to a chain of phone shops and farming enterprises.
Irene and James Makamba’s emphasis on the importance of education encouraged all four of their children to attain masters degrees. They focused their studies on law and business, attending universities in the United Kingdom and United States of America. The Makambas’ second daughter, Chiyedza, was killed in a road accident in 2011 at the age of 33.
Makamba’s ability to build and maintain relationships across cultures and political affiliations and to quickly get to grips with multiple markets and business environments equipped him to fully exploit the wealth creation opportunities he encountered.
Largely seen as Tiny Rowland’s protégé, Makamba followed in the footsteps of his mentor by forging relationships with movers and shakers in both politics and commerce, creating resentment among those less well connected.
The same capabilities also exposed him to criticism from those whose vested interests his initiatives threatened. In addition, his own close relationships were often with controversial people and Tiny Rowland had strong associations with a wide range of African leaders, many of whose public personas were contentious. Nonetheless, Rowland’s ability to straddle cultural and political divides in order to create wealth in Africa for Africans earned him South Africa’s highest honour, the Order of Good Hope – awarded at a public ceremony by former president, Nelson Mandela.
Makamba’s associations and his high profile attracted close media scrutiny. It has been alleged, for instance, that he had an affair with Robert Mugabe’s second wife, Grace, and had to flee Zimbabwe as a result.
His response to the allegation is that, along with other members of the Zimbabwean Central Committee, he worked closely with Grace Mugabe on international fund-raising initiatives focused on improving the lives of Zimbabwean women and children. “We built schools, orphanages, and old age homes, set up bursaries, established development organisations, and installed electricity supplies, amongst other things. These are 24×7 projects. Rumours are bound to arise. But, in African culture, every woman you encounter is a mother or a sister, depending on her age. We all respected the social barriers such terms imply.”
Makamba was also charged, on three different occasions, with violating Zimbabwe’s Exchange Control Act. On all three occasions, he was arrested and spent lengthy periods in prison – before the trial. All the cases were thrown out.
“My father and the Jesuits taught me to be disciplined and accountable. I can account for every penny I’ve earned. So, it was easy to prove, for instance, that, when I was consulting for Lonhro, I was paid with what are called ‘free funds’. I was paid in London for work I did in London. There was no payment made in Zimbabwe that I could have externalised.
“Also, accusations that Telecel Zimbabwe was not returning roaming funds to Zimbabwe were shown to be unfounded because all cellular operators work through a clearing house and all records are absolutely precise. There were no anomalies in Telecel’s accounts.”
Makamba was not the only Zimbabwean business person to be harassed in this way. Nicholas Vingirai, chief executive officer of Intermarket Holdings, Gilbert Muponda, CEO of ENG Capital, James Mushore, former deputy managing director of NMB Bank, NMBZ’s Julius Makoni, Otto Chekeche, CEO of NMB Bank, Francis Zimuto, NMBZ director, Mthuli Ncube of Barbican Bank, John Moxon, of the Meikles group, and Mutumwa Mawere, who had an extended business empire that included Shabanie and Mashava mines (seized by the government), all fled the country as a result of the government’s 2004 crackdown on the business and financial sector.
In 2005, the government ‘specified’ the business people it had been prosecuting, Makamba among them. Makamba was out of the country at the time and was not able to return and deemed it unsafe to return to Zimbabwe.
In 2011, Zimbabwean newspapers accused Makamba of deliberately missing the funeral of his daughter, Chiyedza, who had been killed in a car accident. For Makamba, this has been the most disturbing of the controversies that have surrounded him.
Deprived of his home and his commercial base and having suffered severe financial losses during the six consecutive months in which he had been jailed for the court proceedings before being specified, Makamba had to rebuild his life by reinforcing existing business interests outside of Zimbabwe as well as creating new revenue streams that would sustain his family during what, at the time, appeared to be an indefinite period of exile.
In 2008, Zimbabwe’s political landscape changed significantly with the signing of the Global Political Agreement ushering in power sharing among Zimbabwe’s three strongest political parties. Robert Mugabe of the Zanu-PF party, which had dominated politics and government since independence in 1980, remained president, but leaders of other parties would be prime minister and deputy prime minister respectively. Financial reforms were also introduced, with the international community helping Zimbabwe to establish fiscal governance structures and restore Zimbabwe’s reputation as an investment destination. In 2009, the economy was dollarised.
In the same year, James Makamba and other business people were despecified. Unlike many of his peers, during the period in which he was despecified, Makamba did not remove his assets from Zimbabwe – and his family continued to live there.
Theoretically, after his despecificiation, he was free to return to Zimbabwe without being prosecuted. However, while his country was slowly recovering on the economic and political fronts, the bona fides of certain players in the environment remained ambiguous. When Chiyedza Makamba died, it was still impossible for her father to re-enter Zimbabwe.
He requested close friends in Zimbabwe to assist his family with funeral arrangements and comfort them in their grief. Thousands of kilometres away in South Africa, he had to grieve alone.
Because Makamba has to date not returned to Zimbabwe, rumours that ‘James Makamba fears returning to Zimbabwe’ began to circulate, as the media suggested that President Mugabe might have a score to settle with Makamba after his alleged affair with Grace Mugabe.
Makamba says that, given the traumatic way in which he was denied access to his country and the emotional consequences to himself and his family of his not being able to attend his daughter’s funeral, he wants to return to Zimbabwe in a way that makes that return a positive experience for the family. “It needs to be a special occasion, free of controversy and media attention. This is a family and not a political matter. As a family, we will choose an appropriate time.”
Makamba’s largest personal and business investments remain committed to Zimbabwe.
In 2009, inspired by the role education had played in Barak Obama’s rise to the world’s most powerful political position, Makamba founded the Ibbamo Foundation, registering it in South Africa and the United Kingdom. The name is an acronym for ‘inspired by Barak and Michelle Obama’. The organisation raises funds and establishes projects for improving educational opportunities for disadvantaged South African children. It is the intention of the Foundation to extend its work to other parts of Africa when it has sufficient capacity to do so.
The foundation’s programmes are focused on academic excellence, leadership, social responsibility, and entrepreneurship – and are a reflection of Makamba’s own philosophy: education is the oxygen of life.
“The greatest challenges we have as African people are to educate ourselves, grow sufficient food, and use wisely the immense resources Africa has. I have a lot of experience, in many areas of life, of getting things done. If I can pass on what I know to the younger generation, so that they can accelerate their development and progress, then I will consider my life well lived.
“God doesn’t give us all the same gifts. Very few of us are able to create wealth. When you are given that gift, as I was, and the community and your family have made sacrificesto ensure that you can put it to work, then you have a responsibility to use it to create more wealth.
”Wealth is not just a good thing, it’s essential – because it’s an empowerment tool. Without it we can’t rid Africa of malaria or Aids, equip villages and towns with electricity and telecommunications, create jobs, and make businesses sustainable. It’s vital that young people are adequately prepared for participation in and appreciation of the generation of wealth.”
Through the Ibbamo Foundation Makamba has raised funds for the Jacob Zuma Education Trust.
Bongi Ngema Zuma Foundation
James Makamba also serves as a trustee of the Bongi Ngema Zuma Foundation which promotes awareness of diabetes. Ngema Zuma is the wife of South African, president, Jacob Zuma.
Makamba’s interest in the Foundation is consistent with his profound belief that “education is the oxygen of life”.
The Foundation’s priority focus is on raising awareness of diabetes so that communities and individuals can take the necessary dietary and lifestyle steps to, firstly, lower the risk of triggering diabetes and, secondly, help those living with diabetes and associated diseases improve the quality of their lives.
Creating awareness of the causes, symptoms, and treatment of diabetes entails a broad campaign focused on rural development, education, and health programmes. The Foundation therefore emphasises knowledge sharing.
Makamba is committed to bolstering the Foundation’s inherent capacity to effect positive change in society.
At home, in Zimbabwe, James Makamba’s wife, Irene, manages a number of charity activities on behalf of the family and its business interests in the country. She is also a member of Soroptimist International, a worldwide service organisation for women that is committed to a world in which women and girls, together, achieve their individual and collective potential, realise aspirations, and have an equal voice in creating strong, peaceful communities worldwide.
Through membership and chairing such associations in Zimbabwe, Irene Makamba has helped host international visitors to Zimbabwe and distribute donations from them to a range of development projects, raised funds for cancer associations and for board and tuition fees for underprivileged children, arranged for hospital wards to be painted, bed covers to be sewn for hospital beds, mattresses bought for the parents of hospitalised children to sleep on, provided heaters for hospital rooms that house malnourished children, and provided farm produce, clothes, and books to children’s homes.
The Makamba family has also helped establish boreholes and water pumps for villages with no water supply.
Serving the people
Having seen life through the lens of both pre- and post-independence Zimbabwe, Makamba understood the difficulties ordinary Zimbabweans were having in taking full advantage of their new social and political freedom.
When he moved to Bindura, during his business partnership with General Solomon Mujuru, then commander of the Zimbabwean National Army, he involved himself in addressing the civic needs of the 60 000 residents of that town. He became the mayor of Bindura on a Zanu PF ticket. He was elected publicity secretary for the Mashonaland Central Province and, within five years, became chairman. He was a member of the Zanu PF central committee and served on its national fundraising committee. He was subsequently elected to parliament in 1995, where he served on the Public Accounts committee.
He was also one of the businessmen who travelled internationally with President Robert Mugabe to promote investment in Zimbabwe. He resigned from public life to pursue his career as a government relations consultant for Lonhro plc. He says that he is not a politician at heart and would not seek elected office again. “I worked for the people through public office for twenty years. Now, I believe that I can best offer my services through organisations such as the Ibbamo Foundation and other charities and non-government organisations on whose boards I serve and for whom I undertake fund-raising initiatives.”
James Makamba and ANC
The struggle for democracy in South Africa and the Rhodesian Bush War overlapped both in time and basic objectives. Because of his close involvement in the structures of Zanu-PF, James Makamba had come into contact with South African leaders of the ANC, some of whom were in exile in Zimbabwe and surrounding countries, and some of whom were pro-actively collaborating at a regional level with Zimbabwean nationalists such as James Chikerema.
When he established a working base in South Africa in 2003, he reconnected with old acquaintances, including South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma. “Wherever I’ve lived and worked, I’ve tried to blend in with that society in order to play a positive role in it and contribute to its progress and development. Hence the Ibbamo Foundation’s focus on helping disadvantaged South African youngsters develop leadership and entrepreneurial skills.”
James Makamba believes in family values and views the fact that he gave all his children the best possible education as his greatest achievement.
“I emphasised with my children that nature has no room for a vacuum. Never take anything for granted. It’s not always the brightest child in the class that gets the best job or the prettiest girl in the school that ends up getting married and having children.
“Too many people moan about what they are not. We all have an opportunity to become someone. We have no control over where we’re born or who our parents are. We’re all presented with challenges that are emotionally or financially traumatic. What’s important is to stay loyal to yourself, stay focused, and pray that you are given sufficient days on this earth to surprise yourself with what you can achieve.”