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OBITUARY: The story of Oasis Hotel and Chemist Siziba’s life



IT is hard to find a patron who would mostly and consistently drink in one bar for 44 years — more than a whole generation; a lifetime in many ways.


Yet Chemist Siziba, a local telecoms businessman and socialite, did.

Before he died of kidney failure last week on Saturday at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare, Siziba had regularly patronised Oasis Hotel Bar along Nelson Mandela Avenue in the capital for 44-odd years.

At his peak he ruled the roost at the bar, pumping energy, ideas and insight through his brilliant mind, while sharing infectious humour, laughter and light-heartedness.

He spent money like confetti at a wedding entertaining his friends. Anyone who rubbed shoulders with Siziba would testify to his brilliance and humour, in many ways he was ahead of his time. In a progressive society, he could have been a Silicon Valley-style technopreneur.

His contribution to the advent of mobile phone technology in Zimbabwe was immense. Econet billionaire Strive Masiyiwa and others know that. He held good and bad memories on Masiyiwa, especially on telecoms issues.

From time to time, Siziba asked me to help him write his biography. I regret not taking his offer seriously. Electronics engineering, a sub-field of electrical engineering — his area of study, and telecoms were going to be major subject matters in his book.

Electronic engineering, as he would explain especially over a drink, is all about creativity and innovation. To capture his favourite line,

Siziba would say: “The whole area of engineering is about designing, making, running, and servicing things that people need to make life simple. That is why we need engineers to rule this country!”

Siziba strongly made a case for engineers to be leaders. He argued these are people who have a vision for how to make things work — and a plan for how to do it.

They have the knowledge and problem-solving skills to come up with practical solutions to improve how something is done. If there is one quality that defines an engineer, it is the ability to solve problems — including those that may at first seem insoluble.

Engineers are trained to figure out how to make things better, whether it is product, technology or a process.

They learn how to approach challenges and use their critical-thinking skills to explore possible solutions. Knowing how to do this is useful in all areas of life, particularly when you are in a leadership position, he would say.

 Besides, he was proud of his role during the liberation struggle and his journey in business. Politics, leadership, governance and the political economy piqued his interest and debates. He always liked referring to the Chinese economic model.

 In another life, Siziba could also have been a brilliant politician, but then he had immeasurable contempt for politicians in general, as one of his old friends Walter Mzembi, former Tourism and Foreign Affairs minister, observed.

 Interestingly, Mzembi is an engineer. As a person, Siziba was a jolly-good-fellow; good-natured. It was hard to see him angry. Disappointed, exasperated and frustrated yes, but hardly angry.

Humour was his stock-in-trade. Who would forget his hilarious Oasis refrain or humorous line whenever he entered the bar: “Vachaita sei? Tavaziva vanhu vacho. Vacham*m*. MuZezuru give me some booze and order one for yourself . . .”

 Or his light-hearted claim that he completed education.

“I’m the only man who defies Shona logic. They say kudzidza hakuperi; ini ndikapedza! Mina ngafunda ngaqeda. (They say education is a lifetime pursuit, but I completed education).”

 Drinking or a weekend would not have started at Oasis until he arrived. He was larger-than-life there.

When he hit hard times after squandering his Cosmos Cellular fortune with his close employee/friend Fortune Ncube (also late) — no pun intended, he never stopped drinking there. Even when he appeared down, he refused to be out.

 Many who drank at Oasis first saw a pile of ZW$1 million in the late 1990s (a lot of money then) at the swimming pool next to the bar when he brought the money in a bag with Ncube to sponsor a football tournament — Cosmos Cellular Football Challenge — between Highlanders and Dynamos.

They splurged money with reckless abandon, but all the same he remained humble. Continuing to drink at Oasis years later when he became broke showed he was a strong character. Few would do that.

That was also testimony to his love and attachment to the place.

Siziba was friends with many, but his son Dumile came tops. He always called him to bring him one thing or another, or to fetch him if he was not driving. He loved his son a lot. He was immensely proud of his family: wife Margaret, Dumile and his daughter Thandeka.

They equally loved him. The way they cried, especially his wife, when he body was leaving for burial on Thursday was heartrending. His brothers also reeled in anguish, like many who were pained by his death.

Soldiers laying Chemist Siziba to rest at Glen Forest Memorial Park in Harare

It was more painful to see them weeping than see Siziba’s lifeless body lying flat in a casket, marking the end of a long journey in his life.

Different generations found and left him at Oasis. It was now in his blood and part of his way of life, which only death could change. The hotel opened in 1975 and has been renovated several times to keep up with the modern trends to satisfy dynamic customer tastes and needs.

Siziba’s Oasis drinking story is both deeply political and social.

He started drinking there in 1980 when Zapu and Zipra leaders and commanders returned home from the liberation struggle in exile in neighbouring Zambia, and made it their drinking hole.

Zapu and Zipra were based in Zambia, while Zanu and Zanla were in Mozambique.

Because of that, many other people, mainly Ndebeles, came there to drink, socialise, share information, ideas and perspectives on issues.

It eventually became like a bar for mostly Ndebeles in Harare. Although many other people of different backgrounds drank there, for decades it was mostly for Ndebele speakers. The situation has changed now, although Siziba was the last man standing as he often did during our drinking sprees.

 Siziba and his colleagues called the bar Emthonjeni (a water well — drinking hole in Ndebele). At one time, the bar was like a political hotspot, a cauldron of fierce debates on current affairs and history, meetings and action, as well as repressed anger over a whole range of issues, particularly politics.

For journalists, it was a major source of stories for writing or just knowing. One of the biggest stories in local media in recent years — the 2004 South African Spy Ring exclusive — came from there.

The source, a Siziba friend and later my good buddy, is now dead and can be named if need be. It was not Siziba, but a senior Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) officer who drank at the bar.

Another interesting story (which would have been interesting to the public, but perhaps not necessarily in the public interest) that Siziba shared was how he stopped his kids from playing at the late former president Robert Mugabe’s home after his friend Leo Mugabe warned him that his uncle was beginning to think he was using children to get close to his wife Grace to strategically position himself to make some advances.

Siziba said Leo told him Mugabe was suspicious after the James Makamba stories and would not tolerate a man hanging around there; coming in and out of his home even if he was fetching kids from playdates.

There was also the story of how Mugabe one day went incognito to search Makamba’s Blue Ridge Spar or Sweet Valley on Maryvale Farm, Mazowe, to seize Grace’s personal effects as evidence of her alleged relationship with Makamba .

The story was never published, but circulated at Oasis.

 In a bid to verify it, I went with a colleague at The Zimbabwe Independent in 2004 to see a Mugabe security aide at Red Fox Hotel in Greendale in Harare, but there were no takers.

A few editors in Zimbabwe and South Africa felt it was too risky. We abandoned it, but I was convinced after verification it was true. The colleague I went with to verify the story later turned out to a CIO informer or agent.

He was fired for that. I was later to ask Makamba, at local businessman Mutumwa Mawere’s house in Rivonia, Johannesburg, in 2006 about his alleged secret relationship with Grace.

After a long discussion on a chilled weekend, he neither confirmed nor denied the story.   But Mugabe’s hostility to Makamba, including detaining for a long time before he fled to South Africa, suggested it was true.

Around the time, I met Makamba at Sandton Mall, Johannesburg, one day and he looked terrified as we chatted about his detention and flight from home, which was to keep him away for 12 years. For these reasons and many others, Oasis attracted teeming and sniffing state security agents on the spying prowl.

 Many a time state security agents were caught recording patrons and Siziba would say let them record.

“Akesimeni madoda (let’s wait, guys). Kanti vele bafunani (what do they want in the first place?); well let them record,” he would say. But he would then privately complain to senior CIO officers who were patrons, saying the bar was being turned into a “Gestapo state”.

 He often told stories about the Cold War exploits of Stasi, the East Germany state security service. Stasi was like the Soviet Union’s KGB. Siziba was trained in Russia on intelligence work.

KGB and Stasi helped Zapu and Zipra during the struggle. Zipra military commanders and intelligence officers, including Dumiso Dabengwa, who was their overall boss by 1979, were mostly trained in the Soviet Union.

Hence Dabengwa was called the “Black Russian” due to his training in Russia and wartime intelligence exploits. That gave patrons clues about Siziba’s history, background and publicly unknown role as a Zapu intelligence officer under the National Security Organisation (NSO) led by the late Dabengwa during the liberation struggle in Zambia.

Local state agents once marked Oasis as a security threat and deployed spooks to monitor it. Football also played a part in making Oasis a great bar.

When Zapu and Zipra comrades made Oasis their drinking place, Bulawayo football giants Highlanders, a club which Siziba liked a lot, began camping there for their matches in Hara[1]re, further attracting its supporters to the bar and making it more lively.

 After their matches — win or lose — Bosso officials and players always swarmed Oasis. In recent years, people flocked to the bar to watch international football. At one time Oa[1]sis made people pay to watch football there.

Of course, Siziba did not pay. Different musicians played at the bar, including Tanga wekwa Sando and the patrons’ favourite artist in later years Lwazi Tshabangu.

Tshabangu is a Lovemore Majaivana lite and admirer. Majaivana’s songs were a main feature at the bar, sometimes the whole weekend would have Majaivana’s best collection of hits playing throughout nonstop. Siziba’s best song was Majaivana’s track Inhlanzi yesiziba, which was put on repeat ad infinitum, again and again.

The song’s lyrics went: “Njelele njelele nhlanzi yesiziba zwino yabanjwa ngumdaka . . . Ngivele ngabona ngokubotshwa kukaSiziba bazangifak’ ejele . . .”

 Roughly, it talks about a catfish trapped in mud (denoting difficult survival) and the arrest of a mysterious and influential figure called Siziba, signifying a crackdown and looming trouble ahead.

This song, released in 2002, allegorically put Gukurahundi into the frame as Majaivana always did subtly in his lyrics and messaging at the time.

As local journalist Dr Mthulisi Mathuthu — an Oasis patron of note for years — wrote in a journal article, Subversive Verses: How Ndebele Musicians Counter-Framed the State Propaganda on The Gukurahundi Genocide, while government used its coercive and ideological state apparatus to frame Gukurahundi as suppression of an armed rebellion by dissidents with the help of some local artists who became enablers to the killings, musicians like Majaivana also successfully counter-framed the massacres as genocide using subversive metaphors, allegories and analogies that consolidated a counter-narrative of the story or counter-hegemony.

 Siziba would claim Majaivana was singing about him in the heavily allegorical political song, but that was never verified.

Siziba would say “wayesitsho mina” (he was referring to me), but never produced evidence to back his bold claim. Yet it is interesting because Majaivana and Siziba were friends.

At one time Siziba hired Majaivana and Albert Nyathi in 2000 to perform at his farm in Shangani the whole night in honour of his mother.

Only Majaivana, who is now based in the United States, can confirm Siziba’s claim that the song was about him in a Gukurahundi context.

Siziba was born on 30 June 1947 in Gwabila, Filabusi, Insiza district, Matabeleland South province. He grew up in the area herding cattle in Mbondweni with other boys of his generation across Manz’amhlophe River.

Those who grew up with him say, while he was good at many things like school and athletics and towered high above other boys in height he was not good at fighting boys of his age during cattle herding.

 In other words, he was not an “ingqwele” when boys were set on each other to fight to prove who was the champion of the area (isigodi) – ukuqhatha in Ndebele/Zulu. His junior during life in the village, Zwide Peter Khumalo, who later became his student with the likes of Theo Khumalo, former Colcom chief executive, says Siziba used his lighting speed not to chase other boys, but to run away from those he feared like Vikita, a herd boy.

 This story was told by Zwide Peter Khumalo in his interesting brief obituary of him.

Siziba did his primary and secondary schooling at the Brethren-in-Christ Church Schools in the area, including Gwabila, Lubuze and Wanezi primary schools.

 He then went to Matopo Secondary School. From there, he proceeded to Fletcher High for A-Levels. He was brilliant and set an academic record in his area, just like he also set a record as an athlete. In 1971, he went to the University of Rhodesia.

While studying for an Agricultural degree there, he became a student activist which made him unable to complete his degree programme. Luckily, he secured a Commonwealth scholar[1]ship to go the University of Bombay (Mumbai) where he obtained a BSc degree in Electronics Engineering.

During his time in India, his political activism and resolve grew as the liberation struggle intensified. Siziba left India for the United Kingdom to join staff at the Zapu office there.

He worked as a deputy engineer for the BBC in 1977 and several other London places.

 In 1978, Siziba left UK for Lusaka, Zambia, to join the liberation struggle at the front and was part of a 25-member team sent for intelligence training in Russia, alongside Bernard Ncube, Ivathi Ndlovu, Patrick Mlilo, Martin Jabulani Shatin, Mxolisi Ncube, Obert Ndlovu, S. Ndl[1]ovu, and Mandlenkosi Ncube.

 He was then posted to Lusaka at the Zapu headquarters where he served with Jeremy Brickhill, Advocate Nkiwane, Frazer Nyathi, Sam Madondo, Victor Mlambo, King Nebart Madida, Swazini Ndlovu and T.G. Sibindi.

He was then posted to NSO,  Zapu’s intelligence arm, responsible for external intelligence operations. He worked closely with Dabengwa and Zapu leader Joshua Nkomo, among others.

 After the historic Lancaster House ceasefire and transitional talks in London at the end of liberation war, Siziba returned home with the Zapu delegation. He then joined government in 1980 working under senior Zapu nationalist leader George Silundika who was then Minister of Roads, Post and Telecommunications as an Assistant Secretary.

Thereafter he worked in the Ministry of Industry and Technology, having risen through the ranks to become Under Secretary and then Deputy Permanent Secretary, the rank at which he left government after eight years. After leaving government service, he went into business and established his own bicycle manufacturing company, Norton Cycles.

He also ventured into the food production sector, becoming one of the first cornflakes manufacturers. In the 1990s, he became an active lobbyist and driver of black empowerment, hence leader of the Indigenous Business Development Centre which he co-founded in 1991 with Ben Mucheche, Leo Mugabe and Masiyiwa, among others.

In 1996, Siziba founded Cosmos Cellular as one of three companies that were service providers to the newly established NetOne, a state-owned national mobile telecommunications company. Cosmos grew to be a viable company that assisted the expansion of cellular network coverage in Zimbabwe.

It also carried out several corporate social responsibilities, including sponsoring the Cosmos Cellular Football Challenge Cup between Dynamos and Highlanders, Mthwakazi Golf Society and other sporting and cultural activities.

However, contractual disagreements with NetOne led to its liquidation. He later formed an Internet access provider company called Broadlands Networks which offered fibre optic data services to clients.

 At the time of his death, he was involved in another game-changing project in the region. He was an adviser to a mega water supply project for the supply of water from Tete province in Mozambique to Harare and surrounding areas, while mitigating impacts of climate change on water supply in southern Africa.

 Siziba, as a socialite in Harare and Bulawayo circles, will be remembered for his love of good debates, love for Highlanders Football Club and his witty humour.

For some and indeed for sometime to come, Oasis Bar will be a dark, lonely and lifeless tomb without Siziba. Certainly, as the hotel’s managers and staff said a tribute dedicated to him on video, Oasis will never be the same again without Siziba.

Saka vachaita sei? RIP Oasis legend. Hamba kahle Siziba, Godlwayo Omnyama, Mahlabayithwale, Chothozwa, Musaigwa, Bra Chem. Hwanqa!!!

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