By Xolisani Ncube | Zimbabwe Standard |
Former president Robert Mugabe’s son-in-law Simba Chikore’s name has been at the centre of a raging debate over government’s controversial plans to set up a new airline, Zimbabwe Airways.
There are allegations that the new airline, which recently brought its first plane bought from Malaysia was an attempt to fleece the government and collapse the struggling Air Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe Standard senior reporter Xolisani Ncube (XN) yesterday spoke to Chikore (SM) about several issues surrounding the Zim Airways deal.
Chikore believes the deal will transform Zimbabwe’s aviation industry, but was being misrepresented in the media. Below are excerpts from the interview.
XN: Who is Simba Chikore and where does he come from to be where he is, specifically in the aviation industry?
SC: Simba Chikore is a simple Zimbabwean brought up by God-fearing parents. ,
I went to primary and high school in Zimbabwe and when time came to go to university, I went to the British High Commission.
I went to the Harare City Library, read books and scouted for a best university. I applied to over 20 universities.
What I applied for was medicine because I was very good at biology and I loved it.
I was accepted at about eight of the universities that I applied to and all were in the United States.
The one I chose, I did so because it had nice pictures, and I was not well versed on statistics and other facilities.
So, I was accepted at Saint Louis University for medicine. When I got to the university, my roommate would tell me that he was going to the airport and he would tell me stories from there.
I asked him what he was doing and he said ‘I am a pilot’ and I started to grow interest in the aviation side of things.
In fact, one day he took me on a flight because he had a private pilot licence and I realised this was beautiful.
I asked my student advisor if I could change my major and she laughed and said ‘yes you can change’. That is how I became a pilot.
I was now studying aviation science to become a professional pilot and my minor was aviation airport management.
It was a five-year programme. This was in 1997. My story is long and a lot happened.
While at university, this is the time that things changed in Zimbabwe. It is the time that war veterans started to demand money and so on and so forth, the Zimbabwe dollar was falling against the American dollar.
I got to a point where I had nothing. So I started to work, I applied to the immigration department for permission to work off campus
I worked at MacDonald’s. I started working in hotels, cleaning toilets, carrying people’s bags, being a handyman. I worked in industries carrying heavy things like cement, detergents.
That is what I had to do to stay in school. During on one of the holidays I was with my brother at Newlands shops [Harare], that was in 2004, and because I wanted to pursue a more advanced degree, the servant of God, Dr Ezekiel Guti called me on his cellphone and he said come I want to talk to you.
I went to see him and he said I should not go back to school. It troubled me, he prayed for me and said if I wanted to go, I could but the Lord had told him that I should not go back to school.
I told my brothers that I was no longer going back to school and we had to cancel my ticket, which was due the following day.
The miracles that started to happen I can’t comprehend.
Without applying for a job, I heard that there was a job…
XN: At that stage had you acquired any qualifications to be a pilot?
SC: I was a commercial pilot at the time. I had my FA [flight attendant], a commercial pilot licence at that time.
And and here I am, he [Guti] is telling me not to go back to do my advanced degree.
By then my desire was to end up working for National Aviation Services [NAS] and here the man of God telling me not to go back to school.
Against all my wishes and instincts, I decided not to go back.
I went for an interview at Air Zimbabwe three months later and they hired me with about 550 hours of flight time.
I was hired on the Boeing 737-200, classic at that time. Now we call it a Jurassic because it is so old.
I was flying local flights, Harare-Bulawayo, Harare-Vic Falls, flying to Johannesburg, Cape Town, the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] and Mauritius. All these kind of flights.
Exactly 12 months later, I was promoted to fly the 767 and now I was flying to Dubai, Singapore, China, London. I was doing all these flights.
In 2009, January, I was sitting in Singapore and a funny thing happened, a pilot who was supposed to bring the aircraft there was sick and they called me to say you are supposed to stay longer.
I was sitting there reading a newspaper and there was Qatar Airways employing pilots and that is the week I was supposed to come to Zimbabwe.
Surprisingly, they had called me to say stay longer. I knew I was not ready for this and I took a book that I thought they were going to use during the interviews.
I read the book for the whole week. I went to the hotel where Qatar Airways were doing the interviews, it was on a Monday and I asked if I could be allowed to come on Friday.
I said I was not ready. They agreed. I was the youngest and the only black captain there and everyone was in their late 40s and they were looking at me saying what are you doing here?
When I walked in for my interview, I was asked what aircraft do you want to fly, the 737 or the airbus 320 or the Boeing 777 and I said I have only flown the 777 but I would be happy to take any plane you assign me to.
That is how I joined Qatar Airways flying the 777. Now I have over 7 000 hours on the 777 alone.
From there I came back to Zimbabwe in 2016 and they were doing interviews for Air Zimbabwe and these interviews were for the top management.
We went for the interviews with the board, interviews with the management, we did a four-hour interview with a company called IPC [Industrial Psychology Consultancy].
They are the ones who were administering these interviews. In fact these guys can show you a video of me in those exams.
It’s not like these interviews were coming from me. You can talk to IPC, they can show you the same.
After the assessment of maybe three or four weeks, they came back with the results and I was number one out of 134 people.
Out of 134 candidates they were trying to find the CEO, COO and the executive manager.
These are the top positions at Air Zimbabwe according to the organogram.
And in his wisdom, the honourable Minister of Transport [Joram Gumbo] assigned me to the post of COO, which was the second position.
And even then, you saw the outcry (laughs). I imagine if people knew that I was supposed to be the CEO, but that is in his wisdom and we were happy because what we wanted was the expertise.
It wasn’t about the position. It was about him putting a team that does proper turnaround for the first time.
In the last 20 years, how many turnarounds has Air Zimbabwe tried?
XN: What role did your father-in-law Mugabe play in your appointment at Air Zimbabwe?
SC: At one time, His Excellency former president Mugabe called the honourable minister and myself.
One of the things that he said to the honourable minister was that you cut no corners, no favouritism but I know that he is good at what he does, so go ahead and go through the interview processes, but you will cut no corners.
That was our mandate even from the beginning. That was his way of management, but I know the honourable minister did not even need to hear that he is a very honourable man, he is a wise man and he is a professional.
XN: How about reports that you were the former first family’s pilot?
SC: Absolutely not. The only extent to which I flew the former first family was by assignment at the airline (Air Zimbabwe).
I was a pilot just like any other pilot. They would come up with a roster and maybe that the president is going to New York and they say which pilot performed well, who passed the exams, with no disciplinary record; those are the ones that are assigned and put on the flight.
(The Mugabes) had no influence, I did not know him, I did not know his daughter, I had no relationship with her, it was just a job.
XN: In 2016 when you went for the Air Zim interviews, did you foresee any trouble considering your relationship with Bona Mugabe?
SC: Obviously, it did cross my mind, but then and now I still feel the same that Zimbabweans are smart enough to know the truth and that they are smart enough to separate issues.
The media can say things this way or with bias, but I feel Zimbabweans can understand that Simba went to school in this profession and he deserves a chance to serve his own country after spending so many years and time developing himself that way.
I feel that my position is my position as people see it. You could be in my position, you could have married the president’s daughter and be in the same shoes, it could be your friends, it could be that guy outside, it could be anybody.
So are we going to say that because that person is affiliated with the first family they must be denied a profession they spent money on and many years of hard work?
And so we just say because you are associated we don’t want to see you there?
XN: At Air Zimbabwe there were reports that you were the de-facto CEO. How far true is this?
SC: The first question is where did the reports come from? The journalists did not work at Air Zimbabwe.
People on the streets never worked at Air Zimbabwe. Nobody who was saying all these things actually worked at Air Zimbabwe.
But if you can find for me someone who worked with me and said that I behaved in such a way or that I took responsibilities that were not mine [I will be happy]. My point is I feel that people react according to what is said in newspapers or what perspectives look like according to them, but at no point did I exercise the role of the CEO, who was always my boss.
At no point in my responsibilities did I have such authority to exercise the rights of a CEO.
I only performed in my capacity as COO. And the COO in an airline is someone who has oversight over all operations and all operations in an airline are supported by every other department.
In other words, an airline is there to take people from point A to point B.
Everything else around, every other department is supporting operations so you don’t have an airline unless you have got planes and crew.
Finance is supporting that, marketing is supporting that, legal is supporting that, security is supporting that and so you can see how big the role is, it’s not a small role.
So it was my job to see that we have planes that work, we have got pilots, we have got cabin crew, we have got money, we have got fuel, we have the arrangement, we have got the slots and above me was the CEO.
In that case, for me I continued as a professional and stayed quite because I knew what I was doing and without me performing those functions.
If I had not done that, then the CEO would have had to perform these duties, making me redundant.
XN: Were you happy with your tenure at Air Zimbabwe?
SC: It was a big eye opener and it was very good for me to be there, to serve my country again because I had worked there before and I was coming to a company that I knew.
I knew the ins and outs. I knew the culture. I knew exactly what I was up against.
I knew the problems and I knew how to solve them and with the experience that I had gained outside it was everything.
The thing was about vision and acknowledgement that I am here and you know what you want to be or where you need to be and the rest is easy because you are just trying to map your way from here to there.
The problem is where you don’t know where you are trying to get or what it should look like, then you are in trouble.
XN: What were the challenges you faced when you joined Air Zimbabwe?
SC: The biggest challenge which is there until now is the resistance to change, good change.
Because people are afraid of change, people would rather stay with the status quo; people would rather see what they are used to.
You tell people today we are doing things this way and I remember sitting in the boardroom and people would say “No”, let us explain to you how we do it here.
Then I would remind them we haven’t done well, look at your history.
You haven’t done anything that the Zimbabwean people would be happy with regarding this airline and so we are not going to do that.
I’m actually here to change what we have been doing for the better because it has not worked.
So, at Air Zimbabwe it was a no-brainer, we only had to look at what we had been doing. Are you happy with that?
Is Zimbabwe happy with that? Do we look good outside? Do we give a good picture of ourselves as a people that collectively this is what we come up with?
XN: Do you think you had achieved what you had set out to do when you left the airline?
SC: Not at all. The airline has a plethora of challenges and I remember one of the things I asked the minister before he assigned me there was: Will you let me do what’s necessary to make a change, are you ready for the hard decisions that I have to make for a difference, to make the Zimbabwean people proud?
I knew what we were up against and what we would have to do and so it was not nearly enough.
I would have needed another five years to accomplish the vision of the honourable minister in terms of his brief to me to say I want to see this, I want to see an airline that goes on time, I want to see planes that are flying, I want to see a good crew, I want to see us go to destinations that the Zimbabwean people want to go, these kind of things.
The stigma, the culture, the system, the skilled labour and all these kinds of thing that’s what was lacking.
XN: What is your role at Zimbabwe Airways?
SC: After being assigned to Air Zimbabwe, the minister and his colleagues wanted to have a way to bring in to the country new assets that were not involved in big challenges, for example, in debt.
We didn’t want to have an airline that is impounded. We didn’t want to have an airline, which had such stigma.
Zimbabweans were calling their own airline Mazarura and things like this and so on and so forth.
So the minister’s vision was to create an airline that everyone is proud of, an operation that can go anywhere in the world.
Why do we not fly direct to New York? Why do we not fly direct to London? Why do we not have our own airline that goes from here to China even though we have some big business between the two countries?
It’s because of those things, sanctions, stigma, unprofessionalism and all these kind of things.
So what better way to do it properly and the way the minister decided to do it was standard internationally.
What they decided to do was to have those planes with a different ownership.
XN: There are allegations that you and the former first family own the airline. What is the correct position?
SC: The interest in the extent of the former president was his simple support to also want a good airline.
If you think back he chose to always fly the national airline so that he could put money in it.
In fact, it survived that long because he chose to always use the national airline.
I was there as COO. I saw all the numbers and I know exactly how they function.
We would survive because today he is going there and we get a little bit of money.
Those flights were paid up front in cash, that’s what sustained the airline.
Just like today, His Excellency President [Emmerson] Mnangagwa is supporting the airline.
If the presidents stop flying Air Zimbabwe, watch and see what will happen, there will not be one flight.
That’s the extent to which we can say the former president was involved. When you talk about me, I am a professional and I am not going to go around trying to defend myself, people will know the truth and people are smart enough.
If people are interested they can go to the registrar of companies to see who owns the company, they’ll see the CR40, they’ll see the CR6, they will see the stakeholder, and my name is not there.
The company itself belongs to the government of Zimbabwe, the proof is there and it’s public knowledge.
I don’t have to go loud and say they are not my planes, in fact where would I get that kind of money to buy the aircraft?
XN: Your critics say you used state resources to acquire the planes and set up the airline.
SC: That’s conjecture. What I would say is it’s so demeaning to the government itself that they are idle and see me take government resources to enrich myself and my family.
We have got skilled people in this government, we have got people in finance, the minister of Finance and his whole team, we have the Reserve Bank governor and his team, we have got the Attorney-General’s office who can do anything. I mean there are so many experts and for us to pretend and say Simba is so smart.
We have all these offices and arms of government and they stood-by while I used government resources.
XN: What have you been doing for Zimbabwe Airways?
SC: For Zimbabwe Airways under the leadership of the honourable minister, we sourced for aircraft, we negotiated the purchase price, we did the maintenance that is required to make them brand new.
What I mean by brand new is doing the required checks like C-check, which is done every two years so it’s pretty much broke down and put back together again so it’s a new aircraft, it’s a reset button.
We created the airline, the formation of it. We created the systems, we went and created relationships with Boeing, these are industry trade type of relationships that are necessary.
We have with us experts from AITA, IOSA to centre the airline properly because the moment you take off you are going to be under audit to make sure that this airline is not like Air Zimbabwe that is banned in other places.
We are making sure we do things properly, you have got the skilled labour, you have got the bells and whistles, you have got computers, you have got all the correct maintenance, you have got all the things that are required to be called a viable airline that would be allowed to fly to Europe, that would be allowed to fly into the United States.
This is what we did, we did the hiring, we did the interviews, we did the finance, we came up with the designs, we did the engineering orders, and we did everything that was required.
And that was my involvement until now with Zimbabwe Airways.
XN: How far would you want to go with Zimbabwe Airways?
SC: The honourable minister is talking every day about it whether in Cabinet or in parliament or on TV.
It’s so easy for us to have a five-star airline in Zimbabwe, there is nothing special about Qatar, Emirates or Etihad that are five stars and have proper operations. We in Zimbabwe have to be proud enough to support each other. To stop petty issues.
To stop shooting someone down or something down that you do not even understand.
Aviation is one of the most sophisticated and misunderstood areas, but yet everybody thinks they can talk about it and give a recommendation saying they can do this or they should buy this kind of plane.
Aviation is not like buses, it’s either you know or you don’t know.People spend years in this industry just trying to understand it.
As Zimbabweans we can have an amazing airline, we can change the perspective of Zimbabwe, we can bring in investment, we can change the GDP, we can increase tourism, we can have cargo at much less rates than paying Emirates who take your cargo from Lusaka to Dubai and from Dubai then it gets to you, you understand?
The people who have fish food restaurants here can get fresh food every day when we have a direct flight from Beijing or wherever else they want their sea food from; you understand what I am saying?
A lot of things we do, it is us who can choose to change them, so the vision really is five-star airlines, we have seen it and know what it looks like.
We know exactly what to do, we just have to support each other.
XN: Some point out that the planes you got from Malaysia are old and were decommissioned. Did you not take a risk by buying them?
SC: I like what you are saying. This goes back to what I have just said that people talk about aviation as if they know, and very few people are experts in aviation.
The public is not where you need to get this information.
A decommissioned aircraft means a plane is not on the production line anymore. Today Boeing is still making 777s, so I would like to know that they decommissioned, what exactly are you saying?
Point number two, an aircraft is endless in life, as long you are doing the required maintenance so it has no life span.
Today we are still flying 737 from 1989, but if I do the maintenance today it’s airworthy.
Civil aviation will give me a certificate of air worthiness, I will change the seats, they will look nice, I will use the equipment that I want and I will fly anywhere in the world.
You see my point? These are good aircraft, we got them at an amazing deal, and I would say about 5% of the value.