By Willie Shumba
It is on a sad note that I write about the departure of Happias Kuzvinzwa who was fondly known as HK by many of his associates. On January 26, 2021, the nation woke up to hear of the death of the Commissioner of Customs and Excise.
HK was the crop of young school boys who left to join the war in the late 1970s as a ZANLA fighter for the liberation of Zimbabwe. After the war HK joined the Department of Customs and Excise, and this was to be the hallmark of his life career in Zimbabwe and the region.
In the early 1980s most of his peers used to call him Marsh, and this name overshadowed the real name Happias. I had known him for about 40 years from our days as young Customs Cadets
The year 1980 was a landmark as it brought independence to Zimbabwe. The Department of Customs and Excise, like the rest of the civil service, faced challenges of transformation into a multiracial organisation in line with the objectives of the struggle for independence. In the civil service, certain jobs were considered a closed field and the promotion system tailor-made to favour a certain category.
Further, for such closed-system jobs, one could not easily transfer across to other government departments. Politically conscious people were bound to clash with those who resisted transformation and thought they owned the system.
Obert Mpofu (2020, p.71-72), in his biography, On the Shoulders of Struggle: Memoirs of a Political Insider chronicles the resistance which he and other colleagues experienced when they joined Customs at independence.
HK, with his military background and coupled with his strong character would not stand any form of discrimination. In a war or conflict situation, HK believed in no defeat. I recall fully well, an incident, how with his colleague, the late Simon Katandika they challenged aspects of what they considered as unfair practices within the system.
During his days with the Department of Customs he gained an illustrious career and rose from being a Customs Cadet to being an Assistant Commissioner up to 2001 when the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) amalgamated the two Departments of Customs and Taxes into a new organisation, ZIMRA. By 2001, he had also improved himself academically from being an ‘O’ Level Cambridge School Certificate holder to having acquired the coveted Master of Business Administration Degree in Fiscal Studies with Bath University, United Kingdom.
The academic qualification shaped young HK into a determined character, a more solid tax/customs manager and a fully equipped strategist. HK was a tax collector or customs officer through and through. He had the high integrity required of the job. When he joined Customs, he spent most of his working career in Harare. He had the fortunate or unfortunate mark of having never experienced border post life.
With my late former colleague, Romeo Shumba, there were times when we would share jokes and tease each other with HK about his lack of practical border post life. Not that he had lost by not having a border post stint. In fact, Customs work is varied and exciting, and he had also seen other aspects of it upon which he had also built advantages.
At Harare Airport he was the manager at the Harare Airfreight Office (We referred to it as Collector, Airfreight). He also had a sterling stint in the Excise Section where he was responsible for excise controls and excise duties on locally manufactured goods such as beer, aerated beverages and cigarettes.
Together with colleagues such as Yotamu Jacob and Elwyn Mudungwe they had became our gurus in excise. They understood excise so well and they became our internal consultants in that field. As a matter of interest, despite minimal controls and fewer staff, excise duties at one time contributed more than 50% of the revenue collections by the then Department of Customs and Excise.
During the 1980s, Zimbabwe received generous overseas training programmes for middle-to-senior managers to develop Customs Officers.
These programmes were offered by countries such as United Kingdom, Finland, Germany, Austria, Australia etc. HK, along with many others such as James Kavhiza and the late John Makova, were trained in Germany. These colleagues spoke highly of their robust training received from Germany.
For the greater part of the 1990s, HK was based in Head Office where he was involved with various aspects which included Tariff, Trade, Valuation, Rules of Origin, Excise, Asycuda Project and Fiscal policy issues. At that time, he had become senior enough and was also engaged in trade negotiations which involved COMESA, SADC, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. This shaped him well as he became involved in trade diplomacy, a field he was to enjoy later in his career.
His horizon of connections in Revenue Administration expanded and he was also part of a consultancy team that developed the COMESA Customs Management Act which became a benchmark for customs legislation in the Eastern and Southern region of Africa.
At the formation of ZIMRA in 2001 he opted to look for opportunities with international organisations. I recall discussing with him but he was determined to enrich his career in the region on the basis of his experience.
He left Zimbabwe for the SADC Secretariat where he worked in various capacities such as the implementation of the SADC Free Trade Area, capacity building for customs officers in the SADC Region and modernising customs systems with the SADC region. While with the SADC Secretariat he profiled the role of Customs in implementing a free trade. This brought positive realisation to other free trade areas in Africa.
He left a mark with the SADC Secretariat and helped uplift the image of Zimbabwean trained customs officers. A few weeks ago a senior customs officer was enticing me to do a certain assignment for his country said ‘You guys from Zim are professionals and we need you for capacity building…’ Some of the names which the colleague mentioned with admiration in addition to HK were Charles Chaitezvi and I V Mazorodze.
When I joined SADC Secretariat in Botswana in 2009 I had an opportunity to once again meet with HK there and also learnt from him. The Customs programme and regional projects comprised a robust team of Zimbabweans Customs of the 1980s working for the SADC Region and these included Jephat Mujuru, Kennedy Gwanzura, Charles Chaitezvi and our “big brother” Ranga Munyaradzi who had been responsible for grooming a lot of expertise and modernising Customs when he was Commissioner of Customs and Excise in Zimbabwe up to 2001. It was like a little Cecil House in Gaborone. Cecil House, at 95 Jason Moyo Avenue was the Customs Head Office in Harare.
After his stint with SADC Secretariat, HK was to return to Zimbabwe and became first the Commissioner of Customs and Excise, then the Commissioner of Domestic Taxes and moved back as Commissioner of Customs and Excise. He also acted for the Commissioner General post for some time. During his career HK had chaired a number of meetings of Heads of Customs in SADC; African Union; Eastern and Southern Africa Region of the WCO. At the time of his death he was a doctoral student with the University of Lusaka, Zambia. The subject involved regional integration.
Willie Shumba is with the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as a Customs Expert and Advisor. He is a former workmate and former Commissioner with Zimra. He wrote this article in his private capacity.