Bonyongwe: I am never conscious of my gender

Zimra chairperson Willia Bonyongwe

The Financial Gazette will, from this week, be introducing the Business Leader column. Here, we will interview and profile the country’s business and thought leaders. This week, our Business Editor, John Kachembere, interviews Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) chairperson and businesswoman, Willia Bonyongwe.

Q: Can you briefly tell us about yourself?
A: I am a mature woman who is proud of my very strong rural background. I am the seventh born out of nine children — four girls and five boys. My father was a teacher who lived ahead of his time, in terms of gender sensitivity, because he treated us the same as the boys. He insisted that he would not give us away in marriage without any professional qualification. Our home provided us with an atmosphere which encouraged us to have high aspirations and to have confidence in ourselves. Confidence is the one thing the colonisers took away from our people, making us feel that we were lower than them. The society also made women to feel inferior to men. Consequently, most women generally lacked confidence. Even at home, boys would sit with fathers and girls with mothers.
The boy child would be mentored by the father into so many things, while the girl child was busy with never ending chores. My father was different; news time was for everyone in high school and above. This was followed by long discussions, even arguments, on what the late Ian Smith had said, about the war communiqué or what the RATA (Rhodesia African Teachers Association) magazine or African Times had said. This was good mentoring for me. Up to now I am never conscious of my gender whether in class or in the boardroom and if I have something to say I will and support it with facts. My gender is for when I get home with my family, I become a mother, wife, aunt etc.
While my father was soft-hearted, my mother was very firm. She was MaMoyo of the Rozvi tribe, the no-nonsense type. My sisters and I bore the brunt of her discipline. Her motto was: Whether one was a teacher or nurse, you still have to be a good wife.
A good wife woke up at dawn to bath then do all the chores before going to the fields or to school when it was school time. By the time I was in Grade Four — about 10 years old — I could prepare meals for the whole family, and do almost all the chores in the home. It took me several years to appreciate the training I got from my mother, but I had the opportunity to thank her before she died. My father passed on too early and never saw the fruits of his labour.
In 1975, I started my secondary schooling at Dadaya High School. My high school years were some of my best years. You know in Form One, you get a trunk full of new clothes, my own sheets, seven pairs of socks, new dresses, a blazer etc; it was great. And to have a whole chicken to myself choosing the parts, considering the size of my family, this was the life. Dadaya was reputable, and produced several nationalists. It was located in Sir Garfield Todd’s Hokonui Ranch. Although we were not allowed to talk to Sir Gar, who was restricted to his ranch, we often did and knew he supported the liberation struggle.
It was at Dadaya that I became more politically conscious. I started to see something wrong in why the Alick Stuart bus from Bulawayo to school had two separate compartments; the luxurious one for whites and the other plain one for blacks. By 1976, the war had spread and the African Times propaganda was full throttle. We were now listening to Radio Zimbabwe from Maputo. And when I got to school in Form 3, I posted back my fees and sneaked away with my three friends to join the struggle. It was a long walk through Mberengwa, Nyamhondo, Gonarezhou to Mozambique on foot. We rested at Mapai where I could have died of malaria. I was unaware of my surroundings for two days; drifting in and out of consciousness. We were then moved in the captured old Dodge trucks to XaiXai. From there we boarded quite nice buses which didn’t quite prepare us for the Chimoio camp. After the normal security checks, we were sent to Nehanda Camp for women. The Chimoio attack found me there on November 23, 1977, and I am very clear it was by the grace of God that I survived this and other air raids that followed at other camps.
In 1981, I enrolled for a degree at the University of Zimbabwe. It was quite frustrating then to see my counterparts who did not go to war ahead of me. I graduated with a BSc Honours in Economics in 1984, married and worked for three years for the Ministry of Labour, Manpower Planning and Social Welfare — Department of Research and Planning. I later obtained a Masters’ degree in Economics in 1989, from the UZ again and an MBA in International Banking and Finance from Birmingham University in 1995.
My work experience covers four years in government, two years with the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) as an economist. I then moved to the FINHOLD Group, now ZB Financial Holdings, as senior economist and rose through the ranks to head the group’s business development unit. They later moved me to Syfrets Merchant Bank as a corporate finance executive and head of continental capital (a Group Venture Capital Finance Company). After seven years, I moved to the ZIMRE Group for another seven years, rising from group planning and investments manager to managing director of Fidelity Life Asset Management Company (FLAM). I left formal employment in 2006 to pursue a burning desire to farm, which had started in 1998. I, therefore, have more than 14 years experience in the financial services sector at senior levels. I am also the founding chairperson of the Securities and Exchange Commission of Zimbabwe and current chairperson of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority.
I am married with two children and am an evangelist. I also partner all those who go outside the towns to preach the gospel.
Q: What is the interesting thing about you that people don’t know?
A: That I love singing, though I am terrible at it! People say that I am brave to actually sing at all, but ah whatever, I love music!
Q: What are you reading at the moment? What’s the one book everyone should read before they die?
A: I am currently reading the Great Controversy by Ellen G White, and the Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind by Bill Johnson, the two books I recently received as gifts. My husband and children are coaxing me to read Stephen Hawking’s Theory of Everything. I told them at my age I am not reading any book by a physicist. They say it is an interesting read so I might read it.
The book to be read before one dies, for me, is definitely the Bible.
Q: Tell us about a hidden gem in Harare that not many people know about?
A:Not sure about Harare, but Pamushana, a conservancy in Chiredzi. I have never seen so many animals at one place in my life. You get to see the big five daily, as though you are in the Serengeti. I think this shows what our national parks should be like.
Q: What is the one investment you wish you could had made, or made earlier?
A: I wish I had invested in a fruit drying machine. So much fruit is wasted in our country and yet when you travel there is so much demand for dried fruit. Fruit drying could improve the lives of people in the communal areas.
Q: What is the worst airport you have been to?
A: I am not much of a traveller but, generally, most airports are okay.
Q: When and where were or are you happiest?
A: My childhood, my family then, and now. I was happiest when our children were born. The other memorable time was when Zimbabwe became independent. We had wished, hoped, and dreamt about it. We had watched other African countries one by one, getting independent. But finally it was us! I was in Sierra Leone then, on the 18th April 1980. We celebrated on campus with dancing, singing as we were joined by locals. It was ecstatic!
Q: How do you handle stress?
A: Prayer! I remind myself of what Philippians 4 verse 6 says. “Do not be anxious for anything … ” So yes, I pray and sing out my stress. I love the Hymns: Old missionary, Reformed Church in Zimbabwe, United Methodist, AFM and current worshippers like pastors Mike Mahendere, Benjamin Dube, Takesure Zamar Ncube, Jimmy D the Psalmist and Vabvuwi UMC among others.
Q: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
A: At my farm watching the beautiful mountains of Manicaland. As for Zimbabwe, I’d want to see it experiencing rapid economic growth, with many motorways, uninterrupted electricity and a hive of activity in industry and agriculture. The Zimbabwe Stock Exchange rising due to strong fundamentals. Serious foreign investors and many tourists. A fully operational bond market and commodity exchange. We would also be refining our platinum and chrome and polishing our own diamonds. And I would finally be managing my diversified portfolio from my farm.
Q: Given a choice between bungee jumping and walking with the lions, what would you chose and why?
A: It’s between a rock and a hard place, but a lion is a lion and so bungee jumping sounds better, though … I have goose bumps already.
Q: We understand that ZIMRA has been conducting lifestyle audits on its employees and other ordinary Zimbabweans as well as business people. Has this process been fruitful?
A:This process is a standard global practice and is always fruitful.
Q: From your perspective as ZIMRA chairperson, what measures can be put in place to increase revenue streams in the economy.
A: We are already undertaking most of them and we call these revenue efficiency measures, which include optimum use of our ICT investment to increase the revenue base and to collect the correct revenues. We are also engaged in anti-corruption strategies and in educating the populace that taxes are key and fundamental to economic stability and development. It can never be over emphasised that any country with a porous tax system will struggle to develop, no matter how rich it is. We should instill in ourselves, that all of us and everyone benefits from an efficient tax regime.

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