By Jonathan Waters
When David Hatendi, the ebullient Zimbabwean banker and bon viveur who died this month, was starting his post-university life in white-run Rhodesia, he shared a house in a “white” suburb in the then segregated capital Salisbury. One day, a nosy policeman appeared and asked what a black man was doing in the house. “Why, I’m the butler,” was Hatendi’s response, to which the policeman asked, what was the butler doing with a large glass of brandy in one hand, and a cigar in the other?
The anecdote is emblematic of Hatendi’s style and poise, qualities that served him well in a distinguished life in turbulent times. Zimbabwe’s first black Rhodes scholar and a successful merchant banker, for long years he helped to sustain the morale of the country’s beleaguered business community with his delight in mocking the absurd, and his resonant laugh. Both were much needed, first under Ian Smith – the dour, last prime minister of white-led Rhodesia – and then under his successor, the ageing autocrat Robert Mugabe.
Cerebral, affable and sporty, Hatendi, who died of a heart attack in his sleep aged 58, epitomised the ideal all-rounder that the Rhodes scholarship was intended to encourage. With a strong moral fibre, he was not one of the businessmen to profit from the questionable opportunities created by the disastrous policies of Mr Mugabe that so ravaged the economy in the past 15 years. While he seemed as at home in his London clubs – White’s and the Beefsteak – as in Zimbabwe, he was quick to mock his own English habits and plummy accent.
Pulled up once by a policeman after a merry night in the UK, he would later recall with delight how the policemen spelt out all his syllables as he asked Hatendi: “Dooo yooou u-n-d-e-r-s-t-a-n-d E-n-g-l-i-s-h?” He replied in his cheery baritone voice: “My good friend, I am aware of the rudiments of your language.”
David Tapuwa Hatendi was born in a farming town 40 miles east of Harare (as Salisbury was renamed) on May 22 1953, when the postcolonial independence spirit was coursing through his continent. After securing a scholarship to attend a private school he studied economics and political history at the University of Rhodesia, graduating in 1975. He started working for National Breweries, and it was then, while sharing a house with the prominent British journalist Xan Smiley, that the “butler” incident occurred.
While at University College, Oxford, he was much admired – not least as head of its Shakespeare Club. Completing a doctorate in politics in 1980, the year of Zimbabwe’s independence, he went on to join Morgan Grenfell in the City. Two years later he was selected by the World Bank for its Young Professionals Programme and his postings took him to the US, south-east and south Asia, and Kenya. He returned to Zimbabwe in 1990 to take up a position with the Merchant Bank of Central Africa.
He was appointed MD in 1996 at the height of Zimbabwe’s post-independence boom. In addition to the financing deals he executed, he ran the best private restaurant in Harare. In the bank’s dining room, he treated guests to exotic local and foreign delicacies not found on the menus of restaurants in the otherwise bland, boarding school cuisine of 1990s Harare. A sumptuous meal, with fine wine, tended to end with port and a “house stogie” of the Cuban variety.
Indeed, sensing that one of the keys to success in merchant banking was forging relationships over a good lunch, he replicated this routine in his private life where time was of no consequence if those around the table made agreeable company and mounted a good debate – but he had no time for those with clichéd opinions and dogmas.
So while he abhorred the naked racism of Mr Mugabe’s policy of land expropriations, and helped those he could to hold on to their land, he liked to challenge some of the foundations of the anti-Mugabe argument, pointing out that Zimbabwe’s president retained some genuine popular support.
After the post-2000 decade of economic turmoil and hyperinflation he, like many others, had spent his savings on his children’s education and was forced to rebuild his capital base. He started a private equity firm and became chairman of Northern Tobacco, an intermediary between contracted farmers and tobacco merchants, now very much the model of farming in Zimbabwe. For many years he served as a governor of two Anglican private schools and in 2009 became the first black secretary to the Rhodes Trust.
His funeral was at Peterhouse – 50 miles drive from the capital – where the 600-seater chapel was packed to capacity. He is survived by his wife Angelina, a daughter and two sons, one of whom starred in the television adaptation of the The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. FT