What you need to know:
These stories of Manubhai Madhvani who died in London in May 2011, are excerpts from Vali Jamal’s book Uganda Asians: Then and now, Here and There, We contributed, We contribute. The interview was done at Kakira on June 19, 2008 with Eng Yashwant D. Sidpra.
“Yes, 1972 was a turning point in my life, but then it was a turning point for the whole Asian community, wasn’t it? I had additional three months at Makindye (barracks prison). There are 50 pages on that in my book. Even then, right up to the expulsion deadline, I held on dearly to my Uganda passport hoping it would be cleared. I had missed the renunciation stage of my British citizenship by just three days and they wouldn’t hear of it. President Amin himself announced that I was no longer a Ugandan. The British first rejected me but then they took me in and of course I am personally grateful for that and so are the 28,000 Asians who went to the UK.” I ask if the Britain-based Asians have the same affection for Edward Heath as Canada-based Asians have for Pierre Trudeau.
“Yes, they do. In 1997 on the 25th anniversary of our expulsion, we organised a thanksgiving ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Ted Heath attended and was very warmly received by Asian members in the congregation. The Ismaili community played an important role in that function. Clearly, Heath had to overcome a lot of opposition within Britain in letting us in. There were the adverts in the Argus, you remember? Now the term Asian in Britain is synonymous with hard work and business acumen and a passport for loan approval.”
Second generation business approach
How are the second generation doing – do they show the same acumen for business?
He points out that most of them are now highly educated and in professions, yet business is in their blood and even the most successful lawyer will have a business going at the side. Manubhai takes evident pride in that, citing the statistic that with three per cent of the UK population, Asians control 15 per cent of the service sector. To me, given that in that sort of economy the service sector stands at two-thirds of the GDP, the figure translates to 10 percent control over the GDP. He agrees. “Being a millionaire doesn’t count for anything in the UK these days; you have to have over a hundred million pounds and there are scores of those. Let’s adjourn for lunch.”
An immense Mercedes limousine pulls up. Manubhai points out important landmarks as we pass them – a cinema, schools, hospital, assembly hall. “We did all that before 1972. When we took over, they were all in ruins.” The limo pulls in at an enormous house. Manubhai explains that it was built by his father in 1940. 1940? “Yes, he had great taste. High ceilings were the mark of a good colonial house.” What was its condition on repossessing it? “Curiously it was in a very good shape. You see, the army came to occupy it and just then an explosion occurred nearby and the soldiers fled. Not out of fear of the explosion but of evil spirits: They took the explosion as a sign that the house was cursed!”
Liveried servants serve up a five-course vegetarian meal. The Indian chef watches from behind the curtain discerning signs of how his handiwork is being received. “To come back to the second and third generations. I worry not about whether their business acumen is intact but whether they have their Indian culture intact. On language, we lost it – and I don’t regret it.
Even when priests come from India, we insist that they be English-speaking so our youngsters can understand the proceedings. Of our Indian culture, the young ones like our food and movies.” I reflect that there are youngsters in Canada who disdain our food and can’t stand Bollywood, either. Manubhai agrees it’s a worry. The Hindu priests at least keep the religion alive.
“The attendance is good. One of my achievements was an ecumenical seminar in 1994 when on the same podium were arraigned priests from several different religions. It was a 10-day event.”
Bringing back the estate to the family was his life’s goal after 1972. Manubhai pays tribute to President Obote for enacting the restitution of Asian Properties Bill. Manubhai met him often in exile in Dar-es-Salaam. Museveni used to be present as Obote’s confidante then. “I still keep in touch with Mama Miria and President Museveni knows about that.”
Manubhai acknowledges that the whole process to restore our properties took off definitely once Museveni came to power. Manubhai recalls one occasion when the President came to the estate.
A labour dispute had been going on. “He asked his security detail to stay behind while we went for a walk around the property. He spoke of his vision for the country in which all investors had a role to play. In his speech to the workers he said I was more black than he, and Uganda’s problems would be solved if there were but three Madhvanis in the country.”
Uganda’s problems increased the day the Madhvanis were expelled. I say this having been taken around their sugar factory. I kept thinking to myself, how could anyone have destroyed all this? The factory stands over an area equivalent to 12 football pitches. Around a thousand people work there. Five thousand out-growers feed almost half of its cane input.
In the year (2006), they produced over 130 thousand tonnes of sugar (in 2010, 170,000 tonnes). From the bagasse, they generate over 20 megawatts of electricity of which 15 megawatts is fed into Uganda’s grid, enhancing the electricity output by a good 10 per cent. All this from practically zero when they repossessed the property. After the initial hand-over to Amin’s army friends, the government tried to interest an Egyptian company and then an Italian group. When the property reverted to the Madhvanis, they found a huge number of unopened crates on the grounds. Machinery from Italy – rusted. Fifty million dollars worth.
The second son of Muljibhai Prabhudas Madhvani, Manubhai came into his own on the death of his elder brother Jayant – “Giant” to many – in 1971. His early education was in India, where he imbibed the teachings and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, and the movement for independence in the country made a strong impression on him.
In 1949, four years after the war ended, Manubhai returned to Uganda to strengthen his father’s businesses, side by side with Jayant. The two young men oversaw a round of expansion that took the family enterprises from Uganda to Kenya, Tanzania and India, and from their core sugar, tea and cotton ginning into steel, beer, textiles, plastic, glass, packaging, confectionery, and safety matches. At its pinnacle, the group employed more than 20,000 people and was the highest contributor to Uganda’s treasury (over 10 per cent). The company provided free primary and secondary education and modern health facilities for its staff at Madhvaninagar (Madhvani city) at Kakira, where it had (and still has) most of its business interests. Sizeable donations were made to charities, particularly in the form of building schools and hospitals, and giving out scholarships.
The year 1972 saw two turning points in Manubhai’s life: first when he was detained for several weeks at the Makindye military barracks, and the second, the expulsion of Asians a few months later. Amin personally had him released, saying his immense investments in the country qualified him even more than him to be a Ugandan. A few days later, all that was forgotten and the Madhvanis joined thousands of other Ugandan Asians on their way out. The family settled in Kenya and eventually in England.
In 1985 the family returned to repossess their properties under the Expropriated Properties Bill of 1982.?The sugar estate was in shambles. Less than 5,000 acres was under cane and sugar production had long ceased. All the associated industries such as oil, soap and sweets had disappeared. (And) the World Bank group stepped in with a $50m loan to rehabilitate the estate.?