JIM SINCLAIR 1938-2020: Courageous farmer who lived through good and bad times in Zimbabwe
Prime Minister Robert Mugabe presenting Jim Sinclair, President of the CFU, with the coveted 1981 Communicator of the Year Award (Picture by Alexander Joe)
By Mike Rook and Trevor Grundy
Jim Sinclair, who died in a Johannesburg hospital on October 15, 2020 from heart failure at the age of 82, was one of the rare breed of white farmers who led the way towards accommodation with Zimbabwe’s new majority- led government between 1981 and 1983.
He will be remembered as a man of vision, integrity and personal courage who lived through the best and the worst years of Zimbabwe.
“The news of Jim Sinclair’s death saddened and shocked me,” said Mike Rook, Managing Director of Modern Farming Publications which was responsible for the production of the well-respected “Farmer” magazine and the production of articles, pamphlets and books that kept the commercial farming sector aware of all the latest developments in local as well as international farming.
“We had worked so well together during his tenure of office as the Commercial Farmers Union President from 1981-1983. Jim was a great patriot and optimist and after Zimbabwe’s independence he encouraged the white CFU membership to stay on their farms and produce food and export crops for the nation. Unfortunately, Jim’s hope for a spirit of co-operation and prosperous future were to rapidly evaporate as the honeymoon period after the inauguration of Robert Mugabe as Prime Minister (1980) and subsequently as the President of Zimbabwe (1987) came to an abrupt end as land acquisitions and farm invasions became more violent and more frequent.”
Jim Sinclair’s election to the presidency of the CFU came as a surprise to him and the commercial farming community.
On the eve of Independence and on the instruction of Governor Lord Soames, Robert Mugabe appointed Denis Norman (then President of the CFU) to the post of Minister of Agriculture.
David Spain took over at the CFU but was tragically killed in a car accident.
The country and the union desperately needed bold and imaginative leadership. Both were fortunate when Jim Sinclair took up the presidency of the CFU at one of the most potentially explosive times in Zimbabwe’s short history.
His job, basically, was to encourage commercial farmers to remain on the land and keep on producing. That they did, turning Zimbabwe overnight into the food supplier in the last resort to countries in the southern Africa region.
That was the easy bit.
The hard task ahead was to change the way most white farmers saw black politicians.
In 1980, Trevor Grundy worked for The Farmer magazine and because of that he was included in the Presidential Group that visited every part of Zimbabwe to cement ties between growers and producers on the ground with men and women charting a future course for commercial agriculture in mainly Harare and Bulawayo
He recalls: “At one meeting, Jim was telling some pretty hard bitten guys that the days of whites supremacy were over and done with. One farmer who had been like so many others a grower by day and a fighter against Mugabe’s guerrillas at night – stood up and said the situation under Mugabe was unbearable and that blacks were now everywhere doing things they never did before. He said that some “mammie” had the cheek to attend his local church with her “pickinins” and that was, as far as he was concerned, the dizzy limit.
“There were some cheers but I was more interested in Sinclair’s face. He froze and after bending his head as if in silent prayer stood up and told the farmers that if that was a common view in the area they could go and get (I forget the exact words he used but they were colourful) themselves another president of the CFU. He stormed out of the room. About ten minutes later a group of local white farmers surrounded Jim and said they wanted him as leader, no-one else, and the man who had spoken was the local nutcase who’d had too many beers at the bar before the meeting started.
“Jim returned to the meeting. His point made, loud and clear. He got a lot of cheers and slaps on the back.”
Jim Sinclair delivers the main speech during a ceremony
in Harare where in July 1982 Denis Norman was presented with the
prestigious Farming Oscar Award (Picture: Trevor Grundy)
When June Norman , widow of Denis Norman, was told about Sinclair’s death in South Africa she recalled those golden days:
“Jim and Ann were two of our oldest and best friends. I will always remember Jim as being one of the gang of good farmers and presidents of the CFU. He was a very super human being. When we left Karoi and went to Norton, Jim and Ann became very much part of our life. Jim and Denis were in the same Police Reserve unit, so they had all the shared call-ups, with good and bad experiences. Jim had stood for parliament (he had always been a critic of Ian Smith) but got nowhere. Denis and Jim would spend hours together putting the world to rights. There is so much for me to remember.”
After independence Robert Mugabe enjoyed a special relationship with white commercial farmers.
Mugabe knew little about agriculture. He listened to those who did and two of them were Denis Norman and Jim Sinclair.
Both men truly believed in their hearts that under Mugabe white Zimbabweans had a glowing future.
White farmers were seen at the start of things as royal game (not to be touched) at a time when the eyes of the world were focused on Zimbabwe, the alleged quasi – Marxist state next to white-ruled South Africa.
The British aim was to help make Zimbabwe a success story, partly (maybe mainly) to show whites in South Africa that black rule was moderate, intelligent and non-racial.
Western Governments – especially the British one under Margaret Thatcher, were delighted that a man with the reputation as being a flame-throwing militant was ,when in power, a fairly moderate man who spoke Left and lived Right.
Britain’s hopes that Mugabe would treat his country’s whites well remained high until around 2000.
After all, in several African countries, and in eastern Europe after the Second World War, many of those who had made their early political careers in terrorism for national liberation became bastions of ‘democratic’ constitutionalism once independence was attained.
Bastions of the good life, too.
Details of Jim Sinclair’s time at the CFU was hectic and its story should be told by people who worked alongside him, Mike Rook but one of them.
The collapse of the once wonderful relations between the CFU and Mugabe’s government needs close examination . It will will not be told by socialist poseurs and academics at British universities but rather by the people who had their ears to ground and were there in Zimbabwe when the good, the bad and the ugly were on view.
The need is for them to hurry up and tell their stories.
As one of the characters in Louis de Bernieres’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin said about Benito Mussolini who was under the impression his soldiers were doing well in Greece in 1940: ”He does not know that the ultimate truth is that history ought to consist only of the anecdotes of the little people who are caught up in it.”
Fast forward to July 2001.
Says Mike Rook: “I’ll never forget a distraught CFU employee rushing to see me one morning just after my arrival at the office, telling me Jim had been arrested and detained in a cell. In defending his property he’d been accused of inciting public violence. Jim was aged 63 at the time. The fact that Jim helped nearby peasant farers and housed a considerable number of employed farm workers and their families was of no consequence. Ironically, it was those very same peasant farmers that torched twelve of the militants huts and chased away the invaders from Jim’s property.
“Afterwards, when calling into my office for a chat, Jim told me how freezing cold it was in the police cell saying that there was ‘ just a few soiled and stinking unwashed blankets to share between him and thirteen fellow inmates.’ “
Earlier, lawyer Richard Wood said in a statements the charge against his client stemmed from a June 12 incident in which ruling party militants occupying Sinclair’s property were chased off by inhabitants of an nearby peasant farming area who torched 12 of the militants makeshift huts.”
The court was told how Jim Sinclair served on the management boards of the state abattoir enterprise, the Cold Storage Commission, the Forestry Commission and the government’s railroad company.
Against the backdrop of death threats after the June 12 violence, Sinclair evacuated his farm
The rest is history.
Readers do not need to be informed about the collapse of agriculture in what was, in 1980, Africa’s most most promising country.
And it was with his beloved wife Ann that Jim Sinclair retired to Harare where he and his family became leading members of a now tiny white community.
Said Mike Rook – “And it was with his beloved wife and family that he laid down his head to rest for the last time. Rest in peace dear friend and colleague.”
CONDOLENCE: JIM SINCLAIR
It was with profound shock that we had the very sad news of the passing of past President of the Commercial Farmers’ Union, Jim Sinclair in South Africa on Friday Morning. Jim had been flown there during the week for treatment of a heart condition.
Jim was a legend and bastion of commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe, who did so much for the industry, far beyond the normal call of duty. There are so many condolence messages coming in today on our WhatsApp groups from many people who knew, worked with and respected Jim for the most incredible person that he was.
As CFU President, on behalf of all Council, members past and present and staff, we add our sincerest condolences to his wife Ann, step son David Everett and ex-wife Fiona and their children Amy and Sophie, to son Doug and wife Tara and to daughter Jeannie and husband Christopher Scott and their children Oliver and Zara and the rest of the family and friends may his dear soul rest in eternal peace.
Obituary: James McLure Sinclair 22nd January, 1938 – 16th October, 2020
Jim Sinclair was born in Cape Town where his mother had travelled from the family farm in Melsetter. He was the eldest of four children and was raised along with them on Albany farm. He attended Melsetter Junior School before completing his education at Bishops College in Cape Town.
He worked on a forestry estate before attending Gwebi Course 9 along with the likes of Richard Brooker, Richard Winkfield, Ant Swire Thompson and Robin Harbin. After that he worked for his father before spending a year working and touring overseas. He returned in 1961, when he went to work at Chibero College.
He later moved to work for Tim Riley as a farm assistant in Norton and subsequently to Umboe where he managed a farm for 5 years. In 1965 he married Anne Everett who had recently been widowed and left with a young son David, and he moved to Seuri Source farm in Norton which had been in Anne’s family since 1933. There, son Doug and daughter Jeanie were born.
Jim had a brief and uneventful stint in politics as a candidate for the Rhodesia Party and later began his involvement in agricultural representation when he joined the Cattle Producers’ Association as the Salisbury and District Rep in 1976. In 1978 he became CPA Vice Chairman and Chair the following year. In 1980, with the appointment of then CFU President Dennis Norman, to the Cabinet as the Minister of Agriculture, CFU Vice President David Spain assumed the helm at CFU and Jim was elected CFU Vice President. He assumed the Union Leadership when David Spain was tragically killed in 1981. Jim served as CFU President until his term ended in 1983.
During his time as CFU President, he made it his mission to revive those farmers’ associations that had gone into decline or closed during the war. Whilst in office, he actually managed to visit every single farmers’ association at least once and several others twice or more. Given there were over seventy associations across the country, that was a remarkable commitment to his constituency and he made numerous friends and earned widespread respect as a humorous, listening and accomplished speaker.
It was in 1982 that Jim was awarded the prestigious Rothmans Communicator of the year Award. Also, in 1982 he received the accolade of Farming Oscar, something that at that time had never been received by a sitting president. Further in 1982, he was nominated to the board of the IFAP (International Federation of Agricultural Producers) at their 25th Anniversary.
At a national public level, Jim was appointed to the board of the National Railways, the Forestry Commission and later to the Beef and Livestock Committee of the AMA. Subsequently he joined the board of the Cold Storage Commission where he was a key player in getting the valuable EU Lomebeef contract on the table, he served several years as CSC Chairman until he left in 1991. Lesser known is that, he served as a Trustee on the Farm Orphan Support Trust from its inception in 1993 until around 2010, contributing significantly to the programme that made a positive impact on the lives of many farm children orphaned in the early years of the AIDS pandemic. For the last several years he has been a trustee of the Farm Families Trust which has rendered and continues to assist farm families with medical challenges.
He served on several business boards, amongst them Blackwood Hodge, Casalee Tobacco and International Holdings eventually becoming the Chairman of Murray and Roberts, for which he was rewarded with a box ticket at the memorable 1995 Rugby World Cup in Ellis Park. Clearly a highlight of his business career!
He retired from public life in around 1998 and went back to assist in the family farms where he ran the financial side for David and Doug and assisted with the set-up of a pig enterprise with his daughter-in-law, Fiona. Ann was always by his side. Their planned retirement on the farm came to an abrupt end shortly after the start of the land reform around February 2000, when a group of bussed in farm invaders were resisted by spear wielding neighbours from Mhondoro, who along with his farm employees were determined to ensure their valued neighbour and highly regarded employer on Serui Source was not evicted. Unable to comprehend that the local people did not want Jim and family moved, the State laid a charge against Jim for incitement and he spent a cold night in Norton Police Station. The case dragged on for over a year until Jim was eventually acquitted, though he never got home to the farm. In the early stages of the FTLRP Jim was approached by a well-connected person with whom he had served on state boards, offering his family and farm protection from the process. In a testament to his solidarity with other farmers facing “Jambanja”, Jim turned this down, preferring no special treatment from the rest of his commercial farming colleagues.
Once settled in Harare, Jim assisted Doug in the setup of a furniture factory and later he and Ann spent several happy years in the landscaping partnership with their great friends, Bruce and Patsy Keevil.
Throughout his life Jim was a man who gave his all, in public service for the farming community at large and for his district, neighbours, farm employees and their people and most especially his family and friends. He was always happy to listen and share his counsel and insightful perspectives with the many who sought it. To the end he was anxious to see the resolution of the many challenges facing Zimbabwe and its agricultural sector. In conclusion I can only say go well Jim to a well-earned rest, your dedication to family and friends and country and your enduring integrity stand out and leave us the poorer for your passing.
RIP Jim and sincere condolences to Ann and all the family and many friends, your loss is shared.
There will be a celebration of the life for the late Jim Sinclair at Wild Geese, Pomona starting at 2 pm on Friday the 23rd of October 2020.