Czechs in Zimbabwe
In the year 2001 Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Kavan bestowed The Jan Masaryk Gratias Agit Prize for enhancing the Czech Republic´s image abroad on Jan Pivečka, an 82-year-old Czech shoemaker who spent half of his lifetime carrying out international assignments of the Baťa shoe company.
I met Mr. Pivečka in 1993 when he came to Zimbabwe to help choose and recruit applicants to study at The International School of Modern Shoemaking he had co-founded in Zlín. The first arrival was Hove Nebeaut from The Bata Shoe company, Gweru, followed by André Viljoen and Watson Mutemasango of The Footwear and Rubber Industry, Bulawayo and The Superiour Footwear, Harare, respectively.
In 1995 employees of the Bulawayo´s G & D Shoes, Cousins Sibanda and Simali Stuart, attended both practical and theoretical training in two or three-year courses specializing in shoemaking and its supporting industries. Subsequently, from 1996 till 2001, Ndlovu Elliot Twala from The Leather Institute, Bulawayo, along with Mandimika Stanford Chazireni, Mnkandla Damien Bekithemba, Namichila Cradwell, Ruziwa Walter Rutendo and Dube Huggins, all from Gweru, attained further education in the school pioneered in 1925 by Tomáš Baťa1).
At the Gratias Agit ceremony where Pivečka received, on my nomination, this prestigious prize in the renowned Czernin Palace near the Prague Castle, my memories went back and I tried to weigh the overall contribution of Czechs to the development of the country where I had the honour to serve as Ambassador from 1990 to1994.
In 1894 Tomáš Baťa (1876-1932) founded a company for the mechanical production of shoes in the town of Zlín. As he was under age, he registered it first on the name of his brother and sister. His initial capital was 800 tolars (the term of "dollar" originates from Czech word "tolar") and number of employees -- three. Due to advanced production methods and motivation of workers, the Baťa firm became successful and expanded rapidly, even to other countries and continents.
Between 1938 and 1940 a few young Czechs appeared, on the advice of the Bulawayo´s Union of Agencies, in Gwelo (presently Gweru) and Bulawayo to form The Rhodesian Bata Shoe Company. Up to that time all shoes, mainly made from linen, were imported to Rhodesia from the Indian town of Batanagar.
Sam Rabinowitz, the representative of Baťa firm for Rhodesia, hired temporarily old workshops in Gwelo, where originally cottonwool was treated, for this new company under the directorship of K. Strnad, later Jan Kasperlík and after the end of World War II Dr. Konstantin Fiksl (Doctor of Science in Tanning Chemistry at the University of Brno, Manager of African Region of Bata Organisation and Mayor of Gwelo 1962-63). Gradually the number of employees passed over 2000. Machinery, untreated rubber, chemicals, textiles and other raw material were delivered to the African coast by Baťa´s own ship Morava.
The first shop under the name of Bata was opened in the year 1939 in Gwelo by Jaromír Vrána. Today there are 80 Bata shops in Zimbabwe. One of the old salesmen, who recently died in Harare, Miroslav Šenar, had told me about one of the practises of selling Bata shoes through their own distribution network. Village dealers as a rule did not have enough money to be able to buy at once a large assortment of shoes of various sizes. Therefore a Bata agent supplied those small shops with display racks full of shoes against a signed receipt confirming that they remained Bata´s property. The shopowner paid only for what he sold and the Bata agent refilled the vacant sections on the shelves with new pairs. This project of the regular visits of the country outlets by a Bata minibus got the name Sales Vans Operation.
Skilled workmen from Zlín were arriving in Rhodesia by strange ways. The Munich agreement was signed on 29 September 1938, according to whose clauses Britain, France and Italy handed over to Adolf Hitler those parts of Czech territory bordering Germany (Sudetenland). On 15 March, 1939 the German army occupied the rest of the country which became the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Travelling abroad became difficult for Czechs.
In 1938 Vašíček, Bek, Polišenský, Štrom and Kozáček undertook an adventurous train journey from Cape Town to Bulawayo an0d reached their destination absolutely penniless.
The saga of Josef Pytlík is also interesting. Having spent nine years in the Baťa factory in Zlín he was conscripted to the army to defend his motherland against Germans. When Germans invaded without encountering any opposition, he was demobilized. By the end of July, 1939 he got a telegram from Rhodesia requesting him to turn up and work as purchasing clerk, cost accountant and book-keeper. He was issued with a German Protectorate passport and sent through Yugoslavia. In the Italian port of Genova he boarded, along with 12 other collaborators, the German ship Watussi. Everyone, but he and Miroslav Paseka, stayed in Mombasa to work for Baťa in Kenya. The two sailed on an Indian vessel from Mozambique Island further southward.
The outbreak of war meant, according to Pytlík, the full blockade of all supplies from Europe. No more machines and spare parts were being delivered. The employees had to improvise.
In 1941 the manager, Jan Novosad, bought for Bata land in Gwelo, where a tannery and rubber plant were built. The new factory started production in 1943. They were, however, running out of raw material supplies. At that time leather came from India and rubber from Katanga. After the completion of the tannery all leather deliveries were bought and tanned locally. Military orders for boots were massive and the production in 1944 reached almost one million pairs.
Pytlík, with whom I was on fairly friendly terms, visiting him whenever I journeyed to Gweru, retired in 1994. "In that year we produced 7 million pairs...", he recollected. Before I left Zimbabwe at the end of 1994, Pytlík presented our fellow compatriots´ club (for a barbercue) with an ox reared in the little cattle farm he operated as a hobby. Pytlík´s two daughters, Karolina and Miluška, live in Harare.
Now, far from Zimbabwe which I am unlikely to revisit, I repeat to myself the Pytlík´s creed: "Always try to help people. If you can not, at least do no harm." Such a resolution for one´s behaviour coincides with the principles of the famous, modest and unobtrusive, Czech thinker Jan Masaryk, a hero of the common man.
Some people, who stood at the cradle of Baťa´s enterprise in Zimbabwe, I saw only once, at the introductory party held upon my arrival, which was attended by Czechs from every corner of the country, reaching the capital by car, railway or plane. They all wanted to see the Ambassador coming from their birthplace which, contrary to all predictions, was now free of foreign domination. Among the ones, I had no opportunity to meet ever again, were Karel Navrátil and Jan Polášek living in Gweru, or Mr. Jedlička from Bulawayo whose first name is not preserved in my memory. The widow of a Baťa´s employee, Marie Musilová, used to telephone me from Hatfield, Harare, that she was unable to attend our rendezvous because of her bad legs and therefore she would appreciate me to stand always in the first row at state receptions to see me at least on TV. (I had it in mind and at least once pushed myself forward at the right hand of the dean of the Diplomatic Corps, H. E. Ali Halimeh.)
Vladislav Jaroš joined 100 other Baťa employees to leave Zlín on 29 August, 1939, i. e. five monts after the German occupation. They were waiting till 15 February, 1940 in still freeYugoslavia to be granted necessary visas. In Italian Triest, Jaroš set out on a trip through the Suez Canal to Mombasa. Then he proceeded via land to Lusaka, where he spent three months, before travelling further south to Livingstone. There he took over the Bata shop. In nine months he left Livingstone for Gweru to work in the tannery. In May, 1946 he decided to spend a vacation in Czechoslovakia. He stayed for three quarters of a year hesitating whether to return to Africa or not. Eventually Africa lured him back. This time he was hired by another Bata enterprise, in Bulawayo, where he worked up to his retirement in 1981.
Another promoter of the industrial shoe industry in Zimbabwe was Otto Roubíček, born in Horní Cerkev at Jihlava. After seven years of gaining experience in Zlín he came to Africa in 1938 to open his own shoe factory in Bulawayo -- The Footwear and Rubber Industries (PVT) Ltd. -- where 260 local people found employment.
Tomáš Baťa, the son (1914), put down the following words in his book "Shoemaker to the World", published in 1990: "When independence came and a number of our white employees joined the exodus from Rhodesia, we were able to replace them with fully trained and experienced black managers.
...our business in Zimbabwe has continued to grow and prosper."
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