AS you drive past the neat, attractively painted green and yellow detached housing units belonging to Mimosa Mining Company into Zvishavane town centre, which is a hive of activity, life appears normal in the small mining town.
Report by Faith Zaba
The town that owes its existence to Zimbabwe’s oldest asbestos mine, Shabanie mine, appears to be booming. Most of the banks and the country’s major retail companies are present, and there are long queues at its busy food court.
However, Zvishavane is a tale of two cities comprising Mimosa mine workers, who seem to be living a comfortable life, and Shabanie mine workers wallowing in abject poverty.
Beyond the neat perimeter-fenced houses with white Corsa bakkies parked in the front yard are the Kandondo, Maglas and Newu compounds, built for Shabanie workers.
In their yesteryear, Shabanie workers mined asbestos during the day and relaxed afterwards at a local sports bar in Kandondo. Their children went to subsidised schools. Zvishavane was developed as a residential centre for the asbestos mine which started operations in 1916.
Although asbestos is the major minerals in Zvishavane, platinum, gold, beryl, chromite iron ore at Buchwa and recently discovered huge deposits of diamonds at Murowa are also mined in the area.
Shabanie mine, which is part of the Shabanie-Mashava Mines (SMM), has been at the centre of a protracted ownership wrangle between former owner Mutumwa Mawere and government. It is now owned by the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation. Before it was transferred to ZMDC, SMM was under judicial management for two years.
SMM used to produce an estimated 200 000 tonnes of fibre every year. When the company closed it left an estimated 3 000 workers jobless.
SMM was once one of Africa’s largest asbestos producers and had access to markets in the United States, United Kingdom, Angola, Nigeria, Zambia, Mozambique, India, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, China and Indonesia.
The miner is reportedly sitting on reserves that can be exploited for the next 20 years.
But due to ownership wrangles and viability problems haunting SMM, Shabanie mine has proved difficult to resuscitate. In the meantime, Shabanie mine workers and their families have had to contend with a poverty-stricken existence courtesy of irregular staggered allowances, with the last pay-out being a meagre US$34 in March.
By assuming ownership over SMM, ZMDC took the responsibility to pay workers who had gone for years without receiving salaries. While some of the workers have been absorbed by Mimosa which employs about 2 000 people, more than 800 employees have since resumed work at both Shabanie and Mashava Mines in Masvingo province, also part of the SMM group. Close to 500 people are at Shabanie Mine.
The non-payment of salaries has caused social and economic problems in the town, while the moral and social fabric of the community has been torn apart.
Marriages have irretrievably broken due to poverty-induced challenges. Crime and vices such as prostitution and illegal gold mining have set in as the majority look for alternative sources of survival.
Workers at Shabanie Mine have also turned to wood poaching in a bid to make ends meet.
The road to Kandondo, just a kilometre from the town centre, is bumpy with potholes and rocks. The compound is in stark contrast to the neat green and yellow Mimosa houses, built in 2011.
The dilapidated houses comprise of electrified six-roomed and four-roomed houses for senior employees and three-roomed houses commonly referred to as Cherima (in darkness) for the lowest paid workers.
For Kenneth Zulu life has become unbearable, as he is failing to make ends meet.“I am suffering and I cannot provide for my small family,” said Zulu, who works Mondays to Saturdays. “I have a young wife and child. I am afraid that if things don’t improve I might lose my wife.
We are not receiving our salaries. I last received an allowance of US$34 in March. The last time I got a salary was in June last year, when I was paid US$150.”
“In December I received US$15. Tell me, how are we supposed to survive? How do you even stretch US$34 over three months? Our marriages are under threat right now. Wives are getting involved in extra-marital affairs with workers from Mimosa, who are the men with the money. We have come to accept that as a way of life because we cannot blame the women — they need to eat and feed the kids.”
A member of the Shabanie workers committee, who preferred anonymity, said they approached ZMDC in January asking the parastatal to pay school fees and Ordinary Level and Advanced Level examination fees.
But halfway through the year, ZMDC has not responded and many kids have since dropped out of school.
“The situation is bleak. ZMDC asked us to submit names of kids going to school, which we did but up to now nothing has been done. The kids’ future is now doomed. ZMDC is lying in the newspapers that they are paying us salaries regularly.”
School fees in Zvishavane range between US$80 and US$120 per month.Mutarisi Manyaviri (24) dropped out of school the year he was due to write his O’level exams.
“I am now into gold panning and I help my parents ensure my young siblings remain in school. I have a 12-year- old sister and I would not want her to go into prostitution,” he said.A room in a house with electricity costs US$80 per month while one without needs US$40 per month.
In March this year, ZMDC said it has injected US$1,2 million for the immediate revival of Shabanie and Mashava Mines. The underground mines are currently flooded. However, workers said they are producing fibre through reprocessing mine dumps without protective clothing.
“We are doing it manually without protective clothing, which is harmful to our health. This work is supposed to be done by machinery but we are risking our health for peanuts. This is so sad but what can we do, we are desperate people,” said Zulu.
There are four main diseases caused by asbestos: mesothelioma, which is a form of cancer mainly affecting the lining of the lungs and lung cancer (both of which are always fatal), asbestosis (not always fatal but it can be debilitating as it is related to lung cancer) and diffuse pleural thickening (not fatal).
ZMDC says it is still courting foreign investors to expand current operation at the mines and needs US$120 million for the asbestos mines to become operational.