DURING the late 19th century, gold fever gripped Africa like a wildfire, sparking an instant rise of cities and towns with Johannesburg in South Africa — the world’s largest city not situated by a river, lake or coastline founded in 1886 at height of a gold rush — being a prime example.
Zimbabwe, with its rich mineral deposits along the Great Dyke belt, attracted a large number of investors who wasted no time in creating mining towns along the dyke.
One such town is Mvuma, 192 km south of Harare along the Harare-Masvingo highway, where the once thriving Athens Mine, formerly Falcon Mine owned by Lonrho Zimbabwe, is situated.
Once among the hubs of regional mining, which saw giant mines like the Otavi-Tsumeb Mine from Namibia and several South African mining companies sending their ore for smelting, Mvuma in Midlands province currently cuts the image of a slow, sleepy town, which has left many people wondering what the future holds for its residents.
Apart from a few grocery shops, a grinding mill, recently opened fast food outlets and a chain of bottle stores tottering on the brink of collapse, Mvuma now looks like a ghost town.
A century ago, the then Falcon Mine was the largest gold, copper and silver mine in the country.
As a result during the 90s, Mvuma was a hive of activity as production levels were high at the mine. But the town has now lost its vibe since Athens Mine shut down in 1996.
It is now just a monument to economic failure and painful reminder of how government is failing to resuscitate the mining industry.
There is virtually no activity in the town, except for children playing in the dongas and the “motoro” (heaps of gravel from the mine) — sad remnants of the once thriving mine.
As Zimbabwe’s second oldest town and one of its main sources of the country’s best gold, Mvuma thrived when Athens Mine, at its peak, employed more than a thousand workers.
Job seekers from across country and regional countries like Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia came in droves seeking employment at Athens Mine.
The late Vice-President, Simon Muzenda, originally from Masvingo, opened his carpentry business in Mvuma before he joined politics.
His family still collects rentals from low-income earners occupying rooms in his old house in Mushayabvudzi high-density village.
Since the closure of the mine, former workers have now resorted to gold panning.
“We no longer have decent livelihoods. We are struggling to send our children to school and if I stop this illegal mining then we are all doomed because there is nothing to do now,” said Luke Dausi, a former Athens employee now into gold panning.
“My life depended heavily on mining. I have no other skills and farming is not in my blood, so I have resigned to fate. Maybe one day government would reopen these mines so we can be employed again.”
The workforce laid-off by the mining giant company now forms part of the impoverished Mvuma inhabitants, which is surviving on gold panning and vending along the Harare-Masvingo highway.
As the illegal gold mining takes its toll on the environment, the town has been reduced to ruins with deep gorges and craters as residents battle for survival.
“The mine was closed in 1996 and since then we have no regular source of income,” Dausi said.
“Most people here now survive through farming, seeking work in commercial areas nearby and fishing. We really have no future here and most of our young people are going to town and surviving by dubious means,” he said.
Local analyst, Mukasiri Sibanda, from the Zimbabwe Environment Lawyers Association (Zela) said several mining towns are fast disappearing.
“There is need for sustainability of mineral revenue so that there is continuity long after exhaustion of the minerals,” Sibanda said.
“Government policy should be crafted compelling mining companies to ensure infrastructural development takes place not only in the mining areas but also in towns closer to the location of resources, for example the case of Mimosa which built houses in Zvishavane and Unki which is currently developing Shurugwi town,” he said, adding: “such infrastructural development ensures sustainability.”
Sibanda also said investing in other sectors of the economy such as agriculture should be promoted so that if the resources are exhausted then the employees have somewhere to sustain their livelihood.
Another analyst, Rashweat Mukundu, said government should ensure development of mining towns must be linked to tactivities of other economic sectors.
“Development must also be linked to activities in that area that can sustain the mining town after the mining ceases,” Mukundu said.
“Unfortunately there is no comprehensive and long planning on the future of mining towns with as many solely relying on the mining activity and suffering once that ends,” he said.
A report by the Environmental Management Agency (Ema) on the abandoned mines and effects of the chemicals used states that families living in abandoned compounds face health risks.
Ema, which lashed out at mining giants for neglecting mines once they exhausted mineral extraction, said thousands of mine workers and their families are in danger of contracting diseases as chemicals used in processing minerals find their way into sources of water and remain active long after the mining has been ceased.
“Once prosperous mining towns are now ghost towns and dilapidated. Over 100 000 families are still living at these abandoned mines which are dotted around the country and they are in danger of chemical reactions from used chemicals in processing these minerals,” Ema said in the report.
In the report Ema also said illegal mineral panning is rife in the ghost towns with some panners illegally mining in former mine shafts and pits, worsening the risk of ground subsidence as well as their lives.
There are several mining centres that have slowly become ghost towns dotted around the country.
Kamativi Tin Mines in Matabeleland North, once the biggest underground tin mine in Africa, closed down 20 years ago on back of falling global tin prices, rendering close to 2 000 people unemployed.
In Kadoma, Eiffel Flats village, which relied on the now closed Rio Tinto run gold mine, is derelict. The same applies to Mhangura.
Other examples include Mberengwa where the defunct Buchwa mine is and Lalapanzi in Midlands. Mashava is also another example.