THE car suddenly stops by a gate, hidden by the overgrown grass and shrubs. This is one of the many entrances to Ziscosteel’s Sinter Plant, an abandoned factory located in the middle of the woods whose full value was never realised.
The path to the factory is covered with brown leaves, shed from the surrounding trees; standing tall in anticipation of the coming rains due any time.
Not surprisingly, the gate — tightly fastened by a big old padlock — is unmanned, prompting our guide to make a phone call.
An old man donning a threadbare uniform comes running minutes later.
“I didn’t expect anyone,” he retorts as he unlocks the padlock to let us in.
The parking lot starts to appear from behind the bushes. It is littered with broken glass, scrap metal and twigs.
Every few hundred feet, there are all sorts of electricity poles and pipes, with broken wires blowing like weeping willow trees.
Standing in the empty parking lot, looking at the massive factory, it feels like a scene from a horror movie.
The place was once teeming with life, but now it is all but empty. It is so empty that a goat straying from the neighbourhood found it the best sanctuary to give birth to its twin kids just hours earlier.
And yet the Sinter Plant, built by the Germans and commissioned in 1998, is the only section of this dilapidated industrial site whose hopes for revival appear to a naked eye like the proverbial pipe dream.
But for the company’s technical services executive, Hillaria Zambuko, reviving this once shining symbol of industrial excellence is possible, albeit daunting.
Having joined the company in 1997, she has seen the good, the bad and the ugly days at Ziscosteel.
Two months ago, cabinet set up an inter-ministerial taskforce chaired by Industry and Commerce minister Sekai Nzenza to spearhead the revival of the company, run down by corruption and maladministration.
Although Nzenza has been upbeat about the prospects, so far, there is nothing on the ground to signify any movement towards the company’s revival.
“The taskforce will have to confront an issue that is more acute than ever,” Zambuko said during a tour of the factory by the Zimbabwe Independent on Friday.
“This Sinter Plant is actually the best section and it looks like this,” she said gesturing at the loose-hanging steelworks which look could come down crashing any time.
“Sinter refers to an iron bearing beneficial raw material formed by agglomerating a blend of iron ore fines, limestone and coke fines. This is what was being produced here,” she explained as she energetically climbed on top of a heap of iron ore which was abandoned when the plant closed in 2008. The ore has since then been left at the mercy of the elements.
While the situation at the Sinter Plant is heart-breaking, the main steelmaking plant itself is simply so hopeless an accompanying colleague remarked: “Only God himself can revive Zisco.”
Nestled in a valley, the factory now looks like a wraithlike settlement best captured in British novelist Enid Blyton’s book, The Island of Adventure.
Venturing in there is indeed an awe-inspiring adventure.
Zambuko, whose feet have trodden the pathways around a maze of rust-coated structures for years, led the Independent crew to a vantage point from where the factory spreads out like an expansive wasteland in the immediate aftermath of an aerial bombardment.
From this spot, we see everything. The roofs of coke ovens, batteries, the bar and rod mill, the air separation plant and the by-products plant create an antiquated industrial skyline which is nothing but an eyesore.
With the sun rising overhead, the buildings are giving off a powerful glare, straight from a Van Gogh painting.
“A lot needs to be done if this factory is to come back to life, but the by-product plant must be revived first and requires some pretty expensive things. It has rusty gas holders, which can no longer work. There has been a lot of technological advancement since the plant was closed and this means we will need to incorporate the latest steelmaking technologies if we are to resume,” Zambuko, a professional metallurgist, said.
The iron-speckled earth crunched as we negotiated our way through iron crevices towards an equally antiquated air separation plant. Molten iron which splashed out of the massive pans after the factory closed following a power outage in 2008 and solidified on the ground stood in a heap by the corner. The shutters banged rapidly as the wind picked up. Light shone through the small holes.
“I know for you the situation now looks very hopeless from a layperson’s point of view, but we the experts say with the right attitude and investment, the firm can be revived and brought to life again. This is not easy, but very possible,” she said.
“The biggest problem is that we don’t listen to each other and we have decisions made for us by people in Harare, who never set foot here. They bypass those of us who know what needs to be done and where. They need to come down here and talk to us.”
Several previous efforts to revive the massive steel manufacturer, which at its peak employed 5 000 people directly and supported numerous downstream industries, have yielded no fruit, mainly on account of bureaucratic woes and allegations of corruption.
Zambuko took particular exception to the deal with Indian firm Essar, which planned to inject US$400 million for the revival of the company.
“The only thing Essar officials did was to cause us to dismantle the bar and rod plant as they claimed they wanted to know its worth before putting in their money but they went away soon afterward and we now have the mammoth task of putting it back together again. It looks like they were spying on us, trying to learn how the plant was mounted for their own benefit,” she said.
There has also been a deal with Chinese company, Guangzhou R&FA worth a reported US$1 billion which collapsed after government changed its shareholding offer.
Initially, the Chinese company had been offered 100% stake, but the government changed the goal posts in 2019 insisting it needed 50% shares, prompting the Chinese to pack their bags and leave.
Nzenza’s task force is now charged with the responsibility of soliciting for a strategic partner, which has hitherto not been forthcoming.