When people talk about “Africa’s resource curse” they should include Zimbabwe’s gold curse. Someone has said very aptly, gold is to Zimbabwe what oil is to the Arabian Peninsula. But the difference is that, while the Arabs have properly harnessed their resource and used it to the benefit of their people, Zimbabwe is struggling to do so.
Zimbabwe is literally seated on mounds of gold; the evidence to that abounds. One can just dig a whole anywhere and gold emerges; if you think this is an exaggeration just go to the Midlands.
If the International Crisis Group (ICG) is to be believed, Zimbabwe is losing US$1,5 billion to gold smuggling every year. Figures from Fidelity Printers and Refiners (FPR), kind of corroborate this.
FPR figures show deliveries declined to 27,6 tonnes in 2019 from 33,2 tonnes a year earlier; a 16,8% drop. The country earned US$1,3 billion last year. Small-scale miners produced the bulk of the metal, accounting for about 63% of output or 17,4 tonnes against big producers, which delivered 10,1 tonnes.
Official figures show gold production in the first eight months of 2020 rose 10 %, driven especially by output from small-scale miners. These small-scale miners are now commonly referred to as artisanal miners.
The term “artisanal miners” is quite a euphemism; they should correctly be referred to as burrowing animals. Any photograph of these people at work will show what 1,5 million people have been reduced to due to a failed economy. The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the situation. With nearly all important sectors closed, Zimbabweans, being the hard working lot they are, have found gold panning the sole source of livelihood.
But has the government tried to alleviate the plight of these people? Or, they would not care less? Almost every week we hear of miners trapped in burrows while trying to extract the precious mineral. Media reports, and now the ICG document, have shown that at the core of the artisanal mining practice are top government officials; the reports have gone on to point fingers at even the country’s Presidium as the major force behind artisanal mining.
Whatever the case may be, the powers that be should be concerned about the way artisanal miners survive, (or die) and try all means possible to regularise this sector which has turned out to be the country’s cash cow. A good beginning would be to help them acquire appropriate mining equipment and teach them mining safety.
One driver of smuggling is the exploitative manner in which FPR pays for gold delivered. This has led to gold being sold to the wrong people who later smuggle it outside the country. An estimated 30 tonnes to 35 tonnes of gold are being smuggled annually.
To stem this, government should begin from the beginning: Treat artisanal miners properly and formalise them.