Sydney Kawadza Senior Features Writer
Mashonaland West Province is home to Mutorashanga, a small, little-talked about yet significant chrome mining area. Located about 100 kilometres north of the capital Harare, it rests along Zimbabwe’s Great Dyke mountain range.
Over the years Mutorashanga has celebrated a number of achievements, primarily high education standards recorded since independence.
Many people are unaware of this “humble giant”, whose belly has produced chrome for the local and international market.
Its “womb”, too, has born many intellectuals who have claimed their space in various sectors that include mining, banking, manufacturing and also the agricultural sector.
Most of the intellectuals and other locals who have remained attached to Mutorashanga’s “umbilical cord” pride themselves in hailing from the area.
They visit the area almost every weekend to be “breastfed” on the latest news by locals who have never left the place.
But in recent times, Mutorashanga has slowly turned into another ghost mining “town”.
The main employer over the years, Zimasco, now bought by SinoSteel, has put workers on voluntary retrenchment, ostensibly to cut operation costs.
The retrenchments have also affected several divisions in the southern Dyke where some workers from Mutorashanga had been transferred.
Meanwhile, Mutorashanga’s population, which had dwindled due to the transfers, has started to rise as the retrenched workers “return home”.
Month-ends, once characterised by merrymaking, are a pale shadow of themselves.
Locals like Crispen Bandawe are disappointed by the bad turn of fortune.
“Each month-end thousands of workers would come to the various shopping centres and buy beer brands like Castle, Lion, among others, but today they drown their sorrows in the calabashes of traditional Chibuku brew,” says Bandawe.
Even dogs know something is wrong — there are no more braais — meaning no salty bones lying around to chew.
Today, men spend the day wandering around the shopping centre hoping to get a gulp for the day.
Given that those who were retrenched got between $1 000 and $1 500 as retrenchment packages, life has never been the same.
They have to juggle and “perform magic” Houdini-style, to balance the meagre packages between paying rentals, school fees for their school going children and their daily living.
The fortunate ones who had better positions at work have bought second-hand vehicles that they use as pirate taxis along the Mutorashanga-Mapinga or Mvurwi routes although they have to battle for the few passengers who travel occasionally.
The days when mine workers, especially lashers, would compete to buy the best groceries, seem to have also gone with the wind.
Today they hold on to every dollar in the hope of getting more.
But the dollar is hard to come by.
Life is hard.
Social ills are the order of the day.
On record is the death of White Kalitendere, a promising young man, who got hooked, like all youths in the area.
He died after taking a concoction of an unknown type of wild aloe mixed with water.
Residents say the concoction, introduced by foreigners, is a hit because of its potency.
“Those who take it just fill a cup with water and add at least five drops of aloe juice.
“This keeps you high the rest of the day and it is cheap.
“I think our friend either took the wrong plant or just added more drops of the juice to make it more potent,” explained a friend of the deceased.
Sadly, this is just one of the unfortunate incidents that haunt this once vibrant community.
Many other issues affect them daily.
People like Mr Crispen Mhlaba worked for the various companies that have been running operations at the chrome mines.
He says the current situation is the worst since he started staying in Mutorashanga 40 years ago.
He explains: “I started working at the mine in 1970 when the company was being run by the African Chrome Mines, then Union Carbide. Zimasco later took over.
“All these years, workers were laid off when world chrome prices were affected on the world markets but the situation is dire these days.”
The chrome mines in Mutorashanga have over the years exchanged hands between four companies, namely ACM, Union Carbide, Zimasco and Sinosteel.
SinoSteel management in Mutorashanga is not comfortable to discuss issues related to their operations along the North Dyke.
Mr Mhlaba, who gave a vivid narrative of the years gone by, forecast a bleak future for the area.
“When we worked for ACM, we could get as little as $9 (Zimbabwean dollars) but that was not an issue because the company would give us groceries. Each worker was entitled to some groceries from the local shop,” he adds.
He said the groceries included meat, mealie-meal, cabbages, cooking oil, bathing and washing soap.
“We couldn’t care less about the salary and could work for 30c per month because the company provided for its workers,” he reminisced.
During the ACM era, according to Mr Mhlaba who was also a workers’ committee chairperson and trade unionist, workers were happy and could complete their targets within hours.
“Lashers used to work eight-hour shifts. It was not surprising because once one has been given his target for the shift some would complete within two hours because they were satisfied with what they got from the company,” he said.
Mr Mhlaba also remembered and praised efforts by the Union Carbide to improve its workers’ welfare.
“When Union Carbide took over operations they constantly reviewed workers’ salaries and bonuses. People used to get bonuses even for winning a safety competition.”
He said Union Carbide even built close to 500 state of the art houses with electricity, water and sewer reticulation systems.
“Even our leaders were happy because President Mugabe visited the area in 1992 to officially commission the houses showing that Government appreciated efforts made in looking after workers.
“The construction of the houses was expected to provide the boom that would see Mutorashanga grow from just a small mining area with few shops serving the mine workers to outlying areas such as Raffingora and the surrounding farms,” he said.
However, Union Carbide reportedly stopped their mining operations despite investing in mining equipment such as the road header, continuous miner and dump trucks.
“Over these years people were being laid off but the companies did not abandon workers and those who could, joined the various cooperatives that continued chrome mining operations on a smaller scale.
“This saw the birth of informal miners known as madhobha who could go to the mines to scrounge for chrome ore from dumps and they used to get paid quite well,” he said.
The madhobhas could earn up to US$60 per tonne, which was not enough to pay for rentals.
Former Zanu-PF councillor Cde Annalia Chengu said the retrenchments soon after Zimasco took over signalled a downward spiral that has seen people’s fortunes dwindle every day.
“People have been retrenched and those engaged in mining cannot afford to operate profitably because of the costs involved. The company is not paying as much as the people would want,” she complained.
Mrs Chengu wants an upgrade of Mutorashanga.
She has called for the establishment of flea markets for women in the area.
She believes Mutorashanga should be upgraded from just a centre for the mining company and its service providers to a growth point and eventually a town under the auspices of the Zvimba Rural District Council.
She says Mutorashanga can be upgraded to a growth point to attract property developers and companies.
“Most of the land is still controlled by the mining companies. People can buy stands and build houses if a portion is transferred to the council. This will help in the development of Mutorashanga,” she said.
Development, especially of residential stands, she said, could trigger more activities.
This, she added, is because people in urban areas want land and can support the business sector.
“We have many people resettled on farms surrounding the area but their activities have not brought that much development,” she complained.
Mrs Chengu said the area also boasts of several educated youths who have been affected by the death of mining operations in the area.
She said parents cannot afford to pay school fees.
Most people are also struggling to pay medical bills.
“There is no income and this has led to an increase in social vices such alcohol abuse and prostitution,” she said.
Local Government, Public Works and National Housing Minister Ignatius Chombo recently called on resettled farmers in the area to buy stands and build houses to spur development.
The Zvimba North legislator, whose area covers Mutorashanga, acknowledges the need for housing development in areas such as these to trigger development.
Zanu-PF Zvimba Rural District Council Ward 15 councillor Cde Idah Kamushinda blamed the new mine owners for trying to cut corners to reduce costs.
“Workers have been asked to opt for early retirement and get some severance packages but these are too little and those who have stayed at work especially the maintenance workers earn as little as US$60 a month,” she said.
Cde Kamushinda said former workers who have taken over the mines as tributaries selling chrome to the big companies are struggling even to pay their workers’ wages.
“The prices being offered are still very low and those who have gone into mining are not getting meaningful rewards.
“The people on the farms have tried tobacco but the crop has not been fetching enough at the tobacco floors,” she said.
The Zanu-PF councillor said the mining area is surrounded by farms but the community has failed to contribute to the growth of the area.
“There is need for investors who can develop agro-based industry. Even if the Grain Marketing Board opens a depot people can be employed while farmers can get their services nearby instead of travelling long distances and incurring transport costs,” she said.
Companies, she added, should support the mining co-operatives with equipment so that they can improve their operations.
“The miners need to formalise their activities and not rely on dilapidated wheel barrows and shovels.
“They need real equipment and such suppliers can set up companies to boost industry in Mutorashanga,” she said.
Besides the mining co-operatives, those formally employed work at the hospital, ZRP, ZESA, Tel*One and the few businesses that are still in operation in the area.