ZVISHAVANE — Ernest Gumbo trudges down a gravel path heading to a football pitch at King Mine in Mashava, a ghost town located 45 kilometres from Masvingo.
He walks past a swarm of big green flies hovering around a heap of stinking uncollected garbage next to dilapidated buildings that can give in anytime to the vagaries of nature.
To him and thousands of former workers at the now defunct asbestos mining giant, Shabanie Mashaba Mines (SMM), they derive solace from playing soccer and cheering their local boozers’ team while sharing opaque beer.
Gumbo’s wife never misses the boozers’ matches as well where she vends sweets and snacks on the touchline.
A decade ago, when it was a dream for everyone in the area to get a job at SMM, the town was bubbling with activity.
Many of the workers had access to credit facilities and would spend big in nearby Masvingo city.
But all that changed in the blink of an eye.
Beneath the veneer of the opaque-beer drinking and vending lies poverty, anger and disillusionment at the government after the once vibrant mines were wrestled from business tycoon, Mutumwa Mawere.
The State took over SMM after alleging that the company was insolvent and indebted to the State.
Its owner, Mawere, was further accused of externalising foreign currency.
Mawere denied the accusation and launched a legal battle to recover his properties which signalled the beginning of the miners’ troubles.
Soon, SMM turned into a battle ground characterised by work boycotts over non-payment of salaries.
Eventually thousands of workers were retrenched.
“We were promised that the mines would be re-opened, but up to now, there is no solution. Many have gone to their rural areas or migrated to Masvingo town to do menial jobs,” said Gumbo, who added that many girls have turned to prostitution, while young men are either selling illegal drugs or engaged in illegal mining for survival.
“Our lives have been turned upside down. We were reduced to beggars and scavengers after government took over the mines and ran them down,” said Gumbo, reminiscing the good-old days.
In 2011, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Mines and Energy, which conducted public hearings in Zvishavane and Mashava on the consequences of the closure of the asbestos mines, heard that some of the impoverished workers had married off their young daughters in order to make ends meet.
“We sold everything that we had bought over the years, from household property to clothes,” said Solomon Mtanga, Shabanie Mine workers’ committee vice-chairperson.
“Children have since dropped out of school. We have been issued with summons by schools over non-payment of fees. Our children have turned to prostitution and drugs. One boy recently died while panning for gold,” he lamented.
Taking advantage of the vast infrastructure lying idle at SMM, the Midlands State University (MSU) and the Great Zimbabwe University (GZU) have opened campuses in Zvishavane and Mashava, respectively, after getting leases.
The Mashava campus is GZU’s biggest campus and has a carrying capacity of about 1 000 students. But when the university is closed for holidays, much of the activity disappears and the place returns to its old dullness.
The campuses have helped, to some extent, save the towns and its desperate former mine workers who are now leasing their houses to students.
But the coming in of the universities also brought in other ills.
Some of the workers, who were hanging onto the company houses, were evicted after the properties were renovated and turned into students hostels.
“We were transferred to old, dilapidated houses in King Mine, yet we were living well in our houses in Gaths Mine. Some of the houses we were moved into after the university opened do not have electricity,” said Fadzai Muroori, from Mashava.
The workers have called on government to give back the mines to Mawere so that their lives could return to normal.
But government has dug in over the years, accusing Mawere of being an economic saboteur.
While the businessman has since been cleared of externalisation allegations, and frequently visits Zimbabwe from his base in South Africa, he is still to regain his businesses.
A protracted legal battle is currently underway to ensure justice is served, but even if he is to win the war, it would be difficult for Mawere to get all his businesses back.
Mawere used to own a swath of businesses that included a bank, agricultural estates, mines, a beverage maker, a newspaper, an insurance company.
Recently, Zimbabwe People First leader, Joice Mujuru, waded into the SMM controversy, alleging that the mines were closed because their owner had “personal clashes” with a senior ZANU-PF official, “probably over a girlfriend”.
The former vice president, fired from ZANU-PF in 2014 together with several other senior party and government officials for allegedly plotting to oust President Robert Mugabe from power, made the claims while addressing a rally at Masvingo’s Mucheke Stadium.
Mujuru did not reveal the ZANU-PF official behind the closure of the asbestos mines. Neither did she mention the alleged girlfriend that led to the fallout between Mawere and some members of the ruling party.
“ZANU-PF talks of indigenisation. That is the indigenisation that led to SMM falling into the hands of a local (Mawere).
“However, the mines were closed over personal differences, leaving thousands jobless.
“If you have a personal difference with Mawere, if it is about snatching each other’s girlfriends, what has that to do with the mines and the workers whose lives you have turned upside down simply because you do not like the owner?” asked Mujuru.
Mujuru queried why government failed to maintain continuity even after Mawere’s exit.
“Why then did you not sideline the owner and keep the mines running since there are workers who were employed? It is because you are cold-hearted like witches,” she said, adding that there are many businesses that were closed by ZANU-PF simply because the party was at variance with the owners.
“There are many companies closed simply because you hated the owner. If you have an axe to grind with the owner of any business, let it be, but know that there are people benefiting from the businesses as workers. The companies have to continue operating even if you oust that person,” charged Mujuru, though her vitriol did little to assuage the pain that former SMM workers are enduring.
While it may be easy to dismiss Mujuru on account that she didn’t do anything about it while she was still serving under President Mugabe’s government. It is, however, not easy to dismiss the impact the closure of the mines has had on the town of Zvishavane and its hinterland.
For Gumbo, and many others who were affected by SMM’s closure, no amount of politicking can change their circumstances.
As far as these affected workers are concerned, if government cannot revive the mines, it should hand them back to Mawere.
As for now, government is still not convinced that it has failed.