You can look at Mutumwa Mawere in the eye, but you certainly wouldn’t do that with an employee of Shabanie mine.
If you dared, you would flinch immediately, but not without noticing something trapped in them — bitterness, frustration and misery.
The bitterness has little to do with what happened six years ago when government wrested SMM Holdings UK’s Shabanie and Mashava mines from Mawere and placed them on “reconstruction”, without regard for the $43 million he had spent on them.
It also has little to do with the ugly politics that ensued — Mawere’s specification on charges of fraud and externalisation of foreign currency the same year or the dismissal of SMM Holdings Zimbabwe directors three days after the reconstruction order was passed.
Instead, it captures the frustration and disillusionment one gets when he/she hopes, prays and fasts troubles away, only to get more or worse of the same as an answer, eventually slumping into a fatalist disposition.
Mawere himself is enmeshed in the same web, and apparently feels trapped.
“My eyes can see the mines collapsing in my face, but I’m powerless because of the law (the Reconstruction of State Indebted and Insolvent Companies Act). It’s like (helplessly) watching your car going into a ditch,” Mawere said.
I didn’t understand what he really meant by that until I visited Shabanie mine last week, accompanied by a colleague.
Recalling how much the business mogul is sweating to repossess the assets, I asked myself: “Does Mawere have an idea what has happened to the mines?”
I’m convinced he doesn’t because if he did he wouldn’t hesitate walking away, not because reviving the mines would cost him an arm and a leg, but because it is noble at times to play Pilate and have nothing to do with the “blood” of innocent souls — the agglomeration of suffering workers.
Dusk was beginning to fall over the city when we arrived. Apparently Zesa had done what it knows best — lulling everyone to sleep with one of its power cuts, scheduled or unscheduled, the effect was the same.
Life in this small mining town seemed to converge at one point at night — a night spot called Downtown Sports Diner — which ignored Zesa’s goodnight message and rallied everyone to bury their frustrations, misery or fatigue in the pot with a generator.
It attracts patrons the same way a firefly or street lamp attracts insects after a downpour. It is a modern, exquisite club with quite a fabulous lounge — one that you wouldn’t expect in a remote mining town, which is agonisingly surrendering its glory and bliss.
What struck me was the “type” of patrons that thronged the pub; the ladies were quite well-groomed and appeared ready to dine the night away but the “hunkies” were scruffy and unpleasant and kept stepping on my foot every time and again.
They matched the brutes, hustlers and “bad boys” that I have watched in black-American movies.
“Don’t start an argument with those guys, they will drive the knife through your chest and before you’re buried they are out because they are loaded with cash. They are gold panners, they rule the town, but they detest strangers,” one of the ladies who noticed we looked lost, said, offering us drinks.
The next two rounds of drinks were my bill.
“I’ve a house here, but don’t ask me how I got it or what I’m doing here. I’m no hooker,” she said. “I’m employed, but I’m not employed because I last got paid in August. I have to send my kids to school. I have to meet living costs.”
I didn’t believe that she worked for Shabanie Mine until she showed me her company ID with her photo, designation and an employment number.
There were several of her colleagues in that club, it emerged, as she started “roll-calling” them one after the other.
They seemed in control and more comfortable with this new occupation than those “wasted days at Shabanie”, just by the way they hassled through their business. She said her main clients were gold panners and employees of Mimosa Mining Company — a platinum extractor located nearly 40 kilometres from the town. On a good day, she wakes up $100 richer, just about what Shabanie mine paid for her cleaning services in 30 days.
Panners, she said, don’t hesitate frittering away their earnings on hookers and the pot often without thinking about tomorrow because the money “comes easy”.
After another round of drinks she said she had to rush home before her “boyfriend” — the biggest gold baron in the town — arrived.
The following morning we headed for one of Shabanie Mine’s residential compounds and pulled up in front of a bar belonging to the mine.
The place reeks of misery and sometimes you get the feeling that you can actually touch it.
But you could tell from the infrastructure and facilities around, all now ramshackle, that the mine used to be a magnificent “city on the hill that cannot be hidden”.
“The company has announced a shutdown. But we’ve not been paid since January,” one of the few artisans at the mine said.
“Many of my fellow artisans have left. I would be gone but I decided to wait because we heard that Mawere is back and that he’ll soon take over the company and revive it. Everyone here is happy with the news because our situation is desperate.”
Shabani Mine shut down last month and wielded the axe on nearly 1 500 employees, save 72 artisans who have been retained to fight shaft floods that crippled underground mining operations last year following a power-cut by Zesa as arrears ballooned.
The artisan, who identified himself as Stephen, said when he joined the company in 2000, it was as if he had been taken to the “Biblical” Promised Land. Sadly, he has had to watch the mine collapse to ruins in less than seven years.
“When things started going bad last year, a large number of workers turned to prostitution and gold panning out of despair. The gold is usually sold from homes and from a nearby township.”
After several drinks, he agreed to take us to the township informally named after the Zanu PF MP for Zvishavane — Obert Matshlaga. The township, located about 30 kilometers from Zvishavane town and a stone’s throw away from Matshlaga’s chrome mine has been turned into the “Fidelity Printers and Refiners” of the area.
It’s very small with only three or four structures, but is quite popular with panners and those seeking to buy the gems.
Shabanie mine employees don’t actually do the mining, they are mere aids, he said, adding that it takes time to learn the game and be admitted to the club.
It’s an underworld with strict rules of entry and exit.
Only a few have managed to graduate from asbestos to gold mining.