HomeLocal NewsA concoction of panning, politics

A concoction of panning, politics

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HIGH levels of unemployment have pushed youths in the Midlands Province into digging up dirt as they strive to earn a living through what has become a lucrative business of gold panning and black market trading of the precious metal.

Report by Blessed Mhlanga

A gramme of gold fetches $40 on the black market and in a good week, a panner can make upwards of $1 000, but as often happens, the gold seekers sometimes go for weeks with nothing to show for their sweat.

Because their activities are illegal, most of these youths have submitted themselves as willing tools for political parties during election time as a means to get police protection and access to gold-rich fields.

They are used in often violent political campaigns, toyi-toying the streets of Kwekwe and high-density suburbs, harassing perceived political opponents — only to be discarded when the elections are over and their political masters take the gold for themselves.

Tonderai Phiri, who works around the rich gold claims at Chaka Plant, said normally all work (on the gold fields) is abandoned when Zanu PF calls a rally because every panner is expected to mobilise for, and attend the rally.

“We stop all work to mobilise people to attend a Zanu PF rally. If anyone is caught working at the fields during a rally, they are automatically banned by Al-Sharbarb (a local Zanu PF youth brigade),” he said.

There appears to be an unwritten rule in the deep mining fields where mounds of earth are moved daily as the gold seekers scrounge for a living — you have to belong to Zanu PF or you won’t be allowed to work.

“We have no choice, but to comply because if we don’t, they will take away our livelihood. What’s more is that it appears like they work with the police because raids intensify once we show resistance,” he added.

The panners are known to stop at nothing where gold is suspected to be and have dug up highways, bridges and houses that have come in the way of a “gold belt”.
Globe and Phoenix Primary School is one of their many casualties and despite efforts by the police, including beatings, arrests and even gunshots, nothing has managed to deter the gold diggers, commonly known as “makorokoza”.

The school’s deputy headmaster Munyaradzi Majoni confirmed that the school had become a constant target of the gold panners who raid the premises during the night, leaving loose debris, rocks and dangerous holes within the school.

“We understand the school is sitting on rich gold deposits which have become the main target for illegal panners. These people are unpredictable.

“On any other morning, we can just wake up to find tunnels going directly under classrooms and at times we are forced to close some classroom blocks because they would have become too dangerous for pupils,” Majoni said.

But during election time, the panners dig in the school yard in broad daylight — they are usually clad in Zanu PF regalia to deter any would-be interference — including the police.

Powerful party leaders including those holding influential national offices, openly support the gold diggers whose votes and violent campaign they demand in return.
Japhet Mafa, a Grade Seven dropout whose chances of earning a decent living through education and formal employment died many years ago, says he had to join Zanu PF structures to get a pass to work on the plains of Kwakevi in Silobela next to Jena Mines.

“I had to attend all Zanu PF meetings held in my area before I was then taken to register as a voter to enable me to qualify to enter the gold tunnels,” he said.
Even as he goes about his business, Mafa knows he has to share the few grammes of the precious metal that he harvests on a good week of hard work.
Local party leaders expect him to declare his find and to then pay them with part of the gold.

“The bosses at the party office get around 70% of what we dig from underground and we share the remainder among the gang,” he said.

Many have died under these tunnels, having been trapped owing to unsafe working conditions, but even the reality of death has not deterred them.

“Even though I know I am walking into a death trap every day, I have no choice. Industry has collapsed and there are no jobs in this part of the country. Even if I was to get a job, most employers are failing to pay their workers. It’s either I turn into a thief or I dig,” said Razius Jembere, a panner at Zesa gold fields.

Last year in January during the Sherwood gold rush, sparked by the discovery of pure gold nuggets in the Midlands mining town, Zanu PF declared the minerals would only be accessed by its members because the minerals belonged to the party.

“Only the sons of Midlands will be allowed to enter the fields and they will do so through party structures.

“Those that are not known within the party will not have access and those from outside the Midlands will not be allowed here,” said Zanu PF’s provincial secretary for security Owen “Mudha” Ncube at that time after chanting numerous party slogans denigrating the person of MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his party and followers.

Most Zanu PF bigwigs in the province have amassed massive wealth from the sweat and blood of these panners, some of whom die under collapsed tunnels or end up in prison — sentenced to the mandatory five-year jail term for illegal possession of gold.
Election year is most of the time very profitable for gold panners who can invade any mine as long as they put their allegiance to Zanu PF.

The honeymoon, however, lasts as long as the period after elections when the law descends on them mercilessly and they have no protection.

Zanu PF’s Buhera North legislator William Mtomba and his partner Smelly Dube who recently donated a Gweru house to President Robert Mugabe are part of the people who have taken possession of gold mines here.

Mtomba took over Chaka Plant and gold mine for which a legal battle for possession still rages between him and owner, Australian-born businessman Lee Waverly Jones who was reportedly dispossessed of the property by force.

The call for elections this year has increased activity around the illegal claims with panners saying they already feel the heat.

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