Before the year 2000, spouses of men who worked for Ziscosteel, now New Zimsteel, boasted of white fridges and cookers in their kitchens and high-backed armchairs in their sitting rooms.
BY BRIAN MNKOSANA
Sadly though, the women would by midday find a thin layer of soot, blanketing the white surfaces.
They would then curse and mutter in frustration that the smoking chimneys of Zisco were polluting their household furniture.
The closely-knit community was also accustomed to the sound of the wailing siren which signalled hourly changes in shifts for the shop-floor workers.
The hustle and bustle of mostly male workers in white and yellow overalls and female administrative staff in blue overcoats exchanging pleasantries, characterised the high level of activity at the former giant steel producer.
But now the humming factory machines have gone silent and the chimneys have stopped belching out smoke as the company struggles to regain viability.
Zisco was acquired by Essar Holdings, an Indian firm from government in 2011 in a deal worth $750 million.
One would expect the women to celebrate the cessation of the billowing smoke, but the plight of their husbands who are now getting one-eighth of their salaries every two months as severance pay has re-awakened them to the realities of life. They now appreciate that life was rosy after all during the sooty era.
Kudzai Virimayi, a 49-year-old resident of Rutendo suburb in Redcliff, wistfully looks back at the good old days.
“We cursed the belching chimneys without realising that we were actually living in a blessed era. Now we pray for normalcy because life has become unbearable,” the mother of five says.
Zisco workers received a paltry one-eighth of their salaries in December 2013 and another in early March 2014 which they feel is an insult considering that the money ranges between $40 and $50 after two months.
President of the Iron and Steel Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe Akim Mujokeri says New Zimsteel workers are surviving on a mere $0,82 a day if the average salary of $50 is divided into 60 days.
“The workers have reached a point in their lives where they now survive on empty promises. As workers, we are entitled to feedback on what is going on between the government and Essar Holdings, but there is no such communication. As workers, we are shocked by newspaper reports that Indian personnel have begun working on refurbishments and reviving operations at the company,” Mujokeri says.
Mujokeri dismisses such reports, saying: “The last time we saw the Indians was in November 2013 and they were just moving doing nothing in particular.”
The government continues to procrastinate over operationalising activities at New Zimsteel.
In December last year, government first made public its intentions to capacitate the steel producer, but did not go beyond the promise.
Again, three months after the announcement, Minister of Industry and Commerce Mike Bimha announced that “we have done a lot and what I can say is the New Zim Steel will be in operation very soon”, according to a State media story published by a local daily March 24 2014.
Stephen Mutyanda (29), an artisan who is married with one child, says: “Life is just tough for the people here. Children stopped going to school and some families have broken down.
“We can go for weeks without running water. We are forced to queue for hours at the few boreholes in the area, which continuously break down.”
Most hard hit are women in Torwood who have been experiencing a recurring water crisis.
“You can imagine the danger posed to young girls who queue for water during the night, especially now that rape cases are on the increase in our community,” says Gracious Mutyanda, a mother of one.
“It is difficult to get water when violent young boys jostle for water with the stampede ending up in brawls and fist fights exposing women, girls and children,” she added.
Kwekwe City council mayor, Councillor Matenda Madzoke says it is not correct for a local authority to cut water supplies to residents.
“We have not disconnected water supplies for Redcliff residents despite the fact that we are the water authority for the whole of Kwekwe.
“We supply New Zimsteel (Zisco) with water, which then supplies Redcliff, Torwood and Rutendo. We received a government directive three years ago that we should not deny residents water,” Madzoke says.
He adds that Kwekwe city council is failing to get payments for water from New Zimsteel which averages $180 000 per month.
A New Zimsteel worker who requested anonymity said Redcliff town council disconnects water on the 10th of every month beginning with February to force residents to settle their arrears.
Contacted for comment, Mayor of Redcliff, councillor Freddy Kapuya admits that the council routinely cuts water to force residents to pay.
“We disconnect water supplies for those who have not paid their water bills for five consecutive months,” Kapuya says. Such households would have accrued a debt of over $700 each from the time government slashed water tariffs last year.”
The Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees every citizen the right to safe, clean and potable water.
But what measures have been put in place to ensure that residents access clean water despite failing to pay for bills?
The International Council on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) to which Zimbabwe is a signatory, recognises water provision as a fundamental human right along with other basic rights such as the right to food, clothing and housing.
It never rains but pours for the desperate residents of Redcliff as some are now facing eviction after failing to pay rentals.
“Some desperate residents have now resorted to swapping their few belongings with food from surrounding farms in their struggle for survival,” Mujokeri says.
Combined effects of water, food and accommodation crisis have condemned the residents to poverty.
Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that governments should combat disease and malnutrition “through the provision of adequate nutrition, food and clean drinking water”.
To add salt to injury, many households in Torwood have been without electricity since June 2013 since they were cut off from Zisco electricity supply lines.
They have since resorted to using coal and firewood for lighting and cooking.
In the unfolding drama, ZESA has proposed to connect electricity directly to residents on condition that each household installs pipes, tubes and meter boxes — an exercise costing between $300 and $500.
This is happening when Essar Holdings has promised to construct a 1 000 megawatt power station in Zimbabwe, a move that is to ease the electricity woes.
But the deal has been in limbo since August 2011, meaning continued darkness and exposure to toxic substances for many of these residents.
The failure by Zisco to pay its workers has spawned ripple effects now affecting even students, whose parents have failed to pay fees for their education.
Students who wrote their examinations in November 2013 are facing challenges in collecting results due to non-payment of fees.
A teacher at a high school in Torwood who spoke on condition of anonymity said:
“Many students are failing to collect their results because they have not settled their outstanding fees.”
An educationist who declined to be named said that at one local school, statistics revealed that as at February 17 2014, close to 200 students had not collected their “O” level and “A” level results because they were not fully paid up.
Over 1 000 students at the school are not fully paid up because their parents have not received their full pay in the past three years.
The steel company used to be a huge foreign currency earner for the nation and employed over 6 000 workers.
But now it employs just over 2 000.
Many workers left for greener pastures when the giant company began showing signs of bankruptcy during the 2000-2009 economic meltdown.
Neighbouring countries such as South Africa, Botswana and Namibia are reaping benefits from the crisis, while the once-famous Redcliff giant steel producer sinks deeper into liquidity.
This is happening at a time when the government has formulated the Zim Asset a results based agenda aimed at resuscitating parastatals through value addition and beneficiation.
And yet if this giant is to find its stability the plight of workers even for its sister companies like Lancashire Steel, Steelmakers and BIMCO now known as
New Zim Minerals will be a thing of the past.
Without running water, electricity, jobs and something to hope for, one can only stop and shudder at the thought of how people like Stephen Mutyanda are managing to keep their families alive amid appalling living conditions and such chilling depravity.