"When I visited it after such a long time, I thought I was lost – you don’t hear the drone of the machines that had become a part of the life of the people here any more. It’s now all ruins, and how sad to see one of the best mines in the country go down like that."
The nickel mine recently suspended operations, joining a growing list of gold, asbestos, coal and iron mines that have closed in the face of withering hyperinflation, officially estimated at 231 million percent annually, and government mismanagement.
In November 2008, Metallion Gold, which produced more than half the country’s gold, shut down five of its mines, causing the loss of 3,500 jobs. According to Zimbabwe’s Chamber of Mines, gold production fell from around 7,000kg in 2007 to 125kg by October 2008.
Asbestos mines have also come under extreme pressure since neighbouring South Africa banned asbestos use on health grounds. The Herald, a state-controlled newspaper, reported that about 70,000 workers in the industry were affected.
John Robertson, a Harare-based economic consultant, blamed the drop in gold production mainly on failure by the government to pass on payments to the mining companies; the Chamber of Mines said the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe owed mining companies US$30 million.
"The gold mines have been left with no option but to suspend business because they don’t have money to keep operating," Robertson told IRIN. "Nickel mining, on the other hand, has been affected by falling prices on the world market, but the bottom line is that corruption, mismanagement and a skewed economic environment are making it extremely difficult for mines to keep afloat."
He said it would be "a very long time before those mines that have closed can start operating again, and that adds to the woes of people and communities that depended on mining for a living but are already hard hit by financial woes."
"We had everything we needed"
The Bindura Nickel Mine once underpinned a flourishing community with a school, a clinic, well-stocked shops, and other social amenities. "Most of us never dreamt of a life outside this mining compound," Crainos Bhaureni, 54, a former underground mine worker from Malawi, told IRIN.
"We had everything we needed, even though outside people scoffed at us, saying we were poorly paid. We saw the collapse of the mine coming, though, because the situation has been deteriorating over the years."
|Those of us that still remain in the mining compound are having a torrid time accessing health care. When diseases break out, they spread easily and residents have no money to cover medical expenses|
The mine’s clinic has closed and fallen into disrepair, while the staff accommodation is dilapidated, with sewage flowing into the roads and residents having to contend with no water for weeks at a time.
"Those of us that still remain in the mining compound are having a torrid time accessing health care. When diseases break out, they spread easily and residents have no money to cover medical expenses at the nearby Bindura Hospital, which in any case is performing badly," Bhaureni said.
Hardly a week passes without someone in the compound dying, he said, and the morgue at the hospital is overflowing with dead bodies because the relatives of those who die are too poor to claim them for burial. "They end up being given pauper’s burial, and that pains the heart a lot."
The mine used to pay the teachers and also provided free maize-meal, beans and cooking oil at the end of every month to keep them at the school. But the death of the mine has seen the teachers leave.
Without access to education, children have joined the adults in illegal gold panning in the area, and also work underground, digging for ore in disused mines.
"Because of lack of a proper education, our children cannot find employment and they end up doing all sorts of bad things to raise money. Most of the young girls have now turned to prostitution, and you find them competing for clients at drinking places, even with their own mothers," Bhaureni said.
Most of the mine’s workers are migrants with few alternatives and have decided to stay; for those who decide to leave, the going is tough – unemployment in Zimbabwe is estimated at more than 80 percent.
There have been no farm jobs since President Robert Mugabe embarked on the fast-track land reform programme that displaced more than 4,000 commercial farmers and caused the collapse of the agricultural sector, one of Zimbabwe’s major employers.
|Even if the economy is turned around tomorrow, it will take years before normal operations can resume. The mine is now flooded due to lack of activity, equipment is rotting, and almost all the skilled staff have left|
"Even if the economy is turned around tomorrow, it will take years before normal operations can resume. The mine is now flooded due to lack of activity, equipment is rotting, and almost all the skilled staff have left," a senior employee who declined to be identified, told IRIN.
"I worked for this mine for many years and when I see it like that, I almost shed tears. Life used to be good here, but what you see now is misery and a lot of uncertainty among workers and residents."