ZHOMBE – The sharp, monotonous thud of picks hitting dry ground is the most common sound one hears on approaching the latest land to be invaded by migrant gold panners in Empress, a rural business centre in Zimbabwe”s, Midlands province.
The number of the gold panners in the small field could be as much as 400, almost all men out for rich pickings in a district saddled with poverty.
Most of the panners who work in syndicates of between five to 10 come from neighbouring districts of Kadoma, Gokwe, Chirumanzu, Gweru and Shurugwi.
Lorries of all shapes and sizes move in and out of the field.
Wellington Mutema, owner of this land, is a worried and restless man and closely monitors the huge number of panners.
Gold rushes are not new in the area, an indication of the vast gold deposits which have recently seen Chinese companies coming on board.
The poor road network, poor health facilities, dilapidated schools infrastructure, high teenage pregnancies and endemic poverty do not reflect the abundant gold in the district.
To get there, one needs off-roaders, rather than small vehicles.
“The roads have potholes and are impassable when using smaller vehicles. Besides the damage caused by big lorries carrying gold ore, some have been damaged by gold panners,” Mutema says.
There has, according to him, been no meaningful development in the area as people use the old former Empress Mine buildings, now taken over by the government for residential purposes.
The other set of buildings which were under Komona Mine now fall under the jurisdiction of the Zibagwe Rural District Council.
“The community is not benefiting as those getting the gold are not ploughing back into the community. The road network is poor and the nearby Ngondoma Dam a source of water for us, has been silted and no one is willing to come forward to help.
“We expected the youths to get employment but even those employed at the mine are from outside Empress,” Mutema observes wryly.
The community of around 30,000 has two health facilities, a clinic run by Rio Tinto Agricultural College and another by the government called Sidakeni. All are poorly equipped.
The three schools in the area – Komona, Nyaradzo and Mopani – do not have textbooks and buildings are in a sorry state.
Commercial sex work is very high. The sex workers migrate from all over the Midlands Province and beyond to Empress where gold panners spend with lascivious abandon.
Mutema says high teenage pregnancies and high school dropouts among the boys are a cause for concern.
“Child marriages mostly involving the girl child are very high as they (the girls) are impregnated after being lured by money. A number of boys also drop out from school to join gold panning,” he says.
After extracting the gold, the gold pannerssell to runners or gold buyers who in turn sell to black market agents in Kwekwe and Kadoma, who apparently pay better than the government buyer Fidelity Printers and Refiners.
Mutema says he gets a “small” percentage from proceeds of gold taken from his land by panners, and most of the gold from the area ends up in the hands of black market dealers who smuggle the gold to South Africa, depriving government as well as the local authority of revenue.
Towards the end of May, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe through Fidelity Printers and Refiners announced a new gold trading framework where large scale gold miners are now required to retain 70 percent of their gold sale proceeds in hard currency while 30 percent is paid in local currency. Previously miners were paid only 55 percent in dollars, pushing many to the black market.
Finance and Economic Development Minister Mthuli Ncube at the end of last year said about 30 tonnes of gold is smuggled to South Africa annually.
Although the Rural District Councils Act has provision for the payment of unit tax by miners and bigger companies, rural councils are not realising much due to shortcomings in Zimbabwe’s mining and local government laws which do not stipulate clearly greater responsibility of companies to communities.
Zibagwe Rural District Council chief executive officer Farai Machaya says although they have come up with a multi-sectoral team which checks on levy compliance and adherence to health and safety conditions, the levy paid is not adequate.
“Our levy is structured based on the number of employees, so all establishments that have less than 100 workers pay one unit and those with 100 and above pay two units and so on.
“This is not fair especially taking into consideration how we have mechanised. So a company can produce more but pay less in levies because they have fewer workers.
“Our levies should be based on production like what is done for base minerals which are based on output. This is the only way we can benefit from resources that we have. Currently miners are benefiting more,” he says.
Tongogara Rural District Council chief executive officer Brian Rufasha says the gold activities in their area are not bringing any development to the community.
“These companies should pay unit tax which should go towards development but they are not. They are causing a lot of degradation instead.
“There is water pollution, cutting down of trees, pits which are not reclaimed and other forms of destruction,” he says.
Without the payment of unit tax as required in the Rural District Act, Rufasha says, it is difficult to develop the area.
However,Chimona, one of the gold mining companies in the district, said it was doing its best in investing in the community through employment, offering accommodation to workers and milking gold for artisanal miners. “We play our part in community development. We do this as a matter of course,” says the mine’s managing director MarufuSithole.
The United Nations says more than 70 percent of Zimbabweans live in poverty – defined as surviving below $2 a day – with rural areas the most affected.
This story was produced by New Ziana (Pvt) Ltd. It was written as part of Wealth of Nations, a media skills development programme run by the Thompson Reuters