By Lenin Ndebele
BULAWAYO – IF one had to give Zimbabwe a nickname it would be “The Gold Coast of Southern Africa” since almost every province of the country has gold deposits.
Zimbabwe’s rich gold ore deposit was one of the reasons the country was attractive to would-be colonisers. History goes as far back as the 17th century when the Portuguese occupied and traded in gold with local miners.
Due to the value attached to the mineral, the country’s laws governing this precious metal are stringent.
So stringent are the laws that, last year, a Gweru man Isaac Dingo (30) was convicted to 5 years in jail for possessing 2 grams of gold ore, valued at US$80, without a permit.
Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) Governor, Dr John Mangudya, believes the law should be relaxed and that no one should be arrested for possession of gold. He refers to gold producers as the country’s “heroes”.
“We don’t want, Honourable Minister (home affairs) the police to arrest those people found in possession of gold in Zimbabwe. They would be on their way to sell to the Fidelity Printers (government buyer),” the governor said at a Gold Industry Excellency Awards ceremony in Harare last week.
Despite leakages and externalisation, gold accounted for 30 percent of the country’s export earnings last year, a joint top earner with tobacco.
“We need these heroes because they are very important, we cannot do without these producers,” he added.
In September 2015, as part of RBZ’s support for small and artisanal miners, US$20 million was made available, and by November 2016, of the 15.3 tonnes of gold sold to the central clearing house, 42.5 percent came from small and artisanal miners.
However, as Mangudya sang praises of the contribution made by small and artisanal miners who collectively produce as much as the big mining companies, the circumstances in which most small miners operate in are characterised by lawlessness, gang wars, murder and shallow graves.
Deep in the bush, away from civilisation whenever rival groups meet, turf wars erupt. More worrisome is the fact that there is no one to quell the wars.
Esigodini is a small mining area 40km south of Bulawayo. There is a systematic way of eliminating one’s enemies there – a gold panner is killed and dumped on the railway line for the train to run over the lifeless corpse.
The most prominent casualty was one Christopher “Mdawini” Sibanda in September 2015. He was a known leader of one of the gangs. It was reported that a day before he died, he was spotted in the company of men wanted for murder. No one was brought to book for his murder.
Police sources say there were at least six such deaths in 2016 and rival factions clash even in the local business centre. Inyathi, 60km north-east of Bulawayo is another gold-rich communal area.
Lately, it is known for sporadic gold rushes. Panners in that area are so cheeky, if they find gold in private land they invade without warning.
Only last week, 20 gold panners were arrested for their role in a fight at a local nightclub.
National police spokesperson, Senior Assistant Commissioner Charity Charamba, told journalists that she was “aware of the gold problems in the area”.
Kwekwe, the most central city in Zimbabwe and probably the richest in terms of gold deposits, also has deaths recorded in gold wars.
This week one, Likhwa Ngwenya (23), was arrested in connection with the murder of a rival gang leader, Washington Dick, who died in cold blood last November. At the time of his death, Dick was facing attempted murder charges. He had attacked Ngwenya with a machete.
As such, Ngwenya, who was remanded in custody to 1 February for continuation of trial, is said to have carried out a revenge mission that led to Dick’s fate.
It is the State’s case that Ngwenya in the company of other unnamed accused persons, hacked Dick with machetes several times all over the body until he died near Sable Flats in Kwekwe.
In most hot spot areas, the police are either incapacitated or fear for their own lives and at times allegedly in the pockets of the ring leaders.
The gold turf wars have taken the same route as those of Colombian drug wars during the 70s and 80s that produced ruthless mafia kings such as the Medellín Carte of Pablo Escobar (1976-1993).
“The challenge faced by police is that these people don’t have any identification particulars and are of no fixed abode. They live in the bush,” said Bubi District Rural Council chief executive officer, Partson Mlilo.