By Munyaradzi Hwengwere
They say ignorance is bliss. Well, not in the knowledge age. The truth is knowledge put to good use is an invaluable asset to any aspirational person and country. Zimbabwe has stated a bold vision to attain upper middle-income status by 2030. What this vision means is that in eight years’ time the average Zimbabwean must earn a minimum of US$ 4000 per annum. At present we are less than half that figure.
What stands between the national vision and today’s reality in large measure boils down to applied knowledge. While it is commendable that the average Zimbabwean has high regard for mining, indications are that the sector and its associated narratives are largely driven by superstition, ignorance and plain disregard for science.
For those that have ventured into artisanal mining, experiences are abound on how false beliefs have resulted in serious capital loss. Many men of cloth have played havoc on unsuspecting members of the public by claiming they know how best riches can be gained from the soil. A lot other people have refused to engage in basic exploration on the mistaken belief that their local traditional healer has the clue to making them rich. There is a role of science in business and mining in particular.
The Minister of Mines and Mining Development Winston Chitando has criss crossed the world seeking to convince people that US$ 12 billion is attainable by 2023. To his credit those that have followed science seem to be reaping benefits from the opening up of the mining sector. Sadly we have many other people for whom dreams of prosperity are turning into unforgettable nightmares.
Instead of discussing how best the growing mining industry can be integrated into the rest of the economy, we prefer clutching at straws.
In July 2022, the CEO of Zimplats Alex Mhembere raised a critical point. Only 12 percent of the US$ 2.5 billion mining order book is retained locally. Close to 80 percent of consumables that go into Zimbabwe’s mining sector are imported. Every year new mines and towns in other countries are being created by money that comes from our local mining industry.
We should have applauded Mhembere for this bold statement especially as it came from a mining executive. Unfortunately, we seem more focused on concocting lies around mining value than creating conditions for ensuring that gains of investment are directed to fully unlocking national value for the broader economy.
Most recently we have had members of parliament showing ignorance on issues as basic as understanding what is contained in platinum group metals. Perhaps the challenge is that we have over latched on the term platinum and forgotten that mines such as Mimosa, Unki and Zimplats are really PGM producers.
As such whenever we get to know there is more than one metal, we rush into making unfounded conclusions on their declarations. For avoidance of doubt, all mine, ten minerals that include base metals such as nickel, copper, cobalt and precious metals that include platinum, palladium ,rhodium ruthenium, iridium, silver and gold.
The issue is not in understanding what they mine because they are clear and open about it. In fact they are the first to indicate their willingness to be subjected to metal accounting audits. They are no fools to hide value where everyone can see. At every mining location, they have a Minerals Marketing Corporation of Zimbabwe (MMCZ) official to receive a sample of every metal they export. If Zimbabweans are so keen on understanding the full range of metals exported I am sure MMCZ will be happy to provide samples for further testing.
So there is really no issue with what miners are declaring. Mimosa exports concentrates. Zimplats and Unki have smelters and so they able to go a further value and export matte. This is simple economics. The bigger you are, the easier you can go a gear up. True, it’s important that Zimbabwe has her own base and precious metal refinery. Indications are that in a few years this will be so.
The sooner we move away from the issue the better and faster we are to engage in honest debate on where value is and how mining value can be fully unlocked. Our media must begin seeking to build a better understanding on mining value and must educate the nation on how best to ensure Zimbabwe benefits from metals than chasing exciting journeys that lead to nowhere. It’s pleasing that we have the Mining Media Awards that have been running in the past 8 years. These must be used as a platform to ensure proper conversations are held.
Mining by its nature is finite. At some point minerals get exhausted. The story of Shabanie mine is both a good and bad reminder of what happens when resource value is redefined or depleted. The good side is that Shabanie Mine built massive infrastructure which today still drives the mining town. The bad side is that Shabanie Mine should have been compelled to invest in areas other than mining. Had Shabanie mine invested in agriculture for instance Zvishavane today may be exporting horticultural crops. Had Shabanie mine been compelled to invest in livestock programme, we may still be producing processed beef. Mining to be sustainable must be linked to broader economic value chains.
This is what we must hold all mines to. At present one can count on a few mines that are really working with their communities. Those that are doing so, are doing it at free will. We need a policy that rewards and punishes any investor who believes their job is to dig the ground, employ-a few people, make money and disappear.
Our conversations on mining must not be driven by in ill-informed discussions that at best discourage investment and at worst lead us to nowhere. My suspicion is that the purveyors of these debates know too well that they are not productive. However for reasons that only they know they push narratives aimed at ensuring African countries in general and Zimbabwe in particular engage on wild goose chases that distract from meaningful development.
This does not absolve miners. Since they know better, why not engage in robust discussions that seek on one hand to educate the public while practically demonstrating ways to sustainable economic development. With elections around the corner miners must know better. No matter how ill-informed narratives are, once they get popular backing, clever politics demands that policies align to the wishes of the people. We only knew later that the indigenisation policy could have been framed better. That was after billions of lost investments and of course after elections. The wise act faster.
Munyaradzi Hwengwere writes in his personal capacity as a mining consultant and Minex Chairman