17 January 2013

Zimbabwe: A Thought for Zisco Workers


DECEMBER 25 2012 must have been a gloomy Christmas for former Zisco Steel workers, their families and the community. So, no doubt, was New Year's Day, as 2013 does not seem to promise much for the long-suffering worker of the steelmaker whose fortunes have not improved since Zisco's rechristening to NewZim Steel a couple of years ago.

In fact, the transition could well seem to be like the painful illusion of that which you have in sight or reach but never quite able to grasp.

Or the frustrating experience of wanting to get hold of a solid drop of mercury.

Many of us may have read on Monday in this paper as workers at the troubled firm poured their hearts out.

No payment for Christmas as promised (meaning no new clothes, food and cheer for their wives and children).

Their children are failing to get Form One places because of outstanding dues.

Gloom for children who sat for "O" (and "A") Levels last year.

"Too high" a rate of people dying of malnutrition and want of medication.

The list is long and sad.

The story is that of suffering and pain.

I visited Redcliff, the home of Zisco, late last year.

As we drove around Torwood, the residential area of the common worker, gloom was written all over.

A bustling, happy location it had been in better times, including once affording us a top-level soccer team called Ziscosteel, a pall hung over the area.

The men are bitter; the women angry and tired.

Women have taken over the roles of fending for the family, including feeding their husbands, as buying and selling has become the lifeline.

They walk far and long to barter clothes for food.

Soon they will be bare of any clothes, just like their children, who now have the barest minimum.

The men are bitter at the role reversal, they that were used to be the providers.

They do not have much to do to bring income.

Artisans and other once-proud workers have been reduced to hawkers and vendors.

They curse, they menace.

Or they are simply quiet, still that tricky, menacing proposition, if you ask me.

And they hope.

Worse, the men face the bitter irony that beer, whose palliative presence could have been more appropriate today, reposes with the bygone era of plenty.

Beerhalls, once operated by the company, are shut and yawning and crumbling with disuse.

The men, from worker reps to the ordinary men, speak with passion.

Some blame the management for running down the company due to incompetence and nepotism.

Some blame contemporary "politics" for their woes.

Politics is keeping food from their tables, they believe.

Or maybe there is far too complex a story and phenomenon than a company simply resuming operations all to the delight of its 3 000 or so workers?

Ziscosteel closed down in 2008, amid a debt overhang and allegations of management failure.

In 2011, the Government entered into a deal with Indian firm Essar Holdings to create the new company, NewZim Steel.

The deal raised the hopes of the ordinary worker and threatened to chase the ghosts that had been threatening to settle in this town.

The company is said to even have paid workers some allowances before the deal was even consummated.

But in the limbo that followed, the company lost steam (or will) and last paid workers in March last year after the investor argued that they wanted guarantee of mining rights at Mwanesi where the iron ore had not yet been tapped.

Mwanesi has been a bone of contention between the Indian firm and Government, which raised concerns that Essar was getting the iron ore deposits worth US$30 billion when the company only paid US$750 million.

Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara has variously described the Essar deal as "bad" and "dumb".

On the other hand, Essar and India, the mother country of the company, are not happy.

Take the reservations of the Indian Ambassador here, Mr Jeitendra Tripathi, for example.

He was quoted in The Sunday Mail as urging people to "understand that the bilateral relations between India and Zimbabwe are not of any recent origin, dating back to 300 years ago . . ."

"(T)here is no way that we would think of ripping Zimbabwe off," he volunteered, "we are rather focused on a 50-50 beneficial deal for both our countries."

He noted that some people claimed that Essar and company are more focused on extracting iron and exporting it than bringing Zisco back to its feet, but that was not true.

"How can we do that when we are not allowed to extract more than 200 tonnes annually in a foreign country and, besides, to extract and export the estimated 3 billion tonnes in Kwekwe would mean we would require over 200 years?" he shot.

The conclusion of the Essar deal, according to Ambassador Tripathi, will speed up some projects India has lined up for Zimbabwe.

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