Zimbabwe: Unpacking the Emergence and Rise of Violent Criminals in Mining

16 January 2020

Not every artisanal miner behind machete killings in Zimbabwe is from Shurugwi.

In fact, if the truth, be told very few of the miners can be connected to the violent acts but the name mashurugwi has taken root and now mutated to denote any violent machete-wielding criminal with the extension of the meaning even encompassing any criminal indulging in violent acts.

I have heard people refer to common robbers as mashurugwi.

While some now argue mashurugwi should not be taken in the literal sense of people hailing from Shurugwi, others especially those originating from the district are bitter about the stereotyping as well as the damage to the integrity and reputation of people from the area and even see a sinister motive.

But those who have studied language know it has a currency of its own and certain words may be banned in the public domain yet they remain in widespread common usage.

Undesirable as it may be to label and stereotype others, it, however, appears that with the way the word has caught on across the country it will take some time before a reference to mashurugwi ends.

But how did the word originate? It is generally believed that the appellation mashurugwi emanated from the name given to violent gangs who were targeting gold-rich areas in the Midlands province, in particular, Shurugwi, under Chief Nhema.

Members of the gang were driven by hunger, greediness, wretchedness, unemployment, and deprivation in their rural communities.

An investigation by Great Dyke News 24 which traveled to Shurugwi recently revealed that the gang started mobilising near the late Rhodesian premier Ian Smith's farm, around the Gwenoro area where they targeted other artisanal miners, known as makorokoza.

The emergence of mashurugwi should thus not distract from artisanal miners known as makorokoza/ amakorokoza, intent on making a living through mining gold.

Failure to distinguish artisanal miners from machete-wielding gangs will lead to a wrong diagnosis which will affect the livelihoods of roughly a million people that directly depend on Artisanal and Small Scale Mining (ASM).

"Instead of viewing artisanal miners as victims, the police, policymakers, media, and the public unfairly label them as perpetrators of violence.

"Painting artisanal and small scale miners and machete gangs with the same brush affects thousands of genuine miners who are striving to live a decent life in these tough economic conditions," according to the Zimbabwe Miners Federation President Henrietta Rushwaya.

But deeper analysis exposes the folly of possible muddying of the distinction between ASMs and mashurugwi.

Tapiwa is a 14-year young artisanal miner eking a living in the mountains near the Unki road turnoff along the Gweru-Zvishavane road.

He admits owning a machete for defence purposes and protection of his gold ore acquired through panning.

"The predicaments of being an orphan in a society where brutality, exploitation, and impingements from those l looked up to have made me into a nomad and I ended venturing into artisanal mining seeking for sanctuary," says Tapiwa.

For Tapiwa, life has never been what he anticipated since the death of his parents when he was three.

He says he was subjected to extreme poverty in Chirumhanzu Village where he stayed with his abusive uncle.

At the age of 12, Tapiwa had to search for greener pastures in Shurugwi's mining fields where violence is generally considered a norm and determines the ability to survive.

"For me, a machete is a necessity which every miner should not leave without since it's a tool of the trade.

Living in mountains where we are vulnerable to wild animals and harsh weather conditions, a machete is a necessity so as to fetch firewood and for the protection of the little ore that l got," said Tapiwa.

According to Shamiso Mtisi, ZELA's Deputy Director and Kimberly Process (KP) civil society coordinator, "Since digging gold is almost synonymous with United States Dollar (USD) earnings, more and more people have been attracted into Artisanal and Small Scale Mining (ASM).

Criminals too, have found ASM to be a lucrative hunting ground."

"It is not only about the US dollar, as climate change is disrupting production in the agricultural sector, thereby pushing more and more people into ASM, now a prominent source of livelihood in rural areas and some urban areas," says Mtisi.

Great Dyke News 24 found out that a machete is the most affordable tool for every artisanal miner. They all find it easy to buy them over the counter without fear.

However, after purchasing the machetes, they are covered with hard khaki covers and black tape for safety reasons.

"For us, machetes are used for agricultural purposes including cutting through dense forest and to harvest crops. However these days it's the other way round.

"We sell them for $ 5 US or equivalent, we don't have age limit because we are here to make money. Of course, we know that some are using them for violent purposes but for us, we don't mind since it's not our duty to sue them.

Every day we sell more than 8 to 10 "mabhemba" (machetes) depending on the day of the week.

"During the festive season we sold more than 200 machetes but most of the people who bought were not from the Midlands and we could tell from their dialects, they didn't speak Chikaranga," said one shop attendant at a prominent hardware in Zvishavane.

Several people have been reportedly killed around the country especially in mining areas and towns by rogue elements who attach artisanal miners instead of engaging in the mining activity themselves.

Only recently, there were reports of attacks in Bulawayo and Harare's Glen View suburb where gold buyers were attacked by the machete-wielding gangs.

In Mazowe at Jumbo Mine, the so-called mashurugwi attacked and killed some artisanal miners in December last year. This has highlighted the vulnerability of ASMs.

"As an ill-prepared fourteen-year-old boy in the field, l was always a victim of robbery, abuse and never got a chance to enjoy my own sweat.

The only way for me to escape these torrid times was to fight back using my own machete.

" I'm not from Shurugwi but l have butchered a number of opponents who tried to stand between me and my riches and l always walk around with my machete for defense," said Tapiwa.

According to a survey by Great Dyke News 24, it is not only people from Shurugwi who are behind these machete killing but also criminals from different places. It is so unfortunate that the ones from Shurugwi are the only ones being painted black.

" When l was at Surprise Mine, l witnessed a group of gangs who came from Bulawayo and Silobela and used extreme violence with machetes to take over mining sites, loot gold ore from those they found already working on the area and they also sexually abused women and girls at the mine.

"However, it is so unfortunate that it is only the name of the people from Shurugwi on top," said Peter, Tapiwa's friend who is also into artisanal mining.

"Before pointing fingers at mashurungwi people should keep in mind that Shurungwi is a small town where people from different places come in search of greener pastures.

"If these people are to fight against themselves it is the name of Shurugwi which is tarnished.

"l lost two cousins in December from a group of "Mabhudhi " from Bulawayo but l heard people saying they were killed by mashurugwi," said Nicolas from Shurugwi.

Recently, the media, social groups, and opinion leaders have been called upon to desist from labeling criminal gangs in a way that creates tribal tensions.

The call was made by Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage Minister, Kazembe Kazembe who was reacting to the continuous stereotyping of machete-wielding criminals as mashurugwi.

Society has been made to believe criminals terrorising genuine artisanal miners are from Shurugwi, hence the name mashurugwi.

Speaking to Great Dyke News 24, Chachacha ward 10 assistant headman Marvelous Madzivanyika said the naming of violent machete-wielding artisanal miners as "mashurugwi" damages the image and reputation of people hailing from the district.

"Media practitioners should try to positively identify these perpetrators before they tarnish the image of the Shurugwi people because right now wherever we go we are regarded as violent people giving us a bad image," he said.

In a telephone interview, Shurugwi South Constituency Member of Parliament Edmond Mkaratigwa urged relevant authorities to identify the perpetrators of the violent acts and bring them to book.

According to ZELA Economic Governance Officer Mukasiri Sibanda, "The police must target criminals, the machete gangs, not artisanal miners who carry tools of the trade.

The government must not ban artisanal mining but promote decriminalisation of artisanal mining, an important source of livelihoods for millions of people in Zimbabwe.

A special permit for artisanal mining proposed by the mining technical working group on ease of doing business offers a great starting point," he said.

Sibanda said a multi-stakeholder committee must be established to probe violence in ASM. He adds that a sustainable multi-stakeholder engagement platform dialogue on ASM which involves relevant government ministry, political parties, industry, the security sector, civil society, and ASM associations must be established.

Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Republic Police Zvishavane district has with immediate effect banned the carrying of dangerous weapons such as machetes, axes, and knives that can be used in the commission of crimes.

Speaking on behalf of ZRP Zvishavane District Chief Superintendent Albert Ncube, assistant inspector Respect Manyuchi said the move is expected to reduce weapon-related crimes such as assault and murder that have become rampant in mining areas.

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