Follow the gold: Inside the dark side of Zimbabwe’s artisanal mining

Mary Mundeya

In the midst of rock crushing and the deafening sound of grinding mills, Joshua Magweregwede (37) prepares for his daily gold-panning routine.

Clad in a tattered t-shirt and a worn-out pair of trousers, he attaches his headlamp and throws a pickaxe and shovel down a dark tunnel where he and two other people will spend the day digging for gold in Makonde, a rocky and mountainous area located more than 146 kilometres north-west of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare.  

Besides the wet towel he uses to cover his nose, he has no other protective gear. He seems to have little knowledge about the importance of safety in mining.

With all the dangers associated with his trade, Magweregwede remains focused, hoping that one day he will hit the jackpot and retire after 20 years of earning a living from gold panning.

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“Gold panning is the only job I have known since I graduated from high school. There is nothing else that we can do here careerwise, so I will not stop because my family needs to be taken care of,” he said.

“Maybe one day I will be lucky and get my hands on a lot of gold that will pay me enough to venture into something else like owning a shop or bottle store.”

It’s a dog-eat-dog situation and every time he gets into a tunnel, it could be his last in a trade associated with a high risk of injuries and fatal accidents, especially during the country’s rainy season. 

Magweregwede is one of Zimbabwe’s artisanal miners who use basic methods and processes to extract minerals. Artisanal miners have contributed to the sharp increase in gold production in the Zimbabwe.

As a result of the toiling of artisanal miners like Joshua, gold is now Zimbabwe’s largest earner of foreign currency.

In 2022, artisanal and small scale miners delivered a cumulative 24,1 tonnes whilst large scale companies and secondary producers delivered 11.178 tonnes and 2.032 tonnes, respectively, of the 37,3 tonnes of gold received by Fidelity Printers and Refiners, the government’s main gold buyer.

Regardless of how their hard work has contributed to Zimbabwe’s fiscus over the years, artisanal miners continue to operate in an informal, unregulated, under-capitalised, under-equipped and labour-intensive terrain with no government support.

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An investigation by She Corresponds Africa with support from Information for Development Trust (IDT) revealed that while the Zimbabwean  government is on cloud nine about the tremendous growth in gold production, a few individuals are making millions from the precious mineral.

Yet the artisanal miners, who are contributing to its growth, remain poor and their working conditions are worsening, leading to thousands being injured or killed every year in mining accidents.

Watch: Joshua Magwerede speak on issues of safety for artisanal miners

Artisanal mining in Zimbabwe

With the country’s unemployment rate estimated at a staggering 95%, men, women and children, who live in or near mineral rich areas like Penhalonga (Manicaland) and Makonde (Mashonaland West) are venturing into artisanal mining.

In some instances, some, mostly men,  are travelling from faraway places to set up shop in gold rich areas and only return  to their hometowns after ‘striking gold’.

In gold rich areas, new mining shafts are mushrooming daily. The Zimbabwe Miners Federation estimates that the number of artisanal miners operating in Zimbabwe has since risen to 1.5 million.

“Almost everyone here is into artisanal or small scale mining. Farming is done on a small scale, mostly by the elderly, otherwise everyone else is into gold. We generally operate as syndicates to take out the ore and share the profits after the ore is processed,” Magweregwede said.

Investigations revealed these syndicates comprise groups of artisanal miners moving from one gold-rich area to another.

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Armed with usually hired ordinary tools like picks, shovels, ropes, blasters and hammers among others, artisanal miners continuously risk their lives digging underground in search of gold, hoping to make enough money to take them out of poverty.

“Usually, we do not receive wages, but rather, we share the profits. The share one gets depends on whether the tools we used and any other expenses incurred, such as transportation of the mineral to the grinding mill and the milling process, were covered by a sponsor or came from our own pockets.”

A sponsor is an individual who provides mining tools (he/she owns or hires), food and water among other needs during the extraction of gold ore to artisanal miners.

On a good month, one can earn between US$300-US$350 said Kurai Kapiya, an artisanal miner based in Penhalonga.

Most artisanal miners are into alluvial gold mining, where they use mercury, a highly hazardous substance in harvesting gold particles from the ore.

It is often considered as the easiest and most cost-effective solution for gold separation.

According to a report titled  Purses and Curses: Impact of Chinese Mining on Local Communities in Zimbabwe released recently by Information for Development Trust (IDT), a non-profit organisation promoting access to information essential for the enhancement of transparency and accountability in private-public governance, a Chinese company, STC Mine Cynide Chemical (Pvt sells mercury to miners.

STC Mine Cynide Chemical “…sells mercury to all types of miners including artisanal and small scale miners who have little knowledge of how to use it without endangering their lives, families and animal life. The company sells to artisanal miners despite Zimbabwe having banned mercury,” the report reads in part.

Our investigations also revealed that more striking is the fact that most of the miners live in rural areas where their standards of living hardly indicate that they are contributing so much to the country’s development.

Injuries and deaths due to mining accidents

According to a special report titled Campaigning for safer working conditions in Zimbabwe’s artisanal and small-scale mining, which was published on the 6th of May, 2021 by IndustriaLL Global Union for years, hundreds of artisanal miners have been dying in flooded and collapsing mines, which trap them underground.

IndustriALL Global Union is a coalition of trade unions representing workers in the metal, chemical, energy, mining, textile and related industries throughout the world.

Sadly, due to futile rescue missions, some mines where accidents have happened are now grave sites of artisanal miners.

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According to the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development, in 2019, the country recorded a total of 116 accidents, which resulted in 182 fatalities, most of which were artisanal miners. In 2020, at least six mines collapsed nationwide, killing around 190 miners.

This includes 20 deaths recorded at Ran mine where an old derelict gold mine shaft collapsed on 6 November 2020. Only six miners were rescued and 24 were trapped underground when the rescue mission ended.

The mother of Brighton Makara, who was among those who died, Tariro Marenga from Bindura’s Chipadze high density suburb said she and other miners’ relatives rushed to the scene. They waited two weeks for a rescue that never came.

He was 27 and had been an artisanal miner for four years.

“If only he had managed to get employed elsewhere, maybe he would still be alive,” she said in a trembling voice.

The Mines Ministry further notes that Zimbabwe recorded a total of 179 fatal accidents in 2022, which resulted in 182 deaths.

Speaking at the 2022 National Mine Rescue competitions,  deputy chief government mining Engineer Tapererwa Paswavaviri said the increase in mining accidents for artisanal miners was a cause for concern.

“I note with great concern that the years 2019 to date, witnessed some serious increase in mine accidents and fatalities,” he said. “In Zimbabwe, one miner dies every week on average over the past five years, with 139 killed over the last nine months of 2022, indicating a disturbing trend,’’ he said.

Investigations, however, revealed that the statistics are a tip of the iceberg as many accidents and casualties are not captured because of how scattered artisanal mining operations are.

Among the unrecorded cases is Magweregwede’s cousin, Christopher Mupupe (23), who died when a mining shaft he was panning in collapsed, trapping him and five others in February this year.

His three years of gold mining ended with an  abrupt rescue mission from members of his syndicate, who after pulling him out, saw him breathe his last.  

Mupupe’s mother, Sheilla Magaya, is yet to come to terms with the death of her son.

“Burying a child is every parent’s worst nightmare. My son was a very jovial hard working individual, who dreamt of becoming a successful businessman,” she said.

Watch: Sheila narrate about her son who was killed when a mining shaft he was panning in collapsed

Zimbabwe’s labour laws allow for health and safety in the mines and the country has also signed the International Labour Organisation Convention 176 on Safety and Health in Mines.

But these legal frameworks are hard to enforce  in an informal working environment, says former chairperson for the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Mines and Mining Development, Edmond Mukaratigwa. 

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“For the government to effectively monitor all the mining operations and accidents is difficult because mining is done underground . We are only hoping for well-wishers to come up and help us with information pertaining such issues,’’ he said.

“As the portfolio committee, we are hoping to establish community monitoring committees that will work with the communities as well as government in the fight against accidents and the abuse of miners by licenced miners.”

A new form of exploitation

The Zimbabwe Miners Federation has four different classes of mining one of which (Class C) allows mining operations run by people with mining claims to hire labourers to work on the site. Here, mining is often done by syndicates, which have profit-sharing agreements with the owners.

However, investigations revealed that registered mining companies are informally engaging artisanal miners to work on their claim for a percentage of sales proceeds. This is done under the guise of empowering them.

The oral contracts allow another person or group of people to work the claim or lease, or part thereof, in return for a proportion of the value of production or profits.

However, the artisanal miners are not entitled to any benefits including personal protective equipment (PPE).

 Yusuf Phiri is one such artisanal miner. He and nine others work on a small scale mine owned by a local businessman based in Chijaka, Makonde.

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When we visited the mine in June, Phiri, with two of his colleagues, were in a 70-metre-long underground mining shaft, blasting stones.

Dirty pots and pans from a previous meal were scattered on the dirty floor near a 1.5 by 1 metre cabin the miners use on night shift.

There are no toilets. They use the nearby bushes to relieve themselves.

For him, a normal working day starts at 6am and ends at 10pm.

“The kind of work we are doing is hard but we have to do what we have to do to survive,” Phiri said.

“As much as the equipment we are using is not enough, I  have to commend the owner of the mining claim for trying his best.

“Other people don’t have the little we have. What I would want to have is another cabin like the one we already have so that no one sleeps outside when we are on night shift, especially when it’s very cold,” he said.

Another agreement we came across during our investigation is a deal between Better Brands, which is operating tributaries of RedWing Mine in Penhalonga, and artisanal miners.

Better Brands is run by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s close ally Pedzisayi “Scott” Sakupwanya – a Zanu PF councillor.

The artisanal miners working with Better Brands perform unsafe surface mining.

Earlier this year, Clinton Tapiwa Masanga, the director of Penhalonga Youth Development Trust said mining operations at the Redwing Mine had seen the extraction of gold ore by artisanal miners in conjunction with registered firms despite that mining shafts at Redwing are not up to expected standards of the Ministry of Mines.

Centre for Research and Development (CRD), director, James Mupfumi buttressed Masanga’s sentiments, highlighting the deplorable working conditions artisanal miners at Redwing are exposed to.

“There is no barricading to working sites and steep inclined shafts, no protection to blasting fumes, dust and gases, no protective clothing including lifeline and life jackets, no precautionary measures in working distances of less than 10 metres, no adequate timbering to prevent fall of ground among other issues,” Mupfumi said.

In a joint statement released in January this year, Zivai Community Empowerment Trust, Penhalonga Youth Development Trust and Penhalonga Residents and Ratepayers Trust, CRD and Centre for Natural Resources Governance said over 100 artisanal miners had died at  Redwing mine since 2020.

They further stated that 26 deaths had been recorded by civil society groups in January 2023 alone.

Further efforts to get a comment from Better Brands concerning the unsafe working environment were futile as Sakupwanya’s mobile number on more than 40 different times went unanswered.

Zimbabwe Miners Federation chief executive officer Wellington Takavarasha confirmed that there were people with claims or leases who hire artisanal miners to work their sites but do not provide them with PPEs.

“Class C is a production oriented class and operations are mainly based on the workforce. Of course, there have been cases of ill-treatment of the ‘contracted’ artisanal miners but in recent times there has been strict monitoring of mining claims by regulatory authorities,” he said.

“If the mine owner is not practicing safe and sustainable mining, they are fined US$15 per miner.’’

Investigations, however, revealed that there are no official statistics of the total number of fined mining safety cases.

Formalisation as the way forward

Claims by the government of being in the process of formalising artisanal mining, so that it is done in an orderly manner with clear policy guidelines, regulations and support have turned into a never ending song.

In February 2021, then permanent secretary in the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development, Onesimo Mazai Moyo said his ministry was working with other ministries and organisations to address mining accidents.

He said they were also working on formalisation of artisanal mining and blamed the Covid-19 lockdown for delaying the interventions.

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Speaking at a gathering in Mashonaland Central province in November last year, then Mines minister Winston Chitando again promised  to formalise artisanal miners, hinting that they would be assisted with bigger mining companies.

“You will be working with big companies like Metallon Gold,” Chitando said.

However past experiences have shown that Zimbabwe’s government hardly appreciates the back-breaking efforts artisanal miners are making to shore up the country’s economy.

The 60 year old Mines and Minerals Act, which currently governs mining activities in the country does not recognise them and continues to subjugate them.

After sailing through parliament, President Emmerson Mnangagwa raised concerns about some of its provisions.

Mukaratigwa says “on the issue of the bill, if the process is not completed now, the next parliament will take over from there and proceed as guided by the Parliamentary Standing Orders and processes.

“It is a necessary piece of law and I know that the government has much interest in it that the process will continue,’’ he said.

Most artisanal miners interviewed during the course of this investigation are of the notion that, an inclusive and more practical formalisation would be a positive game-changer for the gold sector if done right.

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