Ziscosteel: Another Mugabe legacy of failure, neglect

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There is no doubt that President Robert Mugabe’s 37 years at the helm of Zimbabwe have been a disaster to the economy.

By Tapiwa Zivira

Every sector of the country’s economy has been affected directly or indirectly, but perhaps the biggest manifestation of the failure is Kwekwe, a Midlands town that in 1980 was touted as the most promising industrial town in the country.

In that same year, Mugabe, who had just assumed power, was told by his Tanzanian counterpart Julius Nyerere, that he had inherited the jewel of Africa, and that he was supposed “to keep it that way!”.

At the time of Nyerere’s advice, Ziscosteel — a massive steel processing giant strategically located in the iron-rich Redcliff town just 10km from Kwekwe — was producing 30 tonnes of steel a day, and directly employed over 5 000 people and about 50 000 others in downstream and support industries

By 1984, the plant was the country’s biggest earner of foreign currency, but only two years later, signs of poor management were beginning to show.

An inquiry into the operations of Ziscosteel between 1980, when Mugabe took over power and 1986, revealed that already, the main issues that were affecting the company included poor management, corruption, nepotism and failure to refurbish and properly maintain equipment.

Almost four decades later and after several economic hiccups resulting from Mugabe’s inept policies, the massive Ziscosteel industrial complex lies dead, forgotten and rotten like a giant eyesore.

Its chimneys stick out — visible from miles away — and they have long gone cold and rusty, with nothing puffing out, making them somewhat a symbol of the economic failure that the Mugabe regime has become synonymous with.

The impact of Ziscosteel’s closure is nothing any news story can explain fully, but perhaps the size of the land it sits on can relate to how much effect its operation or failure can have on a community.

This is a plant that looks like a little town on its own and is surrounded by settlements that relied on it.

The plant alone, excluding the Buchwa Mine where it sourced its iron ore, covers about two million square metres — nearly the same size as Harare city centre from Rotten Row Avenue to Fourth Street and from Kenneth Kaunda to Hebert Chitepo Avenues, as measured on Google Maps.

It is this expansive area — where over 5 000 workers were once employed — that has been reduced to abandoned yards of rusting steel structures and derelict equipment covered in outgrowing grass, trees and bushes.

It has become home to squirrels, monkeys and baboons, and can only make an ideal set for a horror movie shoot.

The 16km conveyor belt, which was once the longest in Africa and runs across the factory, is today barely visible in the trees.

It is one of the distinct signs that by the time it shut down, the plant was already suffering from mismanagement.

Most of the infrastructure and machinery looks archaic from years of not getting replaced such that the talk of reviving the plant in a short while, as in the recent government deal with a Chinese firm R&F, are mere rhetoric.

The giant plant will — no doubt — require more than just the government’s pledge to shift the company’s debt to the taxpayer, but will need massive retooling investment, if not a fresh start.

For the company’s chimneys to start running again, there is need to capacitate other companies that contribute to Zisco, like Zesa’s coal production in Hwange, and the transporter of ore, coal and final product, the struggling National Railways of Zimbabwe.

Interestingly, R&F, which is said to be keen to pour $2 billion into Zisco, has interests in real estate and no traceable history in metal resources, making the deal appear like just another one of the many signed by government but never came into fruition.

It appears an impossible feat that a plant as huge as Ziscosteel could be run down to closure and be wrecked to a mess that it is now.

However, for those who know the levels of economic mismanagement the government is capable of — given that in 2008 the country had the highest ever inflation rate and that all supermarket shelves were at once empty — it is easy to understand how the Mugabe adminstration managed to bring the giant, Ziscosteel to its knees.

For a government that has spent the last five years of its tenure making empty deals, it remains to be seen whether the latest attempt on Ziscosteel — where it is expected a million tonnes will be produced “in the next 18 months” — will see the light of day.

For now, the plant remains forgotten and obsolete and its ghost continues to haunt Kwekwe and Redcliff residents, something that Mugabe may not fail to find sleep over. – The Standard