I could not believe that we were actually descending into Ndola airport. The scene that unfolded before me was unbelievable. The airport buildings were run down and probably of hand me downs from the colonial administration. To some extent, Ndola airport reminded me of the Francistown airport, with derelict buildings and bumpy runways. At least the Francistown airport is being refurbished, but there was no construction at Ndola airport. My consternation increased two fold as we made our way out of the dull airport and joined the major highways leading to our hotel.
Once majestic and well maintained neighbourhoods now look like mini- slums, with paint peeling off and lawns untended. The closure of the mining towns has badly affected developments in Ndola. The municipality also seems to have been heavily dependent on the mining conglomerates. The streets are chocking under litter, the roads are unmaintained and full of gaping potholes. The provision of social services in Ndola has practically come to a standstill. There is almost zero industrial action. Soccer, rugby and cricket stadiums lie derelict with untended lawns and dilapidated facilities.
Ndola┬áis the third largest city in┬áZambia, and the┬ácapital of the Copperbelt, Zambia’s┬ácopper-mining┬áregion. It is also the commercial capital city of┬áZambia. Ndola lies just 10┬ákm from the border with┬áDR Congo.
A Zambian colleague, who came to meet us at the airport, explained that everything crumbled after the mining conglomerates closed shop and left Ndola to rot. As with many towns on the Copperbelt, Ndola’s industry was heavily dependent on the now disbanded Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines Ltd (ZCCM). With the demise of ZCCM, many facilities deteriorated fast.
“At the height of mining and industrial activity in Zambia, Ndola was the largest industrial centre, boasting of industries like Colgate-Palmolive, Unilever, Dunlop and Land Rover. But the economy shrunk significantly from 1980, and the city is now almost haunted” said Times of Zambia journalist Billy Kazoka.
Blue chip companies have packed and gone, and there is virtually no industrial activity in the town.
We visited the Bwana Mkubwa┬áopen-cast mine, 10┬ákm south-east of the city centre. It is not really a mine but a processing centre. Operations at Bwana Mkwuba ceased after the ore depleted, and employees are uncertain of the future, as the site only processes ore obtained from independent suppliers from within Zambia and the nearby DRC.
Ndola is in many ways similar to Botswana’s copper and nickel mining town, Selibe Phikwe, which is also facing threats of collapse due to the imminent closure of the Bamangwato Concession Limited (BCL) mine.
Nickel mining commenced in Selibe Phikwe in 1973, and it has been the main economic activity since then. Today, the town runs the risk of becoming a ghost town, as mining prospects show that copper and nickel deposits will be depleted by as early as 2013, unless ongoing exploration activities discover new deposits.
According to a recent European Union study, over 80 000 people are dependent on BCL mine for sustenance. BCL is a major employer in the city, and any job losses will be tragic for both employees, and the villages that surround Selibe Phikwe, among them Bobirwa, Mmadinare and Tswapong. The EU report warned of the danger of social unrest if billions are not pumped into saving Selibe Phikwe from collapse.
This prompted the Botswana government, with the assistance of the EU to set up the Selibe Phikwe Economic Diversification Unit (SPEDU).
SPEDU has a mandate of steering the economic dependence of the town away from mining. But so far, SPEDU has not achieved much. The EU had initially proposed a P500 million cash injection, but it now seems to be dragging its feet.
Even Finance Minister Kenneth Matambo has warned that SPEDU should not heighten expectations and later fail to deliver, given the global economic recession.?
“We cannot implement everything at once. Projects like Dikgathong dam are yet to be finished” he said at a recent economic diversification symposium.
But EU insists that they are still committed to the cause. “It was always known that funding will cease after 2009. But we can still support diversification at national and regional level” the head of Delegation of the European Commission, Paul Malin told Sunday Standard recently.
Some of the envisaged projects include supporting technical education and training, and exploring avenues through which the image of Selibe Phikwe can be shored up. Chief among these will be to reduce pollution caused by the BCL smelter’s sulphur dioxide emissions, and capturing the sulphur dioxide to produce sulphuric acid. There are also plans to construct a railway line that would link the region to Maputo airport. The airport, bridges and roads will also be upgraded.
SPEDU is also adamant that diversification efforts should not be dependent on BCL.
“Diversification is needed whether BCL is there or not” said Wazha Tema, SPEDU’s Marketing and Communications Manager.
Other initiatives will convert Selibe Phikwe into a tourism transit route, and also sell Letsibogo dam as a leisure and recreation centre. Selibe Phikwe is a tourist route from South Africa to the popular destinations of Okavango and Chobe. There is significant potential for bird watching and fishing, especially of baas and bream, at Letsibogo Dam. An experimental population of Tiger Fish, introduced in 2009, has proven feasible.
Started in 1985, the Phikwe Marathon, is classified to date as one of the best in the world, and could be boosted to become an international event.
Previous diversification programmes in Selibe Phikwe have not borne fruit. Foreign investors took advantage of the financial assistance policy to set up textiles and manufacturing industries in the town, but later disappeared into thin air. Empty factory shells in Selibe Phikwe bear testimony to this.
The reality, however, is that government, SPEDU and other stakeholders are becoming desperate. When the ore depletes, the miners will pack and go, leaving government saddled with 80 000 plus destitute with no livelihood. For close to four decades, they depended on their mineral wealth for sustenance, hoping that their government will harness the wealth to establish a larger industrial base. And now the wealth is gone. Will Selibe Phikwe be another Ndola?