Friday, June 21, 2024

Phikwe: my dead town still walking.

There is little joy in Phikwe nowadays. The mood is  sombre  and every random person you  encounter  wears a   worried look  that seems to sense  things  can only  get  worse  before  they get better. If  they ever  do. Long time  natives, the ones who are now ancestors because they never left town say  queues are shorter  in  supermarkets and punters spend  less time and money  in pubs. Those working for themselves say  business is bad and the whole town is hurting. In the words of the BB King ballad, the thrill is gone. The future isn’t  what it used to be. Phikwe  is  a town  going through a  commodities crash wreaking  havoc   in mining towns stretching from  Australia, Brazil,  to  Zambia. The history  of mining  is  the story  of  boom and  bust. In every country  that  has enjoyed  a mining  boom  lie carcasses of ghost towns which represent a legacy  of  once upon a time. A weekend  spent  in Phikwe  is a sobering experience  especially for  those  of us who  consider  the  place our  hometown where we  were raised, went to cr├¿che and proceeded to high school before  migrating  to the wider  world for  pursuits such as  varsity  and  other opportunities.


For all Phikweans, the locality  just holds this special place in our affections. However in the past few months  the air of  despondency  pervading  our  town  has become  heavier. We  have  been through  these   boom and bust cycles before. During  the  bad times long ago, as kids we probably didn’t  realise things were bad. Which  ten year old  knows anything  about copper nickel  prices  and  how  they affect the  livelihood  of  his town? But now  travelling there time and again  on social  obligations  such as funerals, weddings and alumni celebrations,  we see  with adult eyes  what  our childhood innocence  once shielded us from during bad times. The town  is once again   hanging  on for  dear  life. BCL mine, our life blood with the  mountain backdrop of   black slag dumps  is   barely keeping  the wolf  from the door. There are other  ominous signs of decline. On the football pitch  Nico United  is in a shambles and  just going through  the motions. This is the team I loved long before television  brought me Kaizer Chiefs, Real Madrid and  now the team with whom my loyalties lie, Leicester City. It was Nico United  that  visited on me the rollercoaster of joy and dejection that is the life of  a football fan. After watching all World Cups, beginning 1982 culminating in the 2014 tournament which was my  most memorable, up to this day the best goal I ever saw  in the history of football  remains the one scored by a certain Ryder Jobe of Nico United in an off season friendly against Black Aces in Botshabelo township. In the field of  domestic sports, nothing  evokes a  greater  association  with Phikwe  than Nico United. This is the original  home  team  which has stood the test  of time and maintained  loyalty of its supporters  in times good and bad because  of its  siamese ties to the town.  We have  had more fashionable  teams such as  the once mighty Copper Chiefs, now  morphed  into Satmos but  none resonates more  than the green and yellow. Ours has been the  footballing  heartbeat of the town  through  its fraternity  with   BCL  mine which  traditionally  employs most of our players and  provides  sponsorship. Football bequeathes  us  memories. And to  memories we always return to comprehend the present. Nico United is in trouble because BCL  mine  is on its knees. 


The difficult economic  times  are being reflected in the  teams  lacklustre  performance with the boys  sometimes not getting paid because the mine  has stopped its monthly grant.  Bracing  for the worst  fewer fans pay  to watch  the team because they have to grapple with bread and butter issues.  At this rate  we could   be heading for  the relegation drop. In this gloomy  time  we  get  nostalgic  for  the  good times  when copper nickel   was king on the metal markets  and on the pitch  Nico  United was  purring, even stringing  passes  together  instead of  the kick and rush  style for which  we were derided  by  rival fans.  We recall  1987  the  year the squad also known as Majombolo returned  home from Lobatse  after  pulling off  a historic win  over Sebele United  in  the final  of  Lions Cup,  then the country’s most prestigious knockout tournament.  The  boys  returned home as heroes and they all looked bashful   not knowing how  heroes were supposed to carry themselves. We  basked  in the glory  of  this rare achievement  and  the bragging  rights in town were ours  for years to come.  When the metal was selling and Nico United   was  putting together  a  run  of  good results,  some of  the  free spirits  in  town  would  go overboard  as they enjoyed the good times. At  month end,  on pay  day  the town would  be  buzzing and everyone knew  that  chomela e ole  which in local parlance means the chimney  has delivered. This was in reference  to  the  most prominent  landmark  in town  which  since  the mine  started operations in the early seventies has been belching sulphur dioxide  from the smelter into  the surrounding countryside. This 153 metre high chimney, the tallest structure  in Botswana  has  sustained many lively hoods but also caused respiratory infections  for some. I  used to suffer asthma like symptoms  when I was a kid  and when the sulphur was really bad I  had to return from school.  Now since the current crisis began , our old class mates who work for the mine say pay day is not fixed and the wages come in late. Not so in 1987 when  we won the Lions Cup. That   was  the year  of  Motshereganyi , a wage dispute windfall for  BCL  workers which left  many  bewildered  and  not knowing  what to do with the extra  cash. The windfall came on top of  the end of year bonus colloquially known as  Mpho le Mphonyana after the South African conjoined twins born that time.


Families  went out to purchase  their first fridges which they expected to be delivered laden  with groceries  just like in the catalogue. Hitherto pedestrian labourers hired  taxis  to be chauffeured   from one pub to  the next. Imbibers exhibited upward mobility by shunning chibuku for beer and spirits. Wives left  in the village were abandoned for  urban girls.   Television  sets  and  music stereos were no longer the status appliances  of senior employees only. At the single men’s  hostels they fed on  gold dish and other canned foods. Yes, 1987  the year of   ‘Motshereganyi’   saw  delirious drinkers  clipping crisp  twenty  pula  notes  to  ears  of stray dogs so they  too could go buy themselves  meat at the butchery and not  scavenge for leftovers. Truly  every dog was having its day. Copper nickel was selling and it was a  year  of money, fun, buffoonery and  on  field  success for Nico United. As we reminisce  about the good times,  at the back of our minds we  have always  known BCL  mine  cannot  go on  forever. No mine does. But reports of the death of BCL  have  always  been premature and exaggerated because life  has  always  been coaxed  out  of its ore face from  one  year to the next. Number crunchers tell us in 2011 copper nickel was fetching 12 dollars a pound but now its down  to below four dollars. Hence the bloodbath playing out  all over the mining world. Technically BCL is bankrupt.  Were  the  mine a privately owned concern, it  would  have retrenched  some of its 5000 plus workforce, cut wages  and  possibly even shutdown. Being a state owned  entity  in terms  of this country’s  policy  of resource nationalisation  is the  only  reason  for continued  existence  in its parlous  condition. In Zambia reports say  close to 10 000 miners  have  been retrenched. In Australia more stories  of misery  emerge  and   veteran  miners  are now  searching for work  in the Gulf states. It might  be clenched  bum time  for those of us  who swear  by the town but we still holding out for  an economic  miracle that will see copper  prices rebounding. We  listen  carefully and  read  the international business  press  to check  out for silver linings  on the horizon. We pray and hope that Phikwe will survive  this crisis  as has happened before. Back in  1987  when life was good and Nico United  on song,  revellers  would  celebrate at the famous   Talk of the Town  nightclub jiving  to the  hottest tunes of the time. Now talk of the town is survival.


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