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.