Sunday, September 20, 2020

The miners are back

It was founded on gold, and when the gold diggers retreated they left behind a mature town that refused to die. Almost a century later, new gold and copper/nickel deposits have been found in the vicinity of a town fondly known to historians as “the old lady of Botswana”.

Once again, Botswana’s first and oldest town – which has played the poor cousin to Gaborone since independence – is blossoming, and its residents’ purchasing power is enhanced.

It is generally accepted that Francistown’s establishment as a town resulted from the presence of gold in the area’s vicinity. Some writers suggest that the metal had been mined long before the colonial era, with world workings discovered which date back as far as 1100 and 1400 A.D. The African Traveling Net website says early European explorers discovered the remains of these prehistoric mines in the mid-19th century and, in 1880.

The genesis of modern-day Francistown dates back to 1868, inheriting the name from a Daniel Francis who was a central figure in the early gold rushes of 1868-73.

“The early gold rushes of 1868-73 saw prospectors and miners from Europe and Australasia begin to stream northwards up the missionaries’ road, to open up old mines at Tati (now Francistown) which lay in the zone between the Ngwato and Ndebele kingdoms,” writes University of Botswana’s history professor Neil Parsons in the book A New History of Southern Africa.

“Long before Gaborone was anything more than a village, Francistown was established to serve this mining industry and was a vigorously developing centre,” the African Travelling Net website chronicles the emergence of Francistown as a vibrant centre of commerce.

However, the mining did not take off on a large scale because the small mining companies did not posses the proper technology to extract the ore. Apparently, the miners noted that the gold in eastern Botswana is a complicated mix of narrow reefs, which made it very difficult for them to extract anything, and by the 1940s much of the small-scale operations had ceased. Even the larger companies, which continued to sustain the operations for a while, soon abandoned the project, leaving what could have easily turned into a ghost town.

But Francistown refused to die. Because of its strategic position, the town was able to survive as a trading centre often acting as stop for travelers to Rhodesia or to the Zambia via the Okavango swamps.
A century later, the economic activity that gave birth to the town – mining – is back, and it’s big. The now City of Francistown is seeing a re-emergence of large-scale mining and a booming economy as a result of the golden opportunities provided by Mupane Gold Mine, as well as the copper and nickel deposits at the Tati Nickel mine.

The Tati Nickel Mining Company (Pty) Limited is a joint venture between LionOre, which has an 85 percent stake in the project, and the Botswana Government, which holds 15 percent. Tati Nickel Company owns the Phoenix nickel operation and the Selkirk underground nickel mine, which has been on care and maintenance since late 2002. Tati Nickel has a capacity of 12,500 to 14,500 tonnes of payable nickel per annum. This represents a 16 percent increase over design and a 27 percent improvement on the best achieved annual production to date. In 2004, the Phoenix mine produced 11,446 tonnes of payable nickel.

In September 2005, LionOre announced “Project 5 million” for the Phoenix Pit at Tati. The project is a low capital cost plan to increase production from the current design.
The establishment of the world’s first Activox refinery by Tati Nickel Mining Company this year at a cost of P4 billion provides one of the indicators of the rise of the “Capital city of the North” as a major centre of economic activity.

The Activox refinery is expected to increase export earning by 2.5 percent, increase the Gross Domestic Product by 1 percent and create 3, 500 direct jobs, 500 of them permanent.

Mupane Gold Mine is a venture by Australian mining company, Gallery Gold. The company, which is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, is no stranger to Botswana. It opened operations in Botswana in 1994 with the purchase of Monarch Gold Mine, north of Francistown, where it operated small-scale mining operations. Mupane’s operation currently produces just over 100 000 ounce of gold, and it plans to increase its annual production to between 250 000 and 350 000 ounce in the year 2007/2008.
With the cumulative investment of the mines having surpassed the billion Pula mark, and over 5, 000 employment opportunities provided, the mining operations have led to a surge in the number of people with disposable income in Francistown.

A sales consultant at the real estate company Kwena Property Services says all the prime properties that were put up for purchase has been snapped up.

“Although we cannot positively attribute the sudden appetite for property to the resurgence in mining, there has been discernible impact,” the property consultant told FPN.
At Francistown Agribots, a vegetable produce company, the manager – Gordon Chidamoyo – has witnessed a steady rise in demand. This convinces him that there is a boom in Francistown.

“The mines do not buy anything directly from us. But obviously when the purchasing power of individuals increase due to increased employment opportunities, we are bound to benefit,” he says.

The economic boom is being felt across all sectors of the economic strata. Bus owners have landed lucrative deals to provide shuttle services for the mines’ employees to and from the town centre, where most of them live. The small food vendor has not been left out. Tin structures erupt everyday to feed the miners.

Everything seems to point to a city experiencing high levels of economic growth – with all its attendant social ills.

Studies carried out around the world suggest that economic prosperity brings an inherent moral and value degradation. While revival of mining is good news in most respects, the newly found affluence of residents provides a dilemma on the social frontier.

A study conducted during Thailand’s economic boom years in the early 1990s said an increase in affluence also resulted in a rise in the number of men who visited commercial sex workers. It says during the economic boom, almost 20 percent of Thai men reported regularly visiting commercial sex workers. The figure has since decreased to around 10 percent, as the boom subsided. A similar trend is said to have been noted in Zambia’s Copperbelt province, when the resurgence in mining boosted commercial sex work.

“The resurgent mining industry in Zambia’s Copperbelt province has boosted commercial sex work in the region, which could help fuel the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections,” reported the Times of Zambia last year.

Could such a scenario play itself in Francistown?

University of Botswana’s AIDS Coordinator, Mosarwa Segwabe, says although she is not an expert in disease patterns, inferences made from previous prevalence studies make it highly likely that the resurgence in mining around the Francistown could possibly contribute to behaviour associated with HIV transmission.

“At one point, Francistown used to record the highest HIV prevalence rate in Botswana. Then Selebi-Phikwe led the HIV prevalence rate for more than two years. A similarity between the two towns is that both have mining histories,” Segwabe notes.

Segwabe indicates that wherever there is a working environment that attracts a lot of men, such as mining does, the womenfolk follow.

“This gives rise to risky behaviour such a commercial sex work and multiple sex partners,” she says.

In the fairytale, the Midas touch brought more sorrow than joy for the king who loved gold. Could “the old lady of Botswana” find herself in the same situation due to her newly found mineral-inspired prosperity? (FPN)

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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.