For the first time in years, there is a perceptible movement by skilled workers back to Zimbabwe.
From where we stood, peering hundreds of metres down into what was once Zimbabwe’s largest iron ore mine, I could see nothing more than an eerily silent dust bowl.
“That’s your problem,” chided my childhood friend, Craig Dube. “Very soon trucks will be running in and out of there again.”
For the first time in eight years, Dube has returned from the United States, where he worked in a Boston factory as a fitter and turner. But, unlike many other “exiles” on holiday in Zimbabwe, he isn’t going back.
The Buchwa iron mine, which feeds Ziscosteel, is just outside our home town in the midlands. Once one of Africa’s largest iron producers, its main mill is little more than a pile of rust-caked scrap, deserted by virtually all its skilled workers. The remaining few have not been paid in a year.
Ziscosteel collapsed with debts of about $300-million. Corruption and mismanagement have been blamed.
Dube, who trained here in the 1990s, has put in an application to resume work at the mill. “I chose to come back now, get myself set up before there’s a rush of people coming back,” he said.
The “rush” may be an exaggeration, but for the first time in years, there is a perceptible movement by skilled workers back to Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwean professionals began leaving in the 1990s, but it became an exodus after 2000 when violence flared and the economy tanked. By 2003 half-a-million workers had left, according to Zimbabwe’s Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre.
By that year Zimbabwe had lost 80% of the doctors, nurses, pharmacists and radiologists it had trained since 1980. In 2008 alone, at the peak of the crisis, mines lost half their skilled workforce, mostly to South Africa.
But Zimbabweans have begun taking real steps to plug the drain. In December hundreds of émigrés from countries including Ethiopia and Russia gathered at Victoria Falls for the first major meeting of exiled Zimbabwean professionals. Nokwazi Moyo, the chief organiser of the Development Foundation for Zimbabwe, said his group believes “in a recovery strategy that emphasises that the return of skills must have a clear agenda”.
It won’t be easy. In 2009 Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai was booed off a stage in London after he called on exiled supporters to return, although growing numbers of groups are being formed to help repatriate skilled Zimbabweans. Employment agencies are setting up special units to attract exiles and real estate companies attribute a spike in house prices to the growing demand from citizens abroad.
In the country’s largest companies there are signs of returning skills. Mwana Africa, its largest nickel miner, and Econet Wireless, its biggest telecoms operator, have reported that a growing number of their own skilled workers who left years ago are returning.
On the register
New websites are flourishing, such as comehometozim.com and motherlandzimbabwe.org, where emigrants are registering for jobs back home. Zimbabwehumancapital.org, set up by the government and the International Organisation for Migration, carries an extensive listing of jobs by Ziscosteel, which is looking for everyone from electricians to book-keepers. Dube has emailed the page to a former Ziscosteel colleague working in Birmingham. “He’ll be interested,” he said.
Feeding the optimism is Essar Africa’s $400-million deal for a majority stake in Ziscosteel, the most significant foreign investment under the unity government.
Redcliff, the town that depended entirely on Ziscosteel, has been deserted by banks and supermarkets, leaving dingy bars where former workers numb themselves with cheap spirits. Pattison Mubaiwa, who headed the workers’ committee, hopes to see a quick change. “Families here are suffering,” he said.
At the local council offices the mayor, Joseph Matewa, said his workers have not been paid since September 2009, but the Essar deal has raised hopes.
At a farm 20km outside the town, Farai Makwati, an old school friend who left Zimbabwe in 2002, greets us at the gate, three beers in hand. He returned just over a year ago, leaving behind his London tax consultancy job for this leased patch of land.
“I grow this beer,” he said enthusiastically. Makwati has signed a contract with the country’s largest brewery and has grown his first crop of barley. In September he will plant his first tobacco crop.
He has obviously taken note of the numbers. Tobacco growers made close to $500-million last year, double their 2009 earnings, and higher profits are expected this year.
In the radio commentary box above the deserted Torwood Stadium, which overlooks the steel factory, I moan about the demise of our local football team, which used to play in the premiership league until the factory began collapsing.
Makwati counters my sentiment with the story of a businessman who lost €430 000 in cash during a recent robbery at his home. “So, you see, there is money here,” said Dube.
Laughing, he whips out his cellphone and updates his Facebook status: “You can come back now. Open for business.”