Uncertain future for Konkola

”Congratulations — 15 days no accident,” reads a billboard at the entrance to Konkola Copper Mine (KCM) in Zambia’s northern Copperbelt province.

”It’s a new record for the mine,” says Robinson Sambwa, an engineer at KCM, one of Zambia’s biggest mines that employs about 11 000 workers. Down in the pits some miners, dressed in white overalls, are busy working on the generators, pumping out water to prevent the mine from flooding.

”Water is a major problem here,” says Sambwa. ”It costs the mine one-million dollars every month to pay for the electricity we use to pump out water,” he says, adding that KCM is considered the world’s most water-logged mine.

Every day the mine pumps out about 300 000 cubic metres of water, which is used for concentrating copper and for domestic use in the miners’ housing compound in Chingola, a town some 450 kilometres north of the Zambian capital Lusaka.

”Morale among the workers is low,” says one miner as he takes a break from drilling a rock. The low morale is due to the sudden pullout from KCM by Anglo American Corporation of South Africa, which bought a majority share-holding in the mine two years ago.

Anglo cited low copper prices on the international market and high production costs as its reason for abandoning the Zambian mine.

”The company has to look forward and find a new investor,” says Norman Mbazima, KCM’s finance manager, adding that several mining companies have shown interest in the venture. KCM has drawn up a survival plan to keep the mines running and protect the 11 000 jobs while still searching for another investor to fill the gap left by Anglo.

”KCM should be able to continue even if a new investor is not immediately found,” says Mbazima. Anglo paid

$30-million to KCM as an exit package and offered an additional $26,5-million in form of a loan, while the Zambian government contributed $8,5-million to keep the mine afloat. Another $20-million will be sourced from commercial banks.

”With this financing plan in place, KCM should be able to move on as a continuing operation until its ore sources are depleted,” says Mbazima.

However, he bemoans the high production costs in Zambia, saying KCM spends $350-400 million on production costs annually with 20% of that amount going on wages. East of the mine stands a huge open pit mine called Nchanga, which is also run by KCM. The future of this mine is bleak.

”The open pit mine is expected to close in 2004,” said Mbazima, adding that about 800 jobs will be lost. Mbazima says this is unavoidable because the mineral ore will have been depleted by that time.

The Zambian government, aware of the damage that mine closure will cause the country’s economy, has embarked on an ambitious programme to shift the focus from copper to agriculture. ”We have realised that copper is a perishable asset and hence the need to develop agriculture as an alternative to mining,” said Jean Phiri, a district administrator of Chingola, a town known in Zambia as the heart of the copperbelt.

She said miners there are being taught how to get into fish farming, one of the projects identified in the pilot project for diversifying the economy. – Sapa-AFP

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