/ 24 May 2022

Zimbabwe’s youth caught between patronage and plunder

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A miner carries a load of ore at Manzou Farm, owned by Grace Mugabe, wife of former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, in Mazowe, Zimbabwe. (JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP via Getty Images)

At the time of its independence, optimism abounded about Zimbabwe’s potential to become a model African state that would leverage its abundance of natural resources towards the creation of a truly inclusive society. Sadly, this potential was squandered by weak and often predatory governance, leaving society with few prospects to prosperity. 

At present, Zimbabwe’s youth face an entirely different future to the one promised at independence and again after the “new dispensation” in 2017. 

Today, the country remains in a fragile state, characterised by chronic poverty, high levels of formal unemployment that has resulted in an overreliance on the informal economy, a virtually bankrupt state and endemic corruption. Declining state capacity not only translated into weakened relations between the state and society, but also fuelled growing competition for resources that has eventually yielded greater polarisation within society. 

Ultimately, this state of perpetual fragility within a country characterised by trust deficits and a population left to fend for itself, has fractured social cohesion and continues to threaten social and political stability. With millions facing economic marginalisation, the informal economy (with its own inherent vulnerabilities) has been the only means to earn a living. 

Zimbabwe now looks to the next decade where a decidedly young and vulnerable population must navigate declining living conditions with few options to secure gainful employment.

Recent research from the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) finds that youth are now being driven to participate in risky and sometimes violent endeavours so that they can earn some form of income. Competition over scarce resources, low levels of human development and few opportunities in the formal economy have resulted in an influx of youth, politicians, gangs and other actors engaging in the illicit economy, where people are embroiled in violence.

One dangerous manifestation of this reality is unfolding at illegal mining sites. Artisanal small-scale gold mining (ASGM) has attracted desperate youth but also other actors such as political elites, illegal gold buyers, unscrupulous middlemen and criminals. Serious violence in artisanal mining was first witnessed in alluvial diamond mining in the Chiadzwa area in Manicaland province during the most difficult economic downturn in the country between 2005 and 2008.

One area under study was the district of Kwekwe in the Midlands province of central Zimbabwe. Originally established as a mining town in 1898, successive waves of economic decline and structural adjustments forced mines to scale down and eventually shut down, resulting in thousands losing their source of income. 

The ASGM in Kwekwe became the only lucrative option for the unemployed because of attractive gold prices offered by illegal gold buyers. Although artisanal mining was decriminalised in 2014, it has made way for pockets of lawlessness that have turned into sites of instability and violence.

Today, it is estimated that there are about one million people who are making a living from illegal mining activities in Kwekwe. With such a large influx of people to the area there has also been a growing demographic diversity and that has come with tensions underpinned by the differing interests of those involved in the sector. 

Women are also migrating to Kwekwe to sell goods and services to artisanal small-scale gold miners (ASGMers), ranging from food and clothes to transactional sex. 

Also involved are politicians, illegal gold buyers, middlemen, runners and criminal syndicates. The involvement of criminal syndicates has led to an increase in violence and murders in the Kwekwe area. 

Evidence points to violent conflict among different players in a bid to control resource-rich areas. The growing number of ASGMers and the informal nature of the sector have contributed to ongoing chaotic mining operations and rising instability. Economic inequity could help explain the phenomenon of machete-wielding gangs, Mashurugwi, who are largely marginalised youths that have resorted to violence and theft in mining areas. 

Data sourced from the Armed Conflict Location and Events Data (ACLED) project and used for this research, shows that this environment has led to a gradual increase in conflict events over the last 10 years. The surge in violence is largely attributed to an increase in the number of ”attacks”, “armed clashes” and “mob violence”.

Prominent actors in Kwekwe are gangs including a group locally known as Al Shabaab. They have strong connections to some senior ruling party officials from the province. Other criminal gangs include groups such as Mbimbos, Magombiro and Mabhudhi, who mostly specialise in raiding gold ore or demanding rents from ASGMers using machetes and guns. 

ASGMers have responded by forming defence syndicates to protect themselves from attacks by criminal gangs, also arming themselves with machetes and guns.

Growth and expansion of ASGM can be connected to the economic decline, rising unemployment and poverty in Zimbabwe. The situation has also been allowed to worsen with the government turning a blind eye to ASGMers’ activities because the sector now plays a significant role is supporting livelihoods of many families. 

In addition to creating pockets of instability, its unregulated nature has fed an increase in smuggling of metals and minerals, with much of the gold produced by ASGMers being smuggled out of the country. As such, there is no fiscal benefit to the country. It is estimated that gold worth $1.5 billion is smuggled annually out of Zimbabwe. 

Smuggling deprives the government of much-needed revenue and foreign exchange, yet the government earmarked gold production as a key sector contributing towards its Vision 2030.

Through this, Zimbabwe is also being deprived of its natural heritage with mining causing massive environmental damage on huge tracts of land. Mazowe River in the Mazowe district, another popular site for illegal mining, has more than 155 kilometres of its bank destroyed by alluvial mining. 

Damaged areas include portions with very deep pits and heavily silted sections. Other parts of the river have been diverted by ASGMers. These activities have affected the river’s aquatic life, farmers, wildlife and livestock. 

The water supply and quality of towns like Bindura and Glendale are also affected. Excessive use of chemicals like mercury means the towns now require additional chemicals to purify their water from this pollution.

In offsetting the dangers unlocked by these sites of illegal mining, is it critical that multilateral bodies like SADC and the AU support research and fact finding related to the illegal mining operations. Urgent attention and further research are required to better understand the circumstances and impacts of the ongoing and escalating illegal mining across the country. 

In instances where chemicals like mercury are affecting water quality, immediate action is needed to safeguard people, aquatic life, wild animals and farm animals. Environmentalists and affected communities must also be supported to work towards sustainable solutions.

The international community should also consider targeted sanctions against the trade in illicit gold. This, coupled with human development programmes for youth forced into the trade due to a lack of other options, can help offset the illegal trade and its impact on youth.

However, at the heart of driving these pockets of instability is poor governance, that has in turn sabotaged the formal economy and left youth with few prospects to prosperity. Unchecked youth unemployment within a state where patronage is accessible largely through the ruling party Zanu-PF is an option for some, leaving most youth forced into the informal or illicit economy, or to seek work in other countries where they are no less economically and socially vulnerable.

If anything, scarcity lies at the heart of threats to stability and it is crucial that the state facilitates an environment for private sector development and human development.

This means that it ought to concern itself with improving governance so that its core function is service to society. 

Without this, scarcity will continue to threaten the social fabric of society. To this end, SADC, as the regional body, should actively advance this agenda. It has a crucial role to play in holding the Zimbabwean government accountable to standards of good governance, which is also critical for the long-term peace and prosperity of the region. 

You can find the full analysis by IJRs Inclusive Economies project here

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.