In Zimbabwe’s gold wars, miners wield machetes for safety

As the government decriminalised gold digging in the country two years ago, violence perpetrated by robbers and mining mafia is on the surge. Many miners now carry machetes for self defense.

A lorry carries gold ore from the pit at Gaika Mine to a mill for processing.
A lorry carries gold ore from the pit at Gaika Mine to a mill for processing. (Cyril Zenda / TRTWorld)

After a lot of cajoling, Benefit (Ben), an artisanal gold miner in Zimbabwe’s mining town of Kwekwe, admits owning a machete and regularly carrying it. Machetes and other hand weapons such as spears, swords and catapults are banned in this area, which is the nerve-centre of Zimbabwe’s gold mining.

“It makes a difference between life and death, and success and failure here,” says Ben who searches for fortune at the disputed Gaika mine. He explains that in the dog-eat-dog jungle of artisanal miners, it is not just a question of getting the gold ore out of the deep shafts, but also the ability to successfully protect it from “mabhuru” (big bulls) the local parlance for daring bullies who behave like big male lions ready to grab what has been hunted by others.

He says he started carrying his machete after seeing fellow miners being robbed of their hard extracted gold ore in broad daylight.

“Here if you cannot protect your gold ore from these mabhuru, you can lose everything that you have worked for if they pounce on you when you are just finishing getting two weeks’ ore out of the pit and they load it into their truck and take it straight to the mill while you watch,” Ben explains.

Ngoni Tinarwo is one of the recent victims of machete attacks carried out by the illegal mining mafia.
Ngoni Tinarwo is one of the recent victims of machete attacks carried out by the illegal mining mafia. (Cyril Zenda / TRTWorld)

He says these bullies never do any mining, but just thrive on going around grabbing what has been brought out of the ground by others.

“I know a case of group of six miners who were robbed of large quantities of gold ore from which they were expecting to get gold worth thousands of dollars,” he says.

“Everyday people here lose various quantities of gold ore to these bullies.”

Ben explains that in his own case so far the machete has come handy to defend himself and protecting his valuable ore only, but it is also not unusual for people who have been robbed of their gold to harbour bitter grudges that they would also seek to permanently settle with machetes.

“In such cases when they strike they do it in such a ferocious way to ensure that their victims, if at all they survive, are forever unable to mobilise reinforcements and launch an even more savage revenge attack,” he explains.

He however admits that machetes are not just for fending off marauders, but they also come handy to settle disputes over ownership and control of lucrative shafts in some of the choicest gold mining areas.

He also adds that it is also commonplace for these almost always drunk young men that lead the most riotous of lifestyles to resort to the machete to settle disputes that commonly arise over the sharing of the proceeds among group members, as well as fights over women, beer, cigarettes, mobile phones and other petty things.

A miner carries a sack of gold ore from a pit at Gaika Mine for panning at a water point.
A miner carries a sack of gold ore from a pit at Gaika Mine for panning at a water point. (Cyril Zenda / TRTWorld)

Three years ago, the government of Zimbabwe decided to decriminaliseartisanal gold mining. The move, which has severe effects on the environment, sought to help the country to earn more from exports. So far all indications are that this move, which was also informed by political considerations, is bearing fruit as this year Zimbabwe is expecting to produce more than 30 tonnes of gold, a surge from a record low of less than three tonnes that the country was producing a few years ago.

However the increase in the national gold output has its own dark side. It has caused a spike in violence, with cases of machete attacks becoming a norm.

In the past when gold mining by individuals was illegal, fear of arrest and the resultant mandatory minimum jail terms of five years scared away many citizens from any gold mining activities. The decriminalisation and the government support for the sub-sector – where rags-to-riches tales are common – has attracted the country’s majority unemployed youths in a country where poverty levels are very high, leading to nasty fights.

On August 29 this year, Ngoni Tinarwo (40) was attacked by gang that he alleges was sent by his opponents near his home in Old Mbizo suburb. He fought off his attackers until he managed to reach safety, but not before the machetes had inflicted severe injuries on his knee, back and shoulder. Two days later, his attackers daringly went into Kwekwe General Hospital where he had been admitted to finish him off. Thankfully, the hospital staff, who are now used to such cases, had acted quickly by transferring him to a hospital in another city. Right now as he is recovering and adjusting to a new life with disability, he literally walks with his back firmly to the wall and sleeps with one eye wide open. He knows that the people who have tried to kill him outside his home and in hospital can come for him anytime.

Ngoni’s fear partially explains why about a dozen other victims and a few relatives of those killed in the violence that were approached by TRT Worldrefused to share their stories. The other explanation given by those inside the industry is that those who eventually fall victim to the machete attacks would have also committed similar offences before so they fear drawing unwanted attention to themselves.

Kwekwe Central constituency legislator, Masango Matambanadzo, says so intense is the violence when the miners stampede over shafts discovered to have rich gold ore that between three and five people are killed daily in these machete attacks.

“It is real and it is worrying. It is something that has to be stopped otherwise what culture are we passing on to the next generation?” Matambanadzo said in an interview.

Also worried are traditional leaders in the areas where the killings regularly take place.

“It (violence) worries us as traditional leaders when people kill each other like chickens everyday as if we are in a war situation,” said Chief Ngungumbane of Mberengwa area of the Midlands province, one of the many areas affected by the machete attacks. He blamed the violence on the influx of people from other areas in search of the precious metal.

Gold and other precious minerals are found in abundance along the Great Dykebelt that runs in the centre of the country in a north-south direction and the biggest part of this belt is in the Midlands province where Kwekwe is situated.

Even the army has voiced concern over the machete attacks that it says are now a serious threat to peace and stability in the country.

Police always say they do their best to arrest all criminal elements, but once the cases gets into judiciary system, the suspects are either discharged on technicalities or set free on bail something that results in the impression that nothing is being done about these cases.

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