BY LIZWE SEBATHA
A visit to the Belmont industrial area, once alive with the roar of machinery, reveals the story of decay.
Bulawayo’s vast industrial areas are now abandoned, resulting in crippling unemployment and poverty among residents.
Because of its industries and strategic proximity to South Africa and Botswana, as well as being the nearest city to the country’s prime tourist destination, Victoria Falls, Bulawayo was also a transport hub, with the National Railways of Zimbabwe headquartered here.
Many people have relocated their businesses to Harare, leaving the once productive industrial areas of Belmont and Donnington bereft.
Sadly, fixing Bulawayo’s woes appears to be beyond the government’s capabilities.
A government attempt in partnership with Old Mutual to make $40 million available in 2011 under the Distressed Industries and Marginalised Areas Fund to help companies to retool proved to be nothing more than a drop in the ocean.
However, all hope is not lost, said Bulawayo deputy mayor Mlandu Ncube.
According to Ncube, the local authority is now implementing a deliberate local empowerment policy where ‘local jobs and tenders’ will be reserved for locals to ensure quick turnaround of the city’s fortunes.
“The only way councils can empower local companies is through affirmative action towards local companies where we are saying it becomes a qualification (for tenders) by just being local,” he said.
“This is a good policy because as you know our companies have been finding it difficult to enter the system.
“We are giving the companies an upper hand to get the tenders to allow the local economy and companies to grow and create employment for locals.”
Ncube added that the policy came at the right time when local companies had suffered economic shocks from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Having this policy will certainly boost the operations of our local industry that has not been spared the effects of Covid-19,” he said.
Companies have been forced to cut staff, downsize or close shops altogether as Covid-19 forces a rethink of business models.
So badly affected are companies across the country that the Finance ministry had to announce a $18 billion rescue package.
Estimates by industrialists say industry capacity utilisation has been falling due to short working hours and reduced demand as disposable incomes are low.
Bulawayo Residents Association chairperson Winos Dube welcomed the council’s local empowerment policy saying it was long overdue.
“This is one of the best moves that we have ever experienced in a long time,” Dube said.
“With this policy, if well implemented, I think we will see progress and good development of our city now that whatever jobs are there will always be reserved for local people, which is what we have always been crying for.”
The Bulawayo chapter of black empowerment group, the Affirmative Action Group (AAG) however urged caution arguing the policy was not “sustainable and easily implementable” in a global village.
“What happens in cases where Bulawayo does not have the capacity to deal with issues for the jobs that will be tendered?” AAG Bulawayo representative Reggie Shoko asked.
Shoko argued the local authority must instead only “ring fence opportunities at ward level, the very entry level” to revive “ward economies”.
“City council needs to look into the revival of what we call high density economies,” he said.
“We don’t need to see these big corporates, giant retail giants and other companies operating in the locations as they are closing out the small shops owned by local entrepreneurs, individuals and family shops.
“These are structural things that the council needs to address and correct before talking about opportunities for the whole city.’
However, as things stand, warehouses at the once busy Belmont industrial area lie empty with broken windows.
Their faded signs, rusting roof panels and chained gates has left Mthulisi Ncube, a local resident hopeless of ever finding formal employment.
“I have long given up on getting formal employment. I am now used to hustling,” Ncube said.
This article was originally published by The Citizen Bulletin, a nonprofit news organisation that produces hard-hitting, hyperlocal reporting and analysis for the southwestern region of Matabeleland.