Industrial empire Bulawayo reduced to a ghost town

via Industrial empire Bulawayo reduced to a ghost town | Africa | Mail & Guardian 25 July 2014 Takudzwa Munyaka

Bulawayo turns 120 this year but the city has little to celebrate after its once-thriving economic sector has all but crumbled.

Bulawayo, also known as the City of Kings because of its rich past as the home of the ancient Rozvi, Torwa and Ndebele kingdoms, is no longer a place fit for a king.

This year the city commemorates 120 years of its founding by the British arch-imperialist Cecil John Rhodes in 1894 – but its former glory has faded considerably.

The vitality and exuberance of its citizenry has long been sucked out by years of industrial decline, resulting in crippling unemployment and poverty for its residents.

Also known as KoNtuthu ziya–thunqa (Ndebele for “a place that continually exudes smoke”), Bulawayo was for years Zimbabwe’s industrial hub and boasted a number of large manufacturing and engineering companies. These included the Tregers Group, Zimbabwe Engineering Company, Hubert Davies, Merlin Textiles, Stewarts & Lloyds, Build Elect, Dunlop, Hunyani Holdings and G&D Shoes, among others. But the smoke from Bulawayo’s industries has died down over the years.

Because of its industries and its 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 there.

Although the massive economic problems Zimbabwe is grappling with are not unique to Bulawayo, it is probably the country’s hardest-hit city. It has seen countless company closures and downsizings. Many people have relocated their businesses to Harare, leaving the once productive industrial areas of Belmont and Donnington bereft.

A drop in the ocean
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.

In March, the industry and commerce minister, Mike Bimha, said: “The resources were limited and could not meet industry’s requirements, as they were far below the $2-billion that was required then – a figure which has since risen to $8-billion.”

Eddie Cross, a Bulawayo Movement for Democratic Change MP and an economic adviser to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, paints a bleak picture of the city’s prospects.

“I see no improvement at all due to company closures in the main pillars of Bulawayo’s industries of mining, railway transport and textiles,” he tells the Mail & Guardian. “Railways are operating at 10% capacity and staff have not been paid for 12 months.

“You have a complex set of factors ranging from the general economic collapse … which was made worse for companies by the fact that, when the country moved to dollarisation in 2009, whole savings were wiped out and they had to start afresh.

“It is a huge challenge to recapitalise and it is only those companies with external links that have been able to stay afloat.”

A visit to the Belmont industrial area, once alive with the roar of engines and the wail of railway locomotives transporting finished goods, reveals the story of decay. A significant number of factories have been turned into shops and warehouses for imported goods manufactured elsewhere – mostly from South Africa.

The streets are generally deserted and the few remaining workers can afford to take prolonged afternoon siestas on the railway line that snakes through the industrial belt, sleeping safe in the knowledge that trains in the area are now a thing of the past. The long grass on the tracks is ample evidence that the trains have long ceased to operate.

Even the Bulawayo Power Station along Railway Avenue is subdued, as only one of its five towers sends occasional puffs of smoke into the air: power generation is either taking place at a very slow pace or not at all.

A statue of Rhodes, which used to look proudly at his achievements from Main Street in the heart of the city, has been replaced with one of Joshua Nkomo, an iconic founding father of Zimbabwe. It is one of the only new landmarks in the once bustling and prosperous city.

The city centre hides its decay with the resplendent purple blooms of jacaranda trees that line the spacious streets.

Residents stop every now and then to gaze at the huge framed images of Kings Mzilikazi and Lobengula that adorn the perfectly manicured lawns at the council-owned town house and revenue hall. The images were put up as part of the city’s 120th anniversary celebrations.

But the images mean nothing to 27-year-old Mxolisi Sibanda, who touts for customers seeking to travel to South Africa from the popular Max Garage just across the road from the Bulawayo city council offices.

A statue will not solve it
“Lobengula and Mzilikazi are not going to bring food to the table. Neither will the solution come from erecting a statue of Nkomo. The politicians ought to be investing their time, energy and resources in finding solutions to the deindustrialisation that continues to suck the life from this city,” he says with the self-assuredness that characterises Zimbabwe’s well-educated but unemployed young people.

But it is not just the young who are disillusioned with the state of the city. “The industries have shut down and no more will you hear the sounds of factory engines or see haulage trucks moving some newly manufactured goods,” says 57-year old Richard Nqadini, a retired train driver who has lived in the city all his life. Companies are closing down every week, people are losing jobs and the politicians are clueless.”

Even President Robert Mugabe has admitted to the magnitude of the problem. “Our cities are dying. Bulawayo was once a thriving industrial hub … but it has become a sorry industrial scrapyard,” he said during his inauguration in Harare last year.

Mugabe outlined an ambitious economic blueprint at the ceremony – the Zimbabwe Agenda for Socio-Economic Transformation – which promises, among other things, to bring water to Bulawayo from the Zambezi River by 2018 to end the city’s water woes – a factor that has been partly blamed for the decay of its industry.

But Dumisani Nkomo, a member of the Matabeleland Civil Society Forum, says it is highly unlikely that the government will complete the project by 2018, given its poor record of delivery in Matabeleland.

“They will continue talking, but there is never any delivery. They [government] should come clean about the deal they signed with the Chinese,” says Nkomo.

The overriding sentiment in the city is that the Shona-dominated central government has been strategically marginalising the mainly Ndebele-populated city for years to force companies to relocate to other provinces.

This is a view shared by Sam Ncube, a founder member of the Affirmative Action Group (AAG). Ncube says it is time the people of Bulawayo revived their city, otherwise they will continue to suffer at the hands of politicians.

“The political leadership are the worst culprits,” Ncube tells the M&G. “They only think of winning votes, not development.

“Since 2009, we have been organising indabas to look for solutions … but there is a palpable lack of self-confidence among Bulawayo’s people. If they do not wake up to the challenges they will continue to fall victim to people from Harare who come in to buy companies and properties for a song.”

Ironically, the AAG’s founding president, Philip Chiyangwa, who is Mugabe’s nephew, presided over the collapse of two major manufacturing companies in the city – G&D Shoes and Zeco – which once employed 2 000 workers, but now only employ about 50.

Hostile policies
Roderick Fayayo of the Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association says the government’s policies are hostile to potential investors as no sane person will risk having their business summarily expropriated under the guise of indigenisation.

“Residents are suffering as a result of the high unemployment and we believe this is part of a deliberate political decision to cling to power by emasculating the labour movement,” he says.

Fayayo accuses Zanu-PF politicians of buying companies to achieve total control of labour. “We have done our best to articulate these issues but we are talking to a government which is not concerned at all,” he says.

The politicians, however, say they are doing what they can. Zanu-PF national chairperson Simon Khaya Moyo, who is tipped to become the country’s second vice-president, says he is doing his best to address Bulawayo’s challenges as one of the senior politicians from that region.

“I am bringing the ministers in in batches … to explain to them and to the residents what it is that they will be doing to implement development programmes in the region. “I will be bringing ministers from the economic cluster and this will end with those from the social services cluster. These briefings will enable people of the region to follow up on development programmes.”

But this is all talk and there has been plenty of it over the years without any meaningful action to halt the decline.

The MDC’s Cross says: “The principal problem is that of recapitalisation. We need billions of dollars to recapitalise, but the money is just not available. The major challenge is for Zimbabwean and Bulawayo companies, in particular, to access cheap money.

“They need to be able to borrow on the same terms that American, British and even Chinese companies are borrowing [which charge an average of 3% interest on loan repayments] yet they cannot do so because of the … risk associated with Zimbabwe, perhaps unfairly so.”

Cross says local banks will give short-term loans at more than 20% interest but that this is too expensive and unsustainable for local businesses. The majority of companies that have survived in Bulawayo are those with external links, such as holding companies in other countries.

Cheaper imports
“The likes of [supermarket retail chain] TM, Delta [Beverages] and Datlabs are some of the few companies that have remained viable and that is only because of external funding support from South Africa,” Cross says, adding that some industries can no longer be revived, especially those in textile and footwear, because of competition from cheaper imports.

The challenge, he says, is to focus attention and resources on reviving viable industries or to establish those that could give the country a competitive edge, such as support industries for the mining and transport sectors.

Acting Bulawayo mayor Gift Banda is concerned about the scale of the problems facing the city. “There is a policy of centralising everything in this country and, as a result, you see companies closing in Bulawayo only to reopen in Harare.” In desperation the council is trying various incentives to attract investors, including offering tax rebates to potential investors.

“We have so many opportunities in the tourism sector, in our nature reserves and even in the construction of low-cost housing,” Banda says. “We are saying investors can partner us in return for tax rebates. They will not have to pay us anything while they are setting up and they will only do so when they are fully operational.”

For now, however, there is precious little for the once prosperous city to celebrate at 120 years.

COMMENTS

WORDPRESS: 14
  • comment-avatar

    We all know that the de-industrialization of Bulawayo was done purposely to bring the people in the region to their knees. What new Dams have been built for Bulawayo. I know that some people say that Bulawayo’s water woes are a figmentation of our minds. Not so. If the Zambezi project had been started back then when donations began, the whole region would have been a green belt. Matabeleland is known to be draught prone but it has areas along where the root of the pipeline would go which would have been suitable for irrigation,which in turn would have benefited the City in general and the Country as a whole. Unfortunately Zanu is like a left footed footballer that decides his right foot will not benefit his left foot and cuts it off only to find out he can no longer run or balance with the left foot. For Sam Ncube to say t is time the people of Bulawayo revived their city, otherwise they will continue to suffer at the hands of politicians is a bit devious, Even if the people try the Harare crowd will intervene with stupid taxes and if it is people from a group they don’t like then they will do an Evans/Deneker. The only hope for Bulawayo is the demise of Zanu pf.

  • comment-avatar
    avenger/revenger 7 years ago

    Yep Mr sadcc. Mbeki. Zuma. You forgot to mention that Cecil Rhodes has been turning in his grave for 35 years. ZAPU nkomo never built up smiths thriving gubulawayo. Even mzilikazi is

  • comment-avatar
    Mixed Race 7 years ago

    This article has touched a lot of sensitive issues affecting us here in Bulawayo.I want to comment on some of these issues.
    1=The erection of the statue of Mr J M Nkomo was done without logical and technical considerations.The statue was erected in such a way that the beautiful ex-Main Street is now spoiled because the lanes are now not straight due to the ground taken unnecessarily to house the statue when they could have made it take a space equal to a centre parking as it used to be with Rhodes statue.It is now very dangerous to drive past the statue because the lanes bend badly to encroach the side parking before becoming straight again.This is really very poor planning by those who were involved in the erection of this statue.
    2=The government is to blame for the economic decline of this lovely city which had the best industrial base for the country.These are the results of cheap political and tribal decisions with quick and unsustainable profits.The sad story is that those who contributed to this terrible situation are rewarded for their misguided and selfish actions at the expense of the innocent Byo people.
    3=I am surprised that Mr K S Moyo thinks bringing various ministers and other people will change anything when they deliberately ignore the second biggest city in the country.Do not play political games with people’s lives for cheap political scores.
    3=It is a pity that some of the companies in Harare they think Zimbabwe is made up of Harare alone because all their services meant to cater from Harare only and their outlets in other cities are just ghost centres.I say this because for the past three weeks I have tried in vain to buy a Compression Tester from Transerve which they have in reasonable stock in Harare.I am given many useless excuses and being asked to pay Swift Transport charges if I want the item,which is nonsense to me.Why should we be penalised for not being in Harare?This is the attitude of these companies stationed in Harare,therefore bringing these guys from Harare will not help us here so we should manufacture our limited products with the limited technology we have among us.

    • comment-avatar
      Nawana 7 years ago

      Mixed up. ZANU wants the whole Matabeleland marginalized as a punishment for largely imagined tribalistic reasons.

    • comment-avatar
      Petal 7 years ago

      well said Mixed Race

  • comment-avatar

    We all know that the de-industrialization of Bulawayo was done purposely to bring the people in the region to their knees. What new Dams have been built for Bulawayo. I know that some people say that Bulawayo’s water woes are a figmentation of our minds. Not so. If the Zambezi project had been started back then when donations began, the whole region would have been a green belt. Matabeleland is known to be draught prone but it has areas along where the root of the pipeline would go which would have been suitable for irrigation,which in turn would have benefited the City in general and the Country as a whole. Unfortunately Zanu is like a left footed footballer that decides his right foot will not benefit his left foot and cuts it off only to find out he can no longer run or balance with the left foot. For Sam Ncube to say t is time the people of Bulawayo revived their city, otherwise they will continue to suffer at the hands of politicians is a bit devious, Even if the people try the Harare crowd will intervene with stupid taxes and if it is people from a group they don’t like then they will do an Evans/Deneker.. The only hope for Bulawayo is the demise of Zanu pf.

  • comment-avatar

    Sad indeed. Bulawayo has always been a beautiful city now suffering under the hand of a dictatorship. K S Moyo and his ilk are clueless and Bulawayo will never be revived while they control the levers of power. Everything this regime touches turns to dust. Until they are gone, nothing will revive. Harare is going the same way. We need new leadership! Nothing else will save Bulawayo. We know the root of the problem but we continue to talk about the symptoms.

  • comment-avatar
    senzachena 7 years ago

    Go on the streets, drive out the ZANU trash, it is the only way. Whilst you are about it use the slogan “SMITH WAS RIGHT”. Spineless fools, until we get rid of the rubbish nothing will improve it will just get worse.

  • comment-avatar
    Straight Shooter 7 years ago

    People should not blame companies for re-locating. Businesses operate anywhere as long as they can make adequate returns on their investments.

    The problem Bulawayo is facing, indeed much of the country is the gukurahandi government. The gukurahundi government is the source of all of our problems in Zm.

    Most of Zm’s problems are self-inflicted. Why is it so difficult to abandon all these hard line positions; relax political and economic policies and open the country for investments from all over?

    What exactly is the country gaining from these hard line positions. China abandoned this kind of archaic thinking after Mao and with a change in economic direction, the country immediately took off like a phoenix.

    So creating imaginary enemies; nobody wants to invade Zim. Leave the whites who want to farm do the farming. Sop dicating terms, you are beggars!!

  • comment-avatar
    Straight Shooter 7 years ago

    CORRECTION:

    Stop creating imaginary enemies; nobody wants to invade Zim. Leave the whites who want to farm do the farming. Stop dictating terms, you are beggars after all!!

  • comment-avatar
    William Doctor 7 years ago

    Sub-contract it back to the British …

  • comment-avatar
    Kevin Watson 7 years ago

    The reason for the decline in Bulawayo’s industrial base has its origins long before Mugabe came to power. It goes back to the 1960’s and what covered it up in the period from 1965 t0 1980 was import substitution during the UDI era. Industrialised economies require large markets to create the economies of scale required to compete with the Chinese, Indians, Indonesians, Philippines Pakistanis etc. This world trend has seen the decline in mass industrial production in Britain and the US who in turn have developed their knowledge economies. Africa is by and large a very small market because it is smaller than India in population and the people are very hard to get to because of poor infrastructure. Bulawayo’s demise is because of the use of state funds to enrich the politically connected instead of being invested in infrastructure. Bulawayo’s industrial base might well have survived on the maintenance and repair of the infrastructure. However the thieves in ZANU PF stole all the money that should have been invested in new infrastructure. Bulawayo managed to survive by giving engineering a repair services to the mining and farming sectors and then ZANU PF destroyed that. There is no longer a solution to Bulawayo’s problems. Even if ZANU PF are removed from power land restored to legitimate and productive owners, mines restored to legitimate and productive owners they will source what they need from South African companies which are beginning to feel the same chill wind on their necks as did those in Zimbabwe, and can produce on a bigger a cheaper scale. It is a sad reality especially for those of us born in Bulawayo and whose families have lived and died in Bulawayo for some generations.

  • comment-avatar

    A sad story of a once promising and thriving city that has become a ghost town because of the obsession with political power that lies at the heart of our nation.

  • comment-avatar
    Mixed Race 7 years ago

    After two days of my above comment the Byo branch of the shop I mentioned above phoned me to come and pay and collect the compression tester I wanted.I paid the Harare price.I have already used it to analyse my vehicles’ engines. It is very accurate and simple to use.Well done Byo Transerve Fort Street Branch for responding to my complaints positively.