Picture: BLOOMBERG/JEAN-CLAUDE COUTAUSSE
Picture: BLOOMBERG/JEAN-CLAUDE COUTAUSSE

Zambia had its worst mining disaster in three years when its biggest copper and cobalt slag dump site collapsed, killing 11 people last week. Many others, who were working for small-scale mining companies at the Black Mountain site in Kitwe, in the Copperbelt province, were severely injured.

The incident happened a week after mining minister Richard Musukwa assured the nation that the site was not dangerous and that its operations were supervised by his ministry’s safety department.

Miners who call themselves "Jerabos" have been operating at the site without the right skills. They are typically untrained and not qualified to exploit any resource from the dump site. There is also no electricity at the site, though operations go on well into the night regardless.

But government ignored all the warning signs. Black Mountain was considered a disaster waiting to happen, and these fears worsened in May, when a blast endangered the lives of people in nearby communities, causing extensive damage to houses and other structures.

Laura Miti, executive director of the Alliance for Community Action, says government ignored concerns around Black Mountain for political reasons.

What it means

To combat unemployment, the government has allowed miners to exploit dangerous sites — with deadly results

"Why would government ignore safety warnings? The answer is 2021 ... Black Mountain is an example of the price Zambia is paying for President Edgar Lungu’s 2021 [presidential] bid."

Miti says after Black Mountain was sold to a Chinese firm, the Jerabos used WhatsApp voice notes to threaten Lungu into handing the site back to them — "or else".

"That ‘or else’ was, of course, the loss of support for the president’s 2021 bid," says Miti. "Because 2021 is front, back and centre for this presidency, Lungu, in his typical style that prioritises political expediency over any other consideration, capitulated."

However, Musukwa, who has defied the public call to resign after misleading the nation, has responded by describing the victims as scavengers and criminals who did not adhere to the law.

"If criminals or illegal people invade a mine site like they did at Black Mountain, surely that is not cause for me to resign," Musukwa told parliament.

The wider context is that Zambia is struggling with high youth unemployment after mines laid off more workers than they employed in the past two years, despite the stronger copper price.

Black Mountain is an example of the price Zambia is paying for President Edgar Lungu’s 2021 [presidential] bid
Laura Miti

Government has tried to meet the demand for employment by giving farms to some retrenched miners. And, crucially, it has also given young miners permission to mine at dangerous sites.

In the wake of the accident, former foreign affairs minister Harry Kalaba said: "How can we rejoice at the 25,000 applications chasing 200 jobs in the correctional service? The tragedy of today was a matter of time. This is a Zambian tragedy ... accelerated through no adherence to proper mining and extraction procedures that, alas, our leaders in government gave a deaf ear to, thus allowing anarchy and lawlessness to prevail in situations of hopelessness."

Zambia has had several mining disasters. In 1970 nearly 100 miners died when a mine in the Copperbelt flooded. In 2005 more that 40 miners died in another Copperbelt town after a blast at a Chinese-owned mine. In 2015 six miners died at a Glencore Xstrata mine in Kitwe.

Kelvin Tembo, director of Chapamo Mineral Processing Investments, a holding company for small-scale miners at the dump site, would like operations to continue. He says multinational mining companies operating in the country have had accidents before that did not cause mining activity to be halted.

But Musukwa was having none of it, telling parliament that activity has been suspended and an investigation is under way.

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