- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 22, 2005

CHIMANIMANI, Zimbabwe — Trucks, socks and even soft-drink cans are being used by gold smugglers desperate to avoid exchanging their treasure for worthless currency.

One man’s favorite method involves putting his gold dust into an open Coke can. When he arrives at Beit Bridge, he puts the can to one side and lets customs officers search his car and pockets.

Two brothers hide paper packets of gold in their shoes. People living in the Chimanimani mountains say the convoys of pickup trucks speeding down an otherwise deserted road carry sacks of sand and gold.

“See those?” asked a man gesturing toward the vehicles, some of which bore government license plates. “They are going down to the diggings by the river.

“They will be back this way in a couple of hours and heading for the border with Mozambique.”

The government’s cut

People here are surprisingly open about the illegal activities taking place in their midst. Small-scale smugglers might escape official notice, but from serious operators, Zimbabwe officials insist on a cut.

On the plush lawns of the polo club in Bulawayo, the nation’s second-largest city, government involvement in gold smuggling is an open secret.

“I reckon about 80 percent of gold that is being mined here is being smuggled out of the country,” said one mine owner who did not want to be named.

“And everyone knows [the ruling party] is at the bottom of most of it.”

Other miners dispute the percentage of gold smuggled out of the country, but figures from the London-based metals and minerals consultants GFMS show wide fluctuations in the amount of gold mined.

From a high of nearly 30 tons in 1999, official output fell to about 12.6 tons in 2003. The next year, it was up again to 21.3 tons.

“The swing occurs when the official buying price doesn’t match what the gold is actually worth,” said Bruce Alway, a senior metals analyst at GFMS. “A lot of gold is not declared by the mines and ends up leaving the country through the back door.”

Zimbabwe has substantial gold and platinum deposits, and anecdotes suggest that the number of small and medium-size mines is booming as other sources of employment shrink.

Terry Alberry, who owns a business in Bulawayo that sells mining equipment, says his customers have increased tenfold in the past seven years.

Policies go awry

However, many mine owners fear the newly re-elected Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) government is planning a blitz on the mining industry similar to the land-redistribution program that destroyed the agricultural sector five years ago.

The ensuing violence also drove away the lucrative tourist trade.

Five years later, a quarter of the population has fled the country, and there are riots in the streets when hungry citizens spot a rare bag of sugar on supermarket shelves.

A recent government crackdown on city dwellers, who traditionally support the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change, has left hundreds of thousands homeless. Many were forced to participate in the destruction of their homes and businesses and now live on the streets.

The miners do not consider themselves to be a political target, but think the government is eager to seize the few businesses that are making money in the world’s fastest shrinking economy.

One white farmer-turned-miner complained: “Today, the ruling party commandeered my tractor, driver and fuel. We don’t dare object. They want to process ore for free. Now they’re coming to us and saying we must sign over 51 percent of our mine to previously disadvantaged citizens.”

A government spokesman confirmed that black-empowerment legislation was being put before parliament, although he refused to comment on the percentage of the business that would have to be in black hands.

Poor get poorer

That is old rhetoric to this former cattle farmer, his face still scarred from the beatings he received. He went into mining in 2003, after he was shot and threatened with decapitation when his farm was seized. Now, like many other former farmers who have invested in the mining sector, he is watching his business, which employs 100 men, crumble before his eyes.

“The government forces us to sell all the gold to the Reserve Bank,” he said, explaining that the government buys gold at one-third the price the black market pays.

Despite losing one business and the threat of losing a second, this miner is one of the lucky ones.

“Before the economy crashed, I worked in a shop,” said John Salburi, 42. “We dig on the road because it is already clear of bush. I am just trying to pay some school fees.”

Some weeks, he does not even make enough to feed his wife and two children. Now he sleeps outside near his diggings under a plastic sheet spread between some trees and returns to the city with money for his wife when he can.

Scattered among the tiny mines are large illegal mining camps with powerful backers, usually rumored to be high in the ZANU-PF.

One such site in Chimanimani, in the east of the country, has piles of neatly stacked shovels and wheelbarrows, prefabricated buildings and heavy earth-moving equipment. Gouges several yards deep have been dug into the road in both directions to discourage unauthorized vehicle traffic.


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