By Tinotenda Nyanzira
A heady mix of compliance and political issues led to the shutting down of Chinese-owned Bikita lithium mine in Zimbabwe’s Masvingo province this week.
The lithium miner, the country’s biggest, was at the centre of the storm with a number of issues bedevilling the operation with a mounting number of problems.
The enormity of the problems means that the mine may not open any time soon, despite giving a notice that it was shutting down for only seven days.
This week, Review & Mail obtained exclusive details of what transpired before the lithium mine was forced to close ranging from illegal foreign nationals, regulatory compliance and run-in with civil society organisations.
A team from key ministries of Zimbabwe government was tasked to look at the operations of the mine and made adverse findings.
A source close to the developments says the Chinese company is being made “an example of” to force responsible mining in light of a recent Government push to being sanity to the sector.
But the issues run deeper for Bikita.
It is understood that a number of Chinese workers were illegally staying in the country and thee company had no mechanisms to employ local skills.
“The immigration files for some of the contractors were not in order and as a result they needed to regularize their papers,” our source said.
“There is also need for them to also come up with a concrete plan when it comes to issue of skills transfer,” the source added.
Local laws require foreign experts to have local understudies to enable skills transfer.
The company was also not fulfilling its obligations to the National Social Security Authority, the government regulator for safety and social protection, according to insiders. At the same time, civil society and the media were exposing the mine for alleged looting of lithium. Interestingly, police in Masvingo last week busted a lithium ore smuggling ring with alleged links to the mine.
When matters came to a head, the company was forced to fall on its own sword.
“From a lengthy meeting which involved Home Affairs and the Mines Industry, the management requested for seven days so that they could work on those areas of concern,” our source revealed.
“So the process started last week,” the source added.
The plight of the company has been made worse by a growing streak of anti-Chinese investment media reports and civil society agitation. There was a slew of reports which indicated that workers were allegedly subjected to ill-treatment and poor remuneration.
Mines and Mining Development deputy minister Polite Kambamura confirmed suspension which came after an inter- ministerial audit last week. He described the suspension order as a good example of government stamping its authority.
China’s Sinomine Resource Group bought the asset which was previously controlled by German investors through African Minerals Ltd for US$180 million in January last year.
President Mnangagwa officiated at the commissioning of the mine