A Letter from Mufulira
By Mabvuto Chibende
Dear Reader, it may not be easy to imagine living in a town where it feels as if almost every person of working age has lost their job – but this is how it feels today in Mufulira.
It seems that in this town we are just too dependent on Copper. It goes back to the time when copper was discovered here in the 1920s and the British then developed our mine and smelter. The whole reason for our existence was copper.
From relatively uninhabited bush, this place became a thriving hub for mining and all that goes with it. The problem is that for the approximately 300,000 people who live here, we do not seem to have developed alternative sources of livelihood.
So when copper prices fall on international markets, the consequences have real effects on people’s lives.
I know, as an economist, that, in our inter-connected world, a financial pebble thrown in a pond, thousands of miles away from Zambia can cause a ripple that will lead to a wave, that in turn could lead to a small Tsunami. In land-locked Mufulira, the financial Tsunami has come to town, and I want to try and describe what it feels like to be enveloped by the economic backwash.
My name is Mabvuto Chibende and I am 26 years old. That means I was born 26 years after Zambian Independence in 1964. My father, Mwansa Alick Chibende, was born in 1950 in Mufulira. Back then, education was quite rare but his father managed to have him educated. In 1977, he was among the few Zambians to graduate from the University of Zambia with a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. The man could fluently speak four languages; Bemba, Lala, English and French. He gave me a good life; so whenever he tried to explain how hard it was living in his time, I never could imagine it. I mean, besides his career, he was a golfer, played soccer and sometimes squash and, above all, was a books collector. How hard could life have really been?
My mother, Ethel, on the other hand, was the only female in a set of triplets born in 1956. She grew up with 10 other siblings, of whom only four got educated, which included her. She was the only female in her family educated to tertiary level at David Livingstone Teachers college. I’m inspired by her dedication because she also pushed herself to get a diploma in Religious Education via distance learning with West-Hill College of the UK. I was only 6 years old when my mother left for 3 weeks as she travelled to the UK in 1995 under a school exchange program.
I have grown up in Mufulira. It’s not so different from most towns in Zambia except that we do not have large shopping malls; there is plenty of idle land and most households are either farmers or miners (or at least were). There are so many trees around most households with fresh fruits like mangoes, guavas, bananas etc. Mufulira is amongst the towns in Zambia that receive plenty of rain during the rainy season and because of this the land is so fertile. In the morning, when you wake up, you can actually hear the sound of the birds singing, well that’s of course after roosters around 5 am. If you walk in the streets of Mufulira early in the morning, you will see children in school uniforms walking to school, miners waiting at a bus stop for the mine bus to pick them up, and others going for work. You can get anywhere in Mufulira in time because there is literally no traffic. Not so many households can afford vehicles.
Today, it’s really hard to live in Mufulira. The costs of living are high, the food prices are equally high, there have been cases of fuel shortages and above all, more than 60% of the population in the town is unemployed. I know the high costs of living apply to the entire nation, but it just feels like Mufulira is experiencing the worst of it.
Our country has many achievements we can be proud of. One of them is that we are one of the only countries in Africa to be generally at peace and to have recently held free and fair elections. Since independence, Zambia has been home not only to its citizens but also harboured a lot of refugees from neighbouring countries seeking asylum.
My economics tells me that Zambia is not the only country to suffer presently from low commodities prices. I understand excess world steel production, for example, has caused lay-offs in industrial towns in other parts of the world, and the consequences are similar to those we experience here with copper.
So the questions I am asking do not apply only to Mufulira, but also to you in your own countries. How can a town or community that depends on a single commodity protect itself from the swings of commodity prices beyond their control?
In Mufulira, there are two major influences on our livelihoods – the mine owners and the Government of Zambia. Could these two entities have prevented the present suffering and softened the blow? Could more have been done to keep employment levels going? Did the Government collect enough tax and wisely invest enough in social provision or diversification in the good times to underpin people’s lives now in the downturn?
Let us look for a moment at what is it like here. On Monday 23rd November, 2015 Mopani Copper Mines (MCM) issued letters of redundancy to 4,300 miners in Mufulira and Kitwe and, quite simply, economic development came to a standstill.
Perhaps we can see the issue better through the story of one middle-ranking miner who I shall refer to as ST. ST is 34 years old and commenced work at the mines in 2011. He held a middle-ranking engineering job at the mine for two years, gaining promotion in 2013. In 2014, he took out a Kwacha loan of K133,000 ($12,000) from Stanbic Bank which would have cost him K196,000 ($17,800) in repayments over five years; an approximate interest rate of 9.4% per year. At his redundancy he was paid K81,000 ($7,400) and K18,000 ($1600) tax free lumps sums which were used towards loan repayments and subsistence. Today, he remains in debt for a further K36,000 ($3,300) and has no job, no income and no means to repay.
It seems that in the last few years, when Zambia became so credit-worthy based on the so-called super cycle and high copper prices, one group of companies expanded into Zambia at a phenomenal rate – the banks. Here in Mufulira we have five banks – Barclays Bank, Finance Bank, First National Bank (FNB), Stanbic Bank, and Zambia National Commercial Bank (ZANACO). We also have two micro-finance companies, Bayport and Unit Finance.
It is a brutal lesson to learn, but just as our Government has undoubtedly increased the country’s indebtedness based on the expected returns of copper, so has the debt of individuals whose personal incomes were derived from that industry.
As for ST, he is an industrious person and has a good chance of survival, but others have taken to alcohol or are suffering from depression, and there are reports of suicides too.
Was this necessary?
I think what we fail to understand here in Mufulira is that we are part of a long chain of profit that starts with digging for copper. What starts with us, ends as cable in your car and your computer and brings light to your home. Our pebble dropped in the pond brings you sunshine and an easier life. When the pebble of lower prices on international markets occurs it brings us only redundancy and poverty.
I am an economist and I am part of a new generation of young Zambians who are trying to understand the position of our country within the inter-connected fabric of the world economy. For too long we have failed to benefit enough when times have been good, and have not been supported enough when times are bad. It is something that I hope in my lifetime will be addressed through the spread of information and understanding of how international markets work so that Zambians may no longer be powerless before world events.
As for me, I am learning one hard lesson – never borrow more than I am able to repay.