Brian Latham Harare

Sinosteel’s Zimbabwe unit, Zimasco, had fired almost all its managers and workers and closed supply stores at its Mutorashanga mine after equipment meant to refine chrome ore fines failed to work, three managers at the operation said.

Chinese companies Jilin Houyan and Gold Horizon installed a sinter plant and a slag gravity separation plant at an estimated cost of $25 million (R264m), according to a company statement in February.

The equipment, installed at the company’s refinery in the central town of Kwekwe, failed to process chrome fines dug at Mutorashanga, said the managers, who asked not to be identified because the information had not been made public.

Zimasco operates the ferrochrome refinery in Kwekwe, as well as mines along the Great Dyke mountain range stretching from Lalapanzi and Shurugwi in the south to Mutorashanga in the north.

“The situation on the North Dyke is disturbing,” Mines Minister Walter Chidakwa said, “and we’re investigating ways of resuscitating operations.”

Mutorashanga’s mining would now be conducted by small-scale contractors who were paid by the ton at market prices, the managers said.

The latest round of cuts brought to more than 500 the number of jobs that had been eliminated over the past two years, the managers said.

Innocent Mavingha, who has been digging the mineral on contract to Zimasco for six weeks, said fuel, equipment and explosives would now have to be bought in Harare, 100km south of the mining town, because the mine stores had been closed.

A Zimasco manager in Mutorashanga who was fired last week and given a severance package of about $20 000, or about seven-months’ pay, said the equipment installed in Kwekwe specifically to refine ore from the mine had failed to process Mutorashanga chrome ore fines efficiently.

Chrome ore fines are a powdery form of the mineral dug from shafts and the surface on the Dyke. The Kwekwe smelter is better suited to smelting ore in the form of rock, known as lumpy chrome.

Zimbabwe has the world’s second-biggest chrome reserves after South Africa. Chrome ore is smelted into ferrochrome, an ingredient in stainless steel production.

Zimasco, which once belonged to US company Union Carbide, has mined in Mutorashanga since about 1910. The company was sold to local managers in 1994 and was bought by Sinosteel in 2007, according to Zimasco’s website.

Sinosteel is a state-owned Chinese enterprise that mines and processes minerals.

Zimasco dug for chrome ore alongside Zimbabwe Alloys, once owned by Anglo American, which ceased mining operations last year.

“Now that Zimbabwe Alloys and Zimasco aren’t operating in the district, we’ve seen poverty and crime go through the roof,” said Last Gambaya, the owner of a small shop that operates near a village that previously housed Zimasco’s lower-paid mine workers. The village was now occupied by contractors and their families, many of them living on less than $45 a month, Gambaya said.

Clara Sadomba, Zimasco’s general manager for marketing, asked for e-mailed queries, acknowledged their receipt and said she would reply but did not. Sinosteel spokeswoman Zhang Zhixia did not answer calls made to her Beijing office.

Zimbabwe’s Chamber of Mines president Alex Mhembere said the organisation did not comment on individual companies. – Bloomberg