At least ten Kitwe based small scale miners were confirmed dead on June 20, 2018 when a mountain of solidified slug known as Black Mountain caved in and buried them alive. The dead miners were among the more than 50 who were at that time scavenging for remunerative copper concentrate.
For some years now, Zambia’s largest man-made mountain has been a source of income for a unit of Kitwe youths locally known as Jerabos. From it, the young men have bought very expensive cars, built mansions in prime areas of the Copperbelt Province and live luxurious lives.
Although the Jerabos are apparently the ones profiting from it, there have been no clear information about ownership of the mountain. A company called Nkana Alloy has also been named as owner of it. What is more confusing is that recently, the government endorsed that ten percent of it must belong to the youth of Kitwe. It is not clear whether or not there is any one to coordinate the works at the site but from the look of things it is free for all.
Previously, the area was a dump site for residue and slug from the copper refinery of the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mine (ZCCM) Limited, Nkana Division before it was privatized. That time, the parastatal mining conglomerate extracted what their machinery could manage from the concentrate and dumped the remainder unconcerned about how much mineral wealth they were throwing away.
Over the years, the deposits grew into a mountain that later came to be dubbed ‘Black Mountain’, evidently because of its appearance. In fact, it was a tourist attraction to people traveling to Kitwe from the direction of Ndola.
The towering heap was mere rubbish all the way until after ZCCM was privatized and the new owner of Nkana Division didn’t buy it. Then, according to some Kitwe residents, some Chinese enthusiasts came to discover that the residue still contained lucrative amounts of copper, cobalt, silver and gold. That was when all eyes were directed to the Black Mountain. In no time, illegal miners championed the mining and the mountain looked like theirs.
In more recent years, however, the government, under President Edgar Lungu, recognized the operations of the Jerabos and gave them the rights to extract the ore from the mountain. The tag ‘illegal’ was then removed from them.
What was unfortunate about the whole offer is that no proper mining guidelines were given to the youths. To make matters worse, no mine safety regulations were implemented in the operating area. As more unchecked extraction of the concentrate on lower levels of the mountain went on, the loosely-held ground above became weaker and weaker as it was unsupported. The resultant caves were visible even to passersby some 500 meters away.
That was not all. There were other mine safety regulations that were being flouted at that site. Safety gear was one of them. At a work place like that, a worker is required to wear at least a hard hat, protective clothing and safety boots. But, according to reports from there, very few miners, if any, protected themselves that way.
Another issue disdainfully disregarded was preservation of good health of the workers. This must be impressed on a miner’s mind upon initiation. It is a legal requirement in Zambia that a person doing a blue-color job in a mining area undergoes a pneumoconiosis examination and be certified fit for work. Thereafter, every worker so employed must undergo an annual test of the same. The objective, in the case of workers in the Copperbelt Province, is to check for the infection of silicosis. Sadly, that is irrelevant to the Jerabos.
Furthermore, there is the question of blasting licenses. A few weeks before the collapse, there were reports of blasting activities going on. But the question is: are those Jerabos licensed to carry out blasting activities in a mine? At the moment there is no reliable source for a credible answer to that question.
Amid all those perils, the baffling puzzle any right-thinking person may face is why the Kitwe-based Mines Safety Department of the Ministry of Mines has not suspended operations at that area. Well, it will not help going lengths to find the answer; the whole arrangement is politically braced. Likely, even the safety experts were well informed of the problem but were toothless as the authority to work at the Black Mountain was issued by the powers that be.
Now that life has been lost, all mining activities have been halted. Just after the accident, Copperbelt Permanent Secretary Bright Nundwe announced the that mining activities were suspended. To ensure that no one creeps back in the ‘dark’ to extract some ore, tight security has been put there.
Nobody knows when the ban will be lifted but many sympathizers are suggesting that before operations at the Black Mountain resume, safety measures must be implemented. Kitwe being a mining town, it is reasonable to assume that many Jerabos are former miners or children of miners, meaning it cannot be difficult to educate them about mining methods and safety.
So, as the government goes back to the drawing board to see what is next for the Black Mountain, instead of putting politics ahead, preserving of life must be the priority. If it means selling the whole mountain to one responsible company that will take into account the interests of the youths, let it be so.