Bulawayo-Harare highway: A sad reminder that nothing has changed

Under a gigantic Zanu PF colourful election campaign billboard covered with the image of a half-smiling president of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is a small stall manned by a middle-aged vendor selling vegetables and fruits under the sun-drenched weather of Chegutu.

The billboard, erected along the Harare-Bulawayo road and a kilometre from Chegutu town centre, poignantly broadcasts a message for all — Delivering a Zimbabwe we all want.

It is president Mnangagwa’s campaign messages for the July 30 election. The election comes after former president Robert Mugabe was forced out in a coup led by the army last November.

“This is not what we thought when they said life was going to improve,” the vendor said.

“We expected to see the vibrancy of this town coming back with David Whitehead Textiles [DWTL] leading the revival as the new dispensation promised.

“But we are here sitting for hours selling oranges and potatoes to take home $10 on a good day and $10 is nothing in this economy,” said the vendor, who refused to give his name.

The story of the vendor iresonates with the lives of the people of Chegutu, whose small town is dotted with vendor stalls selling second-hand clothes and Chinese gadgets that are barely hard-wearing.

David Whitehead was a once-upon-a time giant that took care of this town, employing 3 000 breadwinners at its peak.
DWTL used to produce 20 million metres of fabric per year. This is a far cry from what the textile giant produced in January — a mere 4 000 metres of fabric.

When the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe unveiled a $2 million package to revive DWTL operations, amid much excitement in Chegutu, the full scale of the mammoth task to revive it came in what chief production officer Tendayi Chetse told a local daily:

“We started last week and we have been building the stocks of fabric and I can safely say that we have around 4 000 metres that have been accumulated at this moment,” he said.

“What we need is to get to levels of 100 000-120 000 metres then we bring in the wet process (which involves dyeing and printing of the fabric).”

However, in this town where everyone is buying and selling and many others have to dodge machetes in gold wars in nearby towns, this was all a sold fairy-tale.

Michael Dambiro is not convinced:

“I do not know anyone who has gone back to work. I know most of us live in tunnels looking for the elusive gold.

“A lot of people have died while at it. David Whitehead is probably still finding its feet but we see that so many promises that have been made around the country show so much promise, but go nowhere.”

The Harare-Bulawayo highway, despite the new tarmac laid recently is generally a road of failure that carries fossil companies. It is the road that also reminds us of how the land reform programme was a classic failure.

Chigwell Estate used to be a multi-million dollar business that produced citrus fruits for export to the Middle East, Europe and Russia. And it was heavily relied on by the residents of Chegutu and others.

In 2016, The Standard wrote about the farm that Zanu PF apologist and former Zupco CEO Bright Matonga took over in the chaotic grab-all land reform that benefited the politically connected.

The story read then: “The farm can now easily be mistaken for a wilting forest suffering under the burden of the unforgiving heat.
“The citrus trees at the over 700-hectare farm are now dry while shrubs block water canals.

“The once-rich alluvial soils also used to grow soya beans, maize and wheat, but now not even thorns can survive — 10 years after Matonga took over the farm.

“He (Matonga) inherited the estate when it had a plantation of 42 000 orange trees, state-of-the-art export packing sheds, 10 000 hectares of irrigable land, 200 permanent and 300 seasonal workers, but he brought it down to its knees.”
The state of the farm is still more of the same.

A vendor introducing himself by his first name, Tererai, who claimed to have once worked at the farm, said: “Chigwell is what will remind us of how we have gone backwards.

“Many people have left this town because everything that ever made us who we were disappeared.
“It is hopeless. I used to take care of my family working there, but all has changed.”

Chigwell is a stone’s throw away from Chegutu town.

There is construction work underway just after Norton turnoff on the 39km peg of a new road that looks like a dualisation of the Bulawayo road in progress, yet when one travels along Samora Machel Avenue that connects into Bulawayo road, the Zimbabwean story is easy to tell from the feature there.

There is the chaotic haphazard transport situation at the Showgrounds entrance in Harare where people hiking to Bulawayo, Kwekwe, Gweru and Chegutu mingle, it represents the epitome of economic disaster. Then the vendors that line the road!

Touts harass people while the police look on and vendors swarm the place defying the city fathers who have running battles with them on a daily basis.

Tafadzwa Mugodhi is livid: “We are not touts. We are the unemployed degreed youths that seek to survive.

“All these vendors love to be in air-conditioned offices so we are all not here by choice but we forced are by circumstances.”
On this day the traffic jam is a real menace because traffic lights at the corner of Samora Machel and Rekayi Tangwena Avenue are not working and commuter omnibuses have blocked the road in search of passengers.

The reality of the problems of the economy got more pronounced when one travels 141km from Harare to Kadoma .
The town, like Chegutu 30km away, confirms the fact that Bulawayo road carries dead companies and ghost towns.

Kadoma is known for its gold, nickel and copper, but along the road stands a dilapidated Kadoma Textiles company whose white paint is peeling off.

Statistics show that local textile firms closed 2015 operating at around 34% capacity utilisation.

It was reported in 2016 that textile companies needed a combined $20 million working capital and capitalisation.
To put it into perspective, the clothing sector used to employ 45 000, but in 2015 only close to 8000 were employed.

Kennedy Mutizira explains it better: “The stories of killings at gold mines emanate from the very fact that those industries that used to sustain us have become buildings where obsolete equipment now sits and a few employees spend time doing nothing.

“You have to be in the forest looking for gold in any way possible or you try to sell a Coke to someone already selling his.”
Kadoma, like Harare and Chegutu, has illegal structures that serve as vendor stalls sprouting and potholed roads that belie the moniker the town has of being the city of gold.

When one reaches Bulawayo, it is apparent, despite recent stories that industry is on the rebound, that the second largest city is reeling in poverty.

Once the country’s industrial hub, Bulawayo has suffered chronic de-industrialisation effects over the past two decades with over 100 firms — mostly in the manufacturing, textile and clothing sectors — closing down and leaving thousands of workers jobless.

Other former giants like National Blankets and Security Mills are under judicial management, while the Cold Storage Company and National Railways of Zimbabwe are operating way below capacity.

It is a depressing road to travel. The signposts of a country mismanaged are in every town along this road.

“This is a critical presidential election,” David Marova of Kwekwe said. “What we have gone through as citizens has been next to what hell looks like.”

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Source: The Standard

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