It was once one of the biggest copper mines in the region, but it is hard to tell with the broken public toilets, long queues for water and crumbling staff houses.
In Chebanga, one of Mhangura’s townships, an NGO found over 2000 residents sharing two rundown communal toilets. A sign above one of the facilities begged residents not to use the bathing areas as toilets. Since the mine collapsed, there has been no money to fix houses or public facilities.
Later this month, residents of Mhangura will finally see new mining equipment arriving at their derelict settlement, which last saw any real mining activity in 2000. But it may take much longer to restore the mine to anywhere near its past glory.
In January, Zhi Jui Mining Resource will start processing dumps at the idle Mhangura Copper Mines. Mining equipment starts arriving this month. This is part of a US$10 million joint venture between the Chinese company and the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC) to restart operations there. But even as world global copper prices rise, Mhangura and other copper assets will need much bigger investment if they are to be fully restored.
At Mhangura, the mine dump processing will have capacity to produce 32,000 tons of copper per year, says Polite Kambamura, deputy mines minister.
The Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority is currently restoring electricity to the mine and “commissioning of the concentrate plant is expected to be done in January 2022,” Kambamura told Bloomberg.
The mine shut its operations in 2000 due to rising costs, and a slump in copper prices. The metal is now trading near-record highs with prices closing at US$9,458.50 on Wednesday, Bloomberg reports.
Under the new arrangement, Zhi Jui Mining will own 65% of the project and ZMDC the balance.
In June, the government announced that Zhi Jui had entered into a five-year contract to treat 26 million metric tonnes of mining dump at Mhangura.
“The project presents a win-win scenario, in which ZMDC will get substantial returns on their idle dumpsite,” the government said in a Cabinet statement then.
Zimbabwean copper’s long way back
But treatment of the dumps is only one small step in any efforts to revive Zimbabwean copper.
Mines Minister Winston Chitando has pledged “we are going to see copper production next year”. Government has launched a plan called the Greater Chinhoyi Copper Development programme, aiming to revive six copper operations by 2023.
However, bringing all ZMDC copper operations back to full production – including underground mining, a new refinery and smelter – would need an investment of as much as US$500 million, according to a ZMDC estimate. Getting this scale of investment is unlikley, despite growing world demand for copper.
“We believe that the government’s growth targets are unrealistic, as this would require major, sustained investment to boost capacity across the mining sector, and supporting infrastructure is weak,” according to analysts at the Economist Intelligene Unit.
Apart from Mhangura, ZMDC’s other copper operations are Alaska and Sanyati. Both are idle, despite attempts to restore the Alaska refinery and repurpose it for chrome.
Closure of the mines have left once thriving mining settlements broken, with residents living in squalor.
“A company treating dumps will not employ many people compared to one that resumes full production. We need real investors, but as things stand in Mhangura we are just grateful that at least something as happening,” according to Effort Nkoma a former worker and unionist at the mine.
Zimbabwe has since 2018 been desperately looking for foreign investment to help revive some ZMDC mines, most of which are either idle or heavily undercapitalized. A key part of that plan is seeking out small investors willing to invest in processing tailings.
Another Chinese company, PingChang, has been involved in plans for a joint venture with ZMDC to extract lithium from the tailings dump at Kamativi’s abandoned tin mine. However, this was delayed by a dispute over the claims involving Zimbabwe Lithium Company (ZLC), in which Canadian-listed miner Chimata Gold Corporation has a 19% shareholding.