OPINION | Car or cow: A tale of Africa’s poor mineral wealth management

Car or Cow: African economies fave value dilemma (Photo: Tafadzwa Ufumeli)

By Mukasiri Sibanda

In 2015, I imported a used car from Japan. I had been so comfortable to use public transport to get to work and for social errands. In the minibuses, I would be so deeply immersed in people’s stories, the struggles and the humour we often use to diagnose our economic tumor in Zimbabwe. Some things did not make sense to me then.

A bus stop was called “pamarara”, to refer to a mountain of garbage dumped by residents because of dysfunctional refuse collection. It still worries me that the dignity of the residents has been degraded to the extent that people comfortably call a bus stop “pamarara”.

While I didn’t mind using public transport, the school run for my children, my golden girls, was a huge challenge for my wife and the kids. So it was a huge relief getting our car. Yet I never stopped thinking, “how many cows would I have bought instead of a car”? While convenient, a car is a depreciating asset. It differs from cattle, the traditional source of wealth that can multiply. Of course, barring the risks involved in rearing cattle.

The first time we took that car for service, we were advised by the mechanic that the car’s exhaust system was designed for frigid environments. For it to perform better in Africa, a hot environment, we had to remove a certain part. They even offered to do the work for free. We were so excited to meet a mechanic who was so friendly and eager to explain to us how we can take good care of our car. We agreed without any suspicions.

Later, I understood that the removed part was an auto-catalytic converter used to reduce carbon emissions. The auto-catalytic converter is made from palladium, one of the six metals comprising the Platinum Group of Metals (PGMs) — platinum, palladium, rhodium, ruthenium, iridium, and osmium. How I discovered that I had been swindled was when someone, while queueing for fuel, was offered money for the autocatalytic converter. The fuel shortages were creating an easy marketplace for people who wanted to buy the converters using the same explanation that they served little purpose in Zimbabwe’s hot climate.

In a way, this meant that controlling pollution did not matter. Thus, our asset, the air that we breathe, and its quality, were getting compromised. This wasn’t the only tragedy. Along with our neighbour South Africa, Zimbabwe is one of the rare producers of PGMs globally. South Africa has an outsized role in the production of PGMs. As statistics show, in 2023, South Africa produced 120 metric tonnes of platinum, followed by Russia with 23 tonnes, Zimbabwe with 19 tonnes, Canada with 5.5 tonnes, the United States with 2.9 tonnes, and other countries with 4.6 metric tonnes. There is little value addition and beneficiation of platinum mined in Zimbabwe.

To date, most platinum exports from Zimbabwe to South Africa are either concentrate or matte. The latter is a second phase of value addition that is preceded the recovery of base metals such as nickel, cobalt, and copper. After this, precious metals, the PGMs plus gold and silver, are recovered.

While Zimbabwe could be losing to South Africa by not getting additional value from platinum processing, from a pan-African perspective, the value is at least being retained on the continent. Other minerals are being exported outside the continent in raw or partially processed form, like black granite, diamonds, and lithium.

So, the platinum that Zimbabwe produced, or from South Africa, was then used to make the autocatalytic converters outside Africa. These are highly valued final products that are later recovered from cars being dumped on us. The bulk of the recycled platinum is sourced from cars, followed by jewelry and, in smaller quantities, from electronics. Estimates show that in 2023, 1,521 ounces of platinum came from recycling. This is 8% of the total platinum produced by Zimbabwe in 2023. While the figure looks small, it is a dystopian fear there the country’s grip on its mineral resources will lose grip further as recycled minerals are likely to dominate market share in the future.

Zimbabwe is not an active player in the recycling of platinum. It is a source of raw materials just like the mined platinum from the ground. This spells double trouble. These challenges are aggravated by the fact that pollution from cars is increasing because citizens are not fully aware of the dangers of removing auto catalytic converters.

The short-term economic gains which are outweighed by the adverse impact on the quality of the air that we breathe are not looked at from a balance sheet approach. Regulators, who should be stopping this environmental and economic crime, seem to be sleeping at the wheel. Their ability to steer the national development from minerals may be impaired.

It is crucial, though, to note that policy-wise, using both the stick and carrot approach, Zimbabwe is using its tax regime to improve mineral value addition. Further, trade tools in the form of the ban on raw mineral exports as in the case of ferrochrome, dimensional stones, and lithium are in place. The same applies to platinum. The major difference is that the deadline for imposing tax on unrefined platinum has been frequently moved in line with consultations with industry.

Now, back to the “pamarara” bus stop. In Zimbabwe, the loss of dignity is bigger than local authorities that abdicate their obligations to collect refuse. On top of losses generated from failure to refine minerals, and produce intermediate and final goods that are highly valued, products from our minerals which are meant to reduce air pollution are illicitly stripped from cars.

Collateral damage is also felt when scarce foreign currency from low-value mineral exports is then spent on buying used cars. I bet, with an efficient public transport system, the desire for individuals to use their hard-earned earnings to invest in used cars, wasting assets, would be reduced. In turn, this would reduce the trade deficit that causes havoc to national finances. I have observed that congestion in Harare is worse during the school term. I again wonder; if I had invested in cattle, what would be my family’s net worth? This is a question not just for my family, but for our African economies.

Mukasiri Sibanda, is the Coordinator of the Stop the Bleeding Campaign