Time to take Gweru plight
Time to take Gweru plight seriously
ABOUT 275 kilometres southwest of Harare lies the Midlands provincial capital city of Gweru. This is a city which is the country's third largest and has always held a lot of promise because of its diversified industrial base. This resulted in it being the city with the highest employment rate per capita in the country.
Its geographical location at the centre of the country makes it a very accessible place and almost a hub of traffic criss-crossing the country. Its weather, though, as unpredictable as that of Johannesburg and Pretoria, is characterised by both chilly and windy conditions. The convergence of different tribes in Gweru also makes it a rich field for exposure to a diverse ethnic culture which is unequalled by most cities in the country.
There is no particular tribal or ethnic group which dominates social life in Gweru, in addition it boasts some of the best schools in the country and most of the Air Force of Zimbabwe personnel have attained their wings at Thornhill Air Base that is located in the city. We have some of the leading politicians and business leaders who attained their educational qualifications at Chaplin, Fletcher, Mambo High school and Educare College among other schools.
The industrial base is well defined because its is a mix of both heavy industries and light industries. Between 1900 and 1930 a stock market existed in the city, then known as Gwelo. In October 1971, Gwelo attained city status. The city's population averages around 350 000 people with more than 35 percent of the populace below the age of 40 years. The city was renamed Gweru in 1984.
Some of the leading companies were located along Bristol Road en-route to the high-density suburb of Mkoba before the crippling de-industrialisation took its toll between the late 1990s and 2009. These companies included Bata Shoe Company, Zimbabwe Alloys, ZimGlass, ZimCast, Circle Cement, Kariba Batteries, Cold Storage Commission, Victoria Foods and a vibrant informal sector at Kombai Musika. Most of the above-mentioned companies used to be the source of livelihood for most of the Gweru residents.
However, the economic instability of the past decade has taken its toll on most of the companies some of which have since folded. Those that are still operating are in a sorry state with most of them operating at an average of 30 percent capacity utilisation after having to retrench staff.
This naturally has affected the standard of living for most of the residents as they depended on their occupation at these companies for a livelihood.
Those that have not been fortunate to retain their occupation in these companies have been relegated to the informal sector. Bata Shoe Company, which was one of the biggest employers in the city at one point, drew 30 percent of its workforce from Mkoba. However, the same company, which used to be the leading shoe manufacturer and distribution at regional level, has been reduced to a pale shadow of its former self due to the influx of Chinese shoes.
This is the company, which had both a direct and significant effect on both the consumption and investment levels for the city. The Chinese textiles and shoes are causing headaches even for policymakers in Washington, Paris, London and Brussels and Harare is no exception. This means tariff laws should have been enacted with regard to protectionist measures for some of the country's strategic companies, Bata included.
ZimAlloys, that also contributed significantly to the employment of Gweru residents, has been struggling.
When it was indigenised with most of the white directors pulling out, the incoming black owners fell victim to spiralling employment costs due to challenges in the economy which in turn triggered forced resignations and retrenchments at the height of the economic free-fall.
This saw some of the Gweru residents who had served the company since the Rhodesian era receiving "peanuts" as part of their pensions. A case of American "Detroit City" in the state of Michigan was noticeable in the small city of Gweru with most of the employees losing their jobs like what happened at the height of the financial crisis in Michigan when most of the car workers were laid off. There was almost deafening silence from the Government when some of these corporates retrenched. Gweru does not have an established informal sector and the opportunity cost of losing formal employment is so high that it takes an average of at least a decade for one to be reinstated to his or her former social state.
The market is so narrow and shallow to the extent that Government policy has to be seriously reviewed if the former large corporates are to deliver value for the betterment of the populace of the city. A threshold on employment levels has to be set. The current situation where the recovery of Gweru's industrial base is lagging below the national average is certainly unsustainable.
Kariba Batteries is now defunct after years of adding value to the city of progress. However, cell batteries, which the company used to manufacture, are still in high demand in the country. Most of the skilled manpower in the city has been migrating to Harare notably after the advent of dollarisation. The near absence of the service sector and dominance of the manufacturing sector couldn't help matters for the central city of Gweru. There is a thin level of tertiary activity in the city with financial and other service provision function being represented only at branch level.
They are only a handful of formal sector organisations, which can recruit labour in the city with most of them referring all human resource matters to the capital.
For the city of progress to develop, an uplift is desperately needed for its residents. Government needs to press a "panic button" knowing that failing to do so will result in continuous urban stagnation cum decay, which had seen persistent power outages and water shortages being the order of the day.
An audit has to be effected to know which companies deserve restructuring and urgent action being taken if no strategic plans are in place for the growth and recovery of the once robust and thriving industry in the city. For every five households in the city of Gweru, one is dependent on Bata Shoe Company, for every 12 households, one is dependent on ZimAlloys and for every 20, one relies on ZimCast. The three mentioned corporates are now a pale shadow of their former self and yet the residential area of Gweru is expanding at a faster pace than its industrial base.
More capital has to be injected into the capitalisation of ZimAlloys furnaces with iron smelting activity so depressed at the moment, these are sectors which desperately require support. Most of the employees in these sectors are just nominal or imaginary shareholders through the employee share ownership schemes. This is because such tokens contributed nothing except voluminous literature in the form of shareholder statements which never brought dividends enough to buy half a crate of eggs for breakfast.
Gweru City Council has also been deprived of significant revenue in the form of gate takings since these companies can no longer channel any money to their sporting teams.
There used to be Chapungu Football Club in the Premier League but Ascot Stadium has been turned into a social soccer venue while Mkoba Stadium is now only hosting political rallies and church crusades. What an opportunity cost for both residents in terms of entertainment and the city fathers inasfar as income generation is concerned.
Local inflation in Gweru is relatively higher than the national average despite the fact that it is not a resort city.
Most of the retail goods are relatively more expensive than in Harare with transport costs so exorbitant if one is to factor in the distance between their central business district and different suburban zones. These include Southdowns, Mambo, Senga, Mtapa, Ascot, Irvine, Lundi Park, Athlone to mention but just a few. However, the city is quite more organised than the Sunshine City with public transport restricted to its allocated zones. This is truly becoming a forgotten city, it is a place where the industrial output per capita can be potentially higher than anywhere with infrastructural facilities which normally exceed the expectations of a first time visitor.
This is the opportune time authorities take Gweru seriously for the city can change the overall "heartbeat" of national recovery.
Christopher Takunda Mugaga
Head of Research
Econometer Global Capital
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