A gruesome video showing a gang chopping a man’s legs with a machete has jolted Zimbabwe to act against spiralling cases of violence by artisanal gold miners, which is now morphing into a political crisis.
After the video circulated on social media, police launched an operation that netted 1,500 illegal gold panners in less than a week. Another 3,471 people were arrested in connection with the gang violence at illegal gold mining areas.
The panners that have taken over abandoned gold mines across the country were found in possession of machetes and other dangerous weapons.
Police say those arrested are now being investigated for various violent crimes including murder.
So alarming is the gang violence that President Emmerson Mnangagwa had to set up an inter-ministerial committee to tackle it.
Justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi said the government was considering deploying the army to curb the violence which has become “a cause for concern across the provinces.”
“If the police feel that they are not capacitated, then they will request the assistance of the military,” said Mr Ziyambi. “In the near future, you should be able to witness some changes regarding the issue of illegal miners.”
For a long time, the violence associated with artisanal mining was confined to the small town of Shurugwi in central Zimbabwe, but it has now spread throughout the country.
The gangs, now known as MaShurugwi, often attack artisanal miners and take over their gold ore at the end of a day’s work. At times the gangs wait for the miners to sell their ore before pouncing on them.
“There is a sense of paralysis when it comes to what should be done about gangs that have overrun areas where gold panning activities have become pronounced and how the attendant violence should be tackled,” wrote the state-owned Herald newspaper after police shot dead a gang leader in the town of Chegutu.
The gang had raided a gold mine armed with machetes, axes, knives and sjamboks. They stole mobile phones, gold ore, fuel and foodstuff.
“The number of lives lost and the people maimed or injured due to violence perpetrated by MaShurugwi is threatening to rival those lost to road traffic accidents,” the paper wrote.
Temba Mliswa, a legislator on the outskirts of the capital Harare where the gangs are accused of robbing and killing residents of Norton town said the violence was spreading because the perpetrators were protected by powerful politicians.
“The government has not been quick to clampdown on the gangs because some of the leaders in the ruling Zanu PF party are involved in illegal smuggling of gold,” said Mr Mliswa. “This is why they are not keen to stop the violence yet people are dying.”
For a long time, police and other state security agents have been accused of ignoring the perpetrators of gang violence especially in President Mnangagwa’s gold-rich Midlands’ province.
At some point police and the army had to be deployed in the president’s hometown of Kwekwe after it was invaded by gangs linked to the ruling party.
Last year, a court case pitting the mine’s owner — a Germany investor — and a Zanu PF legislator revealed how the president’s allies were protecting the violent gangs that also allegedly funded the ruling party.
State Security minister Owen Ncube, a long-time ally of President Mnangagwa, has in the past been described as the godfather of one of the most violent gangs from Kwekwe known as Al Shabaab. The gang was named after the infamous terrorist Al Shabaab group from Somalia.
Al Shabaab was linked to the murder of opposition supporters in the province during elections, but none of the gang members have been prosecuted.
Mr Ncube, who was recently put on the sanctions list by the US over alleged human rights violations, has in the past denied allegations that he is behind Al Shabaab.
However, a month before the 2017 military coup that toppled long time ruler Robert Mugabe, police opened investigations into the murder of several people at one of the mines in Kwekwe.
Mr Ncube was among President Mnangagwa’s allies being investigated for the killings but investigations were halted after Mr Mugabe was toppled.
Settlement Chikwinya, an opposition MP from Kwekwe, said most of the machete violence in the city was linked to Al Shabaab.
“I have seen many victims of machete violence in Kwekwe, including some who lost their lives,” said Mr Chikwinya, who traced the genesis of the violence to around 2009. “Initially the violence started as a turf war between youths from different camps fighting for the control of gold deposits.
After a while, ruling party heavyweights joined the fight for the control of the gold fields and used youths as foot soldiers to invade mines, the MP said.
“In turn the politicians provided the youths with immunity against arrest; this made the youths untouchable since even the police were under the control of the Zanu PF heavyweights.”
Mr Chikwinya added: “The impunity escalated towards last year’s elections. Now victims range from fellow gold panners, night club patrons and cross-border traders.”
He said the youths also raid city residents when they are short of money.
Obert Chinhamo, whose Anti-Corruption Trust of Southern Africa has been monitoring the violence in Kwekwe said the situation had gone out of hand.
“As a country, we are nursing a problem that will be very difficult to contain,” Mr Chinhamo said. “Already we have many victims, including deaths due to machete attacks.”
As Zimbabwe’s economic crisis deepens, desperate youths are turning to illegal gold mining to make a living.
The gold rush that erupts across the country often lead to violence and some villagers are even displaced from their homesteads.
There are no official figures on the amount of gold extracted by illegal miners but it is believed that most of it is smuggled out of the country.
Zimbabwe could be losing as much as $3 billion annually through the illicit deals, experts say.
According to the Zimbabwe Miners Federation, the gold mining sector contributes about 40 per cent to the country’s mineral output.
Gold is only second to tobacco in the amount of foreign currency it brings to the country.