Once a cost-free paradise, the 1,600 BCL houses are now the scene of a struggle for life by ex-workers who used to enjoy unlimited electricity, water and rentals as low as P200 for a three-bedroomed unit. Staff Writers, MBONGENI MGUNI & ONALENNA MODIKWA KELEBEILE report
As the country marks the first anniversary of the death of the BCL Mine, the focus for many is the bigger picture, for instance how the town transformed into a shell of its former self, how thousands were rendered jobless and how the broader economy continues to suffer.
A leaked report compiled by BCL’s provisional liquidator, Nigel Dixon-Warren shows that the closure was also a very personal experience for employees, changing long-held attitudes and snatching away things they had long taken for granted.
Shelter and provisions, the number one reason all workers wake up every morning, were liberally supplied during the life of the BCL Mine. In fact, according to the report, BCL workers enjoyed housing and utility privileges workers in other parts of the private and public sector could only dream of.
The privileges were part of the reason the trauma of the closure was enhanced for many workers. The closure was not just the end of employment, but a check on a life lived sheltered from the reality other workers across the country lived with on a daily basis.
While the mine was operational, workers paid monthly rentals ranging from between P100 for hostels and between P200 and P400 for three-bedroomed houses depending on one’s pay grade. The rentals were deducted from workers’ monthly pay.
BCL had 15 houses rented out to two schools, which were paying between P93 and P450 per month for three-bedroomed units.
It was believed by those on the outside that utilities were free at the BCL Mine and those people could be forgiven for thinking so. Dixon-Warren found that workers were given a monthly allowance of between 120,000 to 400,000 litres for water and between 400kWh to 1000kWh for electricity.
To paint a picture, 100,000 litres of water is equivalent to 2,857 five-minute showers and assuming a person showers once a day, that’s equal to eight years of showers.
Not surprisingly, employees found uses for the extra water.
“Most houses did not have a separate water meter so usage was not monitored or managed,” Dixon-Warren noted.
“While no direct evidence has been found, it is believed employees abused the allowance with water being stolen and taken to cattle posts and farms.
“There was very little regard for the cost of water and electrical usage on the site either for operations or domestically.
“Both domestic and operational usage for both water and electricity were poorly measured and hence poorly managed. Wastage and inefficiency was rife.
“Balances for electricity units were also not monitored leading to some houses having in excess of two times the allowance per the policy. Units were even being purchased for vacant houses on monthly basis without any regard for actual usage.”
As a result, the expenses the mine was incurring within its houses contributed to a total bill of P35 million per month for electricity and P3 million for water, adding to the high operational expenses that would eventually put BCL under pressure.
On that now infamous day in October, last year, when four Cabinet ministers grouped the workers together and delivered the devastating news about the mine’s closure, workers knew lives were going to change in more ways than one.
Whatever sense of urgency about the need for transformation workers had at this point was dulled by government’s announcement that it would provide a soft-landing for them. Provisions were made for continuing health care and education coverage, as well as a one-year extension of the housing arrangement.
In total, the provisional liquidator signed 1,321 leases with ex-employees for the 12-month extension, during which period, 237 citizens and 50 expatriates vacated the houses.
Even as the town emptied of its residents, and its economy self-imploded after the
Recently, however, workers were given notice that from November 1, they would have to pay proper rental for the houses or move out. By mid-September, at least 600 former workers had indicated that they wanted to stay on under the new terms.
Fortunately, government has agreed to extend the housing arrangement by a further 12 months to December 2018, giving workers another year.
In the streets of the BCL houses, the joy one would expect from the announcement is plainly missing. Since the mine closure, the BCL houses area has become Camp Desperation, where former workers struggle to make a living from every conceivable avenue.
The free housing is the only bright light here. Some households just cannot cope with the economic situation and there are reports of some girl children missing school during their menstrual days because their parents cannot afford sanitary pads. Some women spend their nights at bars and drinking spots collect empty bottles and cans for sale.
“We can raise P400 a month from this activity.
“It is risky. These young men kick us in the butts as we bend to pick the empties,” a married woman tells the Mmegi news crew.
Many women have stuck by their now unemployed husbands in the BCL houses. One of them explains that leaving to go and stay in the village carries a risk with it.
“We cannot risk breaking our marriages. Nowadays even a shop assistant job is valuable in Phikwe and our husbands could be easily tempted,” she says.
Most of the ex-workers who chose to stay behind in the houses did so because they wanted their school-going children, especially those doing Form 5, to complete their studies without disruption.
Others of course are staying because they hold out the hope that the mine will bounce back to life and full operations before they are required to hand back the houses. Others are positive that they will secure gainful employment any minute.
The days of “free” utilities are over in the BCL houses. Those who stayed behind have to pay their utilities and combined with the unemployment, the one-time bed of roses has dried up, exposing only the thorns.
Separated metres have been installed in some BCL houses and the project is ongoing so that each household foots its own water and electricity bill. Former workers are learning how to use utilities prudently to keep their bills low, a far break from the limitless use of yesteryear.
Leakages are reported quickly as residents now take care to save every drop. However, there are concerns that the mine’s care and maintenance teams often take long to attend to the leakages.
Where ex-workers used to water their gardens and lawns with reckless abandon, few dare bring out the hosepipes and watering cans. Some residents have even resorted to collecting firewood in the nearby bushes to reduce their electricity usage.
“Our gardens are wilting because we cannot afford to pay high water bills. During the week we take wheelbarrows to collect firewood because we cannot afford electricity.
“We use over P200 a month for electricity but at any one time, we recharge with any amount like P10 and P20. It is tough,” one woman says.
One household in Orlando location had over 4,000 units on its prepaid meter when the mine closed down. The family resident in the house has never recharged since October last year and today the meter reads 1,700.
It is anyone’s guess whether the mine will be running by the time the meter reaches zero.