The darkest day, the day when the smoke cleared; whichever phrase you use, in Selebi-Phikwe October 7 will forever be remembered as the day the world stopped spinning. Staff Writer and long-time Phikwe resident, ONALENNA MODIKWA KELEBEILE recalls the period
SELEBI-PHIKWE: October 7, 2017 marked the first anniversary of the closure of the BCL Mine, a life-changing event that remains fresh in the minds of the plus-minus 4,600 rendered jobless.
October 7 will be archived in Selebi-Phikwe’s history books as the town’s darkest day. All the employees, including those who were contracted and sub-contracted to the mine, dependents included, received the biggest shock of their lives. This was the day that the phrase ‘imminent mine closure’ that they had seen in numerous internal memos and which had become a cliché became reality.
Memories of that day are as if it only happened last night. At about lunch time on October 7, we learnt of an urgent meeting called by the Minerals Minister, Sadique Kebonang, who was leading a high powered delegation.
The meeting was to be held at the BCL Mine at 2pm. However, prior to this, the minister held a closed-door meeting with the mine management and representatives of the Botswana Mine Workers Union (BMWU).
That meeting took far longer than anticipated but we waited patiently in an adjoining conference room.
However, it was clear from the faces of those who would occasionally leave the conference room to either answer the call of nature or their phones, that there was no good news being delivered behind closed doors. In fact grown men were coming out of the room with tears streaming down their cheeks. Even the hugs, laughs and interactions that normally indicate the end of most meetings were absent. Instead, there was silence, before those in the meeting emerged with sombre faces that confirmed everyone’s worst fears.
We would shortly find out that the High Court had placed the BCL Mine under provisional liquidation at the request of its sole shareholder, the government. The mine, therefore, had to close right away and stop operations.
The pain of watching unsuspecting employees walk around the mine unaware of these developments will forever haunt those of us who were there at the time.
The 2pm shift that reported that day was to be last to ever see work at the mine, as the wheels stopped spinning and the smoke from the smelter cleared up for the first time in over 40 years.
As we were granted a short address, section leaders were ordered to inform those who were supposed to report for duty at 10pm not to turn up and for the security personnel at the mine entrance to inform those who were to report at 6am. Those who were knocking off were also informed that it was the end.
Others were off duty while others were on leave but as the message spread, everyone turned around and headed to the mine to hear for themselves. All those who were in possession of mine property were told to surrender it. Contracted companies also had to turn back at the mine entrance and confusion arose as it related to the chain of command, as everyone now had to report to the provisional liquidator.
The following Monday, ministers and legislators such as Samson Moyo Guma held an address for all former mine employees by the mine entrance. The reasons for the mine closure were explained to them albeit vaguely as Kebonang, who was only three days in office, assumed a more diplomatic tone. Guma, once accorded the platform, said there was no need to romanticise words and it was important to come right out and tell the people that there was simply no money to run the mine. He said even prospects of government financing the mine operations were as good as non-existent.
Around town, freshly retrenched mine workers were beginning to throng the township area where they sat in groups discussing the developments and sharing their reactions. A funeral atmosphere settled across the town, as everyone pondered their future.
The same week, the Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi addressed town authorities at the Bosele Hotel where he promised a soft landing and a unique liquidation for BCL employees, which included a cushion of 12-18 months salaries
The following week the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry held a workshop at Hotel Selebi attended by, among others, top officials from BDC, CEDA and Business Botswana. A Selebi-Phikwe Revitalisation Strategy was discussed on how to speed up economic diversification in the town.
The cataclysm was followed by a massive relocation from the town as workers returned to their home villages. Local buying power collapsed, resulting in the numbers of businesses falling by 50%, in turn triggering retrenchments and the closure of other downstream businesses.
Commercial banks set up stalls at BMWU’s headquarters to make arrangements with ex-employees on how to pay back their loans. This is where most of them learnt that the agreements they had entered into with banks did not affect the employer. They also learnt that the insurance policies built into personal loans, do not cover retrenchments and they will be liable for the full amount. Many faced and still face civil imprisonment as loans have not been serviced, while insurance policies have lapsed.
Ex-employees had expected that President Ian Khama would come and address them, perhaps giving them hope. Khama did in fact visit the area, but he only held kgotla meetings in Tobane and Sefhophe and never actually passed through Selebi-Phikwe.
It is now a year since the tragedy.
Selebi-Phikwe West legislator, Dithapelo Keorapetse, who has repeatedly said there was massive disinformation from government around the mine’s closure, says BCL’s reserves and geological records show that massive resources are enough for 40 years and are of good quality.
He believes if the ore is mixed with that from Nkomati and Tati Nickel, together with new shafts in Dikoloti and Maibele, BCL could operate profitably. BCL has equity interests in Nkomati Nickel, a South African mine as well as Dikoloti and Maibele, which are joint ventures.
“If all these were done with restructuring to make the structure more efficient, the mine would be profitable. The US$4 per pound recovery plan by BCL management presented to Cabinet on October 1 2016 was a great plan for BCL,” he says.
In the year since the closure, many of the promises made last October have not come to fruition. Initially there was a lot of confusion about how those who had been injured on duty would get help from the mine. Many found themselves stuck with bills that they had to pay for themselves. Those whose relatives had died in accidents also reported that compensation was not forthcoming.
The promise of 12 to 18 months salary pay ended up a pipe dream. The soft landing never happened and in fact, recently, Selebi-Phikwe east legislator and Cabinet Minister, Nonofo Molefhi, described that promise as a “mistake” in a kgotla meeting. The exit package was also not what had been agreed with the union.
“What only happened is that they were not paid better packages except a month’s salary, bonuses due to them and leave days,” says Keorapetse.
“This was extremely inadequate and people are still indebted to banks and are now liable for civil imprisonment and auctions.
“School fees were paid for private school kids while those in public schools are not assisted in any way. Newly enrolled kids were not paid for as the arrangement only covered continuous registration.”
The legislator believes reopening the mine must become a government priority and the hunt for suitable investors must continue.
Keorapetse says a judicial commission of enquiry into BCL Mine’s closure is required to avoid similar events in future.
A “commission of enquiry” of sorts will be laid before the High Court next month when Dixon-Warren presents his report to creditors. The report, which has already leaked to sections of the media, will point to the path BCL Mine took to closure.
For workers, however, the findings will be cold comfort.