SELEBI PHIKWE: Elsewhere, the sighting of big clouds of black smoke would get many people very worried, but not in Selebi Phikwe.
Last Sunday afternoon, many people in the town watched with nostalgic admiration and hope, as smoke rose out of the BCL Mine area. The smoke could be seen over 20km away from Phikwe. The black smoke spewed from the mine’s tailings dump fused with a large thunderstorm that was approaching from the north with equally dark menacing clouds.
The old mining town skyline turned dark and dramatic. Thick bolts of lightning illuminated the sky as celebratory firecrackers would. Thunder bellowed through the Botshabelo location, across Tshaba Ntsa to Area A. It resembled the Biblical dark scenes of Armageddon as if Phikwe was thrown into a furnace being torched to the ground. But despite the doom and gloom of the whole spectacle, many residents of Phikwe saw it as hope for the beginning of good times. A heavy pungent sulphur dioxide smell hung in the air.
It was a familiar smell in and around Phikwe. A smell of the good old days when the town’s major economic activity, the BCL Mine smelter, was in full throttle. “Ke ko mine, ba testa (It is at the mine. They are testing),” said a lanky man briskly walking past the curious Mmegi crew as it arrived. According to the man, who wore green overalls with orange reflectors who spoke with conviction, the smoke was the first sign of the resurrection of the BCL Mine.
As far as he knew, or wanted to believe, the authorities were busy preparing for the reopening of the BCL Mine, hence the smoke. In town, some people also held the belief that the smoke was indeed BCL testing its machinery, especially because of the choking sulphur dioxide in the air. During the glorious days of BCL, the stench of sulphur dioxide was a signature smell of the town. It has been almost five years since the copper smelter was extinguished and no smoke has come from the mine’s famous chimney stack, Chomela, as it is fondly called in the town. With the recent good news that the mine will reopen soon, the return of the sulphur in the air, though unpleasant, triggered fond memories. Although many people hated the smell of Phikwe, most still want the mine to roar back to life. However, the smoke had nothing to do with BCL reopening plans.
According to Phikwe police, the smoke came from a fire that burnt ‘thousands of used tyres’ piled on top of the mine’s tailings dump. “We suspect that some thieves wanted to salvage some of the rims in those used tyres and they set them alight, hence the big black smoke,” Selebi-Phikwe police station commander, Meshack Pulenyane said.
The police said they have not yet arrested anyone in connection to the fire. While the smoke and smell reignited hopes that the mine was being tested, the new investors for BCL Mine have no intention of restarting the smelter.
The new investor, Premium Nickel Resources Botswana, is focussed on a clean mining method, which involves higher mechanisation and minimising environmental impact. Whether the smelter will fire again remains anyone’s guess. Technically, BCL Mine’s liquidator can sell the facility to a separate buyer who then could process ore from base metal mines in the country. Or the investor could strip the smelter for parts. For the residents of Phikwe, the sight of the smoke underlines the renewed hope in the town for economic revival.