MWILA NTAMBI, Kitwe
MINING has always been the lifeline of Zambiaâ€™s economy since independence in 1964.
It dates back to pre-colonial days when most of the major mines in Zambia such as Broken Hill in Kabwe, Roan in Luanshya, Mufulira and Kitweâ€™s Nkana Mine became operational.
Mining brought immense opportunities for rural dwellers that migrated from their villages into towns in search of jobs and better living conditions.
To date, mining has continued to be the source of livelihood for many Zambians who are either directly employed by the mines or indirectly deal in business such as supplying of goods and services to the firms.
It is for this reason that whenever the mining sectorâ€™s survival is under threat, the whole nation raises its eyebrows to see the best way of coming out of that shock.
Early last year, the mining sector in Zambia experienced some shockwaves when thousands of people lost jobs.
The job losses were necessitated by a drop in demand for copper which resulted in the fall in prices of the commodity on the international market as well as the rising cost of production locally, coupled with the power deficit the country has been experiencing.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Minister of Mines and Minerals Development Christopher Yaluma promptly responded to an invitation by the Mineworkers Union of Zambia (MUZ) to discuss some pressing issues in the mining sector that threatened the job security of miners from different firms in the province.
MUZ president Nkole Chishimba informed Mr Yaluma in Kitwe recently that the mining sector is facing numerous challenges that require urgent intervention from the ministry if it is to survive.
Mr Chishimba told the minister that in a copper-dependent economy such as Zambiaâ€™s, any slight threat to the mining sector needs to be addressed because any slow down or slump in prices can affect the larger economy adversely.
He said although Government is championing an agenda to diversify the countryâ€™s economy, mining still remains an important cornerstone for the other sectors to thrive.
Mr Chishimba said the labour movement in the mining sector is concerned that there is no transparency and truthfulness in the manner mining investors are conducting their operations in Zambia.
He accused some mining companies of deliberately posting losses by not following their business plans.
According to Mr Chishimba, claims by some mining firms that they are making losses are untrue because they have simply stopped mining and concentrated on smelting contrary to their business plans.
The companies in question are allegedly not conducting any exploration but have simply turned themselves into processing plants.
Such enterprises are facing financial constraints because most of them have now built their own smelters thereby making it difficult for the self-imposed processing plants to make profits.
Mr Chishimba urged Government to intervene and ensure that all mining firms stick to their business plans.
Some mining entities that are still viable have been placed under care and maintenance because the investors operating them seemingly do not want to invest in technologies that promote new mining methods and the same firms are now threatening to shed off labour.
The minersâ€™ union will not support any mining firm planning to shed off its labour in addition to what they already laid off in 2015.
The MUZ leader also appealed to Mr Yaluma to do something about the alleged failure by some mines to pay contractors and other statutory obligations because their conduct is depriving local, small and medium entrepreneurs an opportunity to make money.
Mr Chishimba is of the view that Government should also compel CNMC Luanshya Mine to present its future plan for Baluba Mine because it cannot be kept under care and maintenance forever.
He said Non-Ferrous Corporation Africa (NFCA) Chambishi Mine also had its own share of problems and had resorted to placing workers on rotational leave instead of laying them off.
And Mr Yaluma said Government is committed to addressing the problems in the mining sector because it is the mainstay of Zambiaâ€™s economy.
The minister observed that the issue of Nchanga underground mine, for example, has been under discussion for a long time and that it is a well-known fact that the mining methodology that is used at the time the mine was opened cannot continue to be used even today.
Government will not allow any unnecessary laying off of workers in the mining sector and the 2015 lay-offs were allowed as a last resort for the sake of saving the industry from total collapse.
â€œIt made sense then and the lay-offs were done in a highly scientific manner but today, we are not going to allow anyone to shed off any labour without substantiating or justifying such an action,â€ he said.
He also ruled out taking over of operations at mining firms facing problems because Government does not want to inherit liabilities.
Government will instead conduct performance evaluations of non-performing mining firms to establish why they are facing problems.
The minister admitted that Government has in the past not done enough to exploit other minerals such as gemstones because they have been reaping a lot from copper proceeds.
The shockwaves experienced in the mining sector, particularly in copper mining, have been an eye-opener for Government to diversify within the mining sector by focusing on alternative minerals such as gemstones, nickel and manganese, among others.
â€œWe should change our mind-sets and exploit each and every mineral that we have available,â€ Mr Yaluma said.
The minister, who also visited NFCA Chambishi Mine and Chambishi Copper Smelter, promised that Government will promote dialogue with the mining investors to overcome the various challenges in the industry.
Public Policy Institute of Zambia (PPIZ) president Febian Chewe said Governmentâ€™s move to implement effective mining monitoring mechanisms and ensure stable and responsive mining tax regime will transform the sector.
Clearly, mining can never be divorced from Zambiaâ€™s economy and the Zambian people. It will remain an important part of Zambiaâ€™s social and economic mainstay for many years to come.
However, for the country to reap more benefits, there is clearly a need to diversify within the sector and also explore other economic ventures with the potential to enrich the countryâ€™s treasury.
MWILA NTAMBI, Kitwe