It all started in a dump: as told by 'Jerabos'
By Kapijimpanga Mulemba
It is 5:30 pm in Chingola on this slow Saturday afternoon. I am waiting to meet two “jerabos” by the name of Ed and Harry. I am in a car-park outside a lime green motel, there is constant human and cargo traffic going in and out of the motel. As I look into the horizon a gigantic mass of a hill is outlined behind the smog filled sky, this isn’t a naturally occurring hill, it’s a copper ore dump, to the ordinary layperson it looks like a heap of rubble but in this part of the country more often than not it is worth more than life itself.
Chingola as a town is a neatly planned municipality; with the exception of the recent ad hoc plot allocations that have taken place under the various council administrations over the last 20 years, many of them under questionable circumstances. Like other towns based on the Copperbelt, its past appears to present a greater glory than its present and possibly its future.
In Lusaka, I am constantly reminded that things are happening and I am told that Zambia is in the midst of a commodity rally as never seen before and Chingola is at its heart. The opening of the multi-billion dollar mine Konnoco in Chililabombwe twenty minutes away from Chingola is one example, a joint venture mining operation between Vale of Brazil and African Rainbow Minerals of South Africa owned in part by billionaire Patrice Motsepe. Billionaires and multibillion dollar establishments reinforces this message of prosperity.
The question is, does the everyday Chingola resident see it? It is hard to tell, activity is certainly evident, mining equipment that resembles props from the last Transformers film are seen on the back of low bed trucks with South African number plates as constant traffic keeps moving along the pot holed roads.
Different nationalities can be found dressed in safety attire and covered in the famous Zambian dust in the long Shoprite queues (a South African supermarket) at knocking off time.
As one exits Chingola, one is faced with hills of copper ore long abandoned, in some cases even for over 50 years. In the 60s these dumps were viewed as being of low quality and the subsequent collapse of copper prices in the 70s and 80s further reinforced this belief and made it unprofitable to mine. The reason for this was at the time the percentage of the ore was considered a low grade, ranging from between 5-10%; currently the remaining ore body is 3%. Anyone who is involved in the sale of copper will tell you that an ore grade of 5-10% is very good, in fact excellent.
Enter Ed and Harry. They appear at exactly 5:35 pm. They take me from the motel car park and sit me in another establishment that like much of Chingola has seen better days. The motel in question seems to house ladies of certain repute and offers the Mwaiseni residents minimal respite from the demands of daily life. Looking at Ed and Harry there is nothing about their appearance that tells you that they are “jerabos”- copper thieves. Both possess physically intimidating demeanours but seem quite ordinary, just your average 30 something year old Zambian.
Much has been made of “jerabos” but to put it into context, illegal copper mining is not a new occurrence or phenomena; wherever there are loop holes, to put it politely, enterprising people will attempt to accrue benefit for their group particularly where legislation is not in place, correctly understood or enacted. With the collapse of ZCCM (state owned mines), security at the abandoned mines was lax and the abandoned pits became a free for all.
Second Republican President Frederick Chiluba’s reforms that embraced the stark reality of market forces and capitalism flourished in a community that was protected by the social blanket of humanism, free health, education and employment for all. All of that became a distant memory as survival of the fittest mind set was forced on the people to survive, hence the creation of a culture that has been condemned and that represents themselves as products of their time and circumstance; enter Ed and Harry.
Ed and Harry inform me that they have just come from their mine and have left their ‘boys’ digging on site. I ask both of them about their backgrounds, I quickly realise as they narrate their story, that neither Ed nor Harry are the stereotypical illiterate thugs that local media sensationally report on as the scourge that terrorises the Copperbelt; their stories seem to paint a different picture.
Both recount their life experiences, immediately there is a common thread that binds their distinct yet collective narrative. They tell of losing both their parents at an early age and being forced to move from their respective homes to live with relatives. I hear of the further loss of siblings or the relocation of immediate family overseas in search of better opportunities for all family members, and the constant dependence and scarcity of opportunities on the Copperbelt.
Ed smiles as he remembers that before he became a labelled “jerabo”, he had been pursuing a course in chemical engineering, after gaining a metal fabrication certificate from a trade school. Ed and Harry are quick to point out that neither of them are in fact “jerabos” as that would entail having spent time in jail at some point and neither admitted to it in our discussion nor would they want to boast openly of such an indiscretion.
It is clear that jail is not seen as an added incentive to their work, they have aspirational goals, that is to provide food and shelter for their young families, they want nice things, a better life and more importantly they want mining licenses to legitimize their business activities, instead of being viewed as criminals involved in criminal activities on the fringes of society.
Editor's Note: Look out for the continuation of this narrative tomorrow.