NORTON, ZIMBABWE — A 23-year-old man stands behind a bar counter at Katanga Shopping Centre. He wears fitness training gloves to cover the scars on his hands.
As a security guard at a local bar, Stalin, who asked that his full name not be used for fear of retribution, says he never imagined that trying to stop a fight would have such consequences.
“All I wanted to do was to stop them from fighting or to take their fight outside,” he says. “But instead, I was attacked with machetes.”
Since he was attacked by what he describes as a “gang of gold thieves,” he can no longer carry heavy goods. The March incident severely injured his hands.
Stalin says he reported the attack to police, but no arrests have been made.
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe
After gold was discovered in a local mine, the gangs are a growing presence here in Norton, a town located 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Harare.
Privilege Moyo, chairman of the Norton Miners Association, says gold was found “in abundance” at a local mine called Epson. The discovery resulted in an influx of gold miners – and criminals – from various parts of the country.
Now, a group known as MaShurugwi – a reference to Shurugwi, the place the group comes from – is widely presumed responsible for an increase in robberies.
The attacks come as the Zimbabwean government encourages small-scale and artisanal mining.
Artisanal and small-scale miners contributed 45% of the country’s gold production in 2016, according to a policy brief titled “Artisanal and Small-scale Mining in Zimbabwe – Curse or Blessing?” Estimates of the number of artisanal and small-scale miners vary. A 2018 report from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization estimates that there could be hundreds of thousands or even millions here.
A recent UNIDO report estimates that 50% of artisanal and small-scale mined gold is lost in smuggling.
Artisanal miners are largely unregistered and unregulated, and the government has ceased arresting them for mining operations. Some say the lack of regulation has encouraged lawlessness, including criminals who prey on artisanal miners and communities with machetes.
Moyo says until late last year the machete gangs passed through Norton on their way to mines in other towns. Today they rob artisanal miners at their mines and attack people in public. A tally of all crimes attributed to the MaShurugwi gang and other criminals is not available.
“They come armed with weapons and loot whatever you will have mined and even injure people in the process,” says Bakare Phiri, an artisanal miner who has worked in Norton since 2007.
Phiri says he has experienced gang ruthlessness firsthand. They robbed him and a colleague of two wheelbarrows of gold, roughly 20 to 30 grams.
“In early September, they came when I was on a night shift. I was underground with my colleague, and they attacked people who were outside. I heard people crying and I knew [they] had come,” Phiri says.
Then, things got worse.
“They pulled us out of the hole we were in,” he says. “I was hit on my back and waist with a golf stick, and they punched the wheels of the car that we had. They took everything we had dug and left.”
Phiri says he did not file a police report for fear of retaliation.
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe
Temba Mliswa, a member of parliament who represents the Norton area, says the machete-wielding thieves have filled residents with fear. “They are just criminals purporting to be gold panners,” he says.
He’s working with local police to institute random checkpoints to search vehicles for machetes. He says he’s also considering proposing stricter weapons laws.
In an attempt to quell the violence, the government announced in November that carrying a machete in gold-rich areas of the country would be forbidden.
“The government has to come up with a statutory instrument that bans machetes, and whoever is caught with a machete is sentenced to five years imprisonment without bail,” he says.
Moyo, who represents Norton’s artisanal miners, says people here will continue mining because it’s their primary livelihood. But miners want more security.
Security guards may be a temporary solution, but experts say the situation doesn’t show signs of slowing down, thanks to the country’s ongoing economic crisis.
Mukasiri Sibanda, economic governance officer at Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association, says more people are turning to mining to escape economic hardship, which gives criminals more opportunities to steal.
“With the nature of our geology, gold is found in almost every part of the country, and they are shallow deposits,” Sibanda says. He adds that artisanal miners need greater legal protection.
“Our laws do not recognize artisanal mining, so we cannot talk of regulations that protect them. Our laws protect orderly mining, but there is that element of the ‘no questions asked’ in terms of gold deliveries, so what it means is that you can kill, use violence to get what you want,” says Sibanda. “So that’s the challenge.”
He says ZELA has been working with parliament and the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development to change the law to recognize artisanal miners – currently, the government only recognizes them informally.
But waiting for government intervention isn’t realistic, Stalin says at the bar. He says he hopes Norton closes its newly lucrative mines to quell the violence.
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona to English.