Down Coronation Drive in Hwange is a tent that has been a prominent feature in the middle of an island separating the two-way street for a while now.
Pitched right opposite the Hwange Colliery Company Limited (HCCL) management office, the tent has been housing wives of the coal mining company’s workers, pensioners and retrenchees who have been demanding that the coal mining company fulfils its pledge to pay them outstanding salaries and terminal benefits after agreeing to a scheme of arrangement last year.
“Enough is enough” reads one of the placards precariously hung on the face of the tent – the women have suffered enough and are done holding their breaths.
They have watched their children go hungry long enough. They have grown tired of having to constantly explain to them why they have been sent away from school.
So, for months they have sacrificed a good night’s sleep at their homes, for the hard ground down the street.
They have braved the early morning chills, occasional rains and the possibility of being attacked by stray animals for weeks. But they say they were having troubled nights at home anyway so they will do whatever it takes to get a reprieve. They spend their afternoons under the tent in the hope that the powers that be would eventually hear their cry. The wives and mothers have decided they will not rest until their demands are met.
“You don’t understand the trouble we’ve been through. Things are already tough in this country but imagine not having a starting point at all. For years we’ve suffered in silence, we’ve been quiet but we’re now tired of doing nothing about it. Some have turned to prostitution as a means of survival. Our children are getting into early marriages because of our poverty,” said one of the protesting wives, Ms Dorothy Ngwenya.
She said for years, their husbands had been loyal to the company and continued working without salaries.
“They had no choice. If they didn’t go to work then there wouldn’t have been any hope of getting paid. So they continued working and we continued hoping that things would come right,” said Ms Ngwenya.
For years, she said, life in the coal mining town had become tough such that there would not be anyone to borrow from.
“A large number of people here are linked to the Colliery somehow. There was a time when things were tough for everyone. You couldn’t even ask your neighbour for mealie-meal because they also wouldn’t have. Now, some survive on piece jobs offered by workers from other companies in the mining town like Zesa Holdings,” said Ms Ngwenya.
Although the company has been making efforts to pay the workers a certain percentage of owed salaries and benefits every month, the wives are demanding that they are paid a lump sum of about $10 000 each.
“We don’t want money that comes in bits and pieces. Our lives have been stagnant for years so we want money that we will be able to use for something tangible,” said Mrs Claudia Ncube.
“We want to buy stands and build houses. Our husbands have been working hard for years with nothing to show for it. That has to end.”
Mrs Ncube said it has become a daunting reality that they would die and leave no inheritance for their children.
“That’s why we’re fighting. If we don’t fight, it will become a vicious cycle. They too will die paupers,” she said.
Despite their suffering and passionate plea for help, political activists in the district have been gaining mileage from the women’s protest by giving them food stuffs.
“I don’t think this protest is still effective. Of course it had a huge impact when they started but not anymore. Now political activists bring them breakfast, lunch and supper under the tent but they don’t really care about their real needs. They’re just trying to gain political mileage. All they want are votes,” said Mr Stephen Tubili, a community leader in the town.
He said the women are vulnerable and will accept any help they get. “Some of them are just there for the free bread. They’ll get a loaf per day and take it home to share with their families. That’s how desperate they are,” said Mr Tubili.
Some Colliery workers and pensioners do not want the women to leave the tent because they believe once the tent is taken down; they will stop receiving the little money they have been getting from the coal mining company.
“These women are helping a lot of us to be honest. Their protest has put pressure on management to pay us outstanding salaries and benefits under the scheme of arrangement. The moment they leave that tent, I’m sure the money we’ve been getting from the Colliery won’t be coming as consistently. They must stay there for as long as they can.
“We just hope management meets their demands not too long from now,” said Mr Mbongiseni Moyo, a former employee of the Colliery who is owed thousands in outstanding salaries.
Sadly, each worker is owed more than $5 000, which translates to about $10 million.
Since the demonstration started, the company has paid the workers 5.2 percent of the outstanding salaries in two batches of 2.6 percent each and 2.6 percent every month since then. But the protestors have refused to end the demonstration saying the money was insignificant.
The company management has dragged the women to the High Court twice seeking an order to evict them but HCCL lost both cases with the recent one being a ruling by Harare High Court judge Justice Lavender Makoni who dismissed the application as not urgent and ordered HCCL to follow the normal procedure. In the urgent application, HCCL had sought an order directing Police Commissioner-General Godwin Matanga to deploy anti-riot police to eject the protestors from its premises.
The legal fight is far from over as HCCL recently reported the women for criminal trespass alleging that they illegally entered the general purpose office on January 29 when they started the demonstration.
President Mnangagwa said the labour dispute between HCCL and its workers should be resolved through dialogue.
“Yes, we dispensed two or so ministers to Hwange. We should not force a solution on our people but the solution must come out of dialogue, which is critical,” said President Mnangagwa.
He said while complaints of the workers must be fulfilled, it was important to “separate legitimate demands and illegitimate demands”.
President Mnangagwa said currently, the coal miner has no capacity to bail itself out as he intimated a possibility of re-scheduling of the debt it owes workers.
“There must be resources. The question is does Hwange Colliery have capacity and resources to fulfill these needs?
“Negotiations will continue but I don’t think it’s necessary for tax payers’ money to be used to pay a dispute of a commercial entity that can create problems. This is why there is re-scheduling of debt because there will be no capacity,” said President Mnangagwa.
Despite efforts to eject the protesters from the premises through a court order, HCCL management staff still has to face the protesting wives every day.
Until their demands are met, the wives will remain under the tent.