Zambia announced on Wednesday that it had revoked the licences for a controversial Chinese-owned coal mine in the south of the country in response to violations of safety and environmental laws and a failure to pay mineral royalties.
Mining minister Yamfwa Mukanga said the government had taken over the mines and would operate them “until a suitable investor is found”. The decision highlights the sometimes troubled relationship between China and Zambia.
Zambia is one of the largest recipients of Chinese investment in Africa, but relations between the two countries have been strained by worker protests against Chinese management practices.
Mine-workers in the mineral rich copperbelt, the centre of Chinese investment, have frequently demonstrated against low wages and poor working conditions. Local traders have protested about being undercut by cheap Chinese goods.
While in opposition, the current president, Michael Sata, was a fierce critic of Chinese investment practices. But in the run-up to the 2011 election, which he won, he softened his approach. His Patriotic Front government has, in geneal, avoided souring relations with mining investors in the manner some had feared. Sata moved quickly to assure the Chinese that they were “all-weather friends” upon entering office.
But the Collum coal mine, 200 miles south, of Lusaka, which is run by private Chinese interests, has been site to several high-profile flash-points which have stoked public anger.
In August 2012, a Chinese supervisor was killed by a Zambian employee during a protest over pay. A visit to the mine in 2006 caused a local government minister to cry on television saying workers were “kicked and beaten as though they are not human beings”.
In 2010, Chinese managers shot at protesting workers. Charges against the alleged culprits were subsequently dropped, fuelling opposition politicians’ claims that the then-president Rupiah Banda was too soft on the Chinese.
The Collum mine closure had been threatened by the government earlier in the month, following an investigation into a recent death of a worker in the mine which a government official said “could have been avoided easily”.
Mukanga said the mine had made little progress since. “In some instances [in recent months] the entire mine has been closed to allow the mine management (to) comply with mine safety department directives, but there has been no improvement”, he said.
As well as the lack of basic medical facilities such as ambulances and underground first aid stations, the government says the mine had failed to declare its production figures and pay royalties.
The chamber of mines told beyondbrics that the Collum mine, owned by the Chinese private-sector company, was not a member of its organisation, and that the incident should not be considered reflective of wider conditions in the mining industry.
Minister of mines Wylbur Simuusa was quoted in the local press as saying of the Collum mine, “The owners of this mine are embarrassing the profession. They are also embarrassing the Chinese government … I don’t know of any other mine which has been so problematic like this one.”
The closure of the Collum mine may go some way towards cooling anti-Chinese sentiment in the country.