Harare — THE loss of a US$4 million export deal for asbestos cement pipes is just the last nail in the coffin of Zimbabwe's asbestos mining and industry.
Turnall Holdings, the company that lost the export order after winning the tender, has seen the writing on the wall and will be commissioning a new asbestos-free plant at the end of this year.
Others involved in the asbestos industry now have to do the same, and start using substitute fibres.
We hope these fibres can be made in Zimbabwe, preferably from Zimbabwean raw materials, and if not we hope that some technical research can be done to see if there is a substitute that can be made here.
Asbestos has for years been used as the binding fibre in many concrete products, being inert, non-inflammable and strong.
Much of Zimbabwe's roofing and water and sewage pipes are made of asbestos cement.
The actual asbestos cement is not a health hazard, the fibres being embedded and covered by cement. The perceived health problems arise from damaged products and the difficulties of disposing of material when it is replaced.
In any case, almost all countries in the world have now banned the use of asbestos in any new construction and many have demanded its replacement in existing construction. Like smoking in public places, asbestos is seen as a major health hazard.
It can only be a matter of time before Zimbabwe has to conform to world norms and impose bans here, just as the country, a major tobacco producer, has followed global trends on limiting where people can smoke.
Users of the mineral, like Turnall, need not be too badly affected by the asbestos ban. They can switch, and are now switching, to substitutes.
The main problem will arise with the mines and the large labour forces and towns they support.
At one time Zimbabwe was a major world producer of asbestos and most of the mineral mined in and around Zvishavane was exported, either in raw form or as asbestos cement products.
The processing plant was the largest building in the country when it was commissioned and the whole of the southern Midlands developed faster than most areas thanks to the asbestos mines and the industry they supported.
Already production is only a trickle of what it once was and Zvishavane runs a serious risk of becoming a ghost town unless action is taken.
This action cannot be the resuscitation of the asbestos industry. That will soon be totally dead and no amount of publicity or pressure can prevent its death. Zvishavane and the Shabanie mines are in a different position from Redcliff and Zisco, where there is hope that steel production can resume.
But there are other minerals in the Zvishavane area, especially chrome, and perhaps some of the platinum deposits found in other parts of the Great Dyke can be found in the section around the town as well.
We think the Government should take a serious look at what the trained work force could be switched to and how the actual town and mine complexes with all their housing and facilities could be saved.
We all know the Government does not have large sums to spare. But it could offer concessions to investors interested in seeing how chrome mining could be expanded and for prospecting for platinum ores.
These could include tax holidays, a greater length of time before indigenisation regulations kick in and the like. Obviously the concessions would have to be linked to high levels of local employment and buying as much as possible locally. The new mines would have to fill the place of the old ones in the economy of southern Midlands.
Other ways of filling the gap would be to encourage suitable industries to invest in the area, using its agricultural wealth rather than its mineral production.
It is always sad when a complete industry dies. South Africa did not handle the destruction of its own asbestos mining that well; the ghost towns are a blight in some of the poorest parts of rural South Africa.
But because there are other minerals in the same area, and because the southern Midlands are a reasonable agricultural area, we think Zimbabwe can do better. But the effort must be made now before all the accumulated facilities and infrastructure are lost.