In every corner of this small mining town, conversations centre on the future of Selebi-Phikwe without the mine. Nobody sees the future as positively as government does. Everybody on the streets, young and old, rich and poor, are in agreement that BCL closure marks the beginning of the end for Selebi-Phikwe. Most patrons in local pubs reminisce about the vibrant lifestyle of the year 2004 when Selebi-Phikwe economy was booming. At the time ladies of the night made roaring business parading their wares along the main road that passes in front of major lodges close to the centre of the town. "Every night was jam packed. A string of cars formed a beehive to purchase their pick right here on the main street," says Peter Rankwe, gazing gloomily into the half empty Hansa quart balanced on his right hand while desperately trying to draw the last puff from a cigarette stub long extinguished. In the years gone by Peter would be sipping on fine liquor at an upmarket resort, not bothered with asking for skeif from other patrons while he ogles a few half naked lasses on his tab. Although like many of his peers Peter regrets the sudden closure of BCL, he comforts himself in that working for the mine has shown him the good, the bad and the ugly in the streets of Zana.
Tonight, on Wednesday night, as he drowns his sorrow and contemplates the future he appreciates that he has had an opportunity to marry, raise three kids with the support of the mine and build himself a house back home in Lerala. "It’s time to go back home and start a new life outside BCL. I am glad to have had a great time in Phikwe, enjoyed the best ladies in town and driven a nice car which I probably wouldn't have if I wasn't working for BCL. But the tables have turned," says Peter, whose highest qualification is a Cambridge certificate. One of his colleagues, who works in the smelter, Baleki says he grew up in Botshabelo and has never worked anywhere except Phikwe. Together many others in Botshabelo, they are known as "Children of BCL" because they only know one employer, having joined the mine soon after failing their studies in secondary school. "There is nowhere else for us to go. We cannot secure employment anywhere because we are not educated," says the 36-year-old Baleki. Emmanuel Sekali and Potso Rabadisa, who joined BCL 26 years ago under the Engineering department have resigned themselves to fate but are not surprised by the closure of the mine. They said a lot of bad decisions were made by management and failure to prepare for the hard times. They are not convinced that subdued commodity prices is the main cause for closure as they are known to flactuate and have done the same before. "Bloated workforce, widespread outsourcing, wild acquisitions like Tati, Nkomati and Pula Steel depleted BCL reserves. Polaris II was a huge blunder and management should have known better," said Sekali who hails from Mapoka.
The tables are indeed turning on all fronts! Shrills of a damsel in distress, followed by a loud bang of a blunt object hitting the side of BMW sedan - as the driver pulls off with screeching tyres – disrupts an otherwise peaceful Tuesday night at the Executive lodge. An hour later the place is swarming with police and soldiers on patrol. Upon investigation it turns out the young girl is no longer interested in a BCL miner she has been in a love with – who has no salary to look forward to after next week. The frustrated lover then vented his frustrations on the new suitor's BMW. "Ga ke go batle ntjwa ke wena. Ga ona madi," she yells at the deposed lover, her words clearly calculated to humiliate him in public. In fact on the same night two female teachers from a senior secondary in town engage in a heated argument with a gang of BCL executives. Clearly they are friends with benefits. But today the ladies are holding their own and telling their male 'friends' to take a hike, as they vow never to take offers for drinks from them. The conversation, which borders of vulgarity, is around the future of Phikwe and the miners who suddenly found themselves without jobs on Saturday morning. At the top of her voice -mixing vernacular with broken English – the female teacher is telling the miners to forget ever laying their manhood between her thighs. "No more womanising; not as broke as you are about to be! The sooner you brace yourself for life of solitude the better," she yells, clearly enjoying the moment. An off-the-record chat with two men – a teacher and a soldier – reveals that they are secretly celebrating the return of glory days, after being outclassed by the miners in the chase for skirts. The female species prefer the miners because their wallets bulge more than most workers in town, together with the ever welcome annual bonus cheque just before Christmas. The 2016 Christmas will be the longest and saddest ever experienced by BCL workers and their families.
Botshabelo loses out
In Botshabelo location, a shanty town to the east of Selebi-Phikwe where most junior employees of the mine reside Lazarus Kgomo (40), a block-man at Mero Butcheries since 2010, says although it is early days all indications of a looming disaster are clear. Idling around with colleagues, Kgomo says business has gone down drastically since the beginning of the week as miners are running around attending meetings to know their fate. Mero Butcheries – which has another butchery in town – has about 15 employees. "With a decline in business as the miners leave, our employers will be forced to reduce staff or even close shop. We are going to lose jobs and join the Ipelegeng masses," he says. A stone's throw from Mero a Chibuku depot operator, Mmapula, sends the distributor truck back with half the stock she has been receiving daily. "Ele gore ha o batla ke holosa Shake Shake ele kanakana ga o bone gore go ntse jang? Ga gona bareki ha rra," she says, glancing at empty makeshift benches spread out in the yard of her deserted Shebeen.
Mmapula is worried about the closure of the mine as some of them were her most valued customers. Some of the miners renting rooms in Botshabelo are already selling their belongings cheap to pay off debts and raise money to travel home. It is not only the small businesses that are affected. Landlords who have been surviving on renting out multiple rooms to BCL miners are facing doom after October. As reality sinks in, the miners are packing their bags and leaving town as they will not have any source of income to pay rent and buy groceries from November. Even those residing in BCL houses are not safe. Government has only committed to pay October salaries, leaving out utilities and other benefits. By Thursday evening those occupying the mine houses were living on borrowed times, after allegations that utility parastatals BPC and WUC will disconnect them to cut losses. Already cellular phone companies have disconnected employees on BCL contracts to prevent accumulating bills after closure.
Night life dies
Across town the sordid tale of businesses suffering loss of clientele (BCL miners) plays out when not a single patron shows up at Elpaso Night club – the heartbeat of the town's night crawlers – on the first night of the week on Wednesday. An energetic dreadlocked Disc Jockey spins the latest House tunes to an empty dance floor, a few metres away from a rather bored-looking bartender who keeps tapping on the screen of a cheap smartphone, probably relating the sad state-of-affairs to friends on the other end of the world. A lone girl, dressed in a tight body hugging leopard print dress that barely covers her oversized behind, waltzes on stage around midnight and after peeping at us at the counter starts gyrating her waist to a Rhumba number blaring from the speakers. Soon she loses steam – as she clearly is not arousing interest – and walks out disappointed. "This place is usually packed around this time," says the bartender Mary, glancing at the time on the screen of her cellphone.
Other companies that do not necessarily conduct business directly with BCL, but provide services to individual workers, contractors to the mine and the general public have taken measures to preserve cash. Some companies, among them major banks, have already notified their staff about re-deployment to other branches due to loss of customers in Selebi-Phikwe. At Executive lodge, the Manager Regina Oliva, said ever since there were allegations that the mine could close down business declined drastically. She said while they used to enjoy good business renting out a minimum 12 of their 21 available rooms, they only manage occupancy of four rooms. She said to address deteriorating business they have had to reduce prices for rooms to accomodate more people. "This is bad. So many people losing jobs at a go is not good for the town. It spells doom," she said. In every other business from retailers, furniture shops, hair salons, filling stations, taxi cab operators and microlenders/cash loans operators the answer is the same. To them, Selebi Phikwe is dead!