It’s almost a year now since the copper nickel rich BCL mine in Selebi-Phikwe was abruptly closed by government, leaving over 5000 workers jobless. As the politics behind the closure unravel, Selebi-Phikwe West MP Dithapelo Keorapetse has fingered government for the mess behind the closure, insisting that Batswana were told untruths prior and after the mine was closed.
40 years more
Among the reasons put forward by government for the closure was that the mine was uneconomic to mine and that the ore grade was low, a reason which Keorapetse refutes on grounds that BCL Reserves and or geological records and documents show that the ore is huge underneath and is of good quality, enough to mined for the next 40 years if prices are good, the ore should be mixed with Nkomati ore, Tati Nickel ore of Phoenix and Selkirk and new shafts which could be sank in Dikoloti and Maibele. “If all these were done with restructuring to make the structure leaner and efficient, the mine would be profitable. The US$4 per pound recovery plan by BCL management presented to Cabinet on 1st October 2016 was a great plan for BCL,” said Keorapetse. Other reasons given by government for BCL closure were that BCL was fatally insolvent as it owed Norilsk P3 billion and that the company may rush to court to liquidate BCL. Self-liquidation was seen as the best option. The above reasons were also dismissed as nonstarters by Keorapetse, who was of the view that government sought to oppose Norilsk claim of P3 billion debts, that it doesn't owe Norilsk as BCL sole shareholder. They claim that they had shown interest in Nkomati mine 50% share owned by Norilsk and that they don't owe as the deal wasn't final. So there's no P3 billion debt, he said. He said contrary to its claim, the last time government pumped any money into BCL was in 2002, 14 years ago and that it was a lie that government was pumping money into the mine all along. “In fact government took over a P1 Billion from BCL in 2014 at the time when the company was preparing to refurbish its smelter and was struggling because of depressed metal prices. This was a reckless move,” said Dithapelo.
Commodity prices rise
And while government also cited commodity prices were down, hence it was becoming increasingly expensive to keep mining for less rewards, 2017 has since seen a rise in metal prices. “China is reducing its steel production by 20 %. This will cause demand to outweigh supply for the first time in over a decade. This is expected to cause a sharp rise in steel prices during 2017 lasting through at least 2020,” according to Global Steel Prices Forecast (2017-2020). “Metal prices are now back up and copper and nickel mines are smiling around the word when we have opted to close the mine,” Keorapetse reiterated. He pointed out that the deception and untruths told by Government does not end with the closure but rather have continued it has since gone back on most of the promises it made to former BCL workers.
“When BCL was closed, the government as the shareholder and the decision maker made a litany of promises, in summary a soft landing was promised to former mine workers,” said Keorapetse. The promises include – payment of salary for 12 to 18 months; a free stay in BCL houses; free services at the hospital; payment of better packages to enable them to start a new life if mine doesn't open or doesn't open soon; promise to take care of the sick who were injured; and to pay school fees. However, on the contrary the reality on the ground – according to Keorapetse – is that workers were not paid any better packages, but rather they were paid one-month salary, bonus due to workers and leave days. “This was extremely inadequate and people are still indebted to banks and are threatened with civil imprisonment and being auctioned,” said Keorapetse. He pointed out that school fees were paid for kids going to private schools but money required in public schools isn't there and newly enrolled kids aren't paid for while the hospital isn't open for former workers and was never open after BCL closure for the people who worked for BCL or their families. He added that government refuses to pay water and electricity bills for former employees staying in BCL houses. “People are going hungry in their houses and the same government refuses to give them food hampers,” he said. Keorapetse is of the view that former workers must be paid retrenchment packages even though the law doesn't force government to do so but on humanitarian grounds since closing BCL was a mistake and that government has an obligation to cater for its people. “BCL closure was the worst crime against humanity ever commuted by a government on its people,” he said.
Govt denies accusations
However, the Minister of Mineral Resources, Green Technology and Energy Security Advocate Sadique Kebonang, has dismissed Keorapetse’s allegations as just pure politics, saying the latter was using the BCL issue to score political points. In fact, Kebonang insisted that government continues to support ex BCL workers as they continue to stay in mine houses, with their health and children’s education expenses taken care of by government. BCL provisional liquidator Nigel Dixon-Warren has informed miners that as of November 1 all former employees have the first option to remain in the housing after October 31 but will be required to sign a new lease. And also that former employees may remain in the houses for three months from November 1 but will be required to pay a nominal rental, which will be dependent its type. The provisional liquidation for Tati Nickel Mine and BCL Investments was extended by the High court recently. The extension continues until December 15. The liquidation order gives creditors the green light to auction BCL mine assets separately, which include the smelter and the mine shafts, to the highest bidder. Unless a miracle happens, assets of BCL mine will be stripped and sold in pieces to the highest bidder in a few months, following two creditors meetings. Companies that were previously interested in buying BCL included the Emirates Investment House – an investment arm of the royal house in Dubai, South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe’s mining company and Norilsk in a surprising development.