Analysis: Bulawayo at 120 — economic decline overshadows a proud history

As the vintage steam train rolled into Bulawayo — Zimbabwe’s second largest city — to mark the city’s 120th anniversary last month, bitter sweet memories were inevitable.

The train carried a banner that screamed “Forward Bulawayo.” In the past this could have been a war cry charting a vision, but now it is a little more than a whimper from a city desperate for survival, as companies and industries are forced to close in a non-performing economy.

The June 6 steam train journey from Figtree, about 40 km outside Bulawayo on the Francistown route, was part of efforts by the city council and the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) to re-enact the famous train journey that brought firemen from Mafikeng in neighbouring South Africa, as Bulawayo began its journey to being a modern African city on 4 November 1897. Such is the story of the city established 120 years ago as the capital of the all-conquering Matabele, led by King Lobengula.

During the colonial days right through the early years of Zimbabwe’s independence, the city became the country’s economic hub with the largest industrial base and a thriving textiles sector. Bulawayo, the headquarters of the NRZ, was also regarded as the transport nerve centre for the region.

In recent years, though, the city has earned itself the dubious image of an industrial scrapyard because of the collapse of industry in the past decade, which threatens to relegate the former capital of the Ndebele state to ghost city status.

However, the city fathers have not lost hope yet and believe the good times may return to the city.

“We champion economic revival and call upon Bulawayans to work with us in retaining our pride as the country’s commercial capital,” the city’s mayor, Martin Moyo said, more out of hope rather than expectation.

Bulawayo mayor Martin Moyo and  Bulawayo Provincial Affairs minister Eunice Sandi Moyo  emerge from the Bulawayo Station after the train ride. Kholwani Nyathi.
Bulawayo mayor Martin Moyo and Bulawayo Provincial Affairs minister Eunice Sandi Moyo
emerge from the Bulawayo Station after the train ride. Kholwani Nyathi.

Once colloquially referred to as “Konthuthu ziyathunqa”, or the place of the billowing smoke, Bulawayo has seen its stature fall, with the fumes being replaced by despair and rusting machinery.

“Our cities are dying,” President Robert Mugabe said last year at his inauguration. “Bulawayo was once a thriving industrial hub in the country, but now it has become a sorry industrial scrapyard.”

In the past three years, an estimated 100 companies ran aground in Bulawayo, leaving more than 20,000 people jobless, while perennial water shortages have not helped investor confidence.

A last solution to the water problems lies in an ambitious project to draw water from the Zambezi with the construction of a 400-kilometre pipeline but the government seems not have any hope of raising the $2 billion required anytime soon.

Zimbabwe is facing severe economic challenges, including lack of investments and a liquidity crunch, but nowhere is this more felt than Bulawayo, fondly known as the City of Kings.

Realising the precarious nature of the situation in Bulawayo, the government set up the Distressed Industries and Marginalised Areas Fund (DIMAF) to help distressed companies in the city, but political bickering meant the policy failed to take off and again the city was left to its vices.

Despite the challenges the city is facing, residents put up a brave face and tried to make the best of the celebrations that are expected to run until the end of the year.

“Residents of Bulawayo should feel proud of their achievements in the 120 years of the city’s existence,” said Obadiah Moyo, a social commentator. “Our past achievements should be an inspiration for us to search for lasting solutions to the current challenges bedeviling the City of Kings.”

It is to history that many turn to, as they hope it will inspire Bulawayo to rise and occupy its place as an industrial giant once again.

Due to its growth as an industrial hub in the then Southern Rhodesia, Bulawayo spawned unionists like Benjamin Burombo, Charles Mzingeli and the city’s most famous son, the late Vice President Joshua Nkomo, who laid the foundations for the country’s liberation struggle and later independence from Britain.

While the re-enactment of the first train ride to Bulawayo, during the 120th anniversary celebrations, may only have been nostalgia , many hope that, just like in 1894, it could be just what the doctor ordered to kick-start the city’s economic growth and return it to its former glory.

Kholwani Nyathi is an award winning journalist based in Zimbabwe’s second city of Bulawayo.

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