Bulawayo: a faded industrial giant

Bulawayo was once revered as the industrial heart of Zimbabwe and of Southern Africa to a greater extent. But scenes of desolation and abandonment now characterize Zimbabwe’s second largest city.

Bulawayo’s vast industrial areas remain mostly abandoned. The roads are filled with potholes. Warehouses lie empty with broken windows. Their grand entrances, once crowded with workers, are now filled with overgrown elephant grass. Faded signs, rusting roof panels and chained gates tell a story of something gone horribly wrong.

How did this happen? How did Zimbabwe’s once industrial powerhouse become a shadow of its former self? A brief look at the political and economic decisions made over the past century or so gives an indication.

The Colonial Era

During the colonial era, Bulawayo was a critical economic link between neighbouring countries for the colonial powers, which took control of the region from the Matabele people and their leader King Lobengula in 1893.

After the arrival of rail in 1897, Bulawayo quickly became a center for mining, agriculture and manufacturing. In 1943, Bulawayo officially attained city status. With the Second World War raging, industrial activity was at an all time high, especially for the weapons, steel processing and textile industries. This war-fueled boom led to further development of the rail and road links between then Southern Rhodesia, South Africa, Botswana and Northern Rhodesia.

The ruthless nature of the Southern Rhodesian government in accepting and negotiating with Zimbabwean nationalist political movements in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in the international community placing economic sanctions on Zimbabwe. In an almost cruel twist of fate, this move saw an increase in the industrial base as a result of Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI). Value added manufacturing (the processing of raw materials into final finished products) grew by 9 percent from 1966 to 1974 (Mawowa, 2011).

When the country achieved independence from minority rule in 1980, Zimbabwe was the second most advanced economy in Africa after South Africa (Mbira, 2015) and Bulawayo was the shining jewel in its crown.

Post-Independence Era

In the post-independence era a number of endogenous and exogenous factors led to a drastic decline of industry in Bulawayo and Zimbabwe as a whole. Bulawayo was hard hit by political turmoil from 1982 to 1987. Given the socio-political landscape at the time, the government perceived the Matabeleland region (that Bulawayo is part of) as a threat to its power and began a vicious campaign of killings and intimidation (Catholic Commission for Justice, Peace in Zimbabwe, & Legal Resources Foundation (Zimbabwe), 1997). This was a way of decimating the only viable opposition to ruling party ZANU.

This campaign caused capital and industrial flight. Industries moved mainly to capital city Harare and neighbouring countries. State sponsored destabilization, along with a slowdown in the nationwide economy in the late 1980s — a result of fiscal strain with the roll-out of massive healthcare and education programmes (Tambo, 2015) — combined with trade difficulties with Apartheid South Africa to hit Bulawayo hard.

These economic challenges led to the liberalization of the economy in the early 1990s, which dealt an even bigger blow to industry. As a result of ISI many local industries were running with outdated equipment. Textiles began to decline because of competition with cheaper Chinese fabrics. Additionally, structural adjustment programs shifted focus away from expanding manufacturing industries. The focus moved toward agro-processing and horticulture, a challenge for the water scarce city.

To address the perennial water shortages in the region the Zambezi Water Project was tabled (Tambo, 2015) to channel water from the Zambezi to the Matabeleland region to support more intensive agriculture development. However, this project has stalled from the mid 1990s to this very day, for clear political reasons.

Land Reform in the 2000s

By the late 1990s the city’s industrial areas were showing signs of strain and the manufacturing industry in Zimbabwe was struggling. The economic and political crisis of the early 2000s completely destroyed industrial and economic activity in the country. Fuel shortages, immense levels of hyperinflation, and extensive load shedding fostered a crisis never before seen in Zimbabwe until that point.

The steady decline in manufacturing meant the economy became more reliant on agriculture, chiefly cattle ranching in Bulawayo (Mawowa, 2011). And the highly controversial and deeply flawed land redistribution programme, launched in the early 2000s, decimated the agricultural sector — which was basically supporting the economy at that point in time (ibid).

With the agricultural sector in turmoil, industries in Bulawayo witnessed even more closures. The biggest employer in the city, National Railways of Zimbabwe was feeling the pinch, as slowing economic activity meant that there was less cargo to carry (ibid). In 1980, the rail system had a capacity of 18 million tons a year, which was being reached year on year in the 1980s. By 2008 that figure had dropped to 3.2 million tons a year (ibid).

Cheaper imports, inflation and fuel shortages led to major closures in the food processing clothing and textiles industries during the 2000s. Company closures from 2000 to 2004 totaled 838 (Mawowa, 2011). Most of these were in the textiles, furniture, leather and food allied industries. Hyperinflation compounded the economic difficulties. In 2008, inflation reached 79.6 billion percent (Hanke & Kwok, 2009). In 2009, Zimbabwe adopted the U.S. dollar.

Present situation

In the post-Zimbabwe Dollar phase the economy stabilized somewhat. But it was far from productive. There have been further company closures, and companies have struggled to re-pay bank loans (Mawowa, 2011).

Industry in Bulawayo today is practically non-existent. The massive loss of jobs from the industrial decline has changed the city’s socio-economic landscape dramatically. The main drivers of employment are informal and cross-border trading, particularly with South Africa (Mawowa, 2011). There has been an exodus of unemployed and skilled youth to South Africa, depriving the city of skilled labour.

Remittances now form the main means of income in the city (Mataranyika, 2016). Scenes of abject poverty are coupled with the rather common sight of well-dressed individuals loitering around city streets in search of any form of employment. One gets the sense of a space that is idle, suspended in time.

In terms of my own observations, the only remaining productive industries are in baked goods: Arenel and Lobels Bakeries, both of which are nationwide brands, seem to have weathered the economic storm. Textiles also seem to be making a comeback. The Archer Textiles factory opened its doors once again in 2013. The company is one of the biggest names in towel and cloth production.

Political posturing continues to affect industrial recovery. In 2010, the National Foods parastatal (a stock feed supplier) moved its processing plant to the capital Harare, at a time when calls for equal development in Bulawayo were loudest (Mawowa, 2011). The combination of external economic realities and political resistance and ignorance means that one of the greatest industrial cities in the country continues to fade away into a ghost town, a shadow of its former self.

It seems there is no change in sight from the local authorities either. The Bulawayo City Council was one of the most progressive and organized in the country, with its administrative efficiency making Bulawayo one of the best-run cities in the country. Even in the current economic climate it has been able to sustain a relative, if somewhat limited, form of service to the city.

There are plans to renew the city’s Spatial Development Framework (SDF), which expired in 2015. However, the council authorities have been looking for funds to facilitate the redesign of the SDF and the process has not yet started. The city released a strategic framework in 2013 to address the formation of a new spatial development plan (Bulawayo City Council, 2013).

Today, Bulawayo’s once bustling industrial areas remain mostly empty. Buildings stand vacant. A few churches have repurposed warehouses. The upsurge of new churches in the city seems a clear sign of the desperation that grips this once great and prosperous city.

It’s ironic. The name “Bulawayo” in Ndebele means place of death or slaughter. And this has come to describe the fallen city, leaving one wondering what the future holds.


Voumani Madonko is a recent graduate from the University of Cape Town with a Master’s in City and Regional Planning (MCRP). He has a background in Human Geography and Industrial Sociology.



Bulawayo City Council. 2013. Corporate Strategy 2014-2018. Online: http://www.citybyo.co.zw/Downloads/GetPolicy/BCC_Strat_Plan_ Final.pdf

Catholic Commission for Justice, Peace in Zimbabwe, & Legal Resources Foundation (Zimbabwe). 1997. Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands, 1980 to 1988. Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe. Online: http://www.hrforumzim.org/publications/reports-on-political-violence/reaking-the-silence/

Hanke, S. H., & Kwok, A. 2009. On the measurement of Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation. Cato Journal, 29(2). Online: http://www.cato.org/cato-journal/springsummer-2009/measurement-zimbabwes-hyperinflation

Mataranyika, M. 2016. Nearly half of foreign inflows in Zimbabwe are remittances. Business Day. Online: http://www.bdlive.co.za/africa/africanbusiness/2016/02/04/nearly-half-of-foreign-inflows-into-zimbabwe-are-remittances

Mawowa, S. 2011. A Contribution to the Ongoing Debate on the Deindustrialisation of Bulawayo. Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD). Online: http://www.academia.edu/14912497/A_Contribution_to_the_Ongoing_Debate_on_the_Deindustrialisation_of_Bulawayo

Mbira, L. 2015. The De-Industrialization of Bulawayo Manufacturing Centre in Zimbabawe: Is the Capital Vacuum to Blame? International Journal of Economics, Commerce and Management, Vol. III, Issue 3, March 2015. Online: http://ijecm.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/3319.pdf

Tambo, B. 2015. The history of de-industrialisation in Bulawayo. The Sunday Times. Online: http://www.sundaynews.co.zw/the-history-of-de-industrialisation-in-bulawayo/

Photo: Empty warehouses litter the vast industrial areas of Bulawayo. This scene repeats itself endlessly. Voumani Madonko.







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