The year is 1960 and a well-to-do gentleman strolls leisurely along Beit Street, the most exclusive and splendid residential part of Selukwe, now Shurugwi.
Donning expensive clothes that, at the time, were a preserve of the rich and the aristocracy, the man puffs a pipe containing an expensive imported tobacco brand.
Crossing the wide street which is lined by villas with stunning, well-manicured lawns, the gentleman enters the elegant Grand Hotel where he is joined minutes later by a seemingly well-to-do and also eloquently dressed couple.
Ordering a three-course meal, the group asks for a round of equally expensive wines as they discuss both social and business issues.
Although this scene is imaginary, those who were privileged to live in this part of Shurugwi during its “heyday” will recount this period of colonial splendour with a sense of nostalgia.
To quote the words of an elderly white couple, whom The Sunday Mail In-Depth struck a conversation with in the mining town recently, Shurugwi was, to a privileged few, “heaven on earth.”
Famed for its cool, healthful climate and scenic location, the Midlands town has, since it was established way back in 1899, been a tourist attraction and a favourite place for retired people who elected to spend the last of their days in this place which they even compared with the biblical paradise.
Formerly known as Selukwe, the town, according to archival materials, was established in 1899 on a goldfield which was discovered in the early 1890s.
The town is located on the mineral-rich belt, commonly known as the Great Dyke, making it one of the most mineral-rich towns in the country. Deposits of gold, chrome, nickel and platinum are in abundance.
The forebears of Ian Douglas Smith’s, the late former Rhodesian prime minister, were seduced by both the serene environs and the economic benefits accruing from the abundant mineral resources, resulting in them making Shurugwi their home district.
Climatic conditions in areas surrounding the town are ideal for cattle ranching, a factor that drove Smith and his fellows to parcel out for themselves large farms near Gwenoro Dam.
After the discovery of the goldfield, Shurugwi was established in 1899 by the British South Africa Company and Willoughby’s Consolidated Company.
Gold miners flocked to Shurugwi in the same manner as the Spanish flooded South America in search of Eldorado, the fabled city of gold.
Prospectors, traders and businessmen all wanted to benefit from the gold rush and the subsequent boom in business resulted in the construction of elegant and massive buildings.
The Grand Hotel, the only such hospitality facility in the town, used to be frequented by Shurugwi’s Who’s Who.
Situated near a railway line that connects the town to such centres as Gweru and Bulawayo, Shurugwi was without doubt a trading centre of choice.
To cap it all, the town is located on one of the most beautiful and scenic places in the country, commonly known as Boterekwa due to the winding of the road as it negotiates its way up and between mountains.
In short, yesteryear Shurugwi was the epitome of the Midlands. However, in what is known in town planning lingo as “urban decay”, present-day Shurugwi is a pale shadow of its former self.
Most of the town’s infrastructure is not only old but also dilapidated and has become an eyesore. The once majestic Grand Hotel is now in a sorry state and serves as an ordinary bar and brothel.
In contrast to its yesteryear billing when it used to house influential businesspeople and politicians, the hotel is now being frequented by illegal gold panners who are always trailed by hordes of prostitutes.
When The Sunday Mail In-Depth arrived at the former glamourous hotel, during a recent visit, it was greeted by the gazing eyes of a dozen prostitutes who were all eager to “do business” with the crew.
Dangling on the hotel’s balconies, from where some of Rhodesia’s rich and famous used to sip coffee as they watched the sun set, was the prostitutes’ laundry.
Due to a lack of renovation and repainting, one cannot tell the colour of the hotel’s walls. The building has an unusual colour combination of grey, cream and yellow.
Had this building been located in Harare, it would have topped the list of buildings that were recently condemned by the city’s fathers. Several other buildings are also in a state of decay.
“This town has gone to the dogs. This hotel used to provide first-class services. I once came here in the early ’80s and this place used to be in a very nice condition. Something must be done to save such buildings which are of historical importance,” said an elderly man who was passing by the building.
With the town’s largest employer, ailing mining conglomerate Zimasco, not operating at full capacity, unemployment has reached epidemic levels. Illegal gold panners, dressed in their trademark dirty and
tattered clothes, freely roam the town’s central business district.
According to locals, “almost” all Shurugwi residents occasionally engage in illegal gold panning activities.
“During school holidays, teachers resort to panning. Some off-duty police officers also pan for gold. The town’s economic mainstay is illegal gold panning,” said a panner who was digging for the precious mineral just outside the town, along the Zvishavane Road.
Save for a few Government buildings and the building that houses the Shurugwi Town Council offices, most of the town’s buildings have seen better days.
A serious shortage of water has become a perennial problem for the town which has, during the past two years, been relying on borehole water.
According to town planning experts, Shurugwi is undergoing a process that is known as “urban rot,” a process whereby a town or part of it falls into disrepair.
Features of this process, which is also known as urban blight, are local high unemployment rates, de-industrialisation, and lack of economic opportunities and abandoned buildings.
Residents of cities undergoing urban rot often abandon the city as they seek economic opportunities elsewhere.
Asked what the town council was doing to spruce up the image of the town and to repair the old buildings, Mr Solomon Siziba, the chief executive officer of the town, was not forthcoming.
“I cannot say much. I am currently in a meeting and would only answer your questions after that meeting. Get in touch with me after 20 minutes,” Mr Siziba said.
A follow-up failed to yield any results since Mr Siziba’s phone went unanswered.
A number of the world’s major cities among them England’s Liverpool and Newcastle experienced severe decay in the 1970s and early 1980s. Despite the fact that Shurugwi is sitting on large mineral deposits, no meaningful steps are being taken to save this place from “urban rot”.