The Sunday Mail
“MaShurugwi” – a gang of violent, illegal panners – is doing its best to become Zimbabwe’s most brutal terror group.
‘MaShurugwi’ has carved out a reputation for violence from Mazowe to Beitbridge, and from Chiadzwa to Bubi.
The criminal grouping terrorises fellow illegal panners almost at will; shooting, stabbing and stoning whoever stands in their way.
Panners in Chiadzwa in Manicaland province at the height of illegal diamond mining there just over a decade ago spoke of the intensity of the terror caused by this group.
Similar stories are told in Bubi, Matabeleland North, and Mazowe and Bindura in Mashonaland Central.
The marauders have their origins in the Midlands settlements of Shurugwi and Zvishavane, from where they first took it upon themselves to violently grab control of illegal mining activities, before branching out to other parts of Zimbabwe.
Armed with guns, spears, knobkerries and machetes, many of them are on the police wanted list for alleged rape, kidnapping and murder.
One can get hurt – or even killed – for something as innocuous as accidentally stepping on the foot of a gang member at a night club.
Fights over sex workers have resulted in deaths, and most people go out of their way to ensure they don’t cross the paths of ‘MaShurugwi’.
The core of the gang are veteran gold panners out of Shurugwi, who believe they are the godfathers of all sorts of illegal mining.
If rich deposits of gold or diamond are discovered in any part of Zimbabwe, they immediately deploy their members to strong-arm their way in and control the illegal mining in those areas as much as possible.
Gang members usually dig for ore at night and spend the day processing the ore and enjoying alcohol.
It appears this militia-type grouping has three tiers. At the bottom are young recruits, who spend many hours doing the foot work of identifying potentially rich seams, shafts and pits.
These tend to be on the slender side as they are required to enter narrow, often unsafe shafts at night to pass up the ore.
The second tier has battle-hardened panners who are not afraid of a fight and have perfected the art of intimidation. These provide security to the young ones who enter the shafts, that in many cases would have been opened up by other, less violent panners.
Muscular and often armed to the teeth, the second tier members stand guard and deal with anyone foolish enough to bother them.
And then there is the top tier. These are the real veterans, providing direction and some sort of cohesion to any army adrenaline and alcohol-fueled criminals who are not afraid to shed blood.
Among this tier are panners who are believed to have the special ability to “sniff” for rich pits.
Like sniffer dogs, these specially-talented individuals, often referred to as “Zvirombo,” are said to identify exact locations of places where rich deposits can be found without the use of gold-detecting machines.
The gangs are made up mostly of close family members and people from the same villages. Rival ‘MaShurugwi’ gangs often put aside their differences and team up when they venture into unfamiliar territories and when there is need to form a united front.
“Most of the gang leaders are wanted by the police for such crimes as murder and rape. They are rarely seen during the day. They offer protection and guidance and are the most dangerous,” an illegal panner told The Sunday Mail Society.
Tracing gang members can be a tall order since they spend most of their time in such remote and inaccessible areas as the gold-rich “Musanditeera” in Chimanimani.
Because of the violent nature of the gang, very few people will gather the courage to report them to the police as they fear violent reprisals.
Some of the better-known leaders of ‘MaShurugwi’ gangs were the infamous Maswaya brothers from Shurugwi South. After selling whatever is dug up, members are paid according to their standing – with the top tier naturally taking the lion’s share.
From Kwekwe to Goromonzi
Last week, members of ‘MaShurugwi’ took out their machetes in Mashonaland West at Kwekwe’s Gaika Mine as they grabbed control of two pits. Two people died.
One of them was a security guard manning the mine and the other was a local youth. Several others were injured. Local legislator Cde Vongaiishe Mpereri (Zanu-PF) says, “We have had problems with people from places like Shurugwi and Zvishavane who come here with evil intentions and to wreak havoc.”
While some were killing and injuring in Kwekwe, another branch of the gang was in Goromonzi following the recent discovery of rich gold deposits at Ceylon Farm.
The tension in Goromonzi is palpable.
A gold panner told this publication: “Locals refer to the gang members as vana bhudhi (big brothers). Identifying them is easy. They carry dangerous weapons, do not want to be associated with locals and are unfriendly.”
The Birth of MaShurugwi
People living in communities surrounding Shurugwi and Zvishavane were among the first to venture into illegal gold panning. This was during the early 1990s.
The lack of employment opportunities and a combination of infertile soils and successive droughts ruled out subsistence farming as a source of livelihood.
Instead of tilling the poor soils, the youths were driven by poverty into the dangerous disused mine shafts.
Villagers from Chivi, Mhandamabwe and Mazvihwa, among other surrounding areas, have been incorporated into this loose grouping.
Due to the nature of their work, the life expectancy of gang members is very low. Apart from the diseases-most notably those related to HIV and Aids, gang members succumb to the injuries they sustain in the bloody fights for pits. Some meet their end after falling into dip shafts.
Others are buried alive after the collapsing of pits whilst others suffocate after inhaling dangerous chemicals in underground mine shafts.
Some members of this notorious group have, however, transformed themselves into legitimate business people who are now running profitable business ventures.