Gecamines, the Zairean state mining company, is in trouble. Despite a projected 100% increase in cobalt production by 1996, theft, local violence, isolation from international donors and confusion over its future ownership has left the company without the investment it desperately needs.
Atundu Liongo, the Managing Di sector of Zaire's Gecamines Commerciale, believes the company has become the victim of a politically motivated international boycott that threatens its very existence.
Since the 1991 riots in Zaire, pressure for 'democratisation' from the country's Western donors has squeezed aid and loans to such an extent that nothing short of emergency aid has been made available.
Gecamines has been repeatedly refused loans for what Mr Liongo sarcastically terms 'Pseudo-technical reasons'. He complains that when European Investment Bank officials say that Zaire already owes them money, they ignore the fact that Gecamines has always paid its debts. It seems donors are not willing to make the distinction between the state and companies controlled by it.
Despite being hamstrung by shortage of funds, the company has responded positively to the challenge. Firstly, Gecamines decided to boost cobalt production over copper in order to increase revenues from this highly valued mineral. At the same time it was decided to produce cobalt from hydrates and cobalt rich sludges and slags. It is easier to process cobalt waste and transportation costs are much lower.
Gecamines predictes a doubling of cobalt production, up to 6000 tonnes, in 1994-95. But Gecamines has also stepped up its fight against smuggling which, according to Mr Liongo, represents 30% of Gecamines' output. The Managing Director claims that most of the smuggling takes place across the South African border. Last October, he urged the Government to discuss the matter with the South African authorities. A Johannesburg-based Chinese trader allegedly involved in the traffic is being prosecuted by the company.
But such high profile cases are few and far between and do little to stem the tide of smuggling. One of the primary causes in the increase in theft and smuggling is the fall in mine worker's wages. This has driven mining staff into stealing minerals - often with the complicity of high ranking officials.
The fairly dramatic fall in wages...