Historically, Bulawayo has been the principal industrial center of Zimbabwe; its factories produce cars and car products, building materials, electronic products, textiles, furniture, and food products. Bulawayo is also the hub of Zimbabwe's rail network and the headquarters of the National Railways of Zimbabwe.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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