Crime, Corona, Copper and Trouble in Zambia

Crime, Corona, Copper and Trouble in Zambia

By Nathalie Bertrams and Tristen Taylor

SourceNathalie Bertrams


Seeing how the other "half" lives, one thing becomes clear: It's a lot more than half.

By Nathalie Bertrams and Tristen Taylor

Nathalie and I have been stranded in Zambia for the past 115 days, and Zambian customs won’t extend the temporary import papers for her 1988 Toyota Land Cruiser. Despite a quarter million kilometers on the clock, a yelping suspension and the pickup of a slug on barbiturates, it’s a much-sought-after vehicle, the car for Africa. Sand, rocks, deep mud, no problem.

The gangster bosses running violent mining syndicates in the Copperbelt complimented us on the car.

Customs wants us to park it in a dusty lot behind their office in Lusaka. They tell us we can fly back after lockdown ends and pick it up: Don’t worry, they say, police guard the lot.


After thieves broke into our rented house in Livingstone, taking my ID and driver’s license along with Nathalie’s camera gear, my faith in the Zambian police deteriorated significantly. They don’t have airtime to make a call, getting a docket filled out sometimes takes a bribe, and you have to transport them everywhere. Even if they have a car, no petrol. The cops are, however, very good at arresting journalists critical of President Edgar Lungu.

Protesters flow around the Land Cruiser. One walks past my window — young, lean and corded from manual labor — and spits out, “Motherfucker.”

It’s 9:41 p.m. on July 21, a Tuesday, and the South African High Commission has just sent out an unexpected WhatsApp message: They have finally arranged a land transport corridor through Mozambique to South Africa (SA). They want hard copies of all documents by noon on Wednesday and, if approved by Pretoria, you have to be at the Chanida border post by 7 a.m. on Friday. That’s 334 miles of potholes from Lusaka.

Nathalie is German so there’s no way she’s getting into SA. She’ll have to fly to Europe. Mission Get Car Outta Zambia is up to me. The car’s documents are a bit of a mess. I’m not on any of them and it’s registered in Nathalie’s husband’s name. Customs told us that only the person’s name — that’s Nathalie — on the soon-to-expire temporary import permit can take the car out. Apparently, you need a court order. Photoshop it is.

With three hours of sleep and a 15-hour journey behind me, I’m at the border on time. The bus that was supposed to bring down a whole bunch of South Africans — students and other such people — got canceled at the last minute. Poor get screwed again. Two of the bus people managed to hitch a lift. Seven private vehicles make it.

Zambian customs are rather chill. They don’t even look at the name on the temporary import permit. You can go, please come back sometime. Awesome, hundreds, have a nice day.

A middle-aged white guy who has elected himself convoy boss and is treating the whole thing like it is Rhodesia and we are deep in enemy territory starts banging on to the customs agent about how we need a stamp and the permit returned.


President Edgar Lungu’s picture is everywhere in Zambia.

Oh, hell. I wave goodbye to customs, dash for the Mozambican side of the border, and the car is free.

Our sudden appearance confuses the Mozambican authorities. It takes the rest of the day for paperwork to be completed and an official escort arranged. The escort requires cash for diesel and food. Thankfully, a Zambian with permanent residency in SA negotiates the costs down. An official looks at the Land Cruiser’s registration document and decides that it’s owned by a company. Keep my mouth shut.

Since the South African border, 1,162 miles away and about half of it on terrible roads, will only be open for the next two days, the escort pushes hard. Two hours of sleep a night and just drive, drive, drive. Cans of Red Bull and a gazillion cigarettes. With the escort facilitating, the convoy breezes through checkpoint after checkpoint: no need to show the fuzzy copy of my driver’s license.

Because we make the South African border just before it closes and the officials want to knock off, no one looks at the car’s paperwork. I’ve made an application to self-quarantine on the basis of epilepsy. Denied because I would have to drive more than 186 miles to get home. Jeez. Gotta do my 14 days but, hey, finally back home. Thank all the gods.

There’s a black mountain in Kitwe, a hard-bitten mining town in Zambia’s Copperbelt. One huge mine tailing filled with low-grade copper ore and it has sparked our interest.

For the past three decades, Black Mountain has attracted illegal scavengers, trawling over the slag heap for ore previously thought pointless to process. Because the scavengers kept on getting arrested, they became known as jail boys. Local language then transformed jail boys into jerabos. During the early 2010s, violence became endemic as gangs of jerabos from Kitwe’s Wusakile neighborhood fought over Black Mountain.

Boniface Mumba used to be the director of the Centre for Environmental Justice, an NGO that specializes in small-scale mining issues. When he resigned and became the chairperson, his wife took over as director. She’s paperwork and financial governance. He’s slick talk and schmooze. Tall and heavy with a long, pointy beard and a penchant for Coke by the liter.

As he awaits a response from a possible contact in Kitwe, Boniface sums up the jerabo philosophy, “I can’t be raised in a copper area and be poor. Whether I steal it, whatever form, I need to find myself, my hands lying on the copper.”


Glenda has been mining silica, used in the smelting of copper, since she was 13 years old.

In 2015, President Lungu brought the jerabo bosses to his official residence and cut a deal. Allegedly in exchange for political support and a reduction in violence, Lungu recognized the jerabos as legal miners — seven jerabo gangs turned into seven legal companies under one overarching company, Chapamo Mineral Processing Limited — and gave them the government’s 10 percent stake in Black Mountain.

A sort of cease-fire descended on Kitwe, and Lungu’s Patriotic Front carried the decisive Copperbelt Province in the 2016 general election. He who wins the Copperbelt, wins the country. But now both Zambia and the Patriotic Front are in trouble: The economy has crashed and the youth are restless. With the 2021 election approaching, could there be another deal in the offing?

We meet Chapamo’s spokesperson Samson Mpembwe in the basement of a restaurant in Kitwe’s town center. He looks the part of a middle-aged lobbyist. Slight beer belly and a measured voice, intelligent and urbane. He drives a silver Nissan hatchback, nothing flashy. None of which suggests that he started his career, at the age of 14, as a scavenger on Black Mountain.

But the Black Mountain allocation has been mined out. Samson paints a dark and foreboding future of social unrest, unemployment and widespread criminality in Kitwe if there isn’t a new allocation.

So I ask if Chapamo will get a new allocation, given the potential for youths on drugs pillaging Kitwe. He slips on a bit of preacher and says, “It is my prayer that, even before we go to the election, we get empowered.”

Nathalie’s all Al-Jazeera, Washington Post, The Guardian and Süddeutsche Zeitung. She knows her stuff. With a smile, she asks Samson if he can show us small-scale miners in action. He agrees: There are some miners working a sinkhole owned by Mopani Copper Mines, which in turn is owned by Glencore. With assets worth $124 billion, Glencore is one of the world’s largest mining companies.

We follow Samson’s car through a marketplace; women selling vegetables and charcoal. Then, all of sudden, there’s a group of jerabos moving down the street and yelling. Holding and smashing beer bottles. A protest on the verge of really kicking off. I follow Samson and get the hell off the road right quick. Some of the protesters are carrying long metal pry bars. Others have catapults.

Protesters flow around the Land Cruiser. One walks past my window—young, lean and corded from manual labor—and spits out, “Motherfucker.”

I keep it running and in gear. Ready to make the world’s slowest getaway.

Samson stands out from the crowd in his clean golf T-shirt with yellow and black stripes. There’s a discussion and the mood of the jerabos changes: The guy gets respect, way more than a mere lobbyist. One of the miners comes over to the car. You can take photos.

While Nathalie takes photos, I do interviews. People take turns. There’s order, illustrating how these miners have a strict internal hierarchy. Their commander is a serious man with his left arm amputated just below the elbow. No posing for him, and he definitely does not want his picture taken.

The miners all have the same story: Mopani Copper Mines was using the police to evict them, the sinkhole was theirs, and they needed to work to feed their families and send children to school. Without access to the sinkhole, crime and poverty would increase.

Their appeal to the Patriotic Front is direct: One of the miners, who gives only the name Mwape, says, “We are asking from the government, from the bigger boss, from the president himself, to remove these policemen, to leave us alone as we are here.”

Another miner, Chief Security, shows me a short video of them prying out copper ore. No safety gear whatsoever. Along with Samson, he takes us to the sinkhole. We are met by riot gear, shotguns and AK-47s, Africa’s weapon of choice. That destroyer of worlds.

The sinkhole is deep and steep. Red mud. Despite Samson’s best efforts, the police refuse to allow Nathalie to take pictures. The mine would have to give us permission, and that’s not likely.

Two hard men join us as we are walking back to the Land Cruiser. What are you doing here? I explain that we are journalists looking at small-scale mining on the Copperbelt. So you are here to help us? I can try but I can’t promise. That seems to mollify them. While they start talking to Samson in Bemba, I ask Nathalie in broken German if it is time to go. Yes, right now.

Samson suddenly becomes quite keen to make a move.

As we follow Samson to a petrol station, another story emerges. The police were trying to prevent rival jerabo gangs from killing each other over control of the sinkhole. His just-acquired passenger goes into the petrol station’s shop and comes out carrying a sticky sweet orange soda. After shaking Samson’s hand and thanking him profusely for his help, I put out my hand to thank his passenger. Even his teardrop tattoos look surprised.

Kelvin Tembo is the chairman of Chapamo. He’s the dude, the boss, the man, and he helped to negotiate the 2015 deal with Lungu. Sharp, polite, the kind of face your eyes just slide over. And he is eager to tell his side of the story: Thanks to Lungu’s generosity, the jerabos were turned into peaceful miners.

I ask Kelvin if a new allocation would be granted to Chapamo, and he says, “Yes, there’s no ‘no’. Just yes. We will get another allocation very soon.”

The fix is in.

I’m getting frantic calls from back home. Looks like Southern Africa is heading fast toward hard lockdowns. Time to get out of Zambia, especially as we can’t publish the story from within the country.

Freelancers on tourist visas? Print the story in a country where local media is being closed down and editors arrested? No way. Zambian jails, ouch.

We’re stuck behind a truck with a long tail of cars and buses. Be Zen, light a cigarette and stare out the window. The view hasn’t changed a great deal in hours. Women in brightly colored chitenges, a saronglike dress, hawking vegetables from raw wooden tables piled up with tomatoes, butternuts, sweet potatoes, cucumbers and groundnuts.

Dried tilapia, the fish of choice for East Africa, held aloft in hope of a sale. And then there’s charcoal. Lots of charcoal. Bags as high as half a man, great chunks of the stuff that burn to the devil’s specs, cook an entire nation’s food and consume forests.

Nathalie swerves around a pothole. Rain on the horizon and the dawning realization that we are not going to make the Namibian border before it closes.