Eighteen children have been injured after a classroom collapsed into a sinkhole at a primary school in Zimbabwe on Thursday 16 March 2023. The incident happened at about 7.30 am local time, the Globe and Phoenix Primary School in the town of Kwekwe in Midlands Province, about 200 km from Harare, and affected a classroom where grade five students were being taught, which in Zimbabwe implies 10-11 year olds. The school, which has about 1500 pupils, has closed following the incident, with 900 of the pupils having been offered temporary places at the nearby Sally Mugabe Primary School, while the rest will attend classes in large tents erected in the grounds of the Globe and Pheonix School.
Members of the emergency services inspect a classroom which collapsed into a sinkhole in Kwekwe, Zimbabwe, on 16 March 2023. Zimbabwe Situation.
Sinkholes are generally caused by water eroding soft limestone or unconsolidated deposits from beneath, causing a hole that works its way upwards and eventually opening spectacularly at the surface. Where there are unconsolidated deposits at the surface they can infill from the sides, apparently swallowing objects at the surface, including people, without trace.
However, on this occasion the hole is believed to have been caused by the a collapse within an old gold mine, which underlies the school and which has recently become a centre of activity for illegal miners. The Globe and Phoenix School takes its name from the Globe and Phoenix Mine, a gold mine which operated from the 1890s until 2007, when it was closed down in 2007 by the Ministry of Mines and the Environmental Management Authority, following a series of safety problems, having originally been founded to educate the children of miners working at the mine.
While there is currently no official mining activity at the site (there are plans for such activity to restart in the future), the mine has become a target for informal miners, who work within many disused mines within Zimbabwe, a practice which is illegal but generally tolerated by the authorities, a country plagued by high unemployment and other economic problems, and is recognized as making a significant contribution to the economy, as such miners are able to sell their product locally rather than smuggling it out to avoid the attention of local authorities, as happens in many African countries. However, the informal nature of this industry makes it extremely dangerous, as few if any health and safety precautions are taken in such mines, and their are occasional reports of armed clashes between rival groups over lucrative sites.
This is particularly problematic at the Globe and Phoenix Mine, which was excavated using a gallery and pillar system, in which pillars of material were left as supports as a seem of gold ore was removed. These remaining pillars have a higher gold content than the unexcavated parts of the seem (which were deemed not economically useful by the original mining company), and are an obvious target for artisanal miners, weakening the structure of the mine, and leading to collapses.