In the evening gloom the vast complex emerges into view. Beyond a high security wall, insects dance in the beam of a giant floodlight. Men are still hard at work in the skeletons of concrete tower blocks and standing at the centre of it all is the arch of a Chinese pagoda.
Zimbabwe’s national defence college is under construction within a sprawling, heavily guarded compound, the brooding presence of which sends a clear message to any would-be revolutionary. Some have dubbed it the “Robert Mugabe national school of intelligence”.
The construction site north of Harare has also become the lightning rod for another source of simmering resentment — Chinese labour practices.
Surrounded by a perimeter wall that runs for a kilometre through what was once farmland, the shadowy military academy is being built by a Chinese contractor whose managers are accused of meting out physical punishment, miserable conditions and meagre pay.
“The beatings happen very often,” said a 28-year-old carpenter, wearing blue overalls as he made the long walk home after a 14-hour shift. “They ill-treat you and, if you make a mistake, they beat you up.”
He estimated that there are about 600 Zimbabwean and 300 Chinese workers on the site. Around 50 of the Chinese are managers. Some Chinese people have “nice homes inside”, and others live in wooden shacks just outside the complex. The Zimbabweans and Chinese rarely mix, he said. “They don’t speak English so we use sign language. The Chinese eat off plates, then give us the leftovers.”
The carpenter said he gets up at 4am and works from 7am to 9pm every day. For this he is paid $4 a day, but at least it is work so he can feed his wife and three children. “We don’t have a choice because we need to survive. But if it was possible to chase all the Chinese away, I would.”
Reports of abuse by managers at the Chinese contractor, Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Company, are widespread, as are complaints that the government is turning a blind eye because it cannot afford to lose such a valuable partner.
“We tried to go on strike but the leader was beaten up and sacked. The government doesn’t say anything, even though it knows people are beaten up. I saw them undress some workers and beat them with helmets,” a builder said.