RISCO – Iron and Steel

Tapping steel at the RISCO works in the Midlands
Tapping steel at the RISCO works in the Midlands         (click on images to enlarge)


(£1 = R$2. Multiply pounds and dollars shown by 10-15 times to get today’s values.)

Nowadays many emergent states expect an integrated iron and steel works to be presented to them as a status symbol, after the presidential palace, university and international airport.  Rhodesia developed its iron and steel industry the hard way, from its own resources and initiative.

As to natural resources, the country is particularly well endowed. A pleasant valley in the Midlands with water and ample flat ground for large works and spacious townships, is sheltered by two hills, one containing high-grade iron ore and the other limestone.  The area is ringed by large deposits of ore containing up to 62% of iron. Suitable coking coal comes from the Wankie Colliery. Dolomite, clay, fluorspar and many other necessary materials are available within the country’s borders.

Nor can Rhodesia be regarded as lacking in initiative. In 1938 “a few enterprising citizens of Bulawayo”, as a first newspaper report called them, imported and installed a 3½ ton electric furnace, utilising scrap, with a potential production of 12 000 tons a year. In 1942, to stimulate the increasing self-sufficiency required by a war economy, the Government took over the industry and provided the capital necessary for its expansion.

The Rhodesian Iron and Steel Commission played a valuable part in enabling industry to back Southern Rhodesia’s war effort, and then turned its attention to exploiting the country’s substantial ore reserves.  In 1948 the first blast furnace was tapped at Redcliff.  But the industry was still too small to work on a really economic basis, and by the end of 1954 accumulated losses amounted to £1 680 000.  Drastic action was called for, and this pointed to private enterprise – the principle on which Rhodesia itself had been founded – but it was difficult to interest businessmen in so daunting a challenge.

The Government and the Commission, however, took vigorous action. In two years , production was raised from 23 000 to 50 000 tons a year of finished steel. Two thousand tons of pig iron was exported to South Africa.  RISCOM was able to show operating profits of £173 000 for 1955 and £252 000 for 1956.  This barely allowed for interest on loan capital, which by then had risen to more than £5 million, but it was beginning to look like a proposition.  Meanwhile, negotiations had been going on with a consortium formed by five companies with deep-rooted interests in Rhodesia, and two leading British steel manufacturers.  On 1 January 1957 the Rhodesian Iron and Steel Company Limited nominally took over the industry. The Government retained its capital interest, and private shareholders put up capital as it was required for a much needed £10 million expansion scheme.

Today, RISCO operates three blast furnaces with a combined capacity of about 450 000 tons. Two open hearth furnaces producing more than 200 000 tons of steel a year, and a steel rolling mill which produces a wide range of blooms, billets and sections.  It employs about 750 Europeans and 1 800 Africans.

Tap of hot metal at Risco's No. 3 blast furnace
Tap of hot metal at Risco’s No. 3 blast furnace


RISCO’s impact, as a primary producer utilising the natural resources of the country, spreads through public utilities, construction, secondary industry, mining, agriculture and commerce to every aspect of the Rhodesian economy. RISCO supplies all the country’s basic and foundry pig iron. It makes most of the steel required for construction work: every modern office block, factory, mine building, barn and house owes much of its strength to RISCOSTEEL in sections, angles, channels, reinforcing rods and, after further processing, in products like wire and nails. RISCOSTEEL ploughs and fences Rhodesia’s farms, grinds its minerals, grades its roads, keeps its railways running and, through the engineering industry, makes its contribution to everything that is produced in Rhodesia.

But though RISCO’s primary object is to provide the steel sinews of peace for Rhodesia, its value and efficiency are perhaps best judged by its success in highly competitive world markets. Here the country’s determination to make full use of its natural advantages is offset by a number of disadvantages – some of which are inherent and some artificially imposed.

By world standards, the industry is a small one, and its size, as well as efficiency, has a tremendous effect on production costs.  At the last conference of the International Iron and Steel Institute, Professor Schenck, an acknowledged world expert, indicated that the ideal integrated plant today is one designed for an output of 4 000 000 tons a year, and that relative capital construction costs per ton to produce 200 000 tons are at least three times as high.  A small self-reliant iron and steel industry – no matter how good its technical direction and advice, nor how closely it keeps up with modern developments – must of economic necessity develop and build up largely on existing plant. Further, Rhodesian iron and steel must bear the cost of a considerable railway haul to the coast before they can be shipped to world markets.

In these circumstances it gives grounds for some satisfaction (though by no means complacency) that over the past few years Rhodesia has not only succeeded in competing on price in a difficult world market, but has built up an enviable reputation for quality with its exports of pig iron and steel to a wide range of countries, including such giants as Britain, the United States and Japan. Vast increases in production are not only possible but vital to reduce costs. The Rhodesian Iron and Steel Company, in consultation with world experts, has produced detailed plans for the next stage of development which will provide satisfying and progressive employment for a large number of African and European Rhodesians. They can be implemented as soon as Britain and the United Nations decide they are prepared not only to bolster up the economy of “undeveloped” states, but to permit countries which are quite capable of seeing to their own development to get on with the job.

Pouring the molten metal at Risco
Pouring the molten metal at Risco


With an establishment of about 750 Europeans and 2 000 Africans, the Rhodesian Iron and Steel Company is one of the largest private employers in Rhodesia. Many of the departmental heads at Redcliff have learnt their skills in other countries, but a steadily increasing number of senior staff have grown up with the industry in Rhodesia.  The company’s employment policy is a long-term one aimed at self-sufficiency and maximum opportunity for advancement at all levels.

RISCO awards scholarships for degree courses in engineering and allied subjects and sends pupil engineers for advanced studies to the Bulawayo Technical College.  About fifty apprentices are at present serving their time in various trades.  Before starting in the works they all undergo a four-month course in basic hand skills at the RISCO Training Centre. Apprentices start at a minimum wage of about £25 (R$50) a month which can rise to £80 (R$160) in their fifth and final year. [at 1970 prices].

African recruits go through the Training Centre for aptitude tests, streaming into suitable employment and basic training. The Centre offers suitable staff training for promotion and induction into new fields, and instruction in specialised subjects like safety and gas training.  All employees are encouraged and helped to obtain technical qualifications and certificates of proficiency.

Few townships in Rhodesia – or in most other parts of the world, for that matter – can boast better amenities or happier communities than the company’s townships of Redcliff and Torwood.  The latter, for Africans, has a hospital, and primary and secondary schools for employees’ children. Rents are low and a house purchase scheme operates in Redcliff. There are excellent games and recreational facilities in both townships, of which their residents make the fullest use.

Modernisation and Expansion

On a visit to Redcliff in 1972, the Prime Minister, the Hon. Ian Smith, said that the Rhodesian Iron and Steel Company was in much the same position as the Government: so long as it produced the goods, people must not ask questions as to how it was doing so. From what he had seen and heard at the Works, he was beginning to understand how Rhodesia’s iron and steel industry had made such phenomenal progress in the face of very serious problems.

The industry has a tradition of enterprise and independence which have stood the country in good stead in the face of sanctions imposed since independence.  In 1955 the bulk of the Company’s exports were in the form of pig-iron. This provided a valuable source of foreign currency but showed a comparatively low return and imposed a heavy burden on rail transport.  Production of hot metal has been substantially increased, but today, except for the pig-iron required for internal use, it is all converted to steel.

It has been difficult to obtain the capital and the equipment to implement Risco’s continuous programme of modernisation, development and expansion, so an increasing degree of self-sufficiency has had to be achieved.  The Research and Development has been expanded tremendously and now has a highly qualified team of engineers and technicians of great ability and potential.

In steel terminology, Risco operates an “integrated” steelworks producing steel from raw material stage through to finished sections, as distinct from re-rolling or melting scrap. Risco rolls most of the steel sections Rhodesia requires, or provides partly-processed steel from which other companies manufacture items such as steel tubing, wire and welding rods.

The Risco steelworks from the air
The Risco steelworks from the air


It would be impossible in a short article even to outline all the development that has taken place over the past seven years since independence, for at any one time a dozen major projects  are in hand.  At present a fourth hot air stove is being installed which will greatly increase the efficiency and production of No. 3 Blast Furnace.  A second hot metal mixer, of 720 tonnes capacity, will increase steel output by 20 000 tonnes a year.  The steel plant itself has been completely modernised.  An up-to-date continuous billet mill has been installed, saving a tremendous amount of labour and producing uniform billets of high quality. A new ingot crane, new soaking pits, a new runout and cooling bank for the light mill, – in every section of the Works there are new, modern installations, largely designed in Risco’s Research and Development Department and carried out by civil, mechanical and electrical engineering divisions.

Further recent examples, as at 1976 following the modifications indicated above, include the complete rebuilding of No. 3 blast furnace at a cost of R$1,5 million, the rebuilding of the older No. 1 furnace, costing about R$500 000, and the construction of new by-products and coke crushing plants, ingot soaking pits and other facilities running into millions of dollars.

The emphasis in production is not solely on quantity. Sophisticated testing equipment, including a vacuum spectrometer which gives virtually instantaneous analysis of all constituents in steel samples, ensures that Risco steel can meet the highest chemical and physical requirements in every grade of steel produced.

Rhodesia can justly be proud of its iron and steel industry, and the Company can fairly affirm the accuracy of its slogan: “Risco Steel Builds Rhodesia”


Written by E.S. Newson O.B.E., Chairman of the Rhodesian Iron and Steel Company with minor amendments.


Click here for an account of Redcliff.


Redcliff 1 : 50 000 scale map extract
Redcliff 1 : 50 000 scale map extract


Steel output tends towards world standard

In 1975 Rhodesia’s output of steel will rise to 250 tonnes a man/year.

This is approximately world standard, Mr. Kurt Kuhn, general manager and vice-chairman of Risco, told the Executives Association of Rhodesia when making the forecast.

He explained that the industry started at only 60 tonnes a man/ year.

Mr. Kuhn believed that 250 tonnes was possible because of overall modernization of facilities and the improvement of skills.

White and black

“Europeans and Africans are now employed in highly skilled jobs and compare favourably with those in any other sophisticated steelworks,” he said.

He considered it was management’s responsibility to develop these skills so that the industry and its members could provide more well-paid jobs.

“In a way, we in this country are in a fortunate position since vast raw material resources are at our disposal,” he said.

“However, we are already hampered by a shortage of skilled manpower and the solution is certainly not the importation of qualified personnel on a larger scale.

Training Africans

“I have no doubt in my mind that the training and developing of our Rhodesian Africans will, in the long term, be the solution.

“Mr. Kuhn considered that the industry should not rely to any great extent on Government support.

“Industrialists and businessmen are in a much better position to do the right thing at the right time and develop these labour resources as and when required.

“It is important that improvements in working conditions and higher wages, for which we strive, must be accompanied by increased productivity otherwise it would have adverse effects on the industry as a whole.”

  • Production a man/year is the amount one man produces in one year.



Post script.

The following extracts from a report by Christopher Mahove of Equal Times, on the demise of the former Risco steelworks, give a flavour of the, sadly far from unique, outcome of how Rhodesia’s successor state managed its inheritance.

“Once the beating heart of Zimbabwe’s steel industry, it is now little more than a ghost town.

When Equal Times arrived at 09.00 on a hot Wednesday morning in February, in previous years it would have been abuzz with activity as the nearby factory churned out tonnes of steel by the hour.  Now, an eerie quiet pervades.

Men in overalls play checkers outside a closed shop. Elsewhere old buildings stand derelict, some with shattered window panes. They were once used as store rooms and lodgings for the Chinese contractors that are now as absent as the company’s profit.

Shops and subsidiary businesses have been forced to shut down, rubbish goes uncollected as residents are unable to pay their rates and water supplies are being cut off as a result of the massive debt owed by Redcliff’s inhabitants.

Employees are still owed a staggering US$100 million in outstanding salaries. School fees and medical bills continue to go unpaid as families, struggling to survive after more than five years without either pay or pensions, can no longer afford them.

When the government tried to sell the company in 2011, Ziscosteel’s debt had risen to approximately US$372 million – owing to the pressures of Zimbabwe’s shattered economy, gross mismanagement and corruption.”

PS2 (early 2023) – Communist China is erecting a new steel works near Umvuma which will be funded by the Tsingshan Group. Chinese nationals are expected to control the board and fill the senior management roles at plant level.