I spend a fair amount of time walking in and around the city centre and have established routes, largely to avoid getting turned around (more honestly I mean lost). On a recent excursion, I had to stop by an NGO located deep in the city centre. I decided the best route was to walk behind Eastgate along Robert Mugabe Road, which is not a road I walk along often because it just seems sketchy and more dangerous. I was heading east toward the Avenues. As I navigated the hustle and bustle, I experienced first-hand something I’ve only been told about. And my gosh it’s true what they say. That road is packed full of forex dealers. All right out in the open. Men, women, and children standing a mere meter apart in a line that felt like it stretched from here to kingdom come. I didn’t change money, but did think about whether these thousands of forex dealers purposively chose Robert Mugabe Road for their base to signal who has brought their profession into existence.
I also thought about the law and that I was walking amidst a hotbed of criminal activity. Of course, residents and visitors in Zimbabwe have become accustom to the reality that individual economic sustainability in Zimbabwe requires routinely breaking the law. I used to have a twinge of naivety and thought it was only foreigners and middle-class and wealthy Zimbabweans who illegally changed forex by the hundreds. But there on Robert Mugabe Road were Zimbabweans from all walks of life changing forex, mostly in small amounts like $5 or $10. It’s the reality, nothing can be done. But still, it’s a crime and it leaves an unsettling feeling in my stomach.
Robert Muponde wrote an interesting article astutely suggesting, “violent crime in Zimbabwe is a manifestation of political manipulation. It is not part of the social fabric.” He provided historical and cultural reasons, and as common, he made jokes. Pockets have no cash and cars lack fuel leaving pickpockets and carjackers without a crime to commit. While it’s true, particularly in comparison to South Africa, violent crime rates in Zimbabwe are low. Admirably low, yet ironic given the amount of state-sponsored crime Muponde points out. I can’t help but think there’s reason to read with caution Muponde and his “court in the people’s hearts… inherited from the past… about culture and tradition…about conscience.” Back to Robert Mugabe Road. With all those forex dealers, it’s full of crime. You might even say it’s a vibrant culture of crime. Sure, it’s crime necessary for survival, it’s seemingly not violent, and given the volumes of people involved, it’s been normalized. It’s also a fine line, particularly when you start incorporating phrases like the social fabric, moral fibre, and culture. I think there are deeper meanings when the law is routinely broken every single day. It’s the question I often pose in my blogs: What will be the long term effects with so many otherwise law-abiding people having been brought into the fold of criminal activity? Somewhat in jest, will the folk tales 50 years from now be about powerful and wise village chiefs who gained their prestige through black market forex dealing in Harare?