CCTV footage captures daring thieves attacking young woman in broad daylight outside their home in Harare.

LAST month, at the National Heroes Acre, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa for the first time spoke aggressively on a national platform against an armed robbery and violent crime problem that had been the talk of the country for a few months. 

As the bite of the June cold was tamed by a wintry sun, the setting for the president’s robust message on a topical issue seemed rather odd. 

While many men of action sleep at the acre, heroes and heroines that led Zimbabwe’s often violent war of liberation, the country was bidding farewell to Father Emmanuel Ribeiro, a catholic cleric. 

As assistant chaplain general for Rhodesian prisons, Ribeiro rubbed shoulders with most of Zimbabwe’s would-be liberators, some of whom he joined at Heroes Acre on 21 June.

Among those he met on the bloody journey to liberate Zimbabwe was President Mnangagwa, whom he met as young convict on death row for bombing a Rhodesian locomotive in Fort Victoria.

A man of peace and considerable compassion, Ribeiro helped save Mnangagwa’s neck on that occasion, saving the future statesman from the hangman’s noose. 

Now, decades after the last shots were in Zimbabwe’s prostrated war of independence, as Ribeiro body lay cold in front of him, Mnangagwa was now promising executive action against robbers. A problem that had, when it begun, been talked about only in hushed whispers by concerned citizens was now a chorus whose noise had been heard even in the corridors of power.     

“Law enforcement agencies and the courts must work in concert to ensure that perpetrators of gun-related crimes, violent drug kingpins, the supply chains, and drug vendors are definitely smoked out and brought to book,” Mnangagwa said.

The speech was immediately hailed as a “death-knell” for armed robbers by state media, a long-awaited tolling of the bell against gun-related crime. 

Presidential recognition of this violent pandemic, which seems to have exploded at the same as Zimbabwe started confronting the threat posed by Covid-19, was long overdue, some felt. 

This has been particularly so in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. 

In the first half of the year, a crime wave saw armed men haul $54 962 918 (US$641,810 using the country’s official rate) in 32 heists.

This is despite statistics skewed by the fact that the city, like the rest of the country, hardly had any incidents of recorded crime in January and February when the country was under a hard lockdown.

Besides the fear that they obviously invoke, some of the robberies have captured the public’s imagination, with movie-style heists keeping the press busy, as barrels of ink are dedicated to some colourful and daring robberies.

In March, a gang of inventive armed robbers raided a fuel station, tied the staff’s hands and feet with shoe laces, took their uniforms and proceeded to sell fuel to unsuspecting motorists for three hours, pocketing the cash.

At a time when death might only be a cough or a handshake away due to a fearsome Covid-19 third wave sweeping across the country, even money spared for bereavements has not been spared by the rampant criminals.

Only a few days after Mnangagwa’s speech, armed men struck at a house in North End suburb again in Bulawayo, robbing a family of over US$12 000 and R4 500 that belonged to a burial society.

Armed robberies have become a crisis in Zimbabwe. ZRP National Spokesperson Assistant Comm Paul Nyathi explains why.

Bulawayo, located only 863 km from Johannesburg, has always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with South Africa’s economic hub. 

Due to cultural and linguistics similarities, South African cultural products have always seemed to find a home in the city.

However, authorities now also believe that besides music and lingo, the city is now also importing the Jozi’s deadly gun culture.   

“So far, we have managed some good leads and investigations are bearing fruit. For example, we have managed to establish how firearms are smuggled into the country for use in these illegal activities,” said the city’s police spokesperson, Inspector Abednico Ncube. 

“We have increased the number of plainclothes policemen so as to investigate and prevent some of these robberies. This is one of the reasons why we are saying that the public should not panic because law enforcement officers we are well on top of the situation,” he said.

However, while some fingers are being pointed south of the Limpopo, the problem might be rightfully attributed to Zimbabwe’s perennial monetary and economic problems. 

In 2019, using the The Presidential (Temporary Measures) Act, Mnangagwa pushed through Statutory Instrument 33 of 2019, a statute which decreed that balances held in local bank accounts and mobile payment platforms, as well as bond notes and coins, would no longer be regarded as equal in value to United States dollars.

The statutory instrument also decreed that local dollar electronic balances and bond notes and coins would become ‘RTGS dollars’, part of the bulging basket of currencies used in the country.

The decree wiped out billions of dollars in value from individual savings, as well as pensions, as the RTGS currency’s value plunged.

As people’s saving disappeared overnight, so did their confidence in the country’s banks. 

In one stroke, authorities had decimated the little confidence that the country’s citizens had regained in the country’s banking since the currency crisis of 2008.

Twice beaten, Zimbabweans have been reluctant to put any hard currency that they earn in banks, preferring instead the security and certainty offered by their pillows and mattresses.  

“We are working on incentives together with the Bankers Association of Zimbabwe to encourage people to make deposits,” RBZ Governor Dr John Mangudya said in May as he fielded questions on the low confidence levels in the country’s banks.

“We shall soon be making the necessary announcement. We will be paying interest on those that deposit money in banks to encourage people.” 

As people take their savings away from banks, this has opened up a window of opportunity for armed robberies that know citizens are keeping large sums of unguarded cash in their homes. 

“People tend to think aloud and inform those around them of their plans and we are saying people should be more guarded about information concerning their wealth or valuables,” police spokesperson Ncube said.

“If you go and tell people that you have plans to buy a house next year, it opens the door for robbers who then become aware that so and so has a lot of money.

“We advise members of the public not to disclose personal information and this applies even to their close friends because in the end it compromises their safety and security, as it alerts unscrupulous elements

to the fact, they may have cash or valuables,” he said.

Despite the fact that their mattress and pillow “banks” attract unwanted attention, Zimbabweans are still reluctant to take their money to banks.

While the country’s ATM machines still remain largely silent -unused and and cashless – the country’s central bank has tried to herd people bank to banks.

In May, Statutory Instrument 65A was enacted, forcing banking institutions to pay interest on savings and fixed deposits accounts.

The banks’ regulator — RBZ set a minimum interest of 5% and 1% per annum to be paid by banking institutions on all local and foreign currency denominated savings account.

In the same vein, banks are now paying nominal interest of 10% percent and 2,5% per year on Zimbabwean dollar and United States dollar-denominated fixed term deposits, respectively. Further, there are be no bank charges on both savings and fixed term deposits.

Despite authorities’ best efforts, locals are still reluctant to bank hard currency. The crime wave has also coincided with country’s economic woes, which have been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the 2020 Rapid Poverty Income Consumption and Expenditure Survey (PICES), a survey conducted by Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZIMSTAT), in partnership with the World Bank and UNICEF, almost half the population in Zimbabwe was in extreme poverty in 2020 due to the combined effects of increase in the price of basic necessities, economic contraction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and poor harvests.

There is a belief that widespread hunger and suppressed wages have led to the crime wave. Government recently confirmed the long-held suspicion that some of the immaculately planned and executed armed robberies were carried out by the country’s underpaid armed forces. 

“It is indeed true that most of these cases of armed robberies

are being done by armed men and women from the police force as well as the army,” said Home Affairs and Cultural Affairs Minister Kazembe Kazembe.

“I would like to emphasise and indicate to him that Government is indeed working on that, but I would also like to indicate that such cases have decreased.  Some who resist arrest are being shot. We have two or three cases like that; the recent case, that of eight, a group we arrested recently.

“We have many groups that are involved, but I am happy that police are doing all they can to fix this issue. The issue we had which was a problem was an issue of resources, but now it is going to be a thing of the past because that problem is now being fixed,” he said.

Poor wages, Kazembe added, were not reason enough for cops to turn robbers. 

“Let me say when people are being enrolled in the Police Force, they take oaths that they will discharge their duties. We do not expect them to complain when they are in the system…even if we are to give them fifty-fold salary will they abide by the rules and regulations governing the Police Force?

“They should know that we started with stabilisation programme for us to stabilise the economy because it was in bad shape,” he said. 

While police services are crippled, with only six cars to services Bulawayo 650 000 strong population, the economic crisis has also affected players in the private security sector.

After a spate of robberies, officer commanding Bulawayo Province Commissioner Patton Mbangwa admitted that some of the security companies were outgunned, with some reportedly deploying officers brandishing only toy guns.

“There is a security company which actually gave its guards a toy gun (when) transporting cash, a toy pistol and it’s your money that is being guarded. We are saying security people should shoot at criminals.

“If you have guns, pistols, you should shoot at those people, shoot the cars, their tyres, you should disable those criminals,” he said. – Zambezi News