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Inside the world of illegal money-changers

By Kudzai Chikiwa

A police officer fled for dear life recently as an angry mob bayed for his blood after an illegal money changer he was chasing was knocked down by a car near Tredgold Building in Bulawayo.

Illegal forex dealers, popularly known as Osiphatheleni, being rounded up by police near Tredgold building in Bulawayo on Friday. The picture shows one of the suspected money changers getting on board a police vehicle. — (Picture by Nkosizile Ndlovu)
Illegal forex dealers, popularly known as Osiphatheleni, being rounded up by police near Tredgold building in Bulawayo on Friday. The picture shows one of the suspected money changers getting on board a police vehicle. — (Picture by Nkosizile Ndlovu)

It is now common knowledge that illegal money changers popularly known as osiphatheleni do not see eye to eye with cops.

It is always war when police start operations to get rid of osiphatheleni in the city especially around Tredgold Building and surrounding areas.

Ironically, barely days after clearing the city, osiphatheleni return, park their cars and resume business.

Government last year effected Statutory Instrument 246 of 2018, which says illegal currency traders can be sentenced up to 10 years in jail under the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) (Amendment of Money Laundering and Proceeds of Crime Act and Exchange Control Act) Regulations, 2018.

Despite efforts to bring sanity to the city, osiphatheleni remain a threat to the economy. In the past few months, the exchange rate escalated to an alarming US$1 to ZWL$12 causing unreasonable price hikes.

The question in the minds of most is who are these money changers?

Who supplies them with money when hard cash is so scarce?

How much profit do they make?

Last week, a Chronicle news crew met a woman in her late 40s seated on a pavement in the street with some groceries in front of her. As the reporter was asking the price of washing powder, she was greeted by the popular phrase “Sitshintshe khiwa?” (Can we exchange?)

The reporter took this as an opportunity to learn more about money changers and what they do.

“Let me help you since both of us are at work but don’t publish my name and my picture. We can get into my car if you are comfortable,” she said.

*Ms Joyce Gomo, a single mother of three boys said she joined the industry in 2013. She jokingly referred to herself as a “long serving member”.

Ms Gomo, who has never been formally employed, was introduced to the industry by a friend who is a “top bank official”.

“My husband died a long time ago and I’ve been raising these children alone.

I had been struggling until a friend of mine who is a top bank official gave me ZW$5 000 to exchange for a commission. Our agreement was that from all proceeds, I would receive 30 percent.

This meant that if l got US$1000, US$300 was mine,” she said.

Ms Gomo said the business was so good such that per day she made an average of US$100 translating to around $700 a week excluding the amount she cashed to her boss.

The forex dealer who purchased a Toyota Hilux and built a house in the eastern suburbs said within a year she had established a good client base and she weaned herself from the bank official.

“I started making a lot of money and I no longer wanted to share the proceeds with someone even though the capital was his.

We did the Maths and parted ways,” she said.

Ms Gomo who sends two of her sons to a local university said money deals thrive during economic instability.

“When the economy is bad, that’s when we cash in a lot of money. We’re the ones who determine the parallel market exchange rate and we can stir price hikes if we want to.

Remember during the past few days the rate shot to US$1 to ZW$12. During those days, l would gain even ZW$1 000 per day,” she said.

The forex dealer said when they are about to increase the exchange rate, osiphatheleni start witholding forex and start buying it from customers.

“When we know that tomorrow the rate will be high, we don’t sell forex, we just buy. For instance we buy US$100 with ZW$500 then tomorrow we wake up selling the same money for $800 bond, that’s a profit of $300 overnight which is someone’s salary,” she laughed.

On the day of our interview, Ms Gomo was selling R100 for ZW$70 and buying the same South African Rand for ZW$50, which translates to a ZW$20 profit per transaction.

Ms Gomo said since the ban of the multicurrency system, she has temporarily stopped conducting electronic transactions to minimise the risk of being traced or having her money forfeited to the State.

“I only deal in cash now. I can’t risk dealing in electronic transfers such as EcoCash. I don’t want to risk having money in my bank account forfeited to the State.

This time Government seems to be serious but we’re not moved,” she said.

Ms Gomo, however, said she does electronic transfers for special customers such as companies.

Asked how she copes with having to flee from the police, Ms Gomo said many osiphatheleni are backed by “the top bosses” and when arrested they always pay fines and walk scot-free.

“I once spent a night in jail and appeared in court but walked away after paying a fine.

Those people working for top officials have their fines cleared and when they appear in court they walk scot-free. There are lawyers who are paid for that,” she said.

Ms Gomo said when the police intensify their operations to get rid of osiphatheleni, they simply vacate the streets and operate from their cars.

She said since she is a “long serving member”, she now does business from home as some clients just call and place an order.

“I can do my business from home when things are bad in town. This is strictly for my special customers whom I have undoubted relations with. If a stranger calls I deny that l’m a forex dealer.”

The forex dealer said another strategy they use to “trick” the police is to sit by street pavements pretending to be vendors.

“These groceries are just a front and no one can arrest me as long as I’m not in possession of any forex,” she said.

Ms Gomo said even after Government’s ban of the multi currency system, osiphatheleni’s business is still booming adding that the exchange rate in Harare sets the tone for business.

She said some of the money is supplied from Harare during the weekend. “That’s why you see that on Mondays there’ll be plenty of local currency on the streets and rates usually change at the beginning of the week.”

Ms Gomo said being a money changer is risky because they are targeted by thieves.

“People know that we carry our cash home and they steal from us. Thieves even break into our cars in town.

At some point, l was attacked at my home but luckily l didn’t have any cash with me,” she said.

The forex dealer said even after reporting cases of robbery to the police, it is difficult to make follow ups because their business is illegal.

“Both the thief and I will be charged so I just risk losing the money,” she said.

When quizzed about why the majority of female osiphatheleni put on white garments like the apostolic sect members and are light- skinned, Ms Gomo revealed that this was a way of creating an identity.

“The apostolic sect dressing is associated with wealth and most of us want to identify ourselves with it.

It’s funny that you observed that most of us are light-skinned.

We bleach, that’s why we have dark knees, knuckles and elbows.

It is believed that men are wealthier than women and you know the belief that our male counterparts are attracted more to yellow bones than the opposite so lightening our skin is just a way of making ourselves marketable,” she said.

Prior to the promulgation of the new law, Government described illegal money changers that are seen on the streets as “runners” working for big currency sharks who operate from high places, in air-conditioned offices.

During the raiding of osiphatheleni in the city recently, Bulawayo acting police spokesperson Inspector Abednico Ncube said police are working to bring sanity in the city.

He said illegal money changers that left the streets were now operating from cars which could be a reason for an upsurge in cases of theft from cars in the Central Business District.

“We’re working out ways of dealing with this new challenge of money changers operating from cars and we suspect the upsurge in cases of theft from vehicles in the Central Business District could be as a result of this new development,” said Insp Ncube. The Chronicle

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