The making of a bandit country

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Stir the pot: Paidamoyo Muzulu

BANDIT — bastardised to banditi, is a common term in Zimbabwe. A term that is derisively used in reference to former jailbirds. Some in the high-density suburbs have taken the name as a badge of honour, particularly those arrested for political-related crimes.

Musicians Seh Calaz and Mambo Dhuterere, in their popular song Reurura, have popularised the term banditi and it has become a national anthem of some sort. In the song they sing about repentance from the bad days and trying to live a clean life – a life far from crime.

In the coming few weeks, nearly 5 000 mabanditi — convicts — are set to be released on a general amnesty by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, ostensibly as a measure to decongest the prisons that now have 22 000 inmates instead of their designed capacity of 17 000.

“Cabinet considered and approved the proposal to have a general amnesty as presented by the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. Cabinet noted that the country’s prison population currently stands at 22 000 against an official holding capacity of 17 000. The general amnesty which will be for certain specified categories of prisoners will decongest the country’s prisons and alleviate challenges being experienced by the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services,” a Cabinet brief this week said.

The country will soon be having a new group of bandits — some wearing their badge with pride and others with shame. However, the bottom line is the country will have ex-convicts back in the community and it is debatable whether they have been prepared enough for reintegration.

The parole or amnesty seems a kind-hearted gesture by the regime, but there is something disturbing when everything is taken in context. Last week the regime changed the standard scale of fines for criminal law offences. These changes were brought through Statutory Instrument 57 of 2020 Criminal Law Codification and Reform (Standard Fines) Notice, 2020.

The lowest fine now is pegged at $200 and the highest level 14 is now $120 000. The scale of increment is unprecedent because in many instances the fines were hiked by 1 500%.

In the Criminal Code, fines from level 1 to 3 can be paid at a police station under what is commonly referred as the “admission of guilty fine”. In other words, these are criminal offences that care trivial and cannot be brought before the magistrates court if the accused admits them.

However, level 1 fine is now $200, level 2 is $300 and level 3 is now a whooping $500. This means all the cases that can be concluded at the police station now need $500. To many, these fines may seem justified in the face of skyrocketing inflation, but these are steep for the ordinary citizen as shall be exhibited in the following paragraphs.

In a country with over 80% of working people employed in the informal sector and the few lucky to be in the formal sector on average earn a pitiful $1 000 per month. The government at the beginning of the year realised that anyone earning below $2 000 per month was poor and should be exempted from pay as you earn. Interestingly, many formally employed like those doing domestic work or manual labour at farms earn less than $170 a month. For argument’s sake, let’s us assume any person from the two mentioned groups commits a crime that falls within level 1 to 3 of fines, can they afford to pay the fine? Do these new fines serve justice, especially for the majority poor?

It sounds alarmist, but the reality is that many from the poor working class are now candidates for prison because they do not have the capacity to pay fines at a police station. They will be detained overnight, processed and taken to court where most likely they cannot afford legal representation and ultimately would have to spend time in remand prison after failing to pay bail.

Even in cases where they admit to the charges, they will be sentenced in line with the new fines schedule and find themselves behind bars after failing to raise the fines. I don’t care about people arrested for petty crimes like public drinking, driving under the influence, careless driving or touting. These are vices that should be nipped. However, my worry is about a poor vegetable vendor who is arrested and asked to pay a $500 fine. Vending can be a nuisance, but it shows the extent of the failure of the regime to put social safety nets and is ready to punish people trying to eke an honest day’s work. There is a lot of policy changes that are needed to address vending in Harare and other cities

Probably, it is high time Zimbabweans discuss about crime and justice in the present circumstances. If the situation is not addressed immediately the result is certain — a new generation of mabanditi — people who are victims of the system and uncaring regime. mabanditi may well have a new meaning in the present circumstances going forward.

Paidamoyo Muzulu is a journalist and writes here in his personal capacity.

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