Dark underbelly of pickpocketing in Harare CBD

Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, architecturally reflects its colonial past when it was then called Salisbury, with grand buildings like the National Art Gallery and Parliament House being testaments of the past British rule.

AWARD-WINNING Zimdancehall chanter Killer T aptly captured Harare central business district in his chartbusting song Masuspect whose lyrics partly go: “Vapfanha vacho vanobhosha masuspect.  Havana basa unoseenza kugovernment, vanongorova nechidhura, havatairise face (The guys just con everyone.  They don’t care even if one works for the government).”

Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, architecturally reflects its colonial past when it was then called Salisbury, with grand buildings like the National Art Gallery and Parliament House being testaments of the past British rule.

The city hums with the energy of a modern city, boasting a diverse population, a thriving commerce sector and a multitude of cultural offerings. The city has faced economic and political challenges, but its people are known for their resilience and warmth, yet, in the street lingo Kungwavhangwavha (hustling), the majority of the city dwellers struggle to get a decent meal on the table.

Harare's street art and music scene often reflect this spirit of hustling.

However, there is a dark underbelly to the hustling with such popular areas as Copacabana, Gulf complex and former Zimex Mall now known hotspots for pickpocketing, a trade many youths are partaking in to make a living.

Common pickpocketing techniques mostly used at Copacabana are distraction and artificial crowding at bus termini and street corners.

And a former police officer Tafadzwa Chidawa has taken time to stalk the city’s bustling streets and dark alleys with his smartphone recording live pickpockets.

Since retiring from the Zimbabwe Republic Police in 2019, Chidawa has been working in Harare’s CBD where he has witnessed several cases of pickpockets. One day he decided to follow a male suspect at Copacabana bus terminus with his smartphone live on Facebook.

“I have recorded five live Facebook videos of people stealing money, cell phones or other valuables from a victim's pocket without them noticing the theft at the time and we took all the five suspects to the Harare Central police,” Chidawa told NewsDay.

“I am a former police officer who has been working in the Harare CBD since I left ZRP in 2019. I am well versed with some techniques being used by thieves. What made me start live streaming pickpockets is that I have friends and relatives who were losing their valuables to pickpockets.

“They usually call me to assist them, so one day I just decided to do live streaming on such criminal activities after a certain guy passed my vehicle and I followed him until he stole a phone,” he explained.

Chidawu believes there is a lot of ignorance among people of the techniques used by the suspects.

A female victim who spoke to NewsDay on condition of anonymity said: “One day, as I was doing my shopping along Cameroon Street, I discovered my sling bag was open and my phone was gone. Honestly, up to today I do not know what happened, but I lost my phone. I think it’s good to have people who work with the police in dealing with pickpockets in Harare CBD” she said.

Police assistant commissioner Paul Nyathi, however, told NewsDay that in as much as the police acknowledge the efforts by individuals to curb pickpocketing, there are certain channels that must be followed by volunteers who may want to partner the police in apprehending crime.

“We have noted a number of people who want to work closely with the police after that video of minors drinking alcohol which went viral on social media. However, as police we urge individuals to follow proper channels through the office of police commissioner general under home affairs. The government is setting up cyber laboratories modalities to ensure smart policing and its work in progress,” Nyathi said

Limited economic opportunities and high unemployment are some of the reasons which were cited as drivers of such criminal activity as pickpocketing.

According to Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency 2023 report, more than 2,8 million people of working age are unemployed in Zimbabwe, with Matabeleland North having the highest number.

Government critic and economist Gift Mugano said: “Those criminal activities are symptoms of an underlying cause due to drought of economic opportunities. Unemployed level is over 85% formal unemployment, so when young people are not working naturally you see these symptoms of drug abuse pick pocketing. The number of students who are released from high schools after O(rdinary) level only, are hundreds of thousands and these youths find themselves on the streets.

“We have huge challenges before we think of employment. We don't have the capacity as a country to absorb all those youths after they finish high school. So, there is a need for a broader economic approach like to make sure we have enough vocational colleges to accommodate our young people after they finish their high school studies. What we saw on social media young people drinking alcohol is a sign of a failed parenting due to economic problems.

“We need a functional economy. We just need to work on the way we govern the country and fix our politics and create good governance. We have not seen rule of law since independence. We need to solve the route cause and stop blaming these youths only.”

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