The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
IT is a Saturday night at one of Bulawayo’s high end nightspots. The city’s young and young at heart have gathered for what promises to be another night of unforgettable fun.
This is, after all, one of the city’s most exclusive joints, a place where those that are not confident about their pockets dare not set foot. The setting is simply perfect for those with cash to burn.
The ladies are stylish, dressed to the nines in gear cut from the finest fabric, strutting in stilettos that threaten to pierce the very ground that they walk on. The gentleman are largely not as formal but equally stylish, with designer clothes and kicks (shoes) marking them out as go-getters with a fashion sense.
On tables, resting luxuriously on buckets of ice, lie bottles of alcoholic brands that are recognisable anywhere in the world, from Bulawayo to Johannesburg all the way to the Big Apple itself, New York. Hennessey, Blue Label, Remy Martin and Bombay are some of the names that catch the one after a quick scan of the joint.
The cuisine is just as mouth watering. A piece of a chicken’s thigh is nibbled at and left, half finished. Although it is discarded, it is not lonely on that platter. Next to it are some of the choicest cuts of both chicken and beef.
Despite such displays of wanton spending, at a time when most Zimbabweans are tightening their belts, most of the people on these tables are not the toast of the night.
All eyes are on one table in particular and as soon as one steps in it becomes clear to who the night really belongs to.
It is the money changer’s table and tonight they are in a mood to celebrate. They are jubilant, celebrating one of their own. It is his birthday and they are about to make a splash in more ways than one.
While a bottle of Hennessy going for US$70 at the joint where buying alcohol in foreign currency is the norm, might be the crown in the jewel on another table, on theirs it is not as remarkable. They have four of the cognac bottles made famous by the world’s most popular rap superstars.
That is not all. A couple of Tanqueray bottles, each also going for a cool US$70 rubs shoulders with the cognac and to cap it all off, a few of bottles of Veuve Clicquot champagne. The champagne, going for a whooping US$140, is not for drinking. As the night unfolds its true purpose is revealed and the liquor is opened and sprayed on the birthday boy, who is left soaking from over US$500 worth of champagne showers within a few minutes.
The joint’s staff also gets busy. While they might be disgruntled at the unnecessary extra work that has arisen from the showers, they also know where their bread is buttered. Big spenders are to be encouraged, not admonished. So as the champagne rains continue, one of them gets to work, mopping up the wet floor as each bottle is opened.
It is a wild night, rarely experienced by those in attendance. Many are in awe at the night time spectacle from these young men whose services they often require during the day. This is Bulawayo’s new breed of money changers who have transformed the illicit trade and given it a new face.
When illicit forex trading began after the turn of the century, it was usually the preserve of older women who sat on benches and buckets especially around Tredgold Building and uttered the magic word, usiphatheleni (what did you bring us), to every passerby. It is a word that has endured to this day and to many, osiphatheleni still refers to those old women, usually of the Apostolic sect, who carry out illegal money transactions only a stones throw away from where the country’s law officers are delivering justice to other transgressors of the law.
However, over the past year, a new breed of money changers has taken over. While veterans of the trade might still see Tredgold Building, popularly known as the World Bank, as their Mecca, these young men operate differently. While some might conduct business from shops that sell an assortment of things, others operate from cars, which make it easier for them to avoid members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police. Those that operate from fixed abode are aware that they have to pay something to officers who come knocking on their doors almost every day. Greasing the palm of a bothersome, corrupt officer of the law is not a problem when one is making money by the hour.
They have even gone digital, waking up prospective clients with messages announcing the day’s latest rates. At a glance the world of these young money changers might seem rosy. However, a closer look reveals that it is not all glamorous.
During the day, they rarely have a moment to rest. This is due to the way that the trade is set up. The changers get money from a boss, who is usually also working for a bigger, unseen boss. The money that they get is called “float” and it is given under strict instructions.
The boss gives off a certain amount under the assumptions that whoever takes the float will finish it. If they do not do this, they have to replace the boss with their own funds, usually the profit they were supposed to make for that day.
“The problem with not finishing the float that has been given to you is that you now have to use your own money to cover it,” said a young money changer that spoke to Sunday Life anonymously.
“The person who gives you the float gives you under the assumption that you will finish it and so if you don’t, you have to dig into your own pocket and cover what you owe. So in the end you remain with that float in EcoCash that you’ve got to change to recover your money. If you go with your story to your boss, the person that’s floating you, it discourages them from floating you again,” the money changer said.
With that being the case, a day in a money changer’s life means early hours and late nights as they do whatever is necessary to finish the float before they cash-up to the boss. In most cases, they barely have the time to even eat lunch.
“The problem is that the rate is never stable. So if the rate is 22 (black market rate of the US Dollar to the local currency), tomorrow it can up at 25. It becomes a loss for you to move on the leftover float from yesterday. It’s a game of being fast. Whatever float that you get on that day you’ve got to finish it by all means necessary,” the money changer said.
How they make their profit, also requires some math.
“If you’re floated at the rate of 23 and you buy at a rate of 22,5 you make US$11 for every US$500 you buy. If you buy US$1 000 you make US$22. That’s when you’re getting five points. How you make a day depends on how many contacts and clients you have,” another money changer told Sunday Life.
The lives of young money changers are now fraught with danger too. Since they operate at a street level, armed robbers usually have inside information about their movements. On one of the city’s busiest streets for money changers, they now employ bouncers that keep an eye out for potential robbers and act as bodyguards.
Sometimes the criminals are smoother however, and they wait for all the changers to deliver cash to the link between them and the boss before they strike.
Thus, the young money changers live in constant fear, first of being robbed and secondly of the bosses that want their money under any circumstance. Working under such conditions, it is only under the cover of darkness, in night clubs and bars, that some get relief.