How a profiteer works one of the world’s worst economies
Dave Mphele, a black marketeer in Zimbabwe, uses a combination of cunning and coercion to thrive in a nation with 231 million percent inflation. In his own bizarre way, he’s helping the country function.
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It turns out his ragtag vehicle is necessary to blend in at our next stop, Epworth, a township outside Harare known for crime and poverty. Mphele’s mission: delivering a few dollars to his aunt, who is among a dozen or so relatives who rely on him for food, clothing, and shelter.Skip to next paragraph
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Going from his house in the exclusive community of Borrowdale to his aunt’s shack in Epworth is like driving from Beverly Hills to Watts. There’s no running water or electricity, yet Mphele seems at home. He waves to all of his aunt’s neighbors, hugs his nephews, and grills them about schoolwork.
We chat for a few minutes, he hands her some money, and we drive away. Mphele’s demeanor instantly changes. He points at a group of youths and says, “Thugs are bred here in Epworth. There are no other jobs, even for university grads.” Thieves are yet another type of Zimbabwean entrepreneur.
Then we pass a man walking. Mphele tells us the man once worked for him and stole a bike, so he fired him, dumped all his stuff on the street, and hasn’t spoken to him since. “I’m not a bad character, but I can’t appear to be vulnerable,” he says. “You have to get ruthless in Zimbabwe.”
He’s nonchalant about his uglier side, freely talking about the gun he carries, the limbs he’s broken, and the stint he spent in prison for illegally trading in foreign currency. “I have guys who I will call, and they will go to jail for me. I’m the kind of guy who will get my money,” Mphele says. In a hurried voice, he adds, “But I haven’t had anybody killed.”
Even his buddies think he is shady, nicknaming him Dirty Dave. “He knows too many people,” says one friend. “He’s the kind of guy who can get you anything.”
The tough act isn’t anything new. “I was short and small in school – constantly bullied – so I had to fight back,” says Mphele. But it was also on the playground where he earned his first buck, selling candy and gum to wealthier classmates, since Mphele grew up poor. Both of his parents had to work, his mother in a supermarket and his father in a shopping mall.
“I brought myself to where I am today,” he says. “I created something out of nothing.”
Even as busy as he is (his mobile phone bill runs $800 per month), Mphele can’t stop working. This month, he’ll be enrolling in a three-year correspondence program in law.
A couple days later, we’re on our way to Borrowdale Brook, a gated enclave within Borrowdale. Mr. Mugabe has an Oriental-style home here. The foreign press rarely mentions this side of Zimbabwe: suburban lawns, scowling guards, and 18-hole golf courses.
We wonder aloud how we will get in. Mphele then delivers one of his many mantras: “I don’t know why you’re panicking,” he says. “I told you I’ll take care of it.” He does. Soon, we’re gawking at the splendor within the electrified walls. Despite the old Nissan, Mphele fits in here, too, schmoozing with waiters at the members-only clubhouse and buying expensive drinks.
The rest of the week is more tension-filled. We go to a tough township to buy a cellphone card. While there, Mphele sees a top intelligence official and gives him a ride home.
On another afternoon, we pull into a liquor store, and Mphele, of course, knows the owner, Peter Thompson. He is a younger version of Mphele. Until six months ago, he was running a one-man bank out of his garage. He exchanged more than US$1 million per year in foreign currency for multinational corporations like Dell and Coca-Cola.
But over the summer, with Mr. Mugabe’s much-criticized price controls causing a run on consumer goods, Thompson saw an opportunity. He started importing liquor from South Africa and marking it up 1,000 percent. Many of his friends have now started similar ventures. “The government stopped paying people,” he says. “So we have to create our own businesses.”
At 2 a.m., we are still out and puttering along in the Nissan, when, suddenly, it blows a tire. By the time it’s fixed, two hours later, we’re apprehensive about driving the car on the dark Harare roads. Mphele, seeing our faces, leans close, his thick eyebrows wiggling mischievously.
“I don’t know why you’re panicking, guys,” he says. “I get my Mercedes tomorrow.”
Even better, we finally get something back: The $100 we “loaned” his friend.