Osiphatheleni - A pesky necessity

BULAWAYO - Walking along the streets of Bulawayo, the sight of women prowling or sometimes seated on the pavements selling foreign currency is an age old phenomenon.

From a distance, one may mistake them for street beggars, perhaps due to the way they solicit for their “help”.

But to a local resident, these are women who have been indirectly driving the economy judging by astonishingly large bundles of cash they hold at any given time.

Osiphatheleni is the name they got, derived from the way they cajole passers-by on whether they have any foreign currency to trade.  Usiphatheleni in iSindebele translates to “what have you brought us.”

Over time they moved their ad line to “cross rate or sitshintshe budhi/mama/ baba or sisi (Do you want to convert your currency),” as they entice customers. While the contingent of women better known as amapostori, a name derived from flowing white dresses synonymous with the Apostolic sect attire, who dominate the  informal foreign currency exchange trade.

Having sprouted at the turn of the millennium when the economy in the country took a nose dive, the introduction of a bearer’s cheque to substitute worthless Zimbabwean dollar fuelled the illegal practice in the streets.

Even when the phenomenon became a countrywide practice, Bulawayo remained the central point of business regarding its geographical proximity to Botswana and South Africa.

One of the black market spots for Osiphatheleni in the second largest city gained the World Bank tag due to the ready availability of almost every currency.

So vibrant and enduring was the section along Fort Street that sometime around 2004, Central Bank governor Gideon Gono had to masquerade as a customer under the escort of local reporters to get first-hand information of the thriving informal exchange market.

Although, he was later recognised by some during the transactions, Gono acknowledged the enormity of the challenge he was facing in trying to put an end to this established parallel market.

As a result, the City of Kings gained notoriety in the country for illicit foreign currency trading and to date it stands as a microcosm of what the country has experienced over the past decade.

However, while the parallel market benefited mostly on the recurrent wobbly economic environment in the country, the inclusive government endeavoured to bring the stuttering economy back to its feet.

Undoubtedly, the government was largely credited for improving almost all sectors of the economy but that was not enough to end the illegal money exchange trade despite several combined police and city council raids in a bid to clean the streets of Bulawayo.

Gone are the days when full loads of police trucks would run to and from the police station filling the holding cells with currency dealers, some being fined or being dragged to court.

Gone too are the days when old women would be seen criss-crossing the streets in all directions trying to evade paying a fine or spending a night in the filthy police cells.

And again that was no deterrent measure.

Osiphatheleni have cluttered open spaces around Chicken Inn opposite Tredgold, the pavements along Fort Street between Leopold Takawira Avenue leading up to Fife Street, Hyper Supermarket, Herbert Chitepo Street among others which have never looked the same in terms of congestion since the emergence of this form of roaring informal employment.

Besides been known for holding all sorts of currencies in demand Osiphatheleni are also popular for being controversial with regard to their conduct.

Just like touts, osiphatheleni are tricky customers whose traits verge on stubbornness, audacity and dishonestness.

However they unite in the face of those that want to thwart their activities.

Working day and night has apparently made them soldiers in their sphere of operation and as such richer as most of them are now home and vehicle owners if not business people.

Outside that with the coming in of a new government, and their existence apparently being propelled by a poor economic performance in the country what does future hold for them.

The Daily News on Sunday this week spoke to some seasoned illegal money changers in the city who expressed optimism in their profession.

“We are here to stay unless government employs a new tactic that will automatically throw us away from the streets,” said Christina Bhebhe.

“We have come a long way of course we really cannot compare this period to the time when we started this where we could rake in thousands of dollars per day.

The property and the house that I own came from this job,” she said.

A woman who only identified herself as Mai Mangena said:  “As far as I am concerned the business is still vibrant for some of us who have dedicated our lives to the streets. Of course the business has its own ups and downs but I don’t see it coming to an end,” Mai Mangena says soon after dollarisation most of osiphatheleni deserted the trade as it became tough and unprofitable.

“I am one of those who were running a flea market at Esporweni in Cowdray Park where we used to sell different wares including chicken cuts that we imported. With time there was a market glut and after almost a year I bounced back and I am faring well as you can see,” she said pointing at Toyota Granvia vehicle.

She also boasted of owning a small business enterprise in the city as a result of the illegal parallel money exchange market.

“I don’t even think that the new government is really going to end this. If there is any new policy we will always have a way out,” the heavily built Mangena bragged while her fellow workmates cheered her.
As part of the money exchange, most traders have also resorted to selling recharge cards while hunting for the main catch. Kurauone Tagarira, 32 who claims to have been in the industry since 2006 said the future of the practice is still bright.

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