By Brenna Matendere
Law enforcement agents are clamping down on illegal gold miners and violent militias after the recent murder of a policeman on duty.
But they are not talking of the source of the machetes that the gangs are using, amid confirmation by the police that the gangsters are now being hired to terrorise rivals.
Investigations by The Standard, in partnership with Information for Development Trust, a non-profit organisation currently promoting media investigations into corruption and bad governance, have managed to identify one major source of the deadly machetes and unearthed numerous serious cases of violence wreaked by the militias, but which the police ignored or failed to solve.
A gang of illegal miners armed with machetes and two FN rifles — normally reserved for the army, police, prison warders and other security agents — attacked and struck to death Constable Wonder Hokoyo at Good Hope Mine in Kadoma in late December 2019 during a gold rush.
Home Affairs minister Kazembe Kazembe and the police commissioner-general, Godwin Matanga, swiftly declared war on illegal miners and machete militias whose spates of violence had largely been ignored for years.
Police have banned unauthorised possession of dangerous weapons that include the machetes, swooped on illegal mining hotspots and arrested more than
1 500 illegal panners, with several hundreds already convicted and sentenced following the murder of the junior police officer.
Rural Zhombe district, one of the hotbeds of machete violence, is home to underground producers of the long knives that the militias have used to kill, maim, rape and rob.
In that district is a misleadingly quiet and tiny commercial centre, Zororo, which is marked by numerous retail shops, drinking spots and other small business enterprises typical of rural centres that were named “growth points” after independence in 1980 as Zimbabwe was transitioning from a colonial economy.
Machete gangsters periodically drive or hike in and out of Zororo, buying and taking away consignments of up to 50 machetes per trip, concealed in boxes or sacks.
The militias easily pass through roadblocks where they bribe traffic police, and the local police intelligence units are reportedly fully aware of the production of the machetes there but turn a blind eye.
While it’s not illegal to manufacture machetes, as they have traditionally been used for forest clearance, gardening, sugarcane harvesting and a variety of other purposes, a manufacturer is supposed to have a properly registered entity to do so.
Sources who include some machete gangsters told The Standard that the police know that the manufacturers of the weapons have not been properly registered and are also aware of the purposes for which the weapons are made, ordinarily making it easy to track down the militias through roadblocks and ambushes.
The gangsters are easily identifiable as they wear colourful work suits typically soiled by reddish soil and move in noisy, often drunken, groups.
The underground ironsmiths at Zororo, the sources revealed, mostly obtain old industrial machetes from various sugarcane plantation workers in the Lowveld for as little as US$1 and, depending on the size, sharpen them and resell them at between US$5 and US$10.
Old machetes can also be obtained from other sources such as former and current employees of the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa) who steal and smuggle them out of storerooms.
Zesa, it was established, uses the long knives to clear virgin land during the installation of power lines.
The illegal gold panners prefer the smaller machetes—the size of a standard bayonet—which can easily be concealed underneath the work suits and jeans.
A Zororo manufacturer of the machetes said his machete production peaked between late 2018 and early 2019, the time when he set up his enterprise, and suspects that business has gone down because the knives have flooded the market already while buyers have discovered other sources.
Zororo has at least 15 underground machete producers. They are now avoiding using their real names, but totems and monikers such as Bravo, Ntingu, Hitler, Mudawini, Skhokho, Ndabeni, Ngwambangwamba and Ncube.
While buyers can still purchase from Zhombe, the Zororo backyard traders have expanded their market to the nearby city of Kwekwe in the Midlands, where they have set up selling points in the low-density suburb of Masasa.
Indeed, smaller producers and suppliers have emerged in other parts of the Midlands and Mashonaland West provinces such as Shurugwi town and Kadoma where they use scrap metal to smelt and sharpen the machetes in backyards.
In Shurugwi, home to a notorious gang of illegal miners and machete gangsters called Mashurugwi who have for decades eked out a living from alluvial gold on the Boterekwa escarpment, the machetes are still easily available at a spot called Pote.
But the knives can also be obtained from industrial suppliers across the country.
The police were evasive about the supply chain of the machetes.
Police spokesperson Assistant Commisioner Paul Nyathi last Friday said he was away from the office, so could not comment, while the Midlands provincial public relations head, Inspector Joel Goko, said he was “not aware of any cases of people manufacturing machetes or transporting them”.
“We are now operating secretly because newspapers have been talking of machetes a lot and we are no longer sure if we can still be protected from arrests like before.
“People with machetes are being arrested, so when you are selling something secretly the business is not that good,” said one producer at Zororo.
Until the recent police crackdown on illegal miners, machete violence had been spreading fast across the country, with the gangs invading even urban centres, robbing and raping.
And there is a new trend. The militias are now available for hire, as revealed through a recent police internal memo.
The memo shows that the gangsters are being engaged and paid by persons seeking revenge on their rivals.
According to the correspondence that was originated by the Kwekwe police intelligence section to the district heads in the city and Gokwe, six machete gangsters were hired by a businessman and his relative who had encountered a break-in at their shop to track the suspect.
The gangsters subsequently abducted the suspect and took him to the Zanu PF Kwekwe district offices where they severely tortured him.
Witnesses have in the past described the Zanu PF offices in Kwekwe as one of the bases from which ruling party-aligned machete militias have operated for years.
According to the document obtained by The Standard, a 33 year-old police officer, Brighton Tomson, who resides at Redcliff police camp, alerted his superiors about the murder of Andrew Moyo of Unit Mine in neighbouring Redcliff.
A businessman, Tafadzwa Rodgers, allegedly mobilised his brother-in-law identified as Raymond Chinouya who in turn reportedly mobilised six machete gangsters to track down the late Moyo, who was suspected of having stolen beer and cash from Rodgers’ business premises.
After torturing Moyo, they handed him over to Kwekwe Central Police Station and walked away after reporting that he was a suspect in the beer and cash theft, and the law enforcers followed up on the accused later.
Sources in Kwekwe said using hired machete gangsters had become common, especially among gold dealers seeking to settle scores with their enemies.
Journalists in Kwekwe, it was established, have fallen victim to the machete gangs too. Speaking anonymously, several of them reported that they had been warned by the militias against reporting on machete violence in and around the city.
While Kwekwe has a number of media houses both community, national and international, local journalists have been avoiding writing stories about the machete gangs out of fear.
Foster Dongozi, the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) secretary-general, said he was aware of the threats.
“ZUJ would like to call on the government to guarantee the safety and security of journalists working in the gold-mining areas, particularly Kwekwe, which has been invaded by some rogue gold panners,” he said.
“According to information reaching our offices, threats to harm journalists if they write about the goings-on in the goldfields have been issued by the gangsters and are affecting the effective collection, processing and dissemination of information. We strongly condemn such actions.”