Drug dealers and money changers pushed out of Harare city centre during clean-up raids around the Ximex area and other hotspots in the last six months are now congregating at Gail Court on the corner of Samora Machel Avenue and Eighth Street from where they seem to be breaking the law with impunity.
The three-storey building of around 30 bed-sitters has for years been rented, sublet and shared by sex workers, in later years occupying rooms in shifts. The women are now being pushed aside by the higher rentals element.
While prostitution is still rife at the block, these days cocaine, BronCleer cough medicine, dagga and some smuggled illicit spirits dominate the criminal retail trade with touts being employed to woo customers to the drugs’ market.
Some of the young women have graduated into being landladies and sublet their rooms.
Beer is readily available, although no one has a liquor licence, and lockdown opening hours are not followed.
Joining criminals at the block are illegal money changers who have moved off the streets and now rent rooms and operate from the comfort of Gail Court.
As part of the investigation, a reporter went undercover to unearth the extent of the rot.
On arrival at the entrance to the premises, the reporter was received by agents who were marketing the drugs.
One agent identified as “Breeze”, who was sleeping in an abandoned vehicle in front of the building, said he could get the reporter cocaine and BronCleer cough syrup (popularly known as bronco).
“Yes, you can get all that stuff, but I am not sure if the people who sell cocaine are available today. But dagga, bronco and other beers are available. Even sex workers are readily available,” chuckled Breeze as he ushered the reporter into the building.
Inside the building, Breeze went straight to Number 5 on the ground floor and told the reporter to wait at the door.
A scantily-dressed woman opened the door and Breeze entered. A few minutes later, he came out with a 100ml bottle of bronco, which was selling for US$4.50, but after haggling was sold to the reporter for US$4.
On that day, cocaine was out of stock but the traders indicated that a gramme of the drug was going for US$55.
The next day, the same reporter went to the building and this time he was served by a different agent, who took him to room number 30, where they met a different dealer known as Kedha.
Kedha was dubious about the criminality of the reporter, and quizzed him, but eventually invited both the agent and the reporter into his room where about seven people — three women and four men — were smoking dagga.
The other men inside the room whispered to each other as they stared at the reporter and Kedha minimised his risks by agreeing to sell the reporter nothing more than a 100ml bottle of bronco at US$4.
The agent further negotiated with Kedha, in front of the reporter, until he sold him a sachet of dagga for US$1.
A check with Harare City Council confirmed that the block of flats is on sectional title, as each flat has a different owner. Over the last 30 years, it has moved from being an ordinary block of flats occupied by owner occupiers or ordinary working tenants to having absent owners who are able to charge higher rents, do less maintenance and take a great deal of care not to find out what their principle tenants do, or who they sublet to .
Using his relations with the agent, the reporter managed to trace the source of dagga to another flat round the corner along Central Avenue.
He convinced the agent that he was interested in joining the sale of illicit drugs and asked to be connected to the suppliers.
“I can link you with the suppliers. I know a lot of suppliers, especially those who bring cocaine here. I cannot tell you where to find them, but whenever you think you are ready for it, just come and I will take you there. A gramme of cocaine is selling at between US$50 and US$65. That is where real money is. Just come to this building and look for me when you are ready.”
Around a dozen city blocks on the eastern edge of the city between Nelson Mandela Avenue and Central Avenue started becoming a vice area in the two or three years before independence in 1980, although there were always a scattering of respectable blocks of flats, and still are.
The advent of sectional title in the later 1980s saw an upgrade of the area, but the vice and criminal element remained.
In the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s ever more property in this part of the city became commercial, occupied by legal and legitimate businesses, with renovations, extensions and adaptations which saw the conversion of what had been little more than brothels becoming office blocks with ground floor shops, and houses becoming the headquarters of small companies; even the Bible Society moved into the area.
The dominant industry is related to the motor trade, with tyre dealers crowded along the eastern two or three blocks of Samora Machel Avenue.
But the odd respectable block of flats, a hotel, and small legitimate businesses now swamp the three or four remaining centres of crime and vice, like Gail Court.