Inside Gaborone’s stolen goods underground market

07 Oct 2018

The journey to unravel the supply chain of the ‘Grab and sell’ business began in the dusty location of White City (Gaborone) notoriously known as Harare to those who purchase stolen gadgets at ridiculously cheap prices. The road led to a tuck-shop with colorful candy, biscuits and chips operated by an old lady known only as Rhoda as a front for a thriving cellular phone black market.

After making a few rounds around the street, it became evident that Rhoda had closed shop. But all was not lost because just a mere few meters straight ahead sits another ‘tuck-shop’ obscurely surrounded by a handful of men. Questioning them on the whereabouts of Rhoda was seemingly unsettling as they all seemed a tad bit reluctant to speak until one of the younger looking ones stood out and explained that Rhoda had relocated to Zimbabwe.

After exchanging brief pleasantries we went straight to business and enquired where we could buy used cellular phones. His eyes brightened as he called one of the elder men to assist. The trail went deeper into White City where another man came through with a clutch phones. There are only two questions asked before the transaction can take place: “How much do you have? And what do you want?”

They refuse to present the whole menu and only provide what was specifically asked for or is within budget.

After a lengthy back and forth negotiation over pricing the transaction ultimately failed and the road proceeded to the Gaborone Bus-Rank, at a specific corner.  Once they have had a whiff of a potential buyer they hovered like moths to a light. Once it becomes apparent that a deal is in the works they dispersed and a very immaculately dressed young man took the reins. The first mistake was venturing into the bus rank hustle and bustle in a car. The constant movement of people and vehicles coupled with the nasty attitude of taxi drivers who think that the bus rank was made for them was a nightmare.  

The nicely dressed young man called his partner to assist as he went back to his day job of packing passengers in buses. The questions remained the same, “How much do you have? And what do you want?” And the bantering began. The resistance and insistence to present one phone at a time continued, each time he ran off swallowed by the crowd to bring another phone to meet the specifications brought forth. At some point he left and never came back. The taxi men were menacing bullies, obstructing the deal.

Day two began in the bus rank once again however this time the car was parked in the public parking area and it was a long treacherous walk through the scorching sun but it had to be done. Lady luck smiled down and brought a slightly built dreadlocked Katlego to act as a much needed buffer during the exchange. That dingy open space between the waiting room and the food stalls was where the action went down. The putrid stench of rotten food and old urine did not seem to bother the two suppliers who came with Katlego. At some point while trying to pry information out of them on how they got the gadget the suppliers threatened to leave. After a word of warning from Katlego, they were coaxed back into the deal, a transaction was made and a snazzy Samsung Duos with a cracked screen was purchased for P400 (Store price is approximately P1600), and a P100 facilitating tip was given to Katlego.  

Asked why he helped complete strangers through the deal Katlego replied, “I have seen a lot of people being sold bricks, empty boxes and being swindled out of money from the bus rank that is why I offer my assistance.” Katlego went on to explain that the people he had consulting with were not necessarily criminals “Gaba dense (they don’t steal), they buy merchandise from petty thieves from the hoods and sell them for a little profit.”

Apparently the goods available for purchase are not limited to mobile devices and electronic household goods are also available and according to Katlego it is advisable to check them mid month as they are desperate to get rid of the merchandise but people have no money thus they practically give them away. He excitedly described state of the art televisions and radios that they could provide from that corner in the bus rank.

Alternatively being a regular or a residents at any of the hot spots gets you a phone in a flash, a resident of Gaborone West Phase 1 told the Sunday Standard that, “I don’t need to go out searching for a phone to buy, whilst relaxing in the hood with my boys over a cold beer and a game of pool, the thugs come to us.” He proceeds to whip out a Samsung A5 (2017) he claims to have bought for a mere P700 whilst its store price is in the P6000 range. Regarding the tracking and tracing of stolen phones he laughs it off indicating that Batswana hardly insure their possessions therefore paying for tracing would be extremely rare. To unlock the stolen phones there is always a handy Asian man who could for a small fee unlock any phone from anywhere in the world.      

End of Part One

Stay tuned next week for a word from the authorities, mobile phone network providers and insurance brokers