Zimbabwe?s recent power-sharing agreement identifies fighting crime as one of the country?s top priorities in the near future. President Robert Mugabe and the leaders of two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) apparently agree that Zimbabweans are in danger from a growing criminal class. Analysts say crime has increased in the southern African nation as economic degradation has intensified. Zimbabwe has the highest inflation rate in the world, and millions of people are unemployed. In the midst of this depression, a leading crime researcher is warning of the rise of ?mafia-like? syndicates in southern Africa as a result of the economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe.

?There?s an increased likelihood of criminals, be they individuals, syndicates or networks, using the country as a safe haven, probably launching their activities into the region, using Zimbabwe as a platform,? says Jackson Madzima, organized crime researcher at South Africa?s Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

He?s convinced that Zimbabwe has become ?very attractive? to criminals in southern Africa - precisely because of the social, political and economic instability that reigns there.

?Criminals exploit chaotic situations,? Madzima, who?s originally from Botswana, states. ?They know that there is a lesser risk of being arrested or being prosecuted so it becomes attractive that they base themselves in a place like Zimbabwe.?

He describes the present situation in Zimbabwe as a ?cocktail of circumstances? that?s likely to fuel a ?surge in organized criminal activity.?

Madzima says Zimbabwe?s security forces, which should have been safeguarding the country from crime, have in recent years been ?sidetracked? into supporting President Mugabe politically.

?Instead of fighting crime, the police especially have been used to crush (ruling party) ZANU-PF?s opponents,? he says.

Ingredients for rampant criminality

The researcher says ?desperation? is the fertile ground from which a new criminal class is growing in Zimbabwe.

?A lot of people in Zimbabwe are desperate. They don?t even know how they are going to get out of that desperation, so criminal activity presents itself as an opportunity for those who are desperate to make a living.?

Madzima says the violent conflict that has been evident in Zimbabwe in recent years has created the ?impetus? for future criminal behavior in the country and in the wider region.

?What has happened in Zimbabwe is that resources have been diverted towards resolution of political conflict. Resources may also have been used to sustain the conflict by those who benefit from it. But the bottom line is that such resources have become scarce for law enforcement. This allows criminals to thrive.?

He says the ?vacuum? of crime fighting resources in Zimbabwe is just one of many factors that could allow for a massive expansion in crime.

The ?high circulation? of illegal firearms in Zimbabwe, according to Madzima, is also a source of great concern, as is the fact that many young men and women have been trained by government forces to use such weapons for political reasons and have been ?ordered to kill their opponents.?

In recent years, says Madzima, these young people were ?repeatedly instructed? that they were ?entitled to exterminate those who hold different views as enemies. They have been trained to expect in a way to reap where they did not sow.?

In this regard, Madzima warns of rising discontent and disaffection among various pro-Mugabe groups, such as youth militia and war veterans.

He draws parallels with the situation in post-apartheid South Africa, where many people who?d previously been part of various violent anti-government resistance groups suddenly found themselves ?purposeless? in a rapidly transforming society and were thus encouraged to join criminal networks.

?Over a period of time, those people who participate in violent activities, whether they are political or otherwise, will in future be inclined to use such skills in criminal activities,? Madzima explains.

In a recent report for the ISS, the researcher writes: ?South Africa?s violent past set the tone for current criminal behavioral patterns. The blurring of political and criminal behavior during apartheid entrenched a culture of invincibility on the one hand and impunity on the other. It is clear that the disruption of family units through forced removals and political violence during South Africa?s past provides one explanation for the high incidence of violent crime. It is argued that the distrust for authority and a lack of respect for the rule of law during apartheid fed into the culture of violence.?

Madzima says a ?similar scenario? is emerging in Zimbabwe, where the rule of law is being ignored because people essentially don?t respect the police.

?The political meltdown has resulted in state resources being diverted to ensuring the survival of the incumbent government. The widespread conditions of poverty and unemployment characterizing Zimbabwe now create a breeding ground for criminal behavior.?

He says ?probably the most daunting challenge? facing the country at the moment is the ?rehabilitation of an entire generation that has suffered the impact of economic implosion and political violence (and brutalization) by security forces.?

From a criminological perspective, adds Madzima, ?the challenge will involve a concerted effort to change the mindsets of a people who have lost all hope and trust in government and in its law enforcement and security institutions.?

Black market

These days in Zimbabwe, Madzima argues, almost everyone?s a criminal ?by necessity.?

?It is becoming increasingly impossible for people to make a living on their salaries. To that extent, almost everybody is participating in dealing in the black market to make a living. People begin to trade more (in) illegal activities, or illegitimate trade.?

Madzima says even if there?s sweeping reform in Zimbabwe in the near future, it?s going to be ?very difficult? to wean people off the ?habit of criminality? and to persuade them to conduct their day-to-day dealings legally.

?Quite a number of Zimbabweans have learned to hustle over the years and such hustling is either criminal or borders on criminality,? Madzima comments. ?A large number of civil servants and ordinary citizens have had to learn to survive on resources that are beyond their meager salaries, by demanding bribes and being active in the cut-throat parallel market. This situation inevitably sets the stage for future criminal behavior.?

Madzima?s research in Zimbabwe has revealed that big business there has developed strategies that are ?blatantly criminal? in order to survive the country?s economic crisis.

?I refer to the manufacturing industry, for example, businesses that supply goods in Zimbabwe that are consumed by ordinary people. The economic situation, with the very high inflation rate, does not permit businesses to profit by trading legitimately. So they supply a black market.?

Many goods in Zimbabwe, says Madzima, are available ?underground.?

?Such goods are not being channeled to the formal market, because it?s unprofitable. So to that extent, business is participating in or at least sustaining the black market.?

He says smuggling goods in and out of Zimbabwe has become an ?accepted way of life.?

?There is little business sense in trading ethically and exclusively in the formal market because as it stands, profit is only possible when dealing with contraband. Once the situation reverts to normal, it is unlikely that individuals and businesses that have been hustling for a decade will suddenly begin to do things properly. It is conceivable that the smuggling networks that are growing now will evolve with the advent of a new dispensation,? Madzima says.

?Mafia? threat

He says the security of the entire southern African region could be threatened by the emergence of ?mafia-like figures? as a direct result of the instability in Zimbabwe.

?These sorts of figures like chaotic situations, or conflict, because they are assured that law enforcement is not as vigilant as in other more stable societies. They use corruption to infiltrate markets,? Madzima explains. ?Mafia guys, or at least big criminals, will find friendship with people who are highly placed within government so that their activities are not targeted, or if they are, then they have a reasonable way out. The authorities turn a blind eye to their activities, in return for bribes.?

He points out that there are precedents of this throughout history, including in the United States, where the mafia rose to notoriety in the wake of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

?With the international isolation of Zimbabwe, the government has had no option but to look at alternative sources of funds in order to ensure its survival. Association with shadowy figures and other rogue governments become the only viable option. Mafia figures thrive in these conditions where they can sponsor a government so that its eyes are turned away from their activities. The notorious Chinese and Russian mafia are known to like using this strategy to establish new markets or consolidate existing ones. Therefore, it is hardly alarmist to suggest that the region should expect to contend with a surge in organized crime centered on Zimbabwe.?

Madzima insists though that authorities in southern Africa can take action to ensure that the situation isn?t as dire as he?s forecasting.

?Regional organizations and civic organizations should collaborate to design solutions. What is fundamental is that the quick economic recovery of Zimbabwe would be a good base for any other interventions. In terms of law enforcement, resources must be pumped into law enforcement infrastructure so that rule of law is emphasized.?

He says it?s ?absolutely essential? that the Zimbabwean government halts ?as soon as possible? its use of the police as a ?political tool?. The police must be used primarily as an instrument to fight crime. That?s the only way to fight organized crime networks.?

Madzima advises southern African police chiefs to meet as a matter of urgency to recognize the threat the region?s facing as a result of the chaos in Zimbabwe and to come up with strategies to prevent the rise of a Zimbabwe-based mafia. Otherwise, he warns, it?ll be too late, and organized crime will have established a grip in Zimbabwe that will be difficult to pry loose, with harmful consequences for the whole region.