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How a profiteer works one of the world’s worst economies

Dave Mphele, a black marketeer in Zimbabwe, uses a combination of cunning and coercion to thrive in a nation with 231 million percent inflation. In his own bizarre way, he’s helping the country function.

Zimbabwe's luxurious side: Dave Mphele, a middleman in the economy, is building a new house in the exclusive community of Borrowdale outside the capital city – one of eight homes that he owns.

Jerry Guo

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HARARE, ZIMBABWE
Dave Mphele stands tall and proud in front of his sprawling three-story mansion. He is giving us a tour of his newest real estate acquisition (he already owns seven other houses). This place will be worth US$8 million when completed. He waves his arms excitedly at the roof. “Look at the quality of the tiling,” he says with pride.

Then his phone rings. His friend needs to borrow $100. And, as Mr. Mphele soon makes clear, the friend wants to borrow the money from us. Reporters.

“It’s impossible to get cash around here,” Mphele explains, referring to the rapid dollarization of Zimbabwe’s basket-case economy. The plea for pocket money from two journalists seems perplexing coming from a man who has his own swimming pool and tennis court, plainly visible through the window of his new house.

Like many of the nouveau riche in Zimbabwe, Mphele (whose name, like everyone’s in this piece, has been changed for security reasons) is a man of contradictions. He goes to church every Sunday, but he has a team of eight thugs who enforce his deals.

He delivers firewood to needy homes, and an hour later bribes a local police official. He takes his daughter to France to visit Disneyland, but he admits to having shot a man, though not fatally. He’s a one-man NGO, a mafia king, a doting father, a shrewd businessman, and, potentially, the future president of Zimbabwe (or so he claims).

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