Tears in a Suitcase (and Refuse Bags)
How did two women allegedly pull off the biggest bank heists in modern African history, completely unhurried and unbothered, and were never caught despite widespread footage?
BY FISKE NYIRONGO
"After she locked the vault, Gondwe allegedly told the security guard on duty that she had a salon appointment over lunch and would be back. She left through the back entrance of the bank with a suitcase. "
BY FISKE NYIRONGO
30 April 2021
"No tyres screeching, no blaring of sirens and no panicked shoppers scattering across aisles," said News24 South Africa of the Mall of Africa silent heist in 2019 - one that saw its prime suspect vanish into thin air. When I hear of bank heists, my thoughts immediately shift to armed bandits, masked and ready to shoot any person between them and the money they are after. But a few people are now changing my views of real life heists. One of them is a woman from my own country, Zambia. Let me introduce you to Pamela Gondwe, the media-branded ‘socialite fugitive’, and author of Tears in a Suitcase.
Pamela Gondwe was born in Luanshya in the Copperbelt Province of Zambia. An employee of Barclays Bank in Longacres, Zambia, Gondwe was trusted by her co-workers and bosses for close to ten years. And from testimonies surrounding her mysterious case, it seems this trust was intact on the morning of June 11th, 2019. That day Gondwe reported to work, went about her usual tasks and was asked to take stock of the bank’s vault in the afternoon. She entered the vault with a co-worker, and Gondwe allegedly offered that colleague food at some point during their time inside. The co-worker went to the kitchen to eat and returned to find the vault locked - later admitting they assumed Gondwe had simply finished the job and didn’t think much of it. After she locked the vault, Gondwe allegedly told the security guard on duty that she had a salon appointment over lunch and would be back. It was said she left through the back entrance of the bank with a suitcase.
That day, Pamela Gondwe allegedly walked out of that Barclays Bank with an amount of cash totalling £288,392. Ironically, Gondwe, who seems to be a writer with big dreams, had published a book entitled Tears in a Suitcase three years before the heist - a ‘collection of poems about life experiences most people are afraid to talk about’, as described by her publisher. I talked to Ingrid Nayame, a Zambian author who interacted with Gondwe a few months before the events of June 11th, 2019. She described her as a woman who seemed to know what she wanted. “My first impression was that she was fancy and liked nice things,” said Nayame. She went on to describe an incident when Gondwe helped the Zambian writing community: “We had a book event, and we needed a venue. Our option was an affordable and small venue, but Pamela said no and that she would find a better place for us. She found this place in Kabulonga that surpassed all our expectations.”
A month later, on 15th July 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa, a cash-in-transit security guard, Bathobile Mlangeni, also went missing, along with 4 million South African Rands, the equivalent to £197,244 today, which she was supposed to deposit on that day. Mlangeni allegedly strolled off with the cash stuffed in refuse bags thrown in a trolley, and supposedly walked away from her life and job at Africa’s largest shopping mall, the Mall of Africa in Midrand. Mlangeni is described as someone who kept to herself and minded her own business, unlike Pamela Gondwe who had a somewhat more active social life. Both women have quite a following on social media. Interestingly enough, they have fans, with some people admitting to admire them, and viewing them as highly intelligent people who got away with theft. These type of crimes have a nearly 60% apprehension and conviction rate in Zambia today.
Gondwe seemingly left Zambia on a flight to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where the police said they lost track of her. Meanwhile, Mlangeni was reported to still be in South Africa a few months after her solo heist. It is alleged that she disguised herself as a woman on the run from an abusive boyfriend. She lived in Germiston, South Africa before going missing again. To date, both Pamela Gondwe and Bathobile Mlangeni have left people shocked and in awe for what they managed to pull off on their own. Gondwe however was placed on the Red Alert Interpol list of most wanted criminals to be prosecuted in July 2019.
Some wonder if these two heists had other people involved. It is a question worth asking: after all, how can a person walk out unbothered with so much money from their place of work? And as a resident of Zambia, I wonder, should we be worried about the lack of security in these institutions handling cash? I do hope Pamela Gondwe or Bathobile Mlangeni will get to tell their own stories one day, so we can find out.