Making a living in the ‘informal sector’

MILLIONS of people in Zimbabwe make their living in the informal sector.

Candid Comment with Eddie Cross

Those of us who live and work in the formal sector have little or no idea what it is like to live in this “other world”. There are some incidents in my life that illustrate what it is like to be dependent on the informal sector to make a living.

I was driving back to Harare from Gaborone when I offered a lift to some Zimbabwean women. Three women came with their huge bags containing their purchases and I put one in front with me and the other two in the open back.

The lady in front was from Highfield in Harare.

When we got to Bulawayo they asked me to stop at a service station so they could use the toilet. When they came out of the toilet, I noticed that the lady who was sitting in front with me was now distinctly more slender.

She was now carrying what turned out to be 25kg of machine tools destined for an engineering company in Harare. These had been held in a kind of shoulder harness that she had under her dress.

She saw my expression and exclaimed, “At least we are not thieves”.
She explained that she did this trip every two weeks and had a list of clients in Harare for which she was known as a “runner”.

Whatever they needed she purchased and smuggled. I took her to her residence in Highfield and found that she had several children dependent on her.

The other glimpse I had was last year when I visited Beitbridge with a team from parliament to try and sort out the chaos there. After our business, another MP and I from Bulawayo decided to hitch a lift home rather than return to Harare.

We boarded a kombi from Johannesburg and my colleague chose to sit with the driver while I was given a seat at the back next to an attractive young lady.

We got talking and she told me she was a “commercial sex worker” in Johannesburg and she spoke quite openly about her life there. She was going home to see her family.

We went through eight roadblocks on the way to Bulawayo with my colleague flashing her parliament tag at every one of them and we were immediately waived through.

When we got to Bulawayo the driver said: “You can come with me anytime; you saved me at least R600 today in bribes on the road.”
There are no safety nets in Zimbabwe; if you do not work you starve.
In a country where the formal sector has collapsed and now only employs less than one person in 10, this means 90% of every community has to make their living in the informal sector.

How they do that is infinitely different. Some are involved in illegal activities and others marginally legal. Life is hard and when things go wrong the consequences are immediate.

But they make their way with humour and ingenuity, hard work and effort. Helping them make a better living with security and in a way that preserves their dignity is one of the great tasks of African governments.

Cross is MDC-T MP for Bulawayo South.

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