HARARE was referred to as the Sunshine City in the 1980s and early 1990s. During those glory years the city was a marvel to behold, especially the Jacaranda tree-lined avenues that were clean and welcoming.
Then, it was an orderly city of well-maintained roads, bright street lights and clean running water and all-round orderliness. Back in the days First Street Mall was the epitome of Harare’s cleanliness and beauty.
Harare was once regarded as one of the most developed post-colonial cities in Africa.
Legend has it that a Malawian man en-route to Wenela in South Africa during the Rhodesia-Nyasaland federation era once disembarked from the train at night mistaking Harare, then Salisbury, for Johannesburg due to the bright city lights.
Once admired by many across the continent and beyond, Zimbabwe’s capital has undergone a tragic transformation that has left it a pale shadow of its former majestic self.
Harare is now an eye-sore with the mushrooming of “tuckshops” — small clothing shops selling cheap imports mostly from China, Dubai and South Africa which are sub-divided into mini-shops dealing with different products. Hundred of vendors line the streets, virtually blocking passage on the pavements.
The daily struggle for survival in an economy with a high unemployment rate of above 80% has resulted in tough times for shop operators who have to compete with street vendors operating from just outside their shops, who are now providing virtually every household commodity.
The ever-increasing street vendors, who operate on pavements well into the night and despite frequent but futile raids by the municipal police, charge lower prices for the same goods than the registered shops which have many overheads, and thus attract struggling urban residents.
Pedestrians now have to exercise due care when moving around most of the city as they risk stepping on vendors wares, thus possibly precipitating an ugly scene.
Add the perennial problem of hundreds of commuter omnibuses which appear to revel in breaking all the driving rules as they play cat-and-mouse with windscreen-smashing cops, not to mention noisy touts, and you have all the makings of pervasive chaos in the city.
With such teeming ranks, it is no wonder that local authorities are failing to keep the streets clean as litter is strewn all over the city. Burst water pipes, potholed roads add to the general impression of dilapidation and decay that pervades the city.
Of course the city’s fortunes cannot be divorced from those of the economy at large. The country continues to experience a debilitating economic malaise which has condemned the majority of Zimbabweans to poverty.
A walk along the once orderly First Street Mall reveals the pavements have been virtually taken over by street vendors selling an assortment of home-made shoes, belts, hats and even second hand clothes widely known as mabhero.
“This (First Street Mall) used to be the face of Harare,” said Edmore Phiri who has lived in Harare since 1964.
“Things have changed. We used to buy exclusively from the main supermarkets whose products were original and could be returned in the event that you bought an expired item,” said Phiri. Now these small wholesalers and tuck-shops are everywhere but their service is inferior. Once an item is bought it cannot be returned as they do not refund cash.”
Economist Mukasiri Sibanda blamed the City of Harare for the mess, accusing it of lack of seriousness in awarding operating licences.
“If the authorities were serious then they would have controlled these operations,” Sibanda said. “What we are witnessing is a celebration of mediocrity where licences are being awarded without taking into consideration a number of things like quality checks on the services offered.”
In an interview with the Independent on Tuesday, Harare mayor Benard Manyenyeni said the council would soon be checking on all business operations in the city to establish if they are licensed.
“We will soon be engaging with all business operators in the city to check their legality,” Manyenyeni said. “Town management is following up on each and every business and we are compiling our documents because we want to apply the same rules to every operator.”
He also said those operators not in a position to regularise their operations would have to close shop. Social commentator Godwin Phiri said the mushrooming of tuck-shops and grocery shops in the city centre is a cause for concern.
“This shows we are now celebrating lawlessness as a country. The powers that be are fast turning cities into tuck-shop communities.
How can the city fathers allow operators who sell counterfeit food products to operate in the city centres,” Phiri said.
He also said residents are tired of watching how government and Harare City Council continue to allow the sprouting of illegal structures and activities in the CBD.