IT’S 4.30pm; the time when the majority of workers lucky enough to still have a formal job knock off after a day, in most cases, characterised by poor working conditions that include inconsistent payment of wages that fall well below the poverty datum line and salary cuts.
As one walks along Nelson Mandela Avenue, from Harare Street up to Sam Nujoma Street in Harare’s central business district, scores of vendors line up and clog the pavements and sidewalks displaying different wares.
There is so much hustle and bustle, and din — loud, unpleasant and tumultous clamour — as touts push and shove each other as they fight for passengers; blaring commuter omnibus horns; street entrepreneurs selling different products from their cars and cat and mouse chases featuring pirate taxis and vendors all contributing to the chaos enveloping the city.
Due to fear of being harassed and arrested by the municipal police, Harare’s vendors come out in their numbers after working hours and work well into the night, constituting a veritable moonlight economy.
Come rain or biting cold, vendors — some with babies strapped on their backs — are always out in full force in a tough battle for survival in an economy where unemployment stands at more than 80%.
The vendors sell a wide variety wares — from household commodities to clothing much to the chagrin of formal shops which consequently lose some of their business to street vending. Items sold range from different types of vegetables to toothpaste, soap, cooking oil and sugar and cooked food. Women and men’s clothing are also available, even lingerie.
At a number of points in the city, workers and vendors queue up at vehicles to buy lunch, which costs an average US$1.
Next to one such vehicle a woman holds a tin containing green sachets of “sex coffee”, a sexual enhancement product for men which is hugely popular.
“This will make you good in bed. You just prepare it the same way you do with coffee,” she tells a middle-aged man who had stopped to inquire about the product.
Taking a walk along the city’s once glamorous First Street is now a nightmare. Back in the days when Harare was known as the Sunshine City, First Street was the epitome of Harare’s splendour and beauty. Now vendors simply spread their wares all over the streets as they sell home-made and fake-labelled belts, hats and second-hand clothes.
But vending in Zimbabwe has now become a prime source of survival, not only in the CBD, but also at almost every shopping centre in Harare’s suburbs.
In the affluent suburbs, cars with boots full of different wares fill the car parks, while vendors practically harass motorists that park at the shopping centres.
At the Kamfinsa shopping centre in Greendale, the car boots are packed with second-hand clothes and shoes, while at Avondale and Eastlea shopping centres, meals are sold from cars.
The out-of-control vending is a stark reflection of the harsh economic realities many Zimbabweans face in a country where the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstats) ridiculously claims unemployment rate stands at 10,7% instead of above 80% as claimed by independent analysts.
The Retrenchment Board has approved the retrenchment of 623 workers in 15 companies since the beginning of August. The country has faced an economic crisis for more than a decade which has decimated the formal sector, with industrial capacity utilisation now at a mere 40%.
Social scientist Tendai Mugove said the high number of those in the informal sector is a reflection of what is obtaining in the economy whose problems’ genesis may be traced back to the economic downturn post-2000, which may partly be a product of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) introduced in 1991.
Mugove said: “When Esap was implemented in the 1990s, there weren’t enough safety nets for those retrenched. It reflects the ill-preparedness of the state on such policies. Now to the recent economic trend, we can also see the residues of Esap, but these have been worsened by the economic downturn. The question we should be asking is: why are the vendors there in the streets?
The first answer is they have nowhere else to go.
“Then the next question is who is there? And the answer is it’s both the educated and not so well educated. This shows that the economy has not been able to match what it produces in education with opportunities for employment. We have informalised, but we do not have a clear policy on matching the two (education and employment), which should be done by government.”
Mugove said this meant that the people are left with no choice but to vend on the streets.
Social commentator Stanley Tinarwo said the economic crisis that has seen a growth in the informal sector is indicative of the transformation of the state from being benign to being completely negligent over the livelihoods of the populace through inorganic planning and outsourcing of social welfare needs to either international NGOs or corporate capital.
Tinarwo said: “The overall impact of such an approach by the state has literally led to a revolutionary change in how Zimbabweans survive on a regular basis, as well as negatively affecting our social value systems.
“More Zimbabweans are now of the firm understanding that even where they used to have confidence in the state seeking to assist them out of poverty or humanitarian disasters, it is now an unrealistic collective expectation.”
At a graduation ceremony for 11 unionists who completed a paralegal certificate course this week, Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions secretary-general Japhet Moyo warned Zimbabwean workers to brace for life in the informal economy as the embracing of labour market flexibility by business was likely to see more and more people pushed out of formal work.
This would pour more redundant workers onto Harare’s crowded streets which are already teeming with chaos as the struggle to survive becomes harder.