THIRTY-FIVE-year-old Loveness Muchenje, one of the many street vendors who have swarmed the streets of Harare’s chaotic central business district (CBD) in search of means of survival, struggles to maintain the balance between aggressively marketing her wares lined up along a Julius Nyerere Way pavement to potential customers and keeping an eye on her three-year old daughter who constantly wants to dash into the busy road.
Like many other vendorsMuchenje, who sells ladies’ shoes, is under pressure to sell enough each day to make ends meet. But above all, she must also be always aware of the municipal police raids in which they arrest vendors and confiscate their goods — often for their own use, as always alleged by victims.
According to the National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe (Navuz), Harare alone has more than 20 000 vendors on street pavements in the CBD areas as a result of the devastating, prolonged economic crisis which has seen unemployment soar to over 80% due to widespread company closures.
A FinScope consumer survey last week showed poverty is worsening as 44% of the population now skip a meal due to lack of money to buy food compared to 29% in 2011.
Informalisation of the economy is seen as a sigh of formal employment collapse.
Muchenje, who began vending last year after her husband was retrenched at a city hotel where he had been a chef for more than a decade, says vending is her only means of survival.
“My husband lost his job last year and he has been job hunting ever since but to no avail. Hence we decided to use the few savings we had and part of his retrenchment package to buy ladies’ shoes in bulk for resale to put food on the table and pay rent and rates,” said Muchenje.
“We buy ladies’ pumps (type of shoe) in Malawi for re-sale here and business has been going well. On a good day we take home about US$100 but when sales are low we make at least US$45. My husband sells in the morning from as early as 7am and I then relieve him at around 12 noon till I knock off at 7pm,”she said.
Muchenje’s experiences are similar to thousands of vendors selling wares in the CBD as part of efforts to make ends meet in a country where many have since resigned themselves to self-employment as jobs are very scarce. Vendors include graduates from Zimbabwe’s universities and colleges which churn out more than 10 000 graduates a year.
However, Harare City Council a fortnight ago launched yet another operation to clean up the filthy city of illegal vendors and demolish about 20 illegal settlements scattered around the city.
Previously such missions have failed dismally due to stiff resistance from vendors and considerations of the political impact, especially in the run up to elections.
The operation is now in its third week, but the street pavements remain clogged by vendors suggesting the operation is doomed to fail.
Vendors in the city centre are the starkest and ubiquitous manifestation of the country’s economic crisis that has lasted well over a decade.
The CBD, according to the Harare City Council, can only accommodate 6 000 vendors and the rest currently operating in the city centre will be moved to sites in residential and industrial areas. But vendors are resisting the move saying there is little business in residential areas.
“Zvinotirwadza kuti tiri kuda kubviswa kwacho kune macustomer edu mazhinji uye vakatidzinga hatina zvimwe zvekuita nekuti tinorarama nekutengesa (It pains us that the city council wants to remove us from the streets where we have a lot of customers as we have built a strong client base),” said vendor Nelson Tsuro, who sells counterfeit perfumes in the city.
Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo, who urged local authorities to remove all illegal vendors from city centres in towns and cities across the country, is on record saying government is aware that times are difficult but citizens must follow government and council directives. But the idea of removing vendors has been heavily criticised.
Harare Residents’ Trust director Precious Shumba said the operation to clear informal traders from the streets is highly insensitive and unjustified.
“The vendors are innocent citizens who have not begged the government of Zimbabwe for social assistance; they have taken the most appropriate alternative to be able to raise money to meet their essential needs, pay rentals, rates and school fees for their children,” said Shumba.
“The government should instead concentrate on reviving industries and strengthening stakeholder participation in coming up with plausible social and economic interventions that address the issue of poverty. Vendors are not criminals.”
Shumba maintained vending is a symptom of economic problems hence government should focus on reviving industries, which will subsequently create jobs and as a result there would be fewer vendors on the streets.
In an interview this weekNavuz director Samuel Wadzai Mangoma said it is inhuman to remove vendors from the streets without first providing alternative businesssites for them.
“Navuz believes in constructive engagement and shall continue to urge the government to consult extensively before implementing anything that affects vendors,” Mangoma said.
“We all value cleanliness but we cannot sacrifice livelihoods; our organisation is committed to clean cities and we have launched the Campaign Cleanliness is My Responsibility Campaign (CiMRCA) as a way of showing the government and the public at large that vendors are responsible people and if given time to organise themselves they can always ensure a safe and clean environment.”
Mangoma said vending sites identified by the Harare City Council are not enough to cater for every vendor operating in the CBD area and therefore the local authority must first conduct a thorough registration exercise so as to ascertain the correct number of vendors operating in Harare.
“There are16 vending sites provided by the city fathers, which can only cater for a paltry 6 000 out of more than 20 000 vendors. So there is no need to rush to push vendors out of their current areas of operation without first addressing the fundamentals,” he said.
Mangoma criticised the methods used by council officials to remove vendors who most of the time confiscate the vendors’ wares.
“Methods used are inhumane, barbaric and open to abuse by council officials. We call upon the responsible minister to ensure social accountability at all levels,” he said.
In the meantime, the operation to remove vendors has thrown them into panic mode as they cannot carry out their business with confidence. In addition to the increased vigilance,the Independent found out many were limiting the number of good they brought for fear of confiscation after arrest, while some had set aside cash to bribe municipal police who have acquired a reputation among vendors of being corrupt and demanding bribes.
For all the city council’s ambitions of restoring Harare’s former “Sunshine City” status, economic realities mean the vendor clean-up operation is likely to be nothing more than a perpetuation of the cat-and-mouse game between vendors and municipal police.