“I used to work at a bank but I was retrenched in 2010. I have been in the business of selling second-hand clothes for four years now,” says Molly Dube, a 49-year-old smartly-dressed woman who would not ordinarily pass for a vendor.
Dube, a single mother, has four children, one of whom has completed her university education.
As one would expect, Dube says after losing her job she was devastated and apprehensive over how she was going to fend for her family as the prospects of quickly securing another job — in an economy where retrenchment and company closures have become the order of the day — were very slim.
But she did not have the luxury to continue mourning because she had to hastily come up with a sure-fire survival strategy given that she had a family to take care of.
Like many other Zimbabweans thrown onto the streets because of company closures and retrenchments, she turned to the fast-expanding informal sector where she started importing second-hand clothes in bulk for resale.
Her business at Copacabana in Harare’city centre has enabled her to live a relatively comfortable life despite the country’s harsh economic climate. It is evident from her appearance that she is doing quite well despite not being formally employed, and it was not surprising to find out that she lives in one of Harare’s low-density areas.
Dube says she makes about US$1 300 per month, quite a sum in a country in which most people on average earn below US$500 each month.
However, Dube’s source of livelihood is now under threat and she is extremely worried, as are many other traders of second-hand clothes that have been living on the edge since September 1.
In a move widely condemned as anti-poor, Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa last month torched a storm when he, during the presentation of the mid-term Fiscal Policy Review Statement, banned the importation of second-hand clothes with effect from September 1, ostensibly to protect the struggling local industries against cheap imports while guarding against the health hazard they posed as they were not fumigated.
However, despite the lapse of the deadline, law enforcement agents have not taken any action against the teeming ranks of second-hand clothes traders in the city gripped by anxiety and suspense.
“The ban on second-hand clothing will affect me and thousands of others making a living from the trade, not to mention most impoverished Zimbabweans who cannot afford to buy brand new clothes. Where will I get money from if I can no longer do such business? There are no jobs in this country anymore and I had built up healthy base of regular clients but now my source of livelihood is under threat,” said Dube, who on that day was selling dresses only.
“Government is being insensitive as it is failing to provide jobs, while at the same time it’s fighting the informal sector — lauded by the same government as the ‘new economy’ — through which most people are now earning a living,” she said.
Second-hand clothes, most of which are priced starting at a mere US$1, are popular among Zimbabweans bearing the brunt of an obdurate economic crisis.
Once derisively referred to as mazitye (second-hand clothes) during better days — which now seem ages ago — they have for many become the only option.
Clothes on sale range from skirts, shoes, jackets, dresses, shirts, trousers and even underwear.
Most find their way into Zimbabwe as bales through Mozambique, thanks in many cases to smuggling rings.
Second-hand clothes vendor Obert Saopa (32), who operates from a market next to the Central Police station in Harare and is not quite as successful as Dube, is equally despondent over government’s plans to ban trade in second-hand clothes.
Saopa, who came back to Zimbabwe recently after spending seven years working in South Africa, has a had a tough life.
He fled the xenophobic attacks in South Africa which claimed his roommate’s life in April last year, and came back to Zimbabwe empty handed.
“It is very sad that government wants to ban the selling of second hand clothes. Though I am not getting enough from this business, it is my only source of livelihood and at least I can put food on the table,” Saopa said.
“How do I and many others survive if the ban comes into effect? Are they (government) going to provide us with jobs? We have nothing else to turn to.
Clearly, banning the sale of second-hand clothes would severely impact not only on the vendors but the vulnerable members of society, hence condemnation by legislators from across the political divide.
Bulawayo South MP Eddie Cross (MDC-T) summed it up rather well when he said the banning of second-hand clothes must not be taken lightly as most poor Zimbabweans would “go naked” if denied access to them.
“About 96% of the population is unemployed, with two and a half million selling in the streets and 500 000 in artisanal mining (panning) and these are symptoms of the economic crisis,” Cross said.
“If we deny our people access to cheap clothing which is a fundamental welfare issue, they will go naked if we force them to buy new clothes because they cannot afford them.”
Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga (MDC), said the ban should have been confined to second-hand underwear only which posed a health risk. As you would expect the National Vendors Union Zimbabwe (Navuz) is incensed by the move which comes hot on the heels of a stand-off with local authorities and consequent alleged harassment over proliferation of vending in the city centre.
The vendors have since been moved to sites where they complain business is so low as to be unsustainable. Navuz vice-chairperson Douglas Shumbayaonda said government’s banning of second-hand clothes was evidence of its insensitivity to the plight of most Zimbabweans languishing in abject poverty.
“Tens of thousands of people are surviving on selling second hand clothing, one way or the other. For Minister Chinamasa to come up with that an anti-poor decision to ban this traded is deplorable,” he said.
“For them (the government) to say they want to protect the local industry is laughable. Which Industry do they want to protect when the clothing industry has already collapsed?” he asked, before revealing his union was engaging the government to address the matter.
However, in what was a shocker last month, First Lady Grace Mugabe disclosed that the second-hand clothes she was distributing at a rally had been confiscated from vendors by municipal police, state security agents and the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) and then handed over to her for distribution to Zanu PF supporters.