HomeOpinionFlea markets are free markets

Flea markets are free markets

By Rejoice Ngwenya

THE era of Zimbabwe’s greatest economic boom can be traced back to the decade of 1989 to 1999 when the swan song of fiscal practitioners was the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (E

sap). To the uninitiated, the meteoric increase and proliferation of vendors and flea markets in Harare and beyond was a natural phenomenon – yet the enlightened will tell you that it was a calculated, premeditated move by the government to unleash the entrepreneurial zeal of its citizenry.

It is deregulation that broke the monopolistic stranglehold of public transport and uninspiring advertising billboards. It is deregulation that exposed shoppers to the tantalising world-class merchandise range in supermarkets and global clothing brands. In short, government not only embraced the virtues of a “liberated” economy that saw its citizens slide effortlessly into the family of global trade, but took money and placed it right into the pockets of those who would have forever been condemned to the back streets of poverty.

As far back as 1995, in a study titled “The growth of flea markets in Harare in the context of Esap”, Richard Kamidza wrote: “The harsh economic environment that has thrown many people out of employment, the desire to beat the ever-rising cost of living, the failure to secure employment particularly among the country’s educated youths and the liberalised political and economic environment are some of the forces that necessitated the opening up of new indigenous concerns in the form of flea markets.”

Again in 1995, a speech by the Minister of Home Affairs, Dumiso Dabengwa at a meeting entitled: “Conference on Deregulation: Harmonising the Interests of Business in Local Authorities”, states: “In these harsh economic times, street vending not only creates employment but is also a valuable source of income. Therefore from a moral, social and economic point of view, harassing and arresting people who are trying to earn an honest living seems to be too harsh and unwarranted.”

At the same conference, the Attorney-General, Patrick Chinamasa, said: “I think we are all agreed that deregulation is the bulldozer, so to speak, which will help pave the way leading to indigenous participation and involvement in the national economy.”

Leon Louw, executive director of the Free Market Foundation of Southern Africa, lent credence to the theory that there is a direct relation between a command economy and oppression: “Regulation of micro-enterprises in South Africa was an integral part of black oppression under apartheid. Virtually all forms of entrepreneurship by black South Africans were prohibited.”

As near as 1998, Cephas Msipa presented a paper where he stated: “The informal sector is one sector that offers us the greatest hope to eradicate poverty and unemployment.”

Even without so much as referring to the official character and nature of deregulation, we know that some of the greatest entrepreneurs this country has ever seen are a product of unrestricted, free thinking adventure into small-time business. To mind comes citizens like Ben Mucheche, Phillip Chiyangwa, Ray Kaukonde, Strive Masiyiwa and Nigel Chanakira. The history of pioneers of cottage engineering like Guy Georgias, transport moguls in the mould of the late FP Hall, Matambanadzo et al will testify that it is an environment that allows for and encourages individual creativity that rewards an economy.

In his book on economic foxes and hedgehogs, Clem Sunter claims foxes naturally believe in decentralisation of power and letting people do their own thing. Hedgehogs are natural centralisers since they think they know best and like to feel that society depends on them. In his presentation entitled “Entrepreneurship – the key to Zimbabwe’s future”, Sunter was quoted as saying: “Foxes say: “Siya so!” Hedgehogs cannot understand how anybody can work for themselves and regard the small business sector as a refugee camp for those who have failed to find conventional jobs.”

Deregulation is about creating suitable conditions for those who are capable of exploring legitimate means of wealth creation. In a world where extremist social scientists want to drag innocent minds to the gung-ho school of thought that liberalisation is anarchist, I condemn them to the “E” class of populism. The United Nations conceived Human Development Index (HDI) has proven beyond reasonable doubt that too much government interference in the lives of citizens is linked to abject poverty.

Fair enough, one cannot, and does not need to guarantee fair or equitable distribution of wealth in a world where we have different potential. My point is that it is the duty of government to ensure that everyone is exposed to an opportunity, much like access to education. Period! Once at your desk, it is your hard work that counts. Of course the poor, the weak and the physically challenged should be protected – only as far as access to public funds is concerned. This is a moral obligation not of government alone, but also society in general. The government should seek the support of both the affected and the victims, not by decree, but by consent.

Cosmetics and toiletries mogul Tony Gara, then as Deputy Minister of Local Government, Rural and Urban Development, was a convert to deregulation. In 1995 he said: “The deregulation currently in progress in Zimbabwe is an integral part of Esap . aimed at striking the balance between regulations and controls on the one hand and the facilitation and fostering of entrepreneurship on the other. The essence of successful deregulation is the reduction of the number of regulatory and institutional barriers controlling and restricting the entry of aspiring entrepreneurs, and of informal entrepreneurs into the recognisably and measurably productive sector.”

Gara did not advocate an anarchist business and trade practices environment in urban areas, but “. local authorities (should) seek ways and means of assisting the vendors and hawkers and ensure that they conduct their operations in accordance with the basic requirements as regards public health, public order or safety rather than continue to institute only punitive measures against vendors regardless of the descriptions of their trade.”

In conclusion, I would like to caution my enthusiasm about unrestricted trade practices, for I am a stickler for order and quality. Pavements are not the best place for SMEs to conduct their trade. Ratepayers for the convenience of both customers and businesspersons finance pavements.

Also it is not all products that come from China that pass the test of superiority. And yet I still do not advocate government restrictions and control, for I am free to choose.

*Rejoice Ngwenya is a Harare-based writer.

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