Street vendors slip back quietly after urban clean up campaign

FIVE months after the Zimbabwean government cleared the streets of urban centres across the country of vendors, beggars and street children, informal traders are trickling back but are forced to play hide-and-seek as police prowl the pavements on the lookout for illegal operators.


STRONG>Pinos Muhacha leans against a wall, standing guard over empty cigarette packets placed on a tattered cardboard box, a threadbare knapsack on his back.

The empty cigarette packs act as a decoy for prying police as well as a sign to customers that this is a vending site.
Muhacha is one of the vendors who dared to return to their former trading place after police blitzed stalls in the capital, Harare, as part of a slum clearance campaign dubbed Operation Murambatsvina (Drive Out Trash).

“It is still a cat-and-mouse game here on the streets – one has to be constantly on the move,” he says, taking out two half-empty packs of cigarettes from his knapsack for a customer.

Muhacha’s customer complains about the inconvenience of having to search for vendors when they were readily visible before the blitz. “Buying any fruit is now a hassle – at least in the past one could buy a single avocado, an orange or a banana. The absence of vendors has forced us to go into supermarkets, where fruit is sold in expensive packages,” he said.

“There are no jobs unless one decides to cross into South Africa illegally or risk scaling the electrified fence into neighbouring Botswana,” Muhacha commented.

Informal traders who were forcibly cleared off the streets are back in numbers, driven by deepening economic hardship to try and eke out a living.

They had gone underground: some turned their homes into clandestine mini-shops, while others set up along the streets of working-class suburbs, ready to whisk their fruit and vegetables indoors at the slightest hint of an impending police raid.

But reduced business due to overtrading in the suburbs eventually prompted them to go back to the city streets and avenues where business had always been brisk.

Vendors tested the waters first by operating only during early evenings when workers jostled to get home on the few buses available.

“It is hunger that forces us to defy the police ban – how else do city authorities expect us to feed, clothe and pay for lodgings for our families when there are not enough jobs to go around? It is the only alternative for survival,” said Ndakaitei Gwinyai, a 46-year old divorcee from Mufakose.

Gwinyai said she had lost a major portion of her “investment” in the form of fruit and vegetables in the initial raids, but that had not deterred her from “trying her luck” once more because the need to survive outweighed the risk.

“You know what is involved – if I get caught and get my wares impounded, I take it as an unlucky day; if I elude police swoops my children have food on their table. Have you ever agonised over watching your children go hungry because you fear authorities?” she asked.

In the past two weeks Zimbabwean police have arrested an estimated 14 700 vagrants, street vendors and illegal foreign currency dealers in the capital as police battled to enforce the urban clearance campaign.

According to Harare city council spokesman Leslie Gwindi: “Council plans to boost the number of its municipal police to enforce trading by-laws in the city. We are determined to rid the streets of vagrants, touts and idlers at all cost. We want to maintain order and retain the status of ‘The Sunshine City’ that Harare previously enjoyed.”

The vendors’ return has also brought piles of uncollected garbage back to streets and alleyways but municipal officials say there is little they can do because of the crippling fuel shortage.

Town clerk Ngoni Chideya noted that besides the fuel shortage, his council’s garbage collection fleet has been hobbled by an acute shortage of foreign currency to buy spares. “At times council buys fuel on the black market to keep emergency services going – we prioritise emergency services ahead of garbage collection.” — Irin.

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