IT’s 7am on a Tuesday morning and already there is traffic congestion on almost all the narrow roads leading into Harare’s central business district.
For almost half an hour at the corner of Samora Machel Avenue and Rotten Row Road, traffic movement is painfully slow and a severe test on drivers’ patience.
Amid the cacophony of blaring horns and the occasional harsh exchanges between drivers, daring commuter omnibuses squeeze through tight spaces, drive against oncoming traffic and generally ignore road traffic rules, adding to the utter chaos.
The traffic lights at the intersection, like many others in the city centre, are not working; it is the law of the jungle as impatient drivers fail to give way to each other, occasionally leading to gridlock in the intersection.
Traffic jams like this caused by dysfunctional traffic lights that have outlived their lifespan by more than a decade are common on Harare’s vendor-congested streets during peak hours and the rainy season. This is but one indicator of how far the city is from achieving the lofty ambition of becoming a World Class City by 2025.
For many in Zimbabwe, whose perennially struggling economy is agro-based, the rains bring hope as farmers start ploughing their fields and dams fill up. But to motorists and pedestrians in Harare, it is the beginning of a nightmare.
Motorists have to contend with numerous potholes even in the city centre and these quickly become so big they can easily damage cars. What’s more, the clogged drainage system results in pools of stagnant water which pose a health hazard as they bear uncollected garbage in the streets.
According to Harare’s City Council’s website, “a World Class City is one that has eight or more attributes of a modern city”. These include “effective urban planning and management, decentralisation policies and appropriate institutions, a system that creates equal opportunities for all, participation of civil society, elected local officials, a favourable business environment, access to basic amenities and public transport and mobility”.
However, the World Class City dream does not resonate with most Harare residents who have become accustomed to a shoddy service from the local authorities.
The city is woefully failing to provide the most basic of service to its residents like clean drinking water on a regular basis, street lighting, pothole-free roads, quality health services and sound water reticulation systems, among many other deliverables.
Such is the paucity of service that Harare residents are frequently threatening a rates boycott.
To compound the city’s woes are vendors selling different products on the pavements while others have turned their vehicles into mobile shops. What’s more, there is chaos and noise from the touts of pirate taxis, dubbed mshika-shika, that load and drop off passengers at undesignated zones spawning running battles with the police and city council.
The few and hopelessly inadequate public toilets mainly at the run-down bus termini produce a strong stench, making it an ordeal for people waiting to board commuter omnibuses to their various destinations.
But for the teeming hordes of vendors, Park Street has become market street with vendors selling all sorts of wares from tomatoes and fruits to skin-lightening creams and second-hand clothing. Cranking up the noise decibels are resourceful vendors now using speakers to market their products through pre-recorded sales patter.
The vendors are a stark, ubiquitous manifestation of the country’s economic crisis that has lasted more than a decade with the country’s unemployment rate at more than 85% due to company closures and retrenchments.
The Harare City Council this week launched yet another operation to clean up the city of illegal vendors and demolish about 20 illegal settlements scattered in the city. Previous such missions have not produced the desired results.
Vendors who spoke to the Zimbabwe Independent remain defiant.
“Hakasi kekutanga kanzuru ichida kutidzinga but still tinozongodzoka because hatina kwekuenda, ngavatange vatipa mabasa vozotidzinga (This is not the first time council has tried to remove us from the streets but we will always return to the streets as we have nowhere else to go; they must give us jobs if they want us out of the streets)” said Tatenda Gupo, a vendor who sells his wares along Jason Moyo Avenue.
Many vendors and pirate taxi operators allege the police and city council workers that spearhead the clean-up operations are extremely corrupt, especially council workers who sometimes go for months without pay. “Macouncil workers nemapurisa akauya tinongovapawo yedrink kuti zvifambe, (We often give council workers and the police bribes so that they do not bother us),” said another vendor, Sharon Garwe (27).
A disabled vendor Eric Tanyanyiwa (44), who is also the founder of the Vendors with Disability Association, said disabled people are currently not receiving any help from the Ministry of Social Welfare, therefore, they will continue vending on the streets of Harare as a means to survive.
“I sell (pirated) audio CDs and DVDs in order to get money to take care of my family; if council removes us from the streets we will not have any source of income as there are no jobs in the country,” said Tanyanyiwa.