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Road to inclusivity for street vendors

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), in his theory of population growth, argued that, if left unchecked, a population can outgrow its resources, which is problematic. Zimbabwe’s major cities have seen a rise in population over the last few decades.

Cherish Ratisai,Economist

According to the Zimbabwe National Statistical Agency, the 2012 census revealed that over two million people were residing in Harare. In most countries, the flow of migration is largely towards the urban areas as people look for better opportunities for survival.

Growth in population, ideally, must be accompanied by an increase in infrastructure development and the provision of services. Unfortunately, for Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, there has been minimal development of roads, schools, hospitals, the transport system and other public amenities.

As the state of Harare’s public spaces has been on a downward spiral, high unemployment has compounded the situation. Some reports have estimated the unemployment rate in Zimbabwe to be as high as 95%.

Regrettably, the majority of the workforce has been kicked into the informal sector where there are comparably low incomes and poor working conditions. There are no financial safety nets provided by the government to the unemployed, resulting in economic desperation which may drive people into not only informal but also illegal activities.

This article delves into the recent clashes between the local authorities and street vendors. Is the use of force required? Should the local authorities take on exclusive or inclusive approaches in achieving the desired outcomes? Lessons will be drawn from the highly-acclaimed and successful Warwick Junction Urban Renewal Project carried out in Durban, South Africa in the early 1990s.

The problem of street vendors selling their wares in undesirable areas is common around the globe. The size of the problem is usually a result of larger problems such as economic and political instability that result in the economy’s inability to provide jobs.

In many countries, street vendors are considered illegal and they often face harassment by the police or other law enforcement officers. When there is high unemployment, the local authorities find it difficult to bring sanity in the streets and provide an attractive image to potential investors and the inhabitants.

Under apartheid in South Africa, the repressive government was hostile to street vendors. In 1950, the Group Areas Act was passed, which meant street vendors were excluded in certain parts of the city based on race leading to high concentrations in certain areas. In the early 1990s, before its transformation, Warwick Junction in Durban, South Africa, was similar to Copacabana in Harare’s central business district.

It was (and still is) a hub for street vendors and local transportation. Warwick Junction and the surrounding areas had high concentration of street vendors. The conditions were inefficient, unsanitary and unsafe.

Warwick Junction was chaotic with movement of high volumes of people and vehicles, accompanied by derelict infrastructure, deplorable sanitation and refuse collection and unsafe work spaces.

Soon after apartheid, the Warwick Junction Renewal Project was introduced in 1994 by the city of Durban. This project did not consider vendors to be a nuisance but market players who needed their economic activities to be supported.

On the project, the local authorities worked together with street vendors, membership-based vendor organisations as well as other relevant stakeholders in the redesign of Warwick Junction. The needs of different vendors were taken into account, for example, vendors that sold mealies needed a safe place to have fire, while herbalists needed concrete spaces to cut their herbs.

The consultative process was highly inclusive and it aimed to make the urban space safer, less congested while providing greater support to vendors. The redesign even included opportunities to have the area as a tourist attraction. In 2015, it was estimated that the Warwick Junction annual turnover was R1 billion (US$84 million).

Durban city created a department for Informal Trade and Small Business Opportunities to ensure adequate focus was placed on the informal sector and the use of public spaces. This included overseeing the policy process and implementation of regulations that affect informal work.

In 2000, the Informal Economy Policy was established and Durban became the first municipality in South Africa to introduce such a policy.

When it comes to work, the International Labour Organisation has four pillars under the decent work agenda, namely: employment creation, social protection, rights at work, and social dialogue. There are 10 indicators that are used to provide clarity on the four pillars and these are employment opportunities, adequate earnings and productive work, decent working time, combining work, family and personal life, work that should be abolished, stability and security of work, equal opportunity and treatment in employment, safe work environment, social security and social dialogue, and employers’ and workers’ representation. Because vendors are not in the formal sector, they rarely find decent work, hence every effort must be made to support and make the experience better.

In the short term, the conflicts between local authorities and vendors are expected as the two groups have different perspectives which result in a chicken and egg situation. The vendors are in need of formal employment which requires investments but, before that happens, the vendors need to fend for their families daily. Many people become vendors due to the low barriers to entry as little capital is required.

On the other hand, the local authorities want to attract more investment and provide public spaces that are clean and safe. Both sides have legitimate concerns and the solution lies in an inclusive approach to the process. Due to the complexity of the situation, there can be no overnight solution.

Inclusivity on the part of the local authority, through consultations, will display empathy and respect towards the vendors and result in greater cooperation. After all, most of the vendors do not want to be in the streets, but economic circumstances have degraded them to such levels. Being forcibly removed from the streets with no sustainable solution may be viewed as insensitive to the already difficult circumstances the vendors find themselves in.

As government is working on increasing investment opportunities for the economy, the anticipation is that jobs will be created and the informal sector will shrink as more people become formally employed.

A study of shadow economies that was published in January 2018 by the International Monetary Fund stated that Zimbabwe’s informal economy is the second largest in the world at 60,6% of Gross Domestic Product.

The formalisation of the economy will result in both government and local authorities having greater ease in the collection of taxes and rates. Many people will likely experience better work conditions including higher income which has far-reaching consequences in society.

Going forward, projects on public spaces must be carried out on a continuous basis as the population continues to grow. Problems must be anticipated, public spaces have to be envisioned, planned, designed and created to avoid chaos and disorder. Given the hellish experience the nation has experienced in recent past, one hopes that the only way is up.

Ratisai is an economist. These New Perspectives articles are co-ordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society. — +263 772 382 852, kadenge.zes@gmail.com.

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