WHAT began as an ordinary day suddenly turned into a nightmare for tuckshop owner Farai Simango (38) at Zengeza 3 shopping centre in the dormitory town of Chitungwiza.
Simango was going about his normal business when, suddenly, a truck carrying an assortment of soldiers and police officers screeched to a halt in front of the wooden cabin he used as a makeshift store; its menacing occupants barking orders that everyone must demolish their structures and vacate the area immediately.
In the blink of an eye, the area, usually characterised by the hustle and bustle of traders interfacing with customers, was turned into a wasteland resembling the aftermath of an earthquake. Debris lay everywhere as traders rushed to rescue their merchandise before the threat to bring in the bulldozer was followed through.
Simango was inside the wooden cabin when the commotion began. His first instinct was to lock up and run. Then, someone shouted that the security agents had warned that every structure would be razed to the ground.
He called upon his crestfallen wife to assist in ferrying their goods away from the log cabin.
“It was around midday on February 1, we saw a police truck which was mounted by both soldiers and police officers arrive at the complex. The police officers got off and shouted that we had three minutes to demolish our structures and evacuate the area,” Simango said.
He said there was no resistance from the vendors because the soldiers and police officers used stern language when addressing them, showing they brooked no discussion.
The area was cleared out in a matter of minutes.
This is one of the many instances where government undertook huge destruction of irregular structures which had sprouted across Harare and in other cities as a direct result of people desperately seeking alternative livelihoods in response to economic challenges that have rendered them jobless.
The destruction of property brought back memories of the 2005 Operation Murambatsvina, a government-sponsored programme that saw the destruction of “illegal structures”, including residential homes, tuckshops and other buildings countrywide which left an estimated 700 000 people homeless, according to the United Nations.
Vendors in Mbare and Chitungwiza were the first to taste the government’s wrath as their vending structures were hurriedly torn down under the watchful eye of the menacing military, police and municipal cops.
The demolitions, although being held under the guise of clearing illegal structures, are widely believed to be retribution by government for violent protests last month. The protests, sparked by government’s decision to hike fuel by 150%, prompted a violent crackdown from the security forces, leading to the killing of 12 people and injury of dozens. There were also over 1 000 arrests.
Despite the beatings and harassment that the vendors were exposed to during the operation, some of the affected vendors still visit their old vending sites and place their items on the ground, hoping for a quick sale, always casting an eagle eye lest some soldier or police officer pounces.
This week, the Zimbabwe Independent visited the areas affected by the demolitions, and spoke to the affected persons who narrated the sad tale of lost livelihoods and a gloomy future.
In Mbare, Harare’s oldest township, a handful of vendors braved the pouring rain selling various products, including clothes, fruits, cooked food and fresh fruit.
Struggling to fend for her two primary schoolchildren after the death of her husband, Cecilia Chikuyo has relied on selling home-made school uniforms in a makeshift stall by the roadside near Rufaro Stadium.
She sat under an umbrella, cuddling her two sons who had just knocked off school for the day and were still clad in their uniforms.
With the cabin now gone, she spread her wares in the open by the roadside and patiently waited for customers, often waving at passers-by she thought were prospective buyers.
She had no idea how she would fend for her children after her source of livelihood was destroyed.
“Since the demolitions, we have been struggling to earn a living; we have no choice but to come back to this spot so that we can get some money. I am a widow and this is my only source of income,” Chikuyo said.
“We are behaving like squatters in our own country, the most painful part is when the police officers come, they beat us up, sometimes they even raid us of our stuff and money when we try to flee from them. These things they claim to be taking to the central police station where we are expected to pay a fine to get them back, but more often than not, the stuff is nowhere to be found.”
Funwell Mangwiro, a father of three, who lives in Mbare, cried foul over the decision by the authorities to demolish their structures and order them to leave.
Harare City Council recently released a press statement distancing itself from the demolitions and calling on all vendors who had fallen victim to the operation to approach the council authorities to get relocated to designated vending areas. This is despite the involvement of council employees in the clean-up exercise.
Asked to comment on the demolitions, city council spokesperson Michael Chideme said the municipality was “duty-bound to maintain order in Harare”.
Ironically, the destruction of the thriving informal sector comes at a time when government has been claiming it was a recognisable sub-sector which could be considered as a form of employment.
Independent researchers have pegged the rate of formal unemployment in Zimbabwe at over 90%, but government’s statistical agency, ZimStat, claims Zimbabwe actually has 85% employment rate.
Vendors Institute of Socio-Economic Transformation (Viset) executive director Samuel Wadzai said thousands of their members have been pushed out of business following the operation that took place last week.
“A survey conducted by Viset over the past few days revealed that, in Harare alone, more than 2 889 informal traders and street vendors stopped their operations and are still counting their loses. We are yet to establish the monetary value of the losses,” he said.
Wadzai criticised authorities for using the military and the police to evacuate the vendors. He said punitive measures against the informal sector through policy and legislation are puzzling as the sector is a major contributor to state revenue generated nationwide.
“The brutal force being used, which includes heavily armed military personnel, is disproportionate to the issue at hand which is a legal, policy and institutional framework that by and large criminalises the informal sector.
This is despite the fact that 90% of the economic activity in the country is attributed to the informal sector and 96% of the citizens depend on it for livelihoods, needless to say, government was benefiting immensely from taxation both directly and indirectly,” Wadzai said.
He called on the government to put an end to the “command approach” in addressing the informal sector but rather to engage in dialogue and inclusive engagement.
He said Viset was ready to engage for the transformation of the sector and defence of livelihoods.