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Harare’s defiant vendors refuse to be wished away

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MARTHA Chitema, a street vendor, sets up her stall, comprising two worn out tyres and a flattened cardboard box.
Within seconds, she has propped up the makeshift table on which to display the second-hand T-shirts that she sells for a living.

CHIPA GONDITII

Nearby, other vendors have also erected vending stalls from literally anything at their disposal – bricks, sacks, used pallets and plastic.

One thing is clear: the struggle for survival is real.

No fancy signs, no marble, no chandeliers – there is really nothing fancy about the daily grind of eking out a living on Harare’s unforgiving streets.

Her “table” at Mupedzanhamo features market quickly blends in with countless other vending stalls erected in the wake of a government blitz on illegal structures in the area. Police destroyed the vending stalls with a viciousness that appalled even hardened vendors who are used to cat-and-mouse games with law enforcement agents.

Just a week after the destruction of their original market stalls, many vendors are back in business.

“We simply have no choice,” says Chitema as she neatly arranges her T-shirts on the table.

“It pains us as vendors to have our structures destroyed as happened last week but we cannot just go home and sit because, as you know, things are very difficult in Zimbabwe.

“We have nothing to eat. This is how we make money as vendors, we know of no other way of making money besides vending because there are no jobs in Zimbabwe at the moment. I am a single mother, I have two children who are in primary school, and they need to eat. Who will take care of them if I just sit at home as these (police) people want us to do?” she asked.

For weeks, demolition gangs comprising the Zimbabwe Republic Police and municipal police with earth-moving equipment have been grazing the illegal structures. This has left many without a source of income.

But the vendors remain adamant that they will not be driven out of their vending spaces by a government which is failing to provide jobs.

“They should open industries if they want us to move. Our government is incompetent, corrupt and hard-hearted,” said Michael Sadombo, who vowed to continue selling his wares in Mbare.

When The NewsHawks visited Mupedzanhamo, vendors could be seen arranging their wares on precast walls and some unfortunate ones were setting up shop directly on the very ground where their structures once stood.

Another vendor, Talkmore Chikomo (29), said a lot of their belongings which were confiscated during last week’s demolitions are missing from the council’s storage facilities.

“As you can see, we have no proper place to sell our things. Now that they have destroyed our structures, they need to allocate us a place to sell our stuff because our livelihood comes from vending as there are no jobs in Zimbabwe.

“A lot of people lost their stuff, a lot of the things which were taken by the police are not being found at the council as they have not been returned. When we go there (to the city council offices), they keep on telling us to come the next day. It’s a cycle. We have not recovered anything. This has resulted in us incurring serious losses as vendors,” he said.

In 1980, Zimbabwe inherited a relatively small informal economy. The informal economy accounted for less than 10% of the labour force but, due to economic failure, the people employed in the informal sector now far exceed those who are formally employed.

Harare Residents Trust chairman Precious Shumba told The NewsHawks that bad policymaking is responsible for the decimation of Mupedzanhamo flea market.

“Demolitions in Zimbabwe are a reflection of the lawlessness that leads public policymaking in the country,” Shumba said.

“There are sufficient laws to regulate the conduct of all people in the country in relation to town planning. Unfortunately, the politicians are superior to the country’s laws.

“The victims are merely collateral damage. Under undemocratic circumstances, the most ideal path is to follow the law and deny the authorities any chance to hurt you.”

He also challenged the government to avail land for the informal sector.

“The central government and all local authorities have to provide land for the informal sector, either on state or council land. Where possible, the authorities could partner the private sector to build, operate and transfer the infrastructure but provide the vendors and the rest of the informal sector with legal operating space,” he said.

Statistics from the 2020 Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee, (ZimVAC) report show that only 10% of households are receiving formal salaries while 23% rely on casual labour as their source of income. The report also revealed that 2.4 million people in urban areas are food insecure, an increase of 12% compared to 2019.

According to the World Food Programme (WFP) Zimbabwe Market Assessment: Market Functionality Index for May 2021, the country is experiencing its worst protracted humanitarian crisis in over a decade, owing to persistent climatic and economic shocks.

Despite the ruling Zanu  PF ordering a halt to the destruction of all illegal structures in the country after a public outcry,  the demolitions have continued. Human rights campaigners accuse the government of playing heartless political games with poor people’s livelihoods.

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