IT is afternoon, and hordes of people are shoving their way into Copacabana flea market in central Harare. People are crowded around vending stalls, sifting through mountains of jeans, T-shirts and shoes, as others squeeze their way through the narrow passages between aisles.
Outside, multitudes are thronging malls housing runners — retailers who import new and preworn but cheap clothes. Some of the clothes are imported directly from South Africa, Turkey and China. Secondhand clothes are enabling poverty-stricken Zimbabweans to salvage an otherwise miserable Christmas.
Buying brand new clothes from established shops is a luxury most cannot afford. “There is everything. The clothes are not new, but also not old,” says Tavonga Murenga (24), one of the many people cashing in on the sale of secondhand clothes.
“The only thing people care about is what you are wearing. No one will even know where you got the clothes from. Shoes here cost US$20. If you go to Jet and other fancy shops, the same will be costing US$50 or US$80.”
Whilst new clothes have been a part of the Christmas holiday, not everyone has been able to buy from established clothing shops and expensive boutiques, which has seen many turning to runners and secondhand clothes vendors.
Runners have been filling the void left by expensive clothing retail shops. Thanks to social media platforms, particularly WhatsApp, runners command sizeable followings, and it is these people who flock to their informal malls during the festive season.
While downtown Harare has been teeming with bargain hunters, only a few people have been trickling into expensive boutiques.
“At least runners have low and affordable prices. This makes it easier for us to select and order for the clothes we want at cheaper prices,” says a customer who spoke to The NewsHawks at Orion Mall downtown. Other customers have been opting for secondhand clothes from bales.
For Susan Mhlanga (39), flea markets have been the first port of call when buying clothes. To her family, Christmas is defined by new clothes.
“I have come down here at the flea market because the clothes are a bit cheaper. I am also helping my sister buy some clothes. Big shops? There is no way I can afford anything from there. I have been buying clothes from Mupedzanhamo [an informal market in Mbare] over the years.
“From where I come from, clothes will be expensive during this time of the year. At least, I can buy a few clothes from here that are of good quality and cheap. The only challenge I will face is very expensive transport to get here,” she laughs.
Secondhand clothes have been a life saver, as she cannot afford high quality clothing from established outlets. Even though the clothes are pre-worn, they are considered new by her family, bringing a sense of joy.
“The little I get, I have to make the holiday better for my family,” she says.
“At the same time, I have to save money to help send my other two children to school. Christmas is a normal day, but the children will never understand. If it was only me, I would have slept throughout the day, because it has little significance.”
Even the residents of previously well-to-do low-density suburbs like Mabelreign are flocking to Mbare, Harare’s oldest high-density suburb, for second-hand clothes. Mbare is also one of the dry ports for bales from Mozambique, hence the low cost of clothes.
In Mbare’s Matapi area, vendors risk life fleeing police who constantly chase them from the area close to Mupedzanhamo complex, one of Zimbabwe’s largest fleamarkets. While the complex has been closed and manned by police, people still navigate their way to the area to buy secondhand clothes.
A snap survey by The NewsHawks shows that while holiday regulars like denims have been costing US$16 and US$20 in established retail outlets, the same have been costing between US$3 and US$5 in Mbare, sold by street vendors and outlets that sell used clothes in Harare’s downtown area.
Sneakers that cost between US$20 and US$45 in clothing shops are selling for US$5 to US$15 at flea markets.
Downtown, more vendors sell from car boots, as vendors camouflage themselves from council police. Vendors have resumed selling from shop pavements. Nearby, a watchman is on the lookout, quick to alert the others should there be a raid.
Raids are common, and may at times turn violent. Harare City Council has constantly been at loggerheads with unlicensed vendors, accusing them of selling from undesignated areas.