A few days ago, vendors woke up to re-live the Murambatsvina horror all over again. Makeshift tuck-shops, flea market stalls and log cabins were destroyed in Mbare and Chitungwiza. The operation was carried out by Municipal Police, who were assisted by the police and army. However, there seems to be discord at the top with Harare Mayor Herbert Gomba saying he was not aware of the operation. That is a problem. Is government supporting the informal sector enough? With policy inconsistencies coming from top offices, will the informal traders be able to feed their families? Are we witnessing Operation Murambatsvina part 2? Maybe the vendors are just a pawn in the power game being played by those in charge. Times are getting tougher all round.
This is how it all started. A day before the destructions, the Harare City Council published a notice saying, “All illegal tuck-shop owners in Mbare are advised to urgently remove their structures before dawn tomorrow. Vendors are urged to relocate to designated trading sites. Illegal activities are blocking roads, walkways and entrances into rate paying businesses.” A day later, they were demolishing those structures. Mayor Gomba surprised many when he said his council was against forced evictions. Was this the beginning of Murambatsvina 2? On Twitter, the Mayor posted, “We have no decision to embark on Murambatsvina, in the morning a meeting which I participated in resolved not to, the technocrats are now aware of the need to deal with illegalities with a human face, even is it means following directives.” He advised those who had been affected to visit district offices and be allocated spaces at designated points. While the need to bring sanity on our streets is well documented, such inconsistencies are never good for business. For the Mayor to say he does not support the demolitions yet Municipal Police who are suppose to work under him carried out those acts is baffling. Who should the vendors believe? Who is really in charge? Are their small businesses safe at all?
For many in business particularly those in the informal sector, the struggle for survival is daunting. If they are not hunting for the elusive foreign currency, they are dodging the authorities in fear of having to pay fines and taxes. On numerous occasions, we have seen vendors fighting running battles with the police in the city centre. In many instances, government has called for dialogue in trying to solve existing challenges. Why then have they not called for dialogue before this round of demolitions? Coming hot on the heels of violent protests and lootings that rocked Harare and other towns two weeks ago, the move to destroy vendors stalls without further dialogue is rather ill timed. Ordinary citizens fear the army and the police for obvious reasons. Involving them in a business-related matter is also ill advised. Dialogue seems to be the right thing here.
The whole situation calls for proper planning and management on the part of government. The informal sector employs more than half of those who are employable. If this sector is managed well, million in rates and taxes will start flowing into government coffers bringing quick wins for both parties. Unfortunately, we have heard stories of some politically connected individuals collecting rates for their own benefit. Government needs to listen to the voice of the vendors and see how they can be assisted. We can’t talk of moving vendors to other places when those places are not equipped with the proper infrastructure like toilets and clean running water. Engaging vendors at planning stage will ensure their buy-in when decisions are made.
If Zimbabwe is open for business, this must include vending. Right now, the informal sector in Zimbabwe continues to struggle as if it is not the largest employer in Zimbabwe. Those who are supposed to protect the citizens are seemingly playing power games. There is need to speak with one voice and allow vendors and other businesses to thrive.