Street vendors could make or break Zimbabwe's presidential hopefuls

27 July 2018 - 06:00 By Tatenda Chitagu‚ Zimbabwe Correspondent
Street vendors trade beneath election billboards in Harare Zimbabwe on July 6 2018
Street vendors trade beneath election billboards in Harare Zimbabwe on July 6 2018
Image: REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

In the run-up to next week’s election‚ a new romance appears to have blossomed between the nearly three-million vendors in Zimbabwe and various authorities.

Police‚ municipal authorities and even the ruling Zanu PF have seemingly turned a blind-eye towards their craft.

Previously vendors have been described by authorities as “a menace” in city centres‚ and were often blamed for “causing congestion” — but that all appears to have been forgotten as the country inches closer to the polls.

With Zimbabwe’s economic collapse over the years‚ vendors who make up the informal sector have become a vital lifeline for the economy that is starved of foreign direct investment. Independent economists estimate that as much as $4-billion‚ almost the country’s entire annual budget‚ circulates within the informal market.

The sheer number of vendors is also an attractive pool of potential voters for the political parties – and presidential candidates - contesting the election.

In October last year‚ former president Robert Mugabe‚ at an address to the Zanu PF youth league national assembly‚ described vendors as being responsible for grime and filth.

“Harare is filthy. There is garbage all over the city and vendors are everywhere‚ even in the streets causing chaos and disturbing the smooth flow of traffic. We have failed and must come up with a plan‚” he said at the time.

But for vendors accustomed to raids and crackdowns against their trade‚ the election season has brought some relief.

“It is a bonanza for us. We have been left to do as we please. We are making brisk business with these campaigns‚” said Rangarirai Shuro‚ who sells second-hand clothes in bales in the town of Masvingo‚ in southern Zimbabwe.

Aware that the honeymoon will not last forever‚ the vendors have their wares on display along shop verandas and in open spaces – and even in front of stores that sell similar products.

Everything is on sale: vegetables‚ roasted millie cobs‚ wild fruits‚ cigarettes‚ sweets and even undergarments.

However‚ the shop owners‚ who pay taxes to the government‚ are not impressed by this rise in competition — especially as it happens right in front of their eyes.

“This is unfair. We pay for licences to council‚ as well as duty when we import our products. We also pay rentals and employ shop attendants. The vendors don’t pay anything and some smuggle their goods. We do not hate competition‚ but competition should be fair.

“The vendors are driving us out of business and very soon we may close shop‚” said Alfred Mutunhu‚ a shop owner in the Masvingo city centre.

Seemingly making hay while the sun shines‚ vendors know their free rein could soon be short-lived post-election.

Shuro is fearful that the authorities‚ afraid to anger them before the election for fear of losing their votes‚ might swoop on them once the ballots have been counted.

Should President Emmerson Mnangagwa win‚ he has made it known that he wants to see sanity prevail in the country’s urban areas.

Political observers said the cleanliness of Kigali in Rwanda‚ which Mnangagwa visited earlier this year‚ appealed to the Zanu PF leader‚ who would like to see the same replicated in Zimbabwe.

The Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation (VISET)‚ one of the country’s biggest national vendors organisations‚ said while they enjoyed calm before the storm‚ they hoped that the next government would “not be harsh”. Rather they hoped government would “come up with designated selling points” so they could continue to earn a living.

“We appreciate the prevailing calm and we believe that is the only way people in the informal sector can address the economic challenges they face. But we all know that after elections circumstances may change. We therefore call upon the government of the day to respect what we are doing and we urge them to give us operating spaces‚” said Samuel Wadzai Mangoma‚ VISET director.

On Thursday‚ vendors and taxi drivers were invited to a meeting with Mnangagwa. There they were set to air their concerns to him about the difficulties that they had.

The meeting with Mnangagwa was organised by Sten Zvorwadza‚ the president of the National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe (NAVUZ). However‚ Mnangagwa was unable to attend as he had an engagement in South Africa and Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri‚ the environment and climate minister‚ instead delivered an address.

It is understood that the vendors’ union “wants assurances” from the ruling party in return for marshalling its members to vote for it.

Last year‚ the International Labour Organisation estimated that 95 percent of Zimbabweans were employed in the informal sector.

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