Economic and police pressures prompt Zimbabwean street vendors to set up at night

Vendors set up in the evening in Harare. (Photo credit: Garikai Chaunza)

In Zimbabwe, depending on the source and their definition of unemployment, estimates of the jobless rate in the country range as high as 95 percent. With a deteriorating economy, there’s no relief in sight. Many people have turned to roadside selling, or vending, especially in the central business district of the capital Harare. But local officials say there’s only so much room for vendors and they are cracking down. FSRN’s Garikai Chaunza reports that many vendors are now forced to set up their stalls after dark.

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Estimates of the unemployment rate in Zimbabwe vary wildly. Data is unreliable and political agendas undermine accurate study. While claims of four percent are clearly not correct, estimates that the jobless rate is as high as 95 percent are not impossible to believe. One fact is certain: the few who have jobs are losing them quickly as businesses fold at a rapid rate.

With few options, many turn to street vending to earn what little they can selling everything from vegetables to groceries imported from bordering countries. Local zoning allots space for the vendors, but not nearly enough. Sidewalks are overrun with street sellers and their wares and many are operating outside of council bylaws that restrict where they can vend.

As a way of controlling the overflow, the Harare City Council has assigned a special police detail to arrest vendors working in undesignated areas.

To avoid arrest, many vendors have now resorted to doing business at night. One local vendor – who did not want to give his name for fear of arrest – explains why:

“This is the time when the city police officers would have knocked off,” he explains. “Secondly is to maximize on sales. Business is more brisk during the night as compared to during the day when people are going back home they want to carry their vegetables, they want to buy their groceries for their families. So it’s about capitalizing on the situation.”

Vendors also say that by avoiding the police, they protect themselves from corrupt officers who they say confiscate their wares and demand bribes for their return.

While the local council has expanded the locations where vendors can sell their wares, their skyrocketing numbers have overwhelmed the allocated space. Council officials say there are more than ten thousand registered vendors in Harare, only half of them have allocated vending places. The registered vendors, who pay daily taxes, often work in centralized market areas far from town. The unregistered vendors cluster on the city sidewalks closer to customers.

Cosmas Masuka is a regular night shopper who buys vegetables on the way home from work.

“There will be competition so the prices will be much affordable. For a paper bag of tomatoes costing something like $1 during the day it will be like $1 for seven tomatoes, so during the night the prices will be reasonable.”

Just more than a year ago the government crafted an economic blueprint, the Zimbabwe Agenda for sustainable Socioeconomic Transformation, or Zimasset, which includes a provision for job creation through self-reliance. The National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe, an advocacy group, says vendors compliment the Zimasset by becoming self-employed. Sten Zvorwadza is chair of the board.

“Chasing vendor’s away from the streets when we are already suffering an 80% unemployment rate you really wonder what we are trying to do,” says Zvorwadza. “One national policy is preaching that we need to create jobs. Here we are vendors on the streets we are creating jobs. We are providing the much needed employment, the other section of government is busy chasing vendors. If you look at it, it is a contradiction.”

But the Harare city council argues that unregistered vendors are not abiding by regulations regarding where they can sell their products.

Council spokesperson Michael Chideme says they will continue to discourage vendors from doing business on storefront sidewalks.

“We do not want people to be selling on the streets because one it poses a lot of dangers in terms of road traffic accidents, in terms of human movement or traffic movement,” according to Chideme. “It also inconveniences the other business operators because they cannot do their businesses freely with people in front of their shops. So we are actually responding to a much wider call for order by residents.”

Zimbabwe’s spiraling unemployment comes despite campaign promises by President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU (PF) party election to create more than two million jobs. After the 2013 election the government made a U-turn, blaming its failure to fulfill the job creation promise on U.S. and EU sanctions imposed on Mugabe and his allies more than a decade ago for human rights abuses.

A pro-ZANU(PF) labor group, the Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions or ZFTU, says that government policies are stifling job creation.
ZFTU says the country’s indigenization laws scare potential foreign investors away and need to be revised. The laws intended to empower locals in corporate ownership only allow foreign investors a maximum of 49% share in any given company.

Justice Chinhema the ZFTU secretary general says until the government amends the black empowerment laws, the country’s economy will continue to shrink.

“We want international partners to come and invest in Zimbabwe and we have talked to the Minister of finance to talk to the relevant ministry over that policy of indigenization,” he says. “We have put our position that the indigenization policy needs to attract investors not to chase away investors. We want our people to be employed.

Since last June, the country’s main opposition political party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has been staging peaceful nationwide demonstrations demanding that the government create jobs for the escalating number of unemployed youth. Police regularly crush what they say are illegal rallies, brutalizing and arresting protesters in the process. The opposition vows to continue public protests until the government address the unemployment problem.

But government officials are divided on the indigenization laws, and prospects of revising them are slim.

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