Frequent harassment from city council officials has seen a lot of vendors in Harare opting for the safety of the night, during which the municipal police would have retired for the day, to sell their varied wares, pocketing significant profits.
For many people walking in the central business district at night, it has become hard trying to make their way home as literally all pavements are now flooded with the night vendors’ merchandise.
When it comes to the goods on offer, one is more than spoilt for choice: vegetables, tomatoes, onions, clothing items, belts, socks, shoes, soaps, lotions, combs, tooth paste, glasses and a whole range of items that hitherto could only be found in conventional shops.
Vendors who spoke to NewsDay said although they were fully aware that their nocturnal activities were unsanctioned under the city’s bylaws, the need to survive and provide for their families far outweighed the consequences of their actions.
But according to one of the vendors, Miriam Machingauta, there is a lot of money to be made under the cover of darkness.
“A lot of customers will be rushing home and want to avoid the inconvenience of getting into shops where there will be long queues,” she said.
She said ever since she started vending at night sometime early last year, she had witnessed an increase in her fortunes, capturing a wider customer base and she did not see herself quitting unless something dramatic happened.
Another vendor, Lucy Chikwetu, said the municipality did not bother them at night and that made vending more convenient and safer.
“During the day you have to be alert because the council can pounce on you,” she said, “and apart from failing to concentrate on your business because you are always on the lookout, you can also lose your goods and you will have sunk.”
The majority of the vendors said while they would have preferred to have proper stalls at marketplaces, getting the place to sell their wares was not as easy as many people thought.
Some said most of those who issued licences were corrupt and the process was fraught with palm-greasing and favouritism.
“We are helpless because we don’t know anybody,” said one male vendor who refused to be identified.
“So we decided to work here in town at night out of desperation. As a family man, I have a responsibility to provide for my family. But if I don’t do this, it means I would have failed as a husband and father.”
Social commentator Robert Mhishi said the increase in the number of vendors was indicative of the shrinking of employment opportunities in the economy, and many ordinary people were resorting to vending as the simplest means of making ends meet.
“Since the dollarisation of the economy, there seems to have been an increase in the number of vendors,” he noted.
“The reasons are several, but primarily because vending is a venture that is easy to set up as it is not capital-intensive and, secondly, it has quick returns as most of the goods are basic daily requirements.”
Vending has for long been regarded as employment of last resort and has, according to Mhishi, only been recently acknowledged by economists as a major employer sustaining or augmenting the formal income of many families in the low-income bracket.
Mhishi said the depression in the job market has also meant that thousands of people have to turn to vending for survival.
“Difficulties in securing market stalls have significantly contributed to the situation where you have people vending at night at undesignated points in the city,” he said.
“This is not some kind of natural lawlessness on the part of the vendors, but a desperate bid for survival.”
The city authorities, however, have accused the vendors of seeking ways to evade paying taxes, which would boost the city’s revenue inflows. For many years, the municipality and the vendors have fought running battles.
This has seen the vendors constantly reinventing themselves to adapt and survive.
According to a recent notice circulated by Town Clerk Tendai Mahachi, the city fathers issued a stern warning that it was illegal to trade in the city without a valid licence and gave a two-week ultimatum for the operators to regularise their licences.
Municipal officials and the police will conduct a joint operation to inspect all business premises.
“Please be further warned that all those found operating and carrying on any trade without valid licences will be arrested. Such people also risk their businesses being closed down. Please cooperate to avoid disruptions to your business operations,” reads the notice.