THE government’s intervention to control vending that has gone out of control especially in Harare was largely expected but the involvement of security forces evokes bitter memories of Operation Murambatsvina 10 years ago.
Harare’s streets had in the last few months descended into a lawless jungle, with vendors occupying every inch of the pavements and sometimes roads, obstructing traffic and disrupting businesses.
The reasons for the upsurge in the number of vendors are mainly economical as the company closures that continue unabated are promoting an informal sector only capable of buying and selling.
Zimbabwe has an unemployment rate of more than 80% and tertiary institutions release thousands of graduates every year into the shrinking job market, with little chances of finding formal employment. The desperation drives many to try a hand in vending, hence the unsustainable numbers on the streets today.
However, the situation only got out of control because of political interference that has seen both the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) and local authorities losing control of the situation.
First Lady Grace Mugabe had a sustained campaign against the ZRP when she launched her career last year where she took every opportunity to berate the police for being firm on illegal vending.
Predictably hard pressed Zimbabweans took the First Lady’s statements as a licence to sell wherever they saw fit and this has led to the lawlessness on the streets.
Powerful ruling party officials especially in Harare are known to encourage the informal traders to violate municipal by-laws in return for votes and at times protection fees.
ZRP, because of its propensity to be subservient to ruling party officials, had become a by-stander as Harare degenerated into chaos. The situation had to be brought back to normal soon rather than later because the lawlessness is now threatening the few surviving formal businesses.
However, it is the involvement of the security forces that is stalking fears of another Operation Murambatsvina (Restore Order). The infamous clean-up campaign cost some 700 000 Zimbabweans their homes and livelihoods.
In the aftermath of the operation, the country was forced to reach out to the international community for humanitarian assistance and Zimbabwe was driven into international isolation. The government should not go down that road again by letting the security forces meddle in the affairs of local authorities.
Issuing ultimatums or even deploying the army would not address the problem of uncontrolled vending but worsen it. The first and most critical step that needs to be taken to restore order is to stop the economic decline that has gone on for far too long.
According to vendor groups, at least 5,7 million Zimbabweans or half the population is involved in the informal business and using soldiers to chase them off the streets would not solve the problem.
In addition to reviving the economy and providing jobs, the government has to engender respect for the rule of law and ensure that politicians stay away from municipal affairs.
The ruling party cannot hide behind the military and abdicate from its constitutional responsibility to grow the economy and provide jobs.Any forced removal of the vendors would produce the same results seen in the aftermath of Operation Murambatsvina. The informal traders would return to the streets in no time and continue to multiply.