VIDEO: The cat-and-mouse day of airtime vendors

IN the midst of the city’s morning bustle, a man stands on one corner of the street, occasionally pacing up and down.


Dressed smartly and spotting a neat Afro haircut, he is hardly noticeable and easily blends into the hundreds of men and women rushing to their various workplaces.

The only distinct thing about him is the lemon-green bib that he is wearing, which sells him out as an airtime vendor.

Once in a while, people stop by and buy airtime and the man takes out a wad of airtime recharge cards from his pocket and swiftly shoves it back as soon as the transaction is over.

This looks perfectly normal, but for those who know the constant running battles between vendors and city police, the man is just being careful.

The vendor, John Mwanza, is just one of the many airtime vendors in streets of Harare.

As the days wears off, Mwanza’s ups and downs on the pavement increase as municipal police start their routine round-ups to arrest vendors.

“Whenever they come, I just blend into the crowd and pretend to be an ordinary pedestrian,” he says.

Mwanza is so nervous that he tells the news crew he does not want his name published.

“They (municipal police) will hunt me down and I will be their daily target,” he says, and suggested the interview be done in the safety of the crew’s car.

Despite being in the car, throughout the interview, Mwanza was looking around for any signs of municipal cops.
“They will strike any moment from now”

The NewsDay crew waits for the moment. An hour later, a tractor — laden with municipal cops and arrested vendors — drives along.

Like prey darting away from a predator, Mwanza and scores of other vendors immediately start pacing down the street, walking away from where the tractor is coming from.

Municipal cops arrive too late, and not to give up like an eagle that picks up twigs when it misses its prey, the civilian-clothed cops grab the cardboard boxes used as “tables” by some vendors.

In a few minutes, the storm is over and Mwanza returns to his selling point.

“That is how we go about our day,” he says as he flips through the recharge cards.

The consequences of getting caught, according to Mwanza, is that municipal cops confiscate most of the airtime cards, leaving him counting huge losses.

“They no longer hand us over to the police like they used to. They just confiscate the airtime cards,” he said.

Compromise on family

Asked what drives him Mwanza, like any other man, says it is so he can provide for his family of three. This is also what gets his wife to wake up and join him in the streets, also selling airtime, and some snacks.

Together, they make up to $13 a day, enough for them to buy basic food and save up for rentals and other expenses.

But on bad days, they only manage to get a dollar or two in profits. Determined as he is, Mwanza does not want to give up as he is currently aiming to get his daughter to finish her “A” Level studies.

“It is a struggle, but we will overcome,” he said. It is that determination that keeps Mwanza and his wife working till 10pm.

What hurts him is that his daughter has to take care of her two younger siblings when time he and his wife are at work.

“It is a big compromise and the sad thing is there is nothing we can do,” he said.

Disappointed but hopeful

Although it is his work that puts food on the table, being a man in his 40s, spending the day baking in the sun while selling airtime is one of Mwanza’s life disappointments.

A former senior employee at Blue Ribbon Foods, Mwanza was retrenched in 2012.

“I spent over a year looking for another job, and it was at that time that my wife was vending,” he said.

When the country’s economy turned for the worse after the 2013 elections, Mwanza realised that his job-seeking venture was not going to yield fruits as major fresh company retrenchments and shutdowns began.

“I later discovered I was not being productive looking for a job instead of finding something to do to help my wife,” he said. In 2013, he began a new life as an airtime vendor. “That was my only choice.”

For a man used to heartbreaks after losing his printing company to the 2008 economic crisis, Mwanza still hopes his life will get better someday.

“I had my own printing company, but when hyperinflation and the economic crisis worsened in 2008, I was forced to shut down and look for a job, and that is when I started working at Blue Ribbon,” he said.

“I still hope for a decent job that can give me decent income and at least my wife can rest from vending and concentrate on raising our family.”

His hope is shared by millions of other unemployed Zimbabweans, who have taken up informal jobs to survive as government policies continue to push the economy further into the doldrums.

According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat), 94,5% of the 6,3 million people defined as employed are working in the informal economy, while Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions deputy secretary-general, Gideon Shoko says less than 700 000 people are formally employed.

In its 2013 election manifesto, Zanu PF promised to create 2,2 million new jobs by 2018, but three years later, its promises appear empty as the economic situation continues to worsen as characterised by mounting job losses and company closures.
Last year, The Economist magazine predicted that in Zimbabwe “unemployment and under-employment—especially in the informal sector—will worsen, and with it the socio-political climate will continue to deteriorate”.
What that means is many, despite being hopeful of better fortunes, are joining heartbroken Mwanza in the streets every day.

Humble life

NewsDay Weekender followed up the couple to their home in Epworth’s Overspill area. The family lives in a two-roomed flat-roofed house, with one of the rooms serving as a kitchen, living room and bedroom for Mwanza’s three children.

A set of sofas, which has seen better days, adorns the little room and on the other side is an equally old four-plate stove, a television set, and other household items that show Mwanza had a high standard of living during his heyday.

“I used to live a wonderful life both as a company owner and as a worker at Blue Ribbon, but since then I have not been able to buy any meaningful household property as we now live a hand-to-mouth life.”

Since it is a weekend, the couple is at home spending its only day off with the children. Two pots – one with beef and another with sadza – simmer on the stove, and minutes later the meal is served. Like an occasion that it is, the family gathers for the meal and catch up on the week’s events.

A concerned father, Mwanza takes his time to ask his daughter about school, while the mother gets updated on the household chores that need her attention.

For them, their day ends with attending a church service and preparing for yet another week of working from 6am to 10pm.

Related Posts


  1. Life is never a bed of roses and a man gotta do what a man gotta do to survive.Coming up with excuses isnt going to cut it neither.

  2. lovemore andrew

    True it is the responsibility of any government to create employment for its citizens ! In developed countries these should be getting an unemployment benefits. And no wonder city of Harare is failing to pay it workers those cops are not necessary. They should only employ people who provide service to the paying residents.

  3. It’s not right. My heart goes out to this family and all others that find themselves in a similar situation. Take comfort in the knowledge that things will be alright in the near future.

Comments are closed.