CRACKDOWNS on “illegal” street traders by officers from the local authorities are now a daily occurrence despite the fact that street vending is also an important part of the urban informal economy, an activity that is growing at a rapid rate and in response to poverty and high levels of unemployment.
Guest Column Terrence Muvoti
It is ungallant and uncharitable to kick a man at the nadir of his fortunes.
Although it is an incontestable fact that urban areas must be planned, and activities regulated to bring order and to avoid mushrooming of unplanned urban development, the objective of creating a modern city must also be receptive to and meet the contemporary reality, as one colleague would say: “Opening up Zimbabwean cities to business and making them world-class does not mean closing them to the people.”
It is a Saturday afternoon and the street has transformed into a marketplace.
Lines of impatient pedestrians manoeuvre through the narrow passage between neatly arranged goods laid out on white canvas bags on the pavement, dodging street traders who hold out pairs of jeans, electronic gadgets and foodstuffs in their direction.
Then a shout from a distance, and all at once, hundreds of traders grip the corners of canvas bags and fling the white bundles over their shoulders.
The city council officers have been spotted and there is an outburst of energy as the street becomes a frenzy of running and pushing.
A few seconds later, you only see confused pedestrians and a few abandoned goods.
What then boggles the mind is whether the beautification of the towns has been made a priority over the protection and preservation of livelihoods in a harsh economic environment.
Thousands of students are churned out of schools, colleges and universities every year to join millions already unemployed.
With the country facing a plethora of economic challenges, street vending has become a source of livelihood for many and under such a precarious state of affairs, vending activities are on the rise.
It is critical to appreciate that the people are not in the streets by choice.
Regardless of the cut-throat competition and endless cat-and-mouse battles with both council police and the Zimbabwe Republic Police, who appear determined to bring sanity on the streets where the law of the jungle now rules, vending is the only source of income to send children to school, deal with unemployment and evade crimes and vices like drug abuse and prostitution.
Street vending is not peculiar to Zimbabwe, but a global activity that is present even in developed nations.
It is very unfortunate that as a country, we have not yet accepted it as a legitimate economic activity and an alternative source of livelihood.
Vending accounts for over 80% of the urban employment and yet government treats it as an unappealing and disorganised enterprise.
It is this negative perception that informs their mono-response to street vending by frequent repressive actions aimed at exterminating it, albeit without success.
These crackdowns are generally understood as indicative of a hostile attitude towards informal economic activities.
The answer to make our cities “world-class” may not always be the use of force and confiscation of wares. Improving the quality of life of vendors may not all lie in the law, but in the organisation and real empowerment of the vendors themselves so that they are freed from a state of permanent uncertainty.
It is fundamental to address the “push” factors putting people onto the streets, the major one being unemployment, and yet this will work in the long-term, provided jobs are created.
Probably the best strategy is engaging all stakeholders and coming up with credible alternative policies for the short-term, which satisfies all concerned parties.
Street vending can never be exterminated, but can only be improved and revamped to realise its real economic value.
What is needed is infrastructural rethinking to urban governance, where proper vending markets/stalls with affordable rates and taxes are developed in smarter and orderly forms, which are also within the reach of their clientele base.
The designated vending bays, which have been made so far, do not make any sense given that their businesses thrive where there are high volumes of people movement.
An environment conducive for all policy processes must be created, and an enabling regulatory environment as well as the understanding of the informal sector’s needs and appreciating its varied facets.
It is high time authorities accept that vending and the informal economy are the biggest employer in the country and the issue of vendors needs to be carefully handled, least will be cleaning the “dirty” together with livelihoods.
Inasmuch as we want to be visionaries and in consistent with global developments, we must, at the same time, not sacrifice local needs and plights of the general man and women in the streets.
Street vending needs to be nurtured and accepted as an essential economic activity and an alternative source of livelihood.
Terrence Muvoti writes in his personal capacity. He can be contacted on email@example.com or follow him on twitter at @muvoti_terrence