THE ongoing crackdown against perceived opposition activists following recent riots in Harare and other parts of the country has left vendors vulnerable. Most of them lost their wares, while trading itself has become virtually impossible in some areas across the country.
NewsDay (ND) senior reporter Obey Manayiti recently interviewed Vendors Initiative for Socio-Economic Transformation (Viset) leader Samuel Wadzai (SW) on a number of issues, including challenges they are facing and their plea to government. Below are the excerpts:
ND: As the vendors’ representative, can you give us in detail the situation prevailing on the ground.
SW: The situation is very tense. We are witnessing wanton abuse of street traders at the hands of Zimbabwe Republic Police and the army. Hundreds of our members are being rounded up and arrested. This latest clampdown comes amid a nationwide operation by armed forces that has seen thousands of vendors losing money and wares to soldiers, who were robbing them at gunpoint.
Vendors are not criminals, but ordinary people seeking livelihoods and must be allowed to feed their families, especially when the government has failed to provide formal jobs. We also note that there is an undeclared curfew which is infringing on the people’s right to movement and liberty. The impact of this is hurting and our members are the worst hit by this so-called crackdown.
ND: Is this being done without prior warning? Are there reasons cited for the rounding up of vendors valid?
SW: These interventions by police and army are being done without prior warning. We expect the authorities to communicate effectively when implementing such operations, which have far-reaching implications on the lives of the poor.
ND. How many were affected? What steps are you taking to resolve the issue?
SW: In Harare alone, over 100 street traders were arrested and made to pay fines to secure their release. In Gweru and Masvingo, hundreds more were arrested and some are still behind bars after failing to pay the fines, which are exorbitant.
Our lawyers are already on the ground assisting some of our members, whose rights are being violated. We believe that a process of dialogue between the government and all its agencies, on the one hand, and street traders, on the other, should commence now. What is needed are sustainable and inclusive solutions. We stand ready as Viset to participate in such a critical process.
ND: Soldiers and municipal police are arresting vendors, is there justification in roping in the military?
SW: The deployment of soldiers is not justified at all. We believe that if there is any problem, municipal police officers have the capacity to handle the situation as has always been the case.
Terrorising our members who are trying to survive in this harsh economic environment is irresponsible. As vendors, we continue to be peaceful in our approach and we are guided by the dictum that “Peace Builds” that’s precisely the reason why we remain committed to participate in all processes that seek to unite the country, other than dividing it.
ND: Did you try to engage the relevant authorities? What did they say?
SW: Viset is constantly trying to engage different stakeholders. We believe that dialogue can help in finding resolutions and creating mutually beneficial relationships. We met with the new mayors from various cities and elected officials to try and create dialogue platforms.
We have also tried to engage the relevant ministries such as the Women’s Affairs and SMEs ones.
We also partner with like-minded organisations to present one unified voice to protect the sources of our livelihoods.
Other stakeholders we have included are research institutions and academia to prove factual information such as the contributions made by the informal traders to the national economy and the numbers of people being cushioned by this industry.
Vendors (informal traders) are also stakeholders in this and they are always willing to sit down and find solutions to work amicably with the formal sector and government.
ND: Do you think there is a solution to this crisis?
SW: There are a number of solutions to this crisis and they will mostly be guided by dialogue. Dialogue will help us find our own home-grown solutions. We can learn from other countries; in the United States (Los Angeles), they recently legalised vending after thorough consultations and engagements.
In India, they have a Bill that recognises vending as a form of employment. In South Africa, our neighbours, they had a successful project (Durban Warwick Junction), in which the city planning involved informal traders. The International Labour Organisation recommendation 204 also explains how informal traders can be incorporated into the formal economy.
Viset is working with partner organisations in coming up with an informal economy agenda which will explore options on how the government can integrate the informal economy and hopefully realise the role they play in contributing to the growth of the national economy.
ND: You always talk about resistance, but your people are always harassed and arrested. Does your approach to solving the crisis work?
SW: We believe what we are fighting for is legitimate. Therefore, no amount of harassment will dampen our resolve for the total socio-economic emancipation of the informal economy. We are also a social movement born out of the need to defend our rights and offer solidarity to each other. So, yes, we shall continue to resist any form of abuse.
We believe our approach has been effective thus far. We have managed to nationalise the vendors’ issues and bring key stakeholders to the negotiating table through a hybrid of tactics anchored mostly on a human rights-based standpoint.
Critically, our approach has managed to unite the informal economy players and be in a position to speak truth to power without fear or favour.
ND: What is the ultimate effect of this harassment in the face of such high levels of unemployment? What is the way forward?
SW: If this harassment continues, the country will experience an increase in the levels of crime, an increase in child-headed families, as parents resort to migrating to other countries in search of a livelihood.
Vending is the most innocent form of living, a lot of which is hand to mouth as people strive to feed their families, keep a roof over their heads and send their children to school.
Vendors cannot afford any form of social protection (medical aid or pension) and our government is failing to provide social welfare services. The only way forward is for the government to recognise people who find alternative forms of employment in this harsh economy and give them all the support they need.
So we need, as a country, to create safe space for the informal sector to grow and contribute to economic development through the creation of jobs and support of self initiatives for livelihoods.
As Viset, we remain guided by the dictum that nothing beats dialogue and constructive engagement. We believe that while the government has a responsibility to decongest the cities and confine vending to the so-called designated sites, this has to be done in a manner that does not infringe on street vendors’ right to livelihoods.
We urge the government to emulate other countries such as Kenya, Botswana, China, India and South Africa, where the vending challenge was tackled amicably, without necessarily arresting or prosecuting vendors.
Vendors and informal traders are small businesses that, if granted adequate and appropriate support, such as access to finance, profitable markets and skills development, can grow their businesses and become macro-entrepreneurs.
It has always been Viset’s position that forceful eviction of informal traders will not solve the current vending morass, where such eviction does not correspond to the allocation of alternative spaces in the designated sites.
If anything, it will only exacerbate it, as was witnessed in the central business districts in 2015, where in most cases the operations resulted in ugly and bloody scenes and even unnecessary loss of lives.