MARTHA Kahari was already struggling to make ends meet after Zimbabwe’s coronavirus lockdown forced her to stop selling second-hand clothes and tomatoes at her road side stall in Harare.
Then the council came to tear down her stall. Since April, local authorities in major cities have demolished thousands of illegally built structures that vendors like Kahari use to sell their wares, in what authorities have said is an effort to legitimise informal trade in the city.
With her stall destroyed, the 40-year-old disabled mother of two has given up hope of being able to afford rent or pay back the money she borrowed to buy the stock she planned to sell once the lockdown was lifted.
“If I don’t settle the loan soon, they will come and take my goods,” she said.
“Because I’ve been deprived of income, I have to live in one room at my in-laws with my two children and my property. We have no money for food and no one is helping us.” Vendors and informal workers’ groups in Zimbabwe say that city officials, with the support of the national government, are exploiting the lockdown to destroy makeshift shops and market stalls while their owners are observing stay-at-home orders.
Oliver Chidawu, minister of state for Harare, and the city’s mayor Herbert Gomba said in a joint statement in April that they had “noted with concern the anxiety that has gripped players in the informal sector” since the demolitions began.
The aim of the operation was to remove illegal businesses and ensure that cities are “clean, orderly and well-managed” while also making sure councils don’t lose out on potential revenue, they said.
Crackdowns on informal traders, who make up more than three-quarters of the country’s population, according to the Informal Economy Traders Association, are a frequent occurrence in Zimbabwe.
The last major wave of demolitions happened early last year, when about 2 500 stalls were torn down in Harare and Chitungwiza, a town about 30km south of the capital.
Samuel Wadzai, executive director of the Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation (VISET), a union based in Harare, said the current operation had destroyed the livelihoods of more than three million vendors.
Having already gone without income since the country went into lockdown on March 30, many vendors lost essential stock and prized possessions when their stalls were destroyed, Wadzai said.
“Our members lost merchandise and property worth millions of dollars in the nationwide blitz,” he said.
Vendors’ rights advocates note that with Zimbabwe in the grips of an economic crisis that has seen soaring food prices and food shortages, vendors have spent any savings they had on feeding their families.
Now they will have no place to work from and no way to buy new stock once the lockdown is lifted, Wadzai said. To survive, some vendors have turned to social media to ask for money and food donations, while others are hawking from their homes. Bidnock Kunaka (55) had two stalls — one in Kuwadzana suburb where he lives and another in central Harare — from which he sold various commodities, ranging from fruits and vegetables to hardware. Because he was home observing lockdown rules, he learned about the demolitions from media reports and fellow vendors.
When he finally had the chance to check on his stall in Kuwadzana, he found only the shell left.
Vendors were given no warning that the demolitions were coming, Kunaka said.
“I can’t put food on the table now. The cash I had set aside to stock the business, we have exhausted on food and other household needs,” said the father of four.
Without that working capital, Kunaka, who became a vendor in 2016 after losing his job as a factory worker, said it would be impossible to restart his business after the lockdown.
Instead, he has turned a portion of the land at his house into a market garden, where he is growing carrots, onions and leaf greens.
“I’m hoping from the garden I will manage to generate income to feed the family and to start vending again,” he said.
Wadzai at VISET said the criminalisation of vendors and the demolition of their stalls were against the State’s responsibility to promote small businesses.
City officials have promised to accommodate vendors in approved spaces that will be designated for use by market vendors once the lockdown is lifted.
“The city of Harare and other local authorities are already in the process of identifying and preparing alternate workplaces for informal traders,” Chidawu and Gomba said in their joint statement.
But Wadzai said the committees deciding how to allocate and use those spaces had not reached out to any vendors or informal workers’ unions for their input.
“It is not fair for the authorities to take advantage of COVID-19 lockdown to attack the livelihoods of people and without any consultation,” he said over the phone.
While the government has begun easing some lockdown measures to allow commerce and industry to slowly restart, the informal sector is still prohibited from operating.
Simon Masanga, the permanent secretary for Social Welfare, said in May the government began distributing $180 (US$7,20) per month to more than 2 000 people who had been affected by the lockdown and the clampdown on vendors.
The goal is to cater for 1 million beneficiaries, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that registering vendors for financial aid was a slow process due to lockdown measures.
Vendors’ rights groups like the Informal Economy Traders Association have described the payments as “paltry”, saying they barely cover a family’s most basic needs.
A family of five in Zimbabwe needs about $7 500 (about $300) per month to cover its basic needs, according to figures reported by ZimStat, the national statistics agency, in April.
“We are not saying this money is enough to meet basic requirements, but it will go a long way in assisting someone who does not have any money in their pocket,” Masanga said in response to the criticisms. If the government wants to help vendors recover from both the impacts of the pandemic and the loss of their stalls, it should ease the informal trading sector out of lockdown and put a rush on aid payments, Wadzai said.
“The government needs to speedily disburse funds to cushion those vulnerable,” he said.
“It’s taking too long. Vendors are literally dying of hunger.”
— Thomson Reuters Foundation