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‘Govt failed vendors on COVID-19 relief fund’

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THE informal sector has been hard-hit by the economic crisis made worse by the COVID-19-induced lockdown. Vendors have also been at the mercy of law enforcement agents who have made their survival very difficult. NewsDay (ND) Senior Reporter Moses Matenga spoke to Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation (Viset) executive director Samuel Wadzai (SW).

ND: Briefly take us through how your members are surviving under the current situation?
SW: Vendors and informal traders are struggling to adapt during this time of COVID-19. Vending is now an occupation that many people are reliant on as a means of survival. The situation at markets such as Mbare Musika is dire as there is no provision of sanitisers nor is social distancing being practised due to the large numbers. With the advent of the rainy season, there is fear of disease outbreaks at these markets, as well as in all major towns due to a debilitating water crisis.
Most council-run clinics, which are the first port of call for informal traders and the major referral hospitals, cannot render services owing to shortages of drugs and health personnel. Should one fall sick, they are forced to seek healthcare at private clinics or from quackery practitioners operating in residential areas, putting themselves at high risk.

ND: How did you, as the informal sector, analyse the budget statement announced by the Finance minister Mthuli Ncube recently, did it address your plight?
SW: The budget was a huge disappointment as it did not address concerns raised by citizens in the various pre-budget consultations that our membership was part of. Informal traders expected an increase in budget allocations to social ministries such as Health and Education in order to avoid the current situation where parents are subsidising teachers through paying for extra lessons. The informal sector has been the one to shore up the Zimbabwean economy through providing over 5,2 million jobs without getting incentives from government. We have seen tax breaks and incentives continue to be given to companies while informal traders are saddled with a huge tax burden as seen in the new presumptive tax in the form of a US$30 unit tax. We feel that the informal sector should be supported through financial facilities to assist growth rather than be penalised.

ND: A lot of human rights violations were perpetrated during the lockdown, to what extent was your constituency affected?
SW: Vendors were severely affected by the lockdown. At inception, they had their wares and their trading places destroyed under the so-called clean-up campaign embarked upon by local authorities countrywide.
Many cases of harassment and beatings of vendors by soldiers and police occurred, but they were not acted upon due to the fact that State actors were perpetrators. Due to little or no government support, many traders risked their lives to go out and resume their business operations before restrictions were lifted as they were starving.
Oftentimes when raided, they would have to part with as much as US$5 for their freedom.

ND: Vendors and those in the informal sector were promised to get assistance from government in the form of cushioning allowance, was it availed?
SW: As Viset, we were pleased when the government announced a cushioning facility for vulnerable families meant to alleviate the effects of lockdown measures that it had introduced at the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 social relief fund was established from public resources and the implementation of this relief fund was a matter of public policy. Therefore, government had an obligation to ensure that the relief fund was implemented in a manner that was transparent and accountable to the public. While government announced the decision to set up a relief fund, it did not comply with its transparency and accountability obligations regarding the implementation of the fund. Government has failed to explain how the beneficiaries were identified. When the Finance minister was asked to clarify how beneficiaries were chosen, he simply said that a “sophisticated algorithm” was used. This explanation is insufficient as it does not disclose details on who developed the algorithm, the set of factors which constituted the algorithm, how the said algorithm was applied and the rationality or justification for those factors or criteria and how beneficiaries were verified, if at all there was any such verification process. There were reports of rampant abuse by high-ranking civil servants and senior politicians, particularly in Kwekwe.

ND: Briefly take us through your relations with government. Have you engaged them on issues of your welfare and have they been forthcoming?
SW: Viset has consistently enjoys a mutual relationship with most government arms. Our regret, however, is on the lack of consultation during policy formulation. However, we are hopeful in the coming year this will be addressed. We believe in channelling grievances from factual evidence and we will be embarking on a proper audit of the informal sector cushioning fund through visits countrywide. We will then engage the Labour and Social Welfare ministry on our findings with a view to formulating a proper welfare policy that caters for the informal sector, in much the same way as the National Social Security Authority serves the formally employed.

ND: We continue to see running battles between vendors and council officials and in most cases confiscation of goods, have you engaged the local authorities on the matter and what was their response?
SW: Viset has cordial relations with local authorities and has consistently raised it grievances with these authorities. To that end, the Harare City Council has undertaken to adopt a less combative approach to policing and has engaged Viset on coming up with an alternative informal sector policy.
We hope to replicate this throughout other local authorities.
l Follow Moses on Twitter
@mmatenga

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