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War against vendors: Rescuing ‘clean’ streets, ruining lives?

Since its emergence in growing volumes some years ago, vending in Zimbabwe’s major urban areas, especially Harare, has never been tolerated as a legitimate economic activity and alternative source of livelihood, especially in the attitudes of central government.

Municipal police beat vendors, burn goods
Municipal police beat vendors, burn goods

But the irony is that its rise is in the same government’s poor economic performance.

The authorities have been attempting to restrict vending from the Central Business District, or tuck it away in the invisible parts of the city.

This mimicks the colonial attitudes to African poverty, or African presence in the urban areas.

Beautification of the post-colonial African urban spaces today, just like the policy of no-go areas for natives in parts of the colonial cities yesteryear, has been made the foremost objective of policy interventions on vending rather than the preservation of livelihoods in a harsh economic environment.

While it remains an unassailable argument that urban areas will have to be planned, and activities in them regulated, in order to evade the scandal of unplanned urban development, the abstract idea of a modern city must also be receptive to and meet reality.

Vending is prevalent, but differing in density in African cities, even capitals of the biggest African economies, from Johannesburg to Lagos, thus making it a common sight and reality of the post-colonial urban spaces.

The objective issue that vending in Zimbabwe has grown, almost exponentially, since the onset of the politically-driven economic collapse, means that even though by some comparison Zimbabwean cities have become an “eye-sore,” when dealing with the “problem” this local and historical context must not be lost.

Because of the preoccupation to contain the vending dragon, varied reasons at different times have been given to justify the eventual eviction from the streets of the thousands (probably millions) who vend for a living.

In certain instances, this has even justified the use of force, including arrests, beatings, abductions, confiscation of the wares with no clear accounting of where they are eventually put, and even burning of goods worthy thousands of dollars.

Yet, at the heart of all these problems is the failure by the authorities to give credible alternatives in the short-term.

However, in the long term, there appears to be agreement that vending will be manageable when sustained job creation at some point soaks in vast battalions of people in the informal sector.

This will take some time and the question will remain of what should be done in the meantime.

Some experience in the US informs that vending or “markets” exist in the developed world, but in smarter and orderly forms, benefitting the unemployed, creatively integrated into the urban space.

Be cautioned, therefore, that vending may perhaps never be totally eradicated, but improved and its negative impact alleviated as an economic activity.

But current mind-sets of the officialdom, where vending or informal economic activity, is viewed from the single perspective of the “undesirable” and the “untidy” rather than also from its real economic value as representing low-level entrepreneurial efforts of the marginalised and poor, should be changed.

From the first perspective, the natural approach to vending is to clean “the dirty” with the uncompromising broom of authority and force (together with livelihoods and lives screaming among the “rubbish”).

In the latter standpoint, vending is seen as an enterprise bringing affordable goods to the struggling working class and income to the urban poor.

Through their informal enterprises, the urban poor are doing their part in fighting poverty by earning income to build homes, send children to school, evade the short-term and long-term events of unemployment such as crime and deepening absolute poverty respectively, and fighting lack of food and malnutrition in the lower societal strata.

With the above in mind, and given the recurrent topicality of the matter, one only hopes that the authorities will do wider research and deeper reflection on how the issue of vending can be consultatively and contextually approached from a policy perspective.

This will inspire a more productive intervention rather than knee-jerk responses of the “clean-up-campaign-type” meant to deal with sudden emergencies, like the ongoing violent skirmishes between the vendors and police supposedly to deal with the recent cholera outbreak, whose genesis may even be dislocated from the issue of vending.

Caution must also be taken that opening Zimbabwean cities to business and making them world class, does not mean closing them to the people. Daily News.