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Informal sector: New theatre of power struggles

By Zimbabwe Democracy Institute

The Zimbabwe political economy has undergone substantial changes over the last 15 years. A new political and socio-economic reality characterised by a rising informal sector and changing rural accumulation model has emerged.

Dr Pedzisai Ruhanya is the director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI)
Dr Pedzisai Ruhanya is the director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI)

The economy is experiencing rapid deterioration characterised by dwindling industrial capacity utilisation, huge external debt, deflation, company closures and the net result has been increased levels of poverty.

This seismic shift in the informal sector has created new social bases in vendors, housing schemes in urban, peri-urban areas, new farmers and small-scale miners (makorokoza) that have now become new battlegrounds for control by political players.

Amid all these changes has been the definition of a new national question which now centres on livelihoods as identified by the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI) when it held a think-tank conference in October 2014 to interrogate the national question and craft responses by civil society organisations that address these emerging changes in the political economy in their programming.

Emerging from the think-tank was the primacy of bridging the gap between political and socio-economic rights in civil society programming. A journal on the Zimbabwean political economy was produced thereafter which dissected the issues and proffered recommendations on the rising political and socio-economic challenges.

The civic forces that historically have been the vanguard of the democratisation agenda are showing surmountable signs of re-awakening.

They are beginning to re-mobilise and re-engage ordinary citizens in social democratic processes that address issues of access to and resource allocation and make government accountable on the provisions of basic livelihood questions.

Activities of the National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe (Navuz) are commendable in that the organisation has identified the new political battleground, a new social base emerging from the informalisation of the economy that requires critical advocacy work.

This is a highly contestable area where political patronage by the ruling Zanu PF party and the government through local authorities is rife yet it is now becoming a huge source of livelihoods for millions of unemployed people. How people get allocated areas to operate their small businesses require transparency by local authorities and that all kinds of discrimination on the basis of political affiliation are avoided.

Navuz has become relevant and a thorn in the patronage system of the governing party and its surrogates because it is mobilising and organising vendors to become citizens with urgency and not mere subjects that can be tossed around, bribed and corrupted by the land barons, mostly in urban areas.

It allows citizens to demand accountability and transparency to the local government authorities in the allocation of vending spaces and the creation of facilities to do their business in an orderly way.
Although the ruling party, Zanu PF, consolidated its hegemony of the policy after the 2013 elections through a landslide victory, the economy is experiencing rapid deterioration and poverty is on the increase.

The opposition has imploded and the absence of a viable political alternative and the collapse of labour unions have militated against citizen mobilisation and citizen agency, which has given birth to citizen despondency. The rise of such groups like Navuz gives ordinary citizens a coordinated platform to address their socio-economic.

As industrial capacity utilisation continues to plummet, more and more people are being forced into the informal sector with vending being one of the most lucrative activities. Labour unions such as the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) are encouraged to have organised desks in these new social bases where they recruit members, do advocacy and unionise the sector and address the socio-economic needs of these people.

As Zimbabwe approaches 2018, Navuz working together with ZCTU need to go beyond just protests and seek to inculcate programming that is in line with the shifting political economy and the livelihoods questions of informal sector workers.

There is urgent need for civil society organisations to represent other branches of the informal sector such as artisanal miners, new farmers in their programming. These are new social bases that could be manipulated by political players as the country drifts towards the 2018 elections.

Programming in the usual areas, particularly the limited focus on civil and political rights would not be adequate to address substantive democratisation issues in the wake of rising poverty and unemployment in Zimbabwe.

Citizens in these sectors need to be cautioned against abuses by powerful political forces.

Thus the informal sector is potentially emerging as the critical theatre of Zimbabwe’s struggle towards democracy especially at the time of electoral contests where political parties would move to manipulate and abuse the poor through patronage activities.

There is need for civil society and community based organisations to harness their efforts towards creating citizen agency through these theatres. In the absence of a formidable opposition, it is critical that civil society occupy these theatres of the struggle and provide the necessary direction.

The Zimbabwe Democracy Institute is a politically independent public policy think-tank.

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