By Mugove Tafirenyika
HARARE – Zimbabwean security forces have been put on high alert after deadly clashes erupted in the capital on Monday between Harare municipal police and vendors who are vowing to stay put on street pavements.
The informal traders, responding to a violent crackdown on them by municipal police, launched their own counter attacks and threw an assortment of missiles at cops — damaging property in the process and disrupting commerce within the central business district (CBD) as they engaged in running battles with authorities.
Several unlicensed vendors were still in detention late yesterday following their arrest on Monday, on charges of engaging in public violence — even though, in addition to losing their wares to authorities, many of them were also victims of violent and indiscriminate beatings by the municipal police.
The Zimbabwe Informal Sector Organisation (Ziso) said that the action of the authorities was “cruel, inhuman and barbaric” and would be resisted by any “all necessary”.
Ziso director, Promise Mkwananzi, also warned that the country could descend into total chaos if authorities did not mend their ways.
Analysts said the fact that security forces had been put on high alert meant that authorities were aware that tensions and emotions were running high in the country amid rising poverty levels and joblessness.
Sporadic violence and chaos has erupted in Harare since vendors recently resurfaced on the streets, barely two months after municipal police pulled down their tents and destroyed their stalls in a futile bid to force them to move to designated vending sites in the periphery of the CBD.
The crackdown on vendors was precipitated by combative Local Government minister Saviour Kasukuwere’s threats to “clean Town House” if council officials failed to drive informal traders out of the CBD when he was appointed to the portfolio.
The majority of the urban street vendors are women and school leavers living in abject poverty, and who are part of the more than 75 percent of Zimbabweans who live below the poverty datum line.
Since last month, a ruthless team of municipal police has launched violent attacks on the vendors, seizing their wares.
“If the government does not resolve the matter amicably soon, an irreversible uprising may be the only route open to the suffering majority,” Mkwananzi warned yesterday.
“But we continue to call for dialogue to craft a working vendors’ policy in Zimbabwe.
“The recent by-laws are unjust and unreasonable. Moreover, the police are not following them at all, leading to high levels of corruption, rent-seeking and plunder of vendors wares,” he added.
The government recently gazetted new laws governing the operations of vendors in Harare, to boost council revenues, prevent disease outbreaks and restore order in the capital city where vendors have mushroomed over the years.
In the meantime, Harare City Council has since appealed to leaders of informal traders to exercise restraint and respect municipal police as they discharge their duties.
“We urge the vendors’ union leaders and other stakeholders to restrain their members from committing acts of violence that endanger the public, by respecting the officers as they go about with their duties,” Michael Chideme, the Harare City Council spokesperson said.
Police spokesperson Charity Charamba also confirmed that police were ready to deal with any disturbances.
“All those who were involved in the smashing of windows at banks and offices along Nelson Mandela will be arrested and charged for public violence and malicious damage to property,” Charamba said.
“These unlawful actions are not tolerated at all and be warned that everyone who participated in these acts of mob violence will be arrested and taken before the courts.”
A security source said an “unprecedented” policing operation was being put in place to “ensure the safety of innocent citizens”.
He said this after a number of people were caught up in the melee on Monday, which saw the angry vendors damaging shop windows in Harare’s CBD. FBC Bank’s Nelson Mandela branch was also vandalised, while the nearby OK supermarket had to close temporarily.
Zimbabwe’s high levels of unemployment and poverty have seen the explosion of unregulated informal commerce in towns and cities.
A vendor who spoke to the Daily News yesterday said, “The reason I went out on Monday to sell my wares is the same reason that will make me go out again. We are asking for fair opportunities, we have qualifications, but they decide to beat us up”.
The clearly educated and eloquent street trader said his friend had been “brutalised” by municipal police during Monday’s clashes, to the extent that he required medical treatment afterwards.
“They (government) must be careful. The more they crack down on us, the more people will be pushed to engage in all these kind of radical and revolutionary options such as fighting back,” he said. Daily News