When the government and the city councils combine to deal with the “vending problem”, it inevitably fosters memories of 2005, and Operation Murambatsvina. The connection is stronger when the Acting Town Clerk of the City of Harare, Mrs Josephine Ncube, even refers to the exercise as Operation Restore Order. The memories will be deeply embedded for all who experienced the 2005 urban cleansing for how much suffering was caused to the ordinary urban populations of many of the towns in Zimbabwe. It even led to the suggestion by a UN Special Envoy that this was a crime against humanity, a view held by other legal experts.
Now, few residents of Harare and other cities deny the need to keep our cities clean, de-congested, healthy and safe. It is undeniable that the cities are filled with vendors, taxis, and buses, and Harare is perhaps the worst affected, but what does this signify?
Actually this is all a symptom of a much deeper problem that citizens behaving in undesirable or irresponsible ways. The disease is the problem, and the reason why citizens flock to the central business district and other areas in order to do business. Zimbabweans have been reduced to vendors and taxi drivers by sustained economic decline and economic mismanagement.
You just have to look at the facts.
According to the 2012 Census, only 11% of citizens were unemployed. 89% were thus “employed”, but 2,982,891 (65.5%) of the total “economically active” population are “own account workers”. I would bet my bottom dollar that this means being a vendor and not the owner of a shop, a factory, or a business with formal premises. If you ask the question a different way, and ask citizens how they are employed, the picture is very different to the slightly rosy and misleading picture given by the Census. According to the Round 7 (2017) Afrobarometer survey on Zimbabwe, only 13.2% of Zimbabweans described themselves as in full-time employment, 12.2% as being in part-time employment, and 74.7% as either looking for work (37.6%) or not looking (37.1%) at all.
The changes from 2012, the year of the Census, are instructive: 17.9% reported being in full-time employment, 14% in part-time employment, fewer were looking for work (27.6%), and more were not looking (40.5%). 20% stated that they had never had a job, and 15% of those in urban areas described themselves as vendors, traders or hawkers.
Simply, since 2012, more are looking for work, and fewer were working. Vending had increased dramatically, from 6.2% in 2014 to 15% in 2017, an approximate rise of 10% in just three years. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that citizens flock to the CBD, the place where vending can attract the greatest number of possible customers. RAU’s report on vending in 2015 suggested that vendors were making, on average, about $172 a month, and looking after an average of six persons.
It is hard to believe that any of those working the streets of Harare or Bulawayo, or any other Zimbabwean city, would do this if there were better options. Vending, just like the remittances sent to families from the diaspora, are the basis by which Zimbabwean families are surviving in this very hostile economic climate, and are probably not represented in some of the two million jobs that the government claims has created since 2013. Moreover, 62% of Zimbabweans in the Afrobarometer Round 7 (2017) poll indicate that were thinking about migrating, with 88% offering finding work (62%), economic hardship (18%), or poverty (8%) as the reasons for thinking this way. It does not seem enlightened policy, by either city councils or government, to increase the hardship faced by families or to foster the continued migration of our able-bodied citizens out of the country. Bear in mind that the RAU (2015) small survey showed that 66% of the sample had secondary school education and 19% had some form of tertiary education.
Good policy makers, like good doctors, should get to the bottom of the symptoms so that they do not make the symptoms worse by misdiagnosing the problem. Surely it is better to tolerate
the symptoms of vending until a cure can be found?