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Government must be taken to task over informal traders

03 Aug 2020 at 09:08hrs | Views
Zimbabwe has been on an economic free fall since the turn of the millennium. The comatose economy led to most industries closing shop and as a result countless jobs have been lost. The persisting and worsening status quo has necessitated the rise of the informal sector as the population desperately seeks to eke out a living. In 2018, the International Monetary Fund said Zimbabwe has the largest informal sector in the world. There is a grave dearth of employment in Zimbabwe and citizens have nothing else to fall back on except to join the ever-loading chariot of the informal sector. However, there has been  a systematic criminalisation of the informal sector over the years by the both central and local government. Covid19 has compounded the situation for millions of Zimbabweans whose livelihoods heavily depend on vending.

Authorities have always made vending almost impossible in Zimbabwe. The never-ending running battles between the police and the vendors had become the order of the day in cities, way before Covid19 came on the scene. Without giving the mostly genuine vendors viable alternatives such as designated premises to operate from, the authorities brazenly persecuted the informal traders at every turn.

Even where market stalls were provided for vendors to operate from, renting such premises remains a pipe dream for most of them as they could not afford such overheads. Moreover, most of these premises were deemed bad for business as they were situated away from 'the people'. In vending, place is a crucial pillar of business. Proximity to the people cannot be overemphasized and therefore authorities must seriously take into consideration  the accessibility aspect of vending. Mike Tshuma, a vendor, had this to say, "We are being told to register for sites at the designated places but the we do not want those sites because they are situated far from the people. Even if we wanted to operate from there, we would never afford the rentals".

Since vending became the main employment by default in Zimbabwe, competition for sales is at cut-throat level. Everybody is selling something and whereas in the past those who engaged in vending had a niche, now that privilege is long gone as multitudes have taken up vending. So, now more than ever, the competition among vendors is so grim. As a consequence, fights for trading spaces and customers have occasionally turned physical.

For vendors in Zimbabwe, the  covid 19 pandemic could not have come at a worse time. Government regulations with regards the pandemic have dealt a heavy blow to vending. There is strong feeling that government has been insensitive to the plight of vendors. On the other hand government efforts to fight the pandemic are plausible as the end game is to save lives. However, a balance must be struck because livelihoods are very much at stake. A video of police burning farm produce meant for vending went viral as the nation was appalled at such callousness, and rightly so. The heavy handedness of the authorities in dealing with informal traders is notoriously legendary. "They say the measures are meant to save lives yet they are destroying lives. I can no longer feed my  3 children" said Mary Siziba. Government should not stop or criminalise vending but must facilitate a conducive environment of operation for the vendors, one that espouses social distancing and other measures to stop the spread of the virus. Part of Tax money that the government collects should be channeled towards such efforts. Sadly, the government seems to have abdicated its duty to the poor public which is so incapacitated as far as covid 19 is concerned. When restrictions were eased before the current tightening of the same, the government said small businesses including informal traders could open, provided they fund their own PPEs, temperature checks and a raft of other measures which was a big ask.

The latest regulations have seen a proliferation of crackdowns on vendors who constitute more than 75% of  the population according to the Informal Economy Traders Association. Demolition of vending stalls and confiscation of wares is a frequent occurrence. Thus stock and other valuables have been lost and the common vendor cannot restock nor recover from such a setback. Thomas Machiridza made the point that the restrictive measures are causing many to "turn to crime and prostitution in order to feed their families since vending has been effectively outlawed". "Even our customers are at a big loss because they cannot afford the fruits and vegetables in supermarkets. This is a disaster" he added.

The onus is on the government to feed the vendors' vulnerable families since it banned their source of income. To date, not even a dime has been given towards cushioning these vulnerable people in spite of so many promises the government. They seem to be a forgotten majority.

Meanwhile, the cost of living continues to skyrocket and yet people have their source of income taken away. The plight of vendors must be seriously looked into as a matter of urgency. Zimbabwe's informal sector deserves better.

Source - Nkosikhona Dibiti
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