By Samuel Takawira

The last two decades have seen a severe contraction of Zimbabwe’s economy, with agriculture, mining and manufacturing sectors suffering mainly from poor policy decisions, resulting in massive unemployment. It is estimated that 90% of the Zimbabwean population ekes out a living in the informal sector, vending in open urban marketplaces. Among these are the municipal markets in Mbare – a low-income suburb of Harare. Mbare is home to the largest informal marketplace in Zimbabwe, where trading space is expensive and oversubscribed. To create access to the market, informal traders have resorted to setting up illegal stalls in open spaces. 

Harare City Council, backed by the Zimbabwe Republic Police, recently demolished vendors’ market stalls and tuckshops in Mbare. Demolishing vending stalls and tuckshops has become a regular feature of urban life. This approach has not solved the continued disorder of sprouting informal businesses that subsist in Mbare, nor the infrastructural challenges that arise in overpopulated but underserved urban areas. Government says the demolitions are meant to pave the way for Mbare’s massive makeover that will see the upgrading of the area into a state of the art marketplace. 

The incidence of demolitions without proffering an alternative marketplace for informal traders raises questions around Harare City Council’s effectiveness in managing and regulating public resources, including access to space, as well as raising questions with regards to its capacity to run a well-developed city. Furthermore, the government’s plans to renew the area are implemented without consulting the affected community, calling the government’s intent into question. 

Similar conflicts have emerged in other urban centres with different results. In Goromonzi, a majority of informal sector traders operated from unregistered sites resulting in conflict with authorities and the loss of livelihood. Accountability Lab’s partner Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation (VISET)  implemented the CivActs model to promote engagement and dialogue between stakeholders and the affected community. 

CivActs is a citizen feedback, dialogue and community voice platform to ensure accountability in development. In the process, communities select a dedicated group of volunteers to gather information on critical problems, feeding this back to communities and facilitating critical conversations about key local concerns and working with partners to solve problems.

In Goromonzi Ward 16, VISET found that the issue of adequate market stalls was a critical challenge affecting the community. Through engagements with local stakeholders, including the municipality and vendors, the community was able to resolve the issue, with the municipality constructing informal traders market stalls and solving the challenge. Critical to the success of this process has been citizen participation in uncovering the challenge and identifying solutions, as well as engagement with the authorities and power holders.

Unquestionably, the recent wave of demolitions which has resulted in multitudes of vendors losing their goods and access to the marketplace illustrates the conflict over the right to access and use of the city, pitting informal traders against municipal and state authorities. 

The demolition of vending stalls goes against the principles of natural justice, including the right to an effective remedy, and is a pointed reminder of the excesses of state power in regulating urban planning and informality. The manner in which vendors are removed from their vending sites without the provision of a clear alternative is a flagrant violation of human rights. Section 64 of the Zimbabwean Constitution highlights that citizens have a right to freely choose a trade or occupation. 

It is clear that policy intervention is also limited as  local governments vandalise vending stalls without investing in public infrastructure to ease the emergence of ‘illegal’ vending sites. 

Samuel Takawira is the Marketing and Communications Fellow for Accountability Lab Zimbabwe