IT was New Year’s Eve in central Harare, the so-called sunshine city. Despite the rains that pounded the capital city that day, shoppers went about their holiday purchases in wet and drenched markets where meat, fish, fruit, vegetable, rat poison, airtime, cell phone and clothing vendors occupied every single space on the street pavements, ever alert to the menacing municipal cops who, like eagles, can swoop any time. Above their heads, plush office towers stood side by side with drab rectangular buildings with weathered walls showing years of neglect.
Across the street, a vendor could be spotted relieving himself “hiding” behind a parked commuter omnibus, a scene also witnessed quite often in the capital’s central business district (CBD), an indicator of how things have gone terribly wrong. From there the vendor went back to arranging his tomatoes with his bare unwashed hands, buried beneath a sea of honking cars whose sound mixed with a cacophony of shouts from street hawkers, the bitter cries of semi-neglected children and the nauseating clatter of touts soliciting for passengers.
For years, unlicensed vendors have been a common sight on most of the major shopping streets in Harare, but with the economic situation further deteriorating and policy makers sleeping on duty, they have now literally taken over the city centre and practically turned it into a jungle where every virtue is trampled underfoot — authorities and citizens alike watching haplessly as the once sunshine city is fast turning into an ungovernable metropoli — where the law of the jungle now rules, pushing the national statutes and the by-laws into the shade.
Often, pedestrian traffic is forced off the sidewalk and into the street by the vendors now selling everything from phones to second hand lingerie and even puppies and drugs. They have to abruptly jump back onto the crowded pavement for dear life as pirate taxis whizz past, spike wielding municipal police officers in hot pursuit in a movie style cat and mouse chase, all in an effort to effect an arrest, mainly for the purpose of soliciting for bribes.
While scores of vendors have been lining up and clogging the sidewalks flaunting diverse merchandise for a few years now, a whole new era in street vending has emerged since last year. Stimulated by the stiff competition necessitated by a huge influx of vendors on the streets as companies lay off workers and schools and colleges churn out thousands of graduates into a failing economy, they find themselves having to shape out or ship out and in that situation, innovation carries the day for some and condemns others into history.
During 2014, they introduced a new invention into their trade — they are now advertising their wares through loud speakers and in some cases, the messages are pre-recorded and the sounds go nonstop all day long. While this innovation has helped them attract customers, it has proved to be a perennial nuisance to residents and has added pain to the chronic headache the vendors are to policy makers.
In addition to the unending noise that these gadgets generate, there is unprecedented daily commotion in Harare’s CBD ranging from the hustle and tumulus clamour of touts pushing and shoving each other for passengers, ear-splitting commuter omnibus horns; some street vendors selling their wares from parked cars and pushcarts and authorities themselves icing the melee with their devastating war on pirate taxis, kombis and vendors that has claimed a few lives. To try and arrest the situation, the City of Harare has designated some parts of the streets to vendors, but that has failed to yield the desired result.
In fact, these new stalls have only helped to increase the woes as they have brought up a new breed of vendors while they have been shunned by the old ones who say they are put off by the high fees asked by the local authority and therefore prefer to keep selling from undesignated points and to put up with the daily harassments from municipal cops.
“I do not make much money here so it is not viable. They demand rates of up to US$5 per day which I find to be too high. Their new stalls have been taken over by better established vendors who can afford that. All the people you see selling their things outside the stalls have been here before these stalls were introduced so we wonder where they got their people,” said a cell phone accessories vendor who operates along Cameroon Street, right next to one such stall.
Shame Makoshori, a colleague recently joked that if elected to be mayor of Harare, the first thing he would do was to clear the streets of vendors after a group of them selling rat and cockroach killers temporarily camped along Harare Street, making a lot if noise through sound enhancement megaphones.
But the actual mayor of Harare, Bernard Manyenyeni said the out-of-control vending is a stark reflection of the harsh political and economic realities Zimbabweans are currently facing, adding that to get them under control would be extremely difficult. Manyenyeni said restoring order in the city would not be easy because aside from the economic need, there was a “political influence” on the vendors.
“Council has an anti noise pollution commission on its own. We are never in favour of polluting the environment in any way but when we talk about vendors specifically, they are a reality that we have had to face in such a difficult economy. It is also a reality that we have to manage in terms of the influence around the vendors. We sense a political hand in the vendors. Yes there is the economic sense, but we sense a political hand too. So managing them will always be very delicate,” he said.
The mayor also admitted that the stalls which had been hoped to be the panacea to the problems affecting the city have been a dismal failure. “By far the majority of the vendors are operating away from anywhere designated, it is about whoever wants to be wherever,” he said.
The mayor’s response to the crisis virtually takes away any hope that the menace would end any time soon. The vendors also present an environmental disaster, especially this rainy season. While the advent of the rains steer in the beauty of nature often characterised by blooming flowers and shooting tree leaves, the story is not like that in the streets of Harare.
Litter from some of the vendor’s merchandise like green mealies, banana peels are thrown everywhere to combine with rotting vegetable matter that has become both an eyesore and a potential health disaster. The litter exposes residents to waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid that thrive especially during the rainy season. Already, typhoid cases have been reported in some parts of the city. Harare was also the epicentre of the deadliest cholera outbreak in the country since independence which was declared a state of national emergency and claimed more than 4000 lives in three months.