By Leroy Dzenga and Rumbidzai Ngwenya
The move by the police and Harare City Council to remove street vendors in a bid to contain the cholera outbreak which has claimed 32 lives and affected some 3 000 other people has elicited mixed reactions.
While the anti-cholera campaign has stirred controversy with vendors castigating city authorities for depriving them of their livelihoods, shop owners and other people say it has brought relief and temporary sanity in the city.
For years, Harare, dubbed the “Sunshine City”, had lost its shine as street vendors sold their wares everywhere without any order, causing chaos to the city.
Congestion and uncontrolled vending became the norm in the city, with vendors selling their wares on the doorsteps of shops and other offices.
Several campaigns in the past had failed to end the chaos, as vendors fled from the streets during the day and later in the day, by the night, they would flood the streets again.
Shop owners in the capital have hailed the campaign for bringing temporary relief to them.
They say vendors were inconveniencing them and their customers.
Says Elliot Sanyamahwe, who runs a cellphone and electrical appliances shop along Leopold Takawira Street: “We hope vendors don’t come back to dominate the streets again.
“This clean-up campaign should make a difference for us and our clients. As shop owners, we have been sabotaged for a long time by unregistered vendors. Imagine someone selling the same products as mine just on my doorsteps and at a cheaper price.
“It’s grossly unfair and I support the police and council for removing these vendors.”
Shop owners say they are losing business to street vendors who don’t pay rates, licence fees and tax.
“We are facing stiff competition from these vendors who do not bear any costs such as rentals, licence fees, tax and labour,” Sanyamahwe says.
“For years, our businesses have been affected negatively and we are happy they are removed from our doorsteps.”
Another clothing shop owner welcomed the removal of street vendors saying it has now improved the ease of doing business in the CBD.
“Before vendors were removed, they blocked our customers from entering the shop making it difficult to do good business.
“Whenever you tried to reason with them they would become very aggressive. They behaved like they owned the streets. They harassed us and we were powerless to control them.
“Honestly, they should be moved to designated points away from our doorsteps.”
Most business owners breathed a sigh of relief when vendors were cleared from the streets.
People could easily move around the city without being blocked or harassed by vendors.
Many say they were now afraid of moving around the streets, with the affluent preferring to do their shopping at malls outside the city.
Even though the anti-cholera campaign has brought some measure of relief for the shop owners, many doubt that the campaign will be sustained.
The cat-and-mouse battles between the street vendors and the police are still far from over.
During the night, street vendors still return to their selling spots disrupting traffic and the free movement of people.
Street vendors argue that they still have livelihoods to protect.
With high unemployment, they say, vending is their only means of survival.
“Vendors are still coming back, usually at night,” says a shop owner. “Every morning we find heaps of rotten vegetables on our doorsteps. It’s irritating and they don’t have the decency to clean up.
“We are forced to clean and scrub the pavement every day. Imagine all the health risks.”
Business owners and the council would want to see vendors out of the CBD but the so-called designated vending spaces being offered as alternatives are far from being conducive for vendors.
Street vendors are still defiant and vow to flock back to the street to protect their livelihoods.
Many have suffered heavy losses after their wares were confiscated.
The few who have continued to take chances and sell their wares during the day have devised new survival strategies.
“We do not bring a lot of stock to the streets, just a few units. It saves us from losses in the event that the police or council officials come,” says Norman Chaza, a vendor who plies his trade in downtown Harare.
He says the anti-cholera campaign has been too harsh on vendors.
He argues that there is little consideration of their plight for survival in the harsh economic environment.
“The city centre is where the money is. Those council people who are giving directives are speaking from their offices and have not experienced the pain of not knowing where your next meal will come from,” Chaza says.
“It’s inhuman. We also want to survive. We are not stealing from anyone but we are selling our goods just to eke out a living.”
Others have questioned the indiscriminate manner in which the authorities have been targeting vendors.
“They (city council) said vendors should leave the streets so they could deal with the current cholera outbreak. However, we have seen them confiscate second-hand clothes, what does that have to do with cholera?” says a vendor who only identified herself as Sharon.
“We feel some are taking advantage to steal from us, we are just trying to eke out a living.”
Sharon said they now sell their clothes from bags. This allows for easy take-off when they see police trucks or council officials approaching.
Although the numbers have fallen since the blitz started, there is visible vendor activity in Harare at night.
Street vendors complain that the designated vending sites being offered as alternatives are far from their clients who are in the city.
They say there is no business at the vending site near the Coca-Cola plant along Seke Road.
The vending site has just one toilet facility, which is inadequate for the scores of vendors who ply their trade in the city centre.
Vendors are still resisting to move to this facility.
They want the council to build sheds and tar the parking lot around the site before they can consider moving there.
Only a handful of vendors have moved to the site.
“This place was supposed to be well serviced and stands marked before we could move in for business,” says a vendor.
“They are supposed to register and give us numbers so that when we come here everything is organised.
“We are fighting each other here, there are many people and the place is small but every vendor wants a spot.”
Vendors are unhappy about the new location, which they say still lacks basic sanitary facilities.
“We don’t have a problem in making this our new operating area but as you can see there is no business here,” says one vendor.
“We will starve if we don’t go back and sell our goods in town. Business is in town and here there is nothing.”
Another vendor says: “They said we were contributing to the spread of cholera in the CBD and what about here, what is here that is decent? There is no water and there is no toilet facility. How are we going to stop cholera when we don’t have basic water and toilets?”
Harare’s CBD is slowly clearing up as the joint operation between city of Harare and law enforcement agents is proving to be effective during the day.
But night time tells a different story.
The whole clean-up campaign, it seems, is a battle for survival on one hand, while on the other it’s a battle to bring sanity and order to the Sunshine City.
It remains to be seen how the council and law enforcement agents will sustain the campaign over time.
If the campaign is not sustained, street vendors will flood Harare’s streets again, putting everything into a merry-go-round.