Informal traders need support and inclusion

This past week, Harare City municipal police went about demolishing illegal market stalls, vending sites and workspaces used by vendors and informal traders in the high-density suburbs such as Mbare, Highfields, Hopely and Glen Norah.

It is not clear whether the demolitions are an enforcement of Section 8 (1) (l) of Statutory Instrument 77 of 2020, gazetted on 23rd March, empowering government to “authorise the evacuation, closing, alteration or demolition of any premises whose occupation or use is deemed likely to aid the spread or render more difficult the eradication of Covid-19”. Nor has it been clarified if this is compliance with the Ministry of Local Government and National Housing’s 8 April directive to local authorities to implement a Cabinet resolution “to clean up and renovate work spaces used by SMEs and informal traders during the lockdown period”.

Whatever the motivation, the all-important question pertains to whether it is essential or desirable to demolish vendors’ stalls in the midst of an unprecedented crisis already hitting the poor the most. The impact of the COVID-19 inspired five-week lockdown on the livelihoods of the vendors and informal traders is dire and the demolitions of their workspaces will worsen it. They lost property and stock while the demolitions themselves were characterised by corruption and human rights violations such as extortion, bribes harassment and assaults.

In an op-ed published in the Newsday of 6 April, two weeks after gazetting of S.I 77/2020, I warned about the possibility of the COVID-19 pandemic being abused as a pretext for demolitions. I also cautioned that this would harm the socio-economic welfare of the already impoverished informal settlement dwellers surviving from vending. The demolitions mean that after the lockdown, most informal traders will struggle to restart their businesses, having exhausted capital on lockdown subsistence, and having lost both their wares and work spaces.

It is important for me to emphasize that the organisation that I work for, Community Alliance for Human Settlements in Zimbabwe (CAHSZ), do not encourage illegal occupation of state land for whatever purpose. CAHSZ strive for proper, orderly and lawful human settlements. One of our formative goals is to contribute to Zimbabwe’s efforts to achieve sustainable cities and communities aspired under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11.

However, the pursuit of this noble aspiration should not be at the expense of sanctified rights to livelihoods and shelter. That is why, as CAHSZ, we advocate for relocation as a more humane alternative to forced evictions. That is also why we advocate for human rights-based approaches that place citizens at the centre of all policies, whether aimed at governing human settlements, achieving sustainable communities or combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

On 22 April 2020, four days after Harare demolitions had begun, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres gave an update on the COVID-19 global situation. He called on all responses to ensure protection of livelihoods and to cushion the most vulnerable population sections such as informal traders, slum dwellers and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The demolitions currently underway in Zimbabwe are a direct opposite of these recommendations. In fact, they show that we learnt nothing and forgot nothing from Operation Murambatsvina of 2005.

Firstly, Operation Murambatsvina led to loss of livelihoods and shelter by at least 570 000 people. Likewise, the current demolitions will disrupt jobs and livelihood sources of several thousand informal traders residing in the same urban and peri-urban informal settlements demolished during Operation Murambatsvina fifteen years ago.

Secondly, in 2005, the authorities started by demolishing illegal housing structures before implementing Operation Garikai/Hlalani Kuhle to build houses for those it had rendered homeless. The victims had to stay in the open while houses were under construction. This month, the City of Harare demolished vending sites first and then set out to finish construction of designated vending sites for relocation of the affected. They put the cart before the horse, as affected vendors will be without operating spaces until construction had been finished.

Thirdly, the timing is insensitive. Operation Murambatsvina was implemented in the midst of winter exposing women, children, the elderly and persons with disabilities to harsh weather conditions. Current demolitions are being undertaken in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic when informal traders who live on a dollar-per-day, hand-to-mouth basis have not been working for a month now due to the lockdown.

The big questions are; after the COVID-19 pandemic has been arrested, how do communities recover to become more sustainable and resilient? How do we ensure that even the most vulnerable citizens are not left behind but are in better positions than before the pandemic?

These are three suggestions that can help make this possible. Firstly, current COVID-19 mitigatory measures should guarantee, protect and promote access to social safety nets, especially for the most vulnerable populations such as informal settlement dwellers and traders who have limited access to social safety nets. This should include immediate disbursement of social support grants promised by government to cushion vulnerable citizens. This also include improving availability of basic goods such as mealie meal at affordable prices.

Secondly, post-pandemic interventions should be responsive, inclusive and equitable enough to stimulate sustainable recovery of vulnerable groups such as youths and women informal traders being excluded by current government interventions. An example is the ZWL$17 Million COVID-19 Youth Relief Fund “meant to provide relief support to youth enterprises affected by the coronavirus pandemic and the measures taken to contain it”. The Fund’s eligibility requirements announced by Youth Minister, Kirsty Coventry on 24 April are stringent and discriminatory against youth informal traders. Applicants are required to provide proof of residence and operation in Zimbabwe, such as bank statements of up to six months prior to the lockdown, and also proof of place of operation such as a valid lease agreement or utility bills. Only the formalized businesses not affected by the demolitions meet these requirements. Youth and women informal traders whose workspaces were demolished do not and so they will not access this stimulus package. Government should revise these requirements to ensure that vulnerable groups such as youth and women informal traders equitably access the Fund and any other resources and opportunities that will enable recovery and resilience.

Lastly, current COVID-19 preventive measures and recovery efforts should be consultative, open and transparent to include the input of those to be affected. It is a fact that we currently live in desperate times that may justify desperate measures. However, arbitrary measures such as the ongoing demolitions will only generate ill will and resistance thereby crippling all efforts to arrest the spread of COVID-19. In a crisis such as this, citizens need agency and a voice in order for them to cooperate. Broad-based participation guarantees this and government should adopt it to ensure buy-in, trust, compliance and cooperation by citizens.

Source: Francis Mukora*

*Francis Mukora is a certified public policy analyst, human rights campaigner and social justice activist. He writes in his capacity as the Research and Advocacy Coordinator for Community Alliance for Human Settlements in Zimbabwe (CAHSZ) an organisation advocating for safe and secure settlements and access to socio-economic rights for all Zimbabweans.