THE police came with truncheons at dawn, catching the vendors as they arrived to set up their stalls in central Harare.
In scenes all too reminiscent of President Robert Mugabe’s infamous campaign of shack clearances in 2005, municipal officers smashed down the traders’ tables.
Some of them reacted by stoning the police, according to state media. Up to 29 traders were arrested and six seriously injured in the chaos.
The traders had been told they were a public health hazard. They’d been ordered to leave the city centre by the end of June. Very few of them – apart from the pro-ruling party Queen of Grace Zim Asset Trust vendors’ association, which barely existed a month ago and appears to be named after the Zimbabwe president’s wife – complied.
“It’s not defiance,” said Promise Mkwananzi, the head of the Zimbabwe Informal Sectors Organisation (Ziso), as the street battles raged. “There is no alternative. The economy has been decimated. Industry is down. There are no jobs.”
Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans have invaded the streets of the country’s main towns and cities in the last few months, selling everything from second-hand tights and socks to peanut butter and pumpkins. Some have lost their jobs in a worsening economic squeeze that the Mugabe government blames on western sanctions. Others are officially employed but haven’t been paid for months. Many are university graduates.
As opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai says, Zimbabwe has become a “nation of vendors”.
There have always been street traders in Zimbabwe but this is on a scale never previously seen: men and women crammed tightly – but politely – next to each other, right outside shops that are themselves struggling to remain in business.
Mugabe’s government has been dithering for months about what to do with the vendors. Officials weren’t helped by the fact that the president’s wife in March ordered the police to leave the traders alone. A 26 June deadline for the sellers to move to “specially designated areas” – usually far from the city centres, where traders are expected to pay “space barons” for stalls – was ignored.
But on Monday Mugabe reshuffled his cabinet. He did not give Grace a ministerial seat, as had been widely expected: the first lady appears to have nagging health problems. Instead, Mugabe appointed former environment minister Saviour Kasukuwere, the man behind last weekend’s controversial export of 24 baby elephants to China, to the local government portfolio.
Kasukuwere, whose nickname is Tyson, immediately turned his sights on the vendors. As the municipal police clashed with vendors on Thursday, Kasukuwere posted a picture of himself having coffee with Harare mayor Bernard Manyenyeni, who is a member of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). “Finding common ground,” the minister tweeted.
Analysts believe that this clampdown is an attempt, just like Operation Drive Out the Filth was in 2005, to break the back of the MDC in urban areas. Kasukuwere told the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper on Friday that Manyenyeni “must shape up or ship out”.
Four more vendors were injured on Friday when they tried to set up stalls again in Harare, according to Ziso. Then it emerged that tons of second-hand clothes belonging to the vendors had been set on fire. Some of the vendors were photographed rifling through the debris, looking to see what they could salvage.
Entrepreneur @SirNige tweeted: “Who authorised the burning of the vendors’ wares? This ISN’T on!! Tell people to move nicely.”
Upping the ante, opposition spokesman Obert Gutu ordered vendors to remain on the streets “until such a time that the renegade Zanu-PF regime has provided them with jobs.”