Grace and the Street-Hawkers

The great fig trees on First Street mall, the fountains in Africa Unity Square with its Union Jack layout despite 35 years of the British-hating regime, the broad palm-lined Julius Nyerere Avenue and the quaint 1890s Indian shops lining Robert Mugabe road, they’re all still there.

Grace Mugabe

Grace Mugabe

Harare’s city centre, is like a tramp’s coat, grubby, frayed but still with the shape of past distinction. You can still get a milk shake and a toasted cheese at the tearoom in Barbours department store.

Then Grace Mugabe, the wife of the president, put her size 9 FF foot in it. “Police,” she blustered in October last year. “Stop taking the goods of the street traders.”

For decades police have staged periodic raids against the sellers of airtime, flowers, fruit and frail Chinese gadgets who lurk around the city’s shopping centres. They regularly “confiscated” the traders’ goods but gave them to their wives, who would sell them on other streets. It at least ensured that only the brave and desperate would try their luck, so their numbers were tolerable.

Such is the curious power of the woman whose only rank is the unofficial “first lady,” that police withdrew in terror of being accused of defying her. Within a month a great wave of hawkers and street traders had swamped the city centre, occupying virtually every paving slab.

From a couple of thousand, an estimated 20,000 street traders swarmed in central Harare. The invasion was driven by the worsening closure of businesses in Zimbabwe’s second economic disaster in six years. At mines and factories and government offices, employees wait for wages that are often years overdue. They have to eat, so they trade.

On sheets of newspaper on the ground, or on a cardboard box table, they laid out their goods. Watches, agricultural implements, small lamps (vital for constant power cuts), needlework requirements, stacks of tins of baked beans, new shoes, old shoes, mountains of second-hand clothing, toiletries. Everything and anything, in a cacophony of bawling touts, megaphones and throbbing music.

Pedestrians had to inch their way through a narrow path between the hawkers’ stands on the otherwise broad pavement. The roadway in Speke Avenue was jammed with hawkers and their tents and tables. A covered pedestrian bridge over a dangerously busy two-lane highway became impassable when it was turned into a storeroom for vendors’ stock.

Unencumbered by rent, trading licences, rates and taxes, they set up shop on the pavement outside established Indian businesses, selling the same goods but at half the price charged by the shops inside.

But they have to pay “protection” money demanded by a mafia of thugs from Mr Mugabe’s ZANU(PF) party for the tiny patches of public pavement they occupy. Then there are the membership fees charged by the traders’ unions, controlled by either ZANU(PF) or the opposition MDC.

“Low-low” is the street traders’ stock reply to questions about business. Mercy sells second-hand jackets and trousers, starting at 7 am and going home at 9 pm, seven days a week.

The street traders’ occupation of Harare’s streets has become a rare act of mass defiance. Last month authorities threatened to bring in the army to drive them out, but sense prevailed.

The police tried, but set off demonstrations where angry traders – members of a ruling party union – brandished placards warning the government, “We will see you in 2018,” the date of the next election, and “Grace, we have turned our backs on you.”

Repeated raids by Harare’s municipal police have thinned out the numbers, temporarily. They set fire to the vendors’ goods stored in the pedestrian bridge.

Clothing is by far the most common item sold. And what happens to it once it is confiscated? It goes to Mugabe’s wife, Grace, the self-appointed ‘mother of the nation’, who then hands it out to supporters of the ruling party.

“Don’t buy second-hand clothes,” she said this week at a party rally meant to boost her ambitions as her 91-year-old husband’s successor. “Because when they are confiscated by the police and authorities, they are given to me, as the mother, so that I could distribute them to many people for free.”

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Post published in: Analysis

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