The life and death of a Tunisian fruit seller

From the devastating Operation Murambatsvina that left thousands of people homeless, to the controversial land re-distribution exercise, to the many stories of police crackdowns on informal sellers, the issue of property rights has spurred much debate over the years.

In Zimbabwe, there are ten times more people working in the informal sector than in formal employment.
In Zimbabwe, there are ten times more people working in the informal sector than in formal employment.

Well-known researcher, Hernando de Soto from Peru, has dedicated years to looking at the ways property rights benefit those who have them and disadvantage those who live in countries where these rights are not recognised or respected. His most recent investigation took him to Tunisia where the confiscation of property from street traders is a daily battle.

A family man

With many reports in 2011 of police crackdowns on informal trading in Zimbabwe, it is important to look at the parallels that can be drawn between it and Tunisia. It is also interesting to note that a humble fruit-seller from a provincial Tunisian town quite literally sparked a revolution that changed the face of the country forever.

Mohamed Bouazizi has become a symbol of the resistance to injustice but, according to de Soto, he was an apolitical family man who worked hard to provide for his seven dependents. “He never even watched the news,” his mother said. “People like Mohamed are concerned with doing business. They don’t understand anything about politics.” Like so many of the men and women who ply Zimbabwe’s streets selling everything from imported Chinese goods to home grown vegetables, Bouazizi was a repressed entrepreneur and his death became a unifying force for people across the Arab world who could identify with his frustrations.

In the Middle East it is estimated that 50 percent of the region’s entrepreneurs operate outside the law. In Zimbabwe, more people work in the informal sector than are formally employed. The frustration felt by Arab go getters who want to prosper is the same as the despair experienced by so many Zimbabwean men and women who face the insurmountable obstacles of police intimidation, lack of capital and property rights laws.

The key issue for Bouazizi was his desire for a permanent market stand.

A permanent stand

“He wanted a permanent stand at the wholesale market,” his mother said. “If they had given it to him, it would have changed his life.” de Soto puts it like this:

‘For years, Bouazizi had endured harassment at the hands of deeply corrupt petty officials – most notably, the municipal police officers and inspectors who lived off street vendors and other small-scale extralegal business-people. The police officers helped themselves to the vendors’ fruit whenever they felt like it or arbitrarily fined them for running their carts without a permit. Bouazizi complained about the greed of local officers for years. He hated paying bribes.’ Sound familiar?

On December 17, 2010, however, something happened that changed the course of history. Bouazizi was accused by town inspectors of not paying a fine. They confiscated goods to the value of $225 and a local police woman slapped the vendor across his face in front of the gathered crowd. Despite attempts to appeal to the authorities, his property was not returned and Bouazizi decided he had had enough. An hour after the altercation, he covered himself with paint thinners and set himself on fire outside the government buildings in Sidi Bouzid. Attempts by bystanders to put out the flames were unsuccessful and the man later died from his burns.

Extralegal property right

Bouazizi’s work situation is no different from that of the thousands of informal workers in Zimbabwe who run small enterprises with no legal identity, address or right to the property or stall from which they work. Many of these workers pay rent for a temporary stall or bit of space on the pavement – what the Institute for Liberty and Democracy calls an extralegal property right.

Mohamed Bouazizi has become a key figure in Tunisian history.
Mohamed Bouazizi has become a key figure in Tunisian history.

Without legal documents, informal sellers are severely limited in terms of amassing capital.

‘They live in constant fear of being evicted or harassed by local officials,” de Soto notes. In the space of one morning, Bouazizi was robbed of all the capital he had. His rights were overlooked and he lost his share of the local market in the blink of an eye. ‘Bouazizi had not been just the victim of corruption or even public humiliation, as horrible as they are; he had been deprived of the only thing that stood between him and starvation – the loss of his place in the only economy available to the poor,’ de Soto writes.

The barriers of cost, gruelling administrative processes and lack of formal training make it impossible for informal traders in Zimbabwe to legalize their businesses. Small scale entrepreneurs are prevented from participating in the mainstream economy and therefore have no rights when the police launch another clampdown, or demand bribes for their silence.

Ten days after Bouaziz’s death, President Ben Ali fled the country. In less than a fortnight, the sacrifice of one poor fruit vendor inspired country-wide protests against the injustice that existed under the leadership of that time.

One of Bouazizi’s brothers, Salem, was asked by de Soto what Bouazizi would have wanted his sacrifice to achieve. He said: “That the poor also have the right to buy and sell.”

Post published in: Africa News
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