Joining the cult to make ends meet

Tendai Masanga*, 34, a single mother with two school-going children from Mbare, Harare’s most populous suburb, has always struggled to make ends meet because she did not have a steady source of income.

Tenants are expected to close shop whenever there are major events.
Tenants are expected to close shop whenever there are major events.

For several years, she sold tomatoes, sweets and cigarettes outside the house where she is a tenant until the landlord stopped her and proceeded to take over the space himself. Even though she was not making much from her modest venture, she at least could afford to buy food and pay the $50 a month rent for the room she occupied.

“When I was stopped from selling outside the house, I was thrown into a mess. For some time, I survived on borrowing from friends, lying that I had started a business and would repay them soon. At one time, I considered prostitution, but the idea was too horrible,” she told The Zimbabwean.

Zanu (PF) card

Things turned for the better late last year, when her neighbours advised her to join them as a vendor at an open space owned by the city council. But that came with its own problems. “One cannot easily get space to sell in Mbare if you don’t have a Zanu (PF) membership card, so I had to buy one even though I don’t support the party. I managed to get the stall and am selling second-hand clothes and life is much easier,” she added.

But getting the market stall, says Masanga, was like joining a cult. One has to play by Zanu (PF)’s rules, most of the time against one’s will. The party’s overbearing influence over the informal sector has come with debilitating effects on desperate vendors who are often manipulated or even harassed by party youths.

The daily hustle and bustle of a transient travelling public, normally awash with cash, provides a ready incentive for hordes of characters keen to claim space for extortion, drug peddling, and prostitution or simply to exert their influence.

Embattled population

Both the police and successive Harare administrations have been accused of failing to bring the market area to order as corrupt political activists, organised gangs of middlemen and petty criminals swindle rural farmers and travellers through a variety of scams. In particular, as Zimbabwe experienced a serious economic meltdown in the last decade, resulting in massive job losses, business closures and grinding poverty, Mbare became the sole safety net for an embattled population.

Zanu (PF) has managed to weave itself into the melee and virtually usurped political control, even when the area overwhelmingly voted for the MDC since 2000.

For one to be eligible to get a vending space, it is mandatory to possess a Zanu (PF) membership card. Thereafter, the vendors are recruited into the party’s structures and any suspicion that one is supporting the MDC-T results in loss of market stalls and, in some cases, open victimisation.

Tenants are expected to pay rents to Zanu (PF) officials, not to the council. In addition, they are forced to attend all party meetings and are expected to close shop whenever there are major events. They gather to sing President Mugabe’s praises and receive international dignitaries at the airport, in addition to making up the numbers during burials at Heroes Acre.

Manipulation methods

The Zimbabwean visited Mbare to ascertain Zanu (PF’s) manipulation methods and how these have been affecting the vendors. In some instances, one has to be vetted to determine one’s political allegiance, considered here as a prime qualification for a trading space, which ranges from two to five square metres.

The vetting process is reportedly done by party youths allegedly acting under the instruction of the provincial leaders, led by one Jim Kunaka who has in the past been linked to a vigilante group, Chipangano. Kunaka denies the charge.

“I am surprised these people are still issuing those statements,” he said. “Let me make it clear that when we hold our meetings, we make it clear that no one should be forced to close his or her market stall. Those who join the party do so because they feel they really belong to it.”

At Mupedzanhamo market, the vendors said that some powerful Zanu (PF) politicians oversee trading activities while threatening the desperate vendors against abandoning the party which they are told they should take as their saviour for the role it played in the struggle for Zimbabwe’s independence.

Newspapers banned

The vendors say, after the allocation of stands, the Zanu (PF) youths would make it clear that attendance at the party meetings accorded the beneficiaries insurance from eviction. “The message coming from the youths is that this place is meant to benefit Zanu (PF) supporters, so, essentially, what that means is that you have to be part and parcel of the party’s activities. That is why we attend every event organised by the party,” said a vendor.

At Magaba home industries section, Zanu (PF) vigilantes have ‘banned’ private newspapers, alleging bias against their party, with vendors saying the youths disrupt their businesses with ease by summoning all vendors to their meetings. “Besides attending the party’s rallies, we were tasked with recruiting new members so as to ensure Zanu (PF) recorded a resounding victory in the elections. There are some of us here who were tasked to identify opposition supporters for victimisation,” said a vendor.

Council “unaware”

Earlier Kunaka claimed that the MDC-T dominated council was seeking to evict Zanu (PF) supporters from market stalls in Mbare, hence the need for the party to step in to protect them. He dismissed reports of partisan allocation of the stands saying the MDC-T should find its own ways of empowering its supporters.

Harare City Council spokesperson, Lesley Gwindi said he was not aware that some Zanu (PF) activists with market stalls in Mbare were not paying anything to the local authority.

“I am not aware of that issue. But I think that if there was really a problem, the Finance Department would have (said it),” said Gwindi.

In neighbouring Chitungwiza the manipulation of the vendors by Zanu (PF) is rife as well. At a flea market in Zengeza 2, vendors told this newspaper that it was compulsory for them to attend Zanu (PF) functions or any other events addressed by Mugabe.

It was established that some ruling party heavies have been exempted from paying monthly rentals to the local authority. Information gathered revealed that the vendors pay $20 per month to the council while allocation of the stands is done along partisan lines here. (* not her real name)

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