Vending a reflection of economic crisis

HARARE - As the deadline for vendors — June 26 — fast approaches, the Daily News Assistant Editor Maxwell Sibanda spoke to Davison Gomo, a development, trade and business consultant and an international lawyer on a wide range of issues surrounding the debate on vending.

In recent times, the local media has been awash with all sorts of comments on vending and vendors in our cities and undoubtedly this has become one of the biggest challenges of both social and public policy today.

Gomo said he found a lot of comments on this problem rather too simplistic and lacking in context, hence the tendency is to oversimplify a complex issue.

He said he gets an impression that local authorities supposed to deal with the problem of vending are in a hurry to solve a complex problem using very simple policy tools.

The vending problem, he argued, requires a thorough investigation and solutions must be tied to good urban planning and regeneration policies alongside sustainable poverty reduction strategies.

Gomo believes the debate on vendors missed another very important point in that the hyperinflation period wiped out all life savings for most of the people and most of them started life in 2009 from a zero position — a development that saw many people resorting to vending.

Q: Who constitutes the vendors?

A: Vendors are part of us, our sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers who have been thrown away by our so-called formal system. They are products of industrial failure and a generally depressed economic environment. Often I hear people almost make comments that border on total disrespect for the vendors as if they are a self-created lot or a people visiting from some world or another planet.

Q: But why has vending suddenly surged?

A: In the absence of a clear policy response to company closures, retrenchments and lack of economic opportunities, lack of funds to finance indigenisation and economic empowerment projects and indeed the aborted attempts at reviving industries in every city in the country, it is understandable why there is a sudden increase in vending nationwide.

Q: But there are others who blame vendors for the influx of foreign goods?

A: There is an argument that suggests that the vendors are selling foreign products and no doubt this may be true. However, the main culprits are the retail sectors who in fact are doing this on a grand scale to the point of killing a lot of local products by stealth because most of these foreign products are not labelled.

Blaming the vendors for killing the retail sector is an argument that will not fly at all. There are latent and strategic reasons why some retailers are facing challenges but certainly it is not the vendors despite their unacceptable presence in unauthorised places in the city.

Q: Is there any problem with foreign businesses operating here?

A: I find it interesting that despite our intent to protect the retail sector from foreign intrusion, no one has the audacity to question the logic of killing the TM Supermarket brand that has served this country well for many years in favour of Pick n Pay that in my view is a conduit for flooding the local market with foreign goods.

The Buy Zimbabwe Campaign has not seen the danger that this does to their objective. I do not have a problem with foreign businesses in Zimbabwe and indeed we have many of them and the likelihood is that they will increase but we need to protect the ones where there is plenty of skill and local capacity.

Q: Are you of the opinion that vendors have to remain in the city centres?

A: I totally agree that the present situation has reached breaking point and something must be done to clear the city of the vendors but such a move must be guided by a long-term solution based on credible city and physical planning methodology.

Q: Is government bold enough to remove vendors from the streets?

A: The housing co-operative movement has created another set of problems in that most of them have no regard for order and totally work outside the by-laws. Government has tried to restore order by threatening to remove all illegal structures but not much has been achieved to this end. 

There are many distortions that have been introduced into the system by the cow boy like co-operatives but my view is that government must be bold and move on to restore order before irreparable damage is done to our cities.

Q: Have city councils contributed to the vending problem?

A: Some of the urban councils have not used the land they have imaginatively and there is a dangerous trend lately where all open spaces are used to build residential places at the expense of shopping facilities and recreational centres.

This makes whatever local space available open to vendors with the rest of them opting to flood the city centres because at least they can sell their wares and products to a public that find them very conveniently located.

There is a strong possibility that vending reflects a skewed property ownership system in the cities. Most current land and property owners are beneficiaries of the colonial system and not much has happened to democratise land ownership in and around the city since independence.

Unless this problem is given priority and addressed urgently, we will only succeed in creating a pool of tenants in all our cities and this cannot be right 35 years after independence.

Q: But why have vendors invaded mostly the cities’ central business?

A: The problems caused by vending are a drop in the ocean with regards to the wider arguments in this case. We need to give people sustainable access to livelihoods and our local government system has failed dismally in this regard.

Most of our cities are running without city and strategic plans and in all cases they claim that there is no money to develop city plans and yet they have all the money to do things that are not core to their existence.

It is important to note that our cities have not expanded the central business district in particular since 1980. There are notable improvements but that is as far as it goes. The demand for shopping space has risen phenomenally yet the supply side has remained subdued.

As a result of the lack of expansion of the central business district and lack of creative built environment strategies, the city has remained as the centre of heavy human traffic and vendors find it easy to have a ready market.

Q: What happens if the vendors are not handled with care?

A: It is important to remember that if the vendors are not handled with care, they may turn into a negative force that destabilise society. While this behaviour and practice irritates, it is however a lot easier to deal with a group of people that are engaged in survival activities than dealing with hungry mobs on the streets.

Q: What do you think triggered unemployment?

A: Although unemployment has really never been solved totally since 1980, the introduction of Economic and Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) in the early 1990s contributed to massive unemployment through company closures, retrenchment in the private and public sectors.

There is evidence to support this because government managed the retrenchment exercise then and no company would just close and disappear without informing the State.
The country never recovered from the onslaught of Esap and as we all know when this was taking place, the only response at the time was the negative stay-away organised by the trade union movement that had already set up its plans of taking advantage of the situation by forming a political party.

Q: What happens when there is mass unemployment?

A: Mass unemployment is a terrible evil and if not managed carefully it can drag down society to death.
Effectively, mass unemployment confirms the breakdown of social organisations and at this stage it just means that government is no longer capable of providing its population with socially and economically useful functions.

There is no pretence about this untenable and unavoidable situation as government simply has no funds to respond to such a huge social and economic problem.

Q: What about the government land reform programme, has it not helped in anyway?

A: Of course, the second major event after Esap was the land reform programme. The demonisation of land reform and ownership was received badly by the western nations and the country was placed on sanctions as punishment for dispossessing the white farmers of the land.

This process was unavoidable because land was at the centre of our conflict with the white minority regime but the reality is that in the short term, a majority of the people who were previously employed at the farms lost their jobs while agricultural productivity at the farms plummeted and in the process creating a serious economic and social challenge.

There was no way government could get rid of mass unemployment in the circumstances and it is important to note that a significant percentage of this unemployed group was largely made of young people (youth) who were entering the working age.

Q: What about the other industries that survived Esap?

A: The loss of effective control of the economic space by the State through trade liberalisation further worsened our position as the few industries that survived Esap were now exposed to competing with new foreign players who had cost and price advantage.

Not only did this cause further deterioration of our industrial capacity, it also led to further job losses thus compounding the already very fragile situation.

Esap ended the government’s experiment with a socialist oriented policy and consequently, the country was ushered into mainstream capitalism that by its nature is susceptible to recurrent crises from time to time.

We already know that when this was taking place, the country had a huge foreign debt which as a result of a plethora of challenges, it now could not service.  At any rate, the country was already sanctioned for its land reform policy and as such, its access to foreign loans was totally blocked.

The financial crises experienced in the late 90s and the early 21st century did not help at all as it further worsened the position of the developing countries due to the contagion effect and the so called interdependence of the global economy.

All this did not make it easy for Zimbabwe to find its feet on the economic front. Instead, things went from bad to worse and that history is well known to all Zimbabweans.

I therefore do not think that this wholesale demonisation of the vendors is well-placed even at this point in time because we know very well that our industries are still operating at a fairly low capacity.

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