EVER since First Lady Grace Mugabe said last year that police should stop harassing informal traders, the once glamorous capital city of Harare has come to look more like a huge vending market.
Several streets and avenues of the capital have been completely blocked after hundreds of people decided to use the available free space to sell secondhand goods.
Parking areas have also been taken over – and several tents pitched in the area – as the influx of secondhand clothes vendors into the capital increases each day.
Some young people are using their own vehicles, which they park in busy areas, as street boutiques.
“They are charging us exorbitant fees to sell our clothes in the markets, so we decided to park our cars here and will sell out of the trunk,” Kudakwashe Musira, a young secondhand clothes vendor, told Anadolu Agency.
Previously, street vendors would engage in cat-and-mouse chases with police and local council officials.
This has stopped, however, since Grace Mugabe described informal traders as the anchor of Zimbabwe’s economy.
“If they are selling at undesignated places, tell them peacefully, they will understand,” the local media quoted the first lady as saying before thousands of women from the ruling Zanu PF Party during commemorations of International Women’s Day.
According to city officials, vendors pay about $3 per day, depending on the size of the market area.
Additional costs are incurred through politicians who charge vendors daily “security fees,” ranging from $5 to $10 per day.
Market stalls are allocated on a partisan basis by Zanu PF members, including Harare youth leaders who frequent the market to collect “security fees”.
Traders buy bales of secondhand clothes from the U.S. and various European countries for resale on the local market.
Vendors sell the clothes for as little as $.50 per item, racking up huge profits given the large volumes they deal with.
Businessman Cephas Mukato said the high rents being charged by building and property owners were deterring formal market activity.
“Even if I have the capacity to run a formal clothing boutique, rents are just too high,” Mukato, a former clothing shop owner, told Anadolu Agency.
“On average, they charge around $5 per square meter, regardless of whether the area is busy or not,” said Mukato.Advertisement
“This has created lawlessness, with some politicians now taking advantage of what the First Lady said in order to make money,” he added.
But traditional boutiques in the capital are also losing out, with considerable business going to informal traders.
“The whole battle now lies with pricing, as most of these boutiques are selling brand-new clothes free of disease,” Jacob Mafume, a spokesman for the opposition MDC Renewal Team party, told Anadolu Agency.
“On top of this, they have workers and overhead, so clothing prices are high,” he added.
A visit to most clothing shops in Harare showed that most people actually preferred informal markets to their formal counterparts – at least for buying clothes.
A worker at one shop, who declined to be named, said she had gone nearly three months without receiving her salary.
The worker, who only receives a daily transport allowance, blames the secondhand clothing market for ruining their business.
Petronella Chishawa, a Harare-based economist, said the high activity in the informal sector – coupled with wage arrears in the private sector – had served to “informalize” the country’s economy.
“The findings of different studies conducted in the region have been very similar to what holds in Zimbabwe – that [the country’s] economically active population is 67 percent, of which 11 percent is unemployed,” Chishawa told Anadolu Agency.
“This has changed the economic dynamics to an informal economy,” the economist added.
The influx of clothes vendors into the city center has also drawn rebuke from some critics.
“They are mistaking ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ as meaning ‘crowding beautiful streets in the city’,” said Mafume, the opposition activist.
“The city has turned into one huge flea market resembling an urban jungle without rules or order,” he lamented.