Vendors and the city government of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, clash over access to the city center, where officials want to bar unlicensed vendors from operating. Vendors say the police raids can be violent, and their advocates say vendors are viewed as a “nuisance” despite their importance in a struggling economy.
BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — Vendors are selling seemingly every product imaginable in the city center here, despite the ongoing threat of council police raids that clear their stalls out, damaging their goods in the process.
Doreen Selimani, a 37-year-old single mother of three, has sold cellphone airtime, sweets and chips at a major downtown intersection for more than a decade, but even she was caught off guard when a municipal officer grabbed one of her trays. Her daughter, 16-year-old Abigail Mudenda, initially thought the officer was a thief, so she tried to fight him off.
“He then twisted my arm and I quickly let go of the tray when I felt severe pain,” Mudenda says.
Such harsh treatment is common, vendors say. City council police officers push through the market areas at random times, conducting raids in such a way that it is difficult to confirm how many have occurred. But city officials argue that it’s imperative to clear out illegal shopkeepers to keep the city orderly and ensure that vendors abide by the law.
The Bulawayo City Council introduced vendor licenses in 1996, and bylaws prohibiting vendors from operating haphazardly have been on the books since 1976. The base fee for an annual license is $23, and monthly rental fees for sanctioned market stalls range from $5 in outlying areas to $11.50 in the Central Business District, council spokesperson Nesisa Mpofu says.
The total cost of a vending license varies depending on what one sells, with different rates for selling cellphone airtime, sweets and produce. But the market has now expanded to include vendors selling all types of items, from compact discs to fresh meat, on almost every street corner in the city center.
Lindelwe Mgodla, GPJ Zimbabwe
City officials could not confirm the total number of licensed vendors operating in Bulawayo.
To apply for a vending license, applicants must bring identity documents, processed fingerprint forms, proof of Bulawayo residence and passport photos, along with money to pay the fee, Mpofu says. Vending applicants can use the receipt they receive after submitting those documents to legally operate vending stands while the Director of Health Services finalizes the application, Mpofu says.
Vendors say some of the available stands are located as far as 6 miles from the Central Business District.
“We can’t go out of town because the money is here,” says Brian Ncube, a fruit vendor.
The continued clash between the city council and vendors has led to the rise of organizations that work to promote and protect the rights of vendors. Selimani received legal assistance through one such organization, the Bulawayo Vendors & Traders Association (BVTA), after her daughter’s altercation with a municipal officer. The organization also helped her apply for a license.
Michael Ndiweni, acting coordinator for BVTA, says there’s a lack of clear guidelines for vendors.
“This is a cause for concern because vendors are viewed as second-class citizens, yet it’s the informal businesses that have become the backbone of our depressed economy,” Ndiweni says.
“Vendors are perceived as a nuisance,” he adds.
The city council is adamant about limiting vendors to designated trading spaces within the Central Business District in an effort to “clean” the city. Vendors, however, say the allocated zones are traffic-free and they cannot make much there. Therefore, they flood the illegal spaces, and some trade without vending licences.
The unlicensed vendors say they have a right to avoid violence at the hands of council police.
Mudenda, the girl who was injured in a raid, says her mother is seeking an apology from the council police.
Talent Gumpo, GPJ, and Lindelwe Mgodla, GPJ, translated some interviews from Ndebele.