Ever since this year’s workers day commemorations on May 1, there has been a lot of social media debate and attendant dry humour concerning whether Zimbabwe is a nation of vendors or workers. Not that this debate was particularly new given a good number of stories in the mainstream media concerning how the streets of Harare (and other cities) are now dominated by informal traders that are negatively affecting ‘formal’ ones. The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA), not to be left out, has also announced plans to tax the informal sector more ‘formally’.
This, in addition to the licence fees that are already paid to the Harare City Council and the skirmishes and fines that the municipal police regularly occasion on the traders.
There is obviously merit to a debate that looks at the expansion of this informal trade. The somewhat fashionable argument is to say that this development is indicative of the collapse of the formal industry and is evidence of mass unemployment in the country. The government however disputes unemployment figures or at least tries to describe these activities as a form of actual and measurable employment.
The reality of the matter is that indeed a lot of people across the country are finding ways to make ends meet however they can. Calling these activities informal or vending does not change the fact of their importance to those that undertake them and their dependants.
What is worrying is that this issue may be used to cloud economic issues that are more structural and long term than a person who is struggling to make ends meet as a direct result of a untenable macro-economic framework.
The structural question is more to do with the fact that the causes of this ‘informalisation’ do not begin with either the fast-track land reform programme (FTLRP), sanctions, and even liberal definitions of ‘bad governance’. The causes are historical in the shift of the state from social democratic economic policy frameworks to neo-liberal, free market structural economic structural adjustment ones in the late 1980s.
This is a point that is rarely flagged out because in essence where we have sought to analyse our economic challenges we have sought more to explain them from global economic knowledge systems that fit more the narratives given by those that have contributed immensely to our current state of affairs, namely, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
It is largely the rampant privatisation of the state and opening up of our local economy to patently unnecessary global market competition that not only stymied our ability to maintain a vibrant economy but saw thousands lose their formal sector jobs (public and private). It also saw the declining of social services provision through private public partnerships that today are touted as panacea when the truth of the matter is that they have been failing dismally since ESAP was made government policy.
Indeed the central government is liable and complicit for this long duree economic decline through not only accepting without contextual thought economic structural adjustment but also through embarking on what is essentially a ‘socialism of the rich and politically connected’. In our specific national context this is also generally referred to as state capitalism. From obscure concessions to land barons, through to corruption at publicly owned medical aid societies and state parastatals as well as private banks being let off the hook, our government has been distributing national resources to the already rich few and not the majority poor.
These circumstances however have a familiar global refrain. In times of national crisis as has been argued by climate change activist and writer, Naomi Klein, capital colludes with even the most unpopular governments to ensure that inequality remains in society. She refers to this as the ‘shock doctrine’. This is where the state seeks to dismantle its key role in the livelihoods of its citizens and outsource it to rampant profit driven capital that is in no way democratically accountable.
So the vendors and informal traders are not a problem, let alone the problem. They are citizens of Zimbabwe exercising their right to not only associate but also to earn a living even though they still barely manage to make ends meet. And in this case they are ‘workers’ because they are doing what the state will no longer do. They are working to send their children to school, try and get them the best possible healthcare, pay other ancillary bills and at least make an honest living. It will be hard to find someone in government or some of the increasingly monopolistic companies doing the same.