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Opinion

The impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on Zimbabwe’s informal economy

Published on 20 May 2020

Image of Simbarashe Gukurume
Simbarashe Gukurume

Sol Plaatje University

Image of Marjoke Oosterom
Marjoke Oosterom

Research Fellow

Soon after African countries imposed lockdowns in attempts to contain the spread of Covid-19, news reports came out that showed populations feared hunger more than the virus itself. Yet, at the same time in Zimbabwe, the government made use of the opportunity to push through reforms of informal markets, making no attempt to warn or consult vendors whose stalls were bulldozed.

Various civil society actors have demonstrated that both the pandemic and government measures impact heavily on informal workers, who lose their livelihood due to lockdowns or slowing demand for their services and products in complex international value chains. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has shown that social protection systems will fail on a global scale to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of most vulnerable groups, including informal workers.

Zimbabwe has been on a national lockdown since 30 March 2020. The lockdown was initially only supposed to last 21 days, but it has been extended twice already, and in mid-May a further ‘indefinite’ extension was announced. Although some mobility restrictions were eased with the second lockdown extension, informal businesses will remain largely closed, except for some fruit and veg markets. Mobility into town continues to be restricted and thus impacts the flow of customers. It is estimated that over 90 per cent of Zimbabweans work in the informal economy, and many live hand to mouth. A ZimRights report reveals that the impact of the lockdown on the informal sector will hit women the hardest, with women constituting the majority of informal workers.

How are vendors coping in lockdown?

As part of the  Learning on the Streets project, local vendors confirmed a drop in sales weeks before the lockdown as news of Covid-19 spread. Videos circulating on WhatsApp networks warned Zimbabweans that second-hand clothes imported from China were contaminated with the virus; something the Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services referred to in her call to enforce a ban on second-hand clothes.

The abrupt announcement of the lockdown gave vendors little time to organise their savings and stock up on food. Vendors state that they cannot afford to be home and not work, whilst going out to work exposes them to police violence and potentially contracting the virus.

“If I don’t go to work, my whole family will die of hunger – so what difference does it make? It is better to take the risk of getting the coronavirus than to see my family starve to death”: stated Josh (pseudonym), in a telephone interview. Many have reduced their food intake to two meals a day and the quantity of their food portions to save the little they have.

While the government promised to avail an informal sector cushion fund to help vendors survive during the lockdown, no financial assistance has been received so far. The situation is worsened by the critical shortage of mealie meal. Participants report they must queue for many hours in crowded places, whilst being exposed to the risk of infection, or buy mealie meal at high costs on the black market.

Politics and Covid-19 measures

In Harare and other cities, the local authorities have taken advantage of the national lockdown to redesign the informal economy. Designated markets have been revamped and illegal vending sites at ‘undesignated spaces’ demolished around the city. The operation was a directive from the Ministry of Local Government – supported by the police and Joint Operations Command – which stated that informal markets were potential hotspots for the spread of Covid-19.

The mayor of Harare Herbert Gomba and opposition party leader Nelson Chamisa initially denounced the demolitions, yet days later the mayor sent out a series of tweets announcing that the reconstruction of markets would help eliminate the role of ‘space barons’. Often linked to the ruling party ZANU-PF, space barons collect huge amounts of revenue from vendors that ought to be paid to the city council.

In response, local ZANU-PF leaders in some markets tried to mobilise vendors against the market renovations and demolitions of illegal structures. “They [leaders] sent us messages that the city council wanted to remove everyone and replace them with the MDC [opposition party] supporters after renovations, so we have to unite and resist any attempts to reallocate tables because we are not guaranteed tables after the operation” said Thomas, one of the vendors who participates in phone interviews.

However, lockdown restrictions have so far prevented any substantial mobilisation of vendors. The informal sector has become a terrain of political struggles of control with serious consequences for the livelihoods of the poor vendors.

Politics are also likely to interfere with the allocation of the cushion fund for informal workers as ambiguities pertaining how beneficiaries will be selected remain. The Minister of Finance did announce that the government will use an algorithm using people’s mobile money transactions data, but some vendors do not own mobile phones.

ZimRights has also reported partisan and selective listing of potential beneficiaries in parts of Harare, and some of our participants reported they had to show ZANU-PF membership cards when registering their names. “Much of the listing was done by ZANU-PF affiliate structures and those without party cards or outside the party registers might not benefit”, said Erica. Indeed, the Zimbabwe NGO Forum reported that ZANU-PF supporters were responsible for the screening of beneficiaries and those who were not aligned to the party were not included or deleted from the list.

Cases of partisan aid distribution are not new in Zimbabwe, often having been used by ZANU-PF to gain political mileage. As such, many vendors will likely not be able to access this cushion fund assistance. The delay in the payment of the government support means that most vendors are now living off the savings they need to restart their businesses after the lockdown. Many reported they fear they will not be able to return to work or might have to incur huge debts to restart their businesses.

Implications for vendors

The abrupt anouncement of enforcing the ban on second-clothes has produced outrage, as thousands will instantly lose their income. ZimRights regarded the demolitions as an attack on poor people’s livelihoods and economic rights, and vendor’s associations have argued they will only compound the crisis and exacerbate poverty for informal vendors. Civil society tried to block demolitions and the High Court initially ruled in their favour, but central government subsequently announced the operation was legal and local authorities should proceed.

While the renovation of markets should result in 8500 spaces, there are many more vendors in Harare. The demolitions of the so-called illegal vending structures will make large numbers of vendors acutely vulnerable and exacerbate their levels of poverty.

One opportunity that has emerged is that vendors and their associations like the Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation (VISET) have moved from the periphery to the centre of policy attention. ZTN has dedicated a series of live broadcasts on the impact of Covid-19 on the informal economy, with participation of a leading vending association, the mayor of Harare and other council officials. When the city council announced that space allocation was to be overseen by a committee, VISET was quick to ask to be part of this.

Before the lockdown commenced, the ‘Learning on the Streets’ study of relatively new markets showed it was hard to cut the influence of space barons even after they had been pushed out of town. The informal politics underlying the competition for control over the informal economy in Harare might very well shape the equal distribution of vending spaces after the lockdown ends.

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