Street vendors in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare are defying a government ban on their activities following a recent outbreak of typhoid in the country.
Since the first case was reported in December, two people have died and hundreds more have been infected with typhoid fever, a highly infectious, potentially fatal bacterial infection spread by eating or drinking food or water contaminated with the feces of an infected person.
In response an inter-ministerial committee – comprising of the Ministry of Health and Child Care, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, the Ministry of Local Government and the Ministry of Small to Medium Enterprises –banned the vending of foodstuffs on 10 January in a bid to stem the recent outbreak.
“We are aware of the fierce backlash that we will receive from the vending public but our actions are in the public interest,” Harare City Council acting town clerk Josephine Ncube told South African news channel eNCA.
In a country where already sky-high unemployment levels only continue to go up, the banning of street vending is viewed by critics of the policy as an anti-people move designed to punish the people of Harare for supporting the opposition party – the Movement for Democratic Change Zimbabwe – in local government elections.
There are an estimated 10,000 street vendors in Harare alone. Despite the ban, many of them have continued to trade, even though they face the risk of having their produce impounded and destroyed. Vendors now avoid the city centre, where there is a heavy police presence, or concentrate on operating after hours.
On 19 January vendors’ rights NGO, the Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation (VISET), challenged the ban in the country’s High Court.
Vendors are calling on the government to create decent work for the city’s informal traders before removing them from the streets. They have also accused the authorities of failing to address the root causes of the recent outbreak, such as blocked drains, raw sewage flowing in the streets and uncollected garbage.
Garikai Zvasara, a vendor in central Harare, told Equal Times that he would continue to sell food on the streets until the government offered him a viable alternative.
“I am better off dead than to live and watch my family languish in poverty because of an insensitive government that wants its people to suffer for its own mistakes. I am prepared to fight them to the end because they are not offering us any alternative means of livelihood,” Zvasara said.
Create more jobs – don’t destroy our livelihoods
The Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA) president Lorraine Sibanda told Equal Times that the government should avoid politicising what is, in essence, a crisis of its own making.
“It is not possible to eradicate vendors. They shall continue to make a living from the streets because the government was there when the companies were closing and they are the ones who put in place the policies that drove the investors out,” she said.
She described the ministerial task force as “blind” to the poor service delivery and environmental neglect that had led to the recent typhoid outbreak.
“All they see is vendors as corrosive elements to health and their elitist portrayal of life in Zimbabwe. But street vendors and all informal economy workers are not criminals; they are full Zimbabwean citizens making an honest living in a jobless and decayed economy,” she said.
The Combined Harare Residents Association (CHRA) echoed the same sentiments in a statement which called on local authorities to address the major causes of the typhoid outbreak rather than concentrating on window dressing measures such as ridding the city of its street vendors.
“Unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation and hygiene services are among the key drivers of typhoid and need urgent attention if the typhoid outbreak is to be contained. The situation in Harare is compounded by the fact that over the years, residents have endured erratic water supplies while refuse collection is generally poor,” it said.
The Civil Society Health Emergency Response Coordinating Committee (CSHERCC) said the government hadn’t done enough to curtail the spread of typhoid since the first case was reported in December.
CSHERCC spokesperson Dr Evans Masitara, who is also chairperson of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, said that while from a health perspective they did not encourage the selling of food in the streets, vendors were not responsible for the typhoid outbreak.
“We don’t want to mix issues here. The vending of meat and other foodstuffs is a health problem, but it is definitely not a driver of the outbreak of typhoid,” he said.
“The problem must therefore be understood in terms of a systematic failure by the state through the central government to decisively deal with a known problem. The repetitive nature of the outbreaks of typhoid and other water-borne diseases is a result of failure on the part of the state, through the central government and local authorities, to plan adequately and anticipate an outbreak every season,” he said.