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ZIMBABWE: Street Vendors’ Protest Sparking a Revolution

HARARE, Jan 19 2012 (IPS) - There are some unlikely comparisons between the work lives of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller who sparked the Arab revolution, and Francis Tachirev, a fruit seller in Zimbabwe.

Francis Tachirev, a fruit seller in Zimbabwe lives in fear of the local police confiscating his goods. Credit: Stanley Kwenda/IPS

Francis Tachirev, a fruit seller in Zimbabwe lives in fear of the local police confiscating his goods. Credit: Stanley Kwenda/IPS

The protests that started it all began after Bouazizi burnt himself after the police confiscated his fruit-vending cart. Nationwide protests after Bouaziz’s death led to Tunisia’s former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fleeing the country and giving up power. Bouaziz’s dramatic death changed the world, starting what is now referred to as the Arab Spring.

Like Bouazizi did, Tichareva earns a modest living pushing his fruit cart along Harare’s central business district, selling his wares. And like Bouazizi too, Tichareva lives in fear of the local police confiscating his goods, especially now that the Zimbabwean Police and the Harare City Council have launched a campaign to drive illegal vendors out of the city.

Tichareva began work as a fruit vendor in 2008 when the clothing factory he worked at closed.

“I got tired of looking for a job and the only way to earn a living was to make this cart and start selling fruit,” Tichareva told IPS as he kept an eye out for the police patrolling the streets of Harare.

The police and council officials move around the city in trucks arresting vendors who sell goods without a licence and confiscating their merchandise. The raids are often violent as the vendors have now organised themselves and are fighting back. On Jan. 11 the Harare city centre came to a standstill as the police and vendors fought, with vendors throwing stones at the police.

During the first two weeks of January several police officers were left injured and a police post in the centre of town was forced to close during the clashes. The local newspaper The Zimbabwean reported that two vendors had to be hospitalised after being tortured by police. The newspaper also said the reporters from the local newspaper the Daily News had been detained by police for covering the event.

Although the protests are a long way from sparking a revolution in Zimbabwe, the determination of vendors to fight for their livelihoods is a sign that people will no longer remain silent about their suffering.

University of Zimbabwe political lecturer who studies political and social trends, Eldred Masunungure, told the local Daily News newspaper that although it is unheard of in Zimbabwe to fight with the police, the fact that civilians are starting to do so is a sign of the times.

“The people are fed-up with their suffering and that could be the only way they can show off their bitterness. Most of them have been trying to earn a living from vending but only for the police to act hard on them,” Masunungure told the Daily News. “They could have decided to revert back at police officers because they were tired with the situation.”

Many of the vendors, like Tichareva, cannot afford to pay 125 dollars a month in licence fees for a legal permit to sell fruit in the city. Tichareva told IPS that he only makes, at most, 90 dollars a month.

And like Bouazizi, he is fed up with the police. Bouazizi’s story is one that has not escaped the notice of this street vendor in this Southern African nation.

Close to where Tichareva sells his wares are newspaper vendors and he usually sneaks a look at the daily headlines. He told IPS that he read about Bouazizi but will not contemplate burning himself even though he faces the same challenges that Bouazizi did.

“I read the story but I will not kill myself. If the police attack me, I will fight back,” said Tichareva adding, “We work hard but they stretch us too much what do they want us to do?”

Many other vendors share Tichareva’s sentiments. Several women and men continue to swarm the walkways in central Harare selling all types of merchandise in defiance of the police clampdown.

“We fight the police because they are the ones who started attacking us. They took our goods to eat or sell at their houses when we also looking to survive,” Tafadzwa Nyamupfachitu, a 27-year-old mother of six-year-old triplets, told IPS.

She earns a living for her family by selling fruit, cigarettes and cell phone airtime. “We are angered by this because we also want to survive. We must enjoy ourselves in our country of birth freely. If we don’t survive that way there is no life for us because we cannot become criminals or turn to prostitution for a living,” she said.

The police have, however, vowed to step up the arrests until the city is organised.

Harare councillor and chairman of the Elected Councillors Association of Zimbabwe, Warship Dumba, said the arrests are necessary to maintain order in the city.

“They must operate from designated areas,” said Dumba of the vendors.

Dumba’s comments come at a time when 90 percent of Zimbabwe’s people of a working age are unemployed, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. Most of the vendors used to work in industries that have since closed due to the country’s long-running economic crisis.

The Committee of the People Charter (CPC), a grouping of like-minded Zimbabweans fighting for pro- people policies, said in a statement that the clampdown on vendors is a sign of the council’s ignorance of how important these informal traders are to the economy.

“The council has no understanding of the importance of the informal economy to the livelihoods of thousands of Zimbabweans. It is demonstrating not only ignorance, but insensitivity, to the interests and circumstances that residents must confront,” CPC said in its statement.

“The CPC calls for an immediate end to these undemocratic actions of disenfranchising the poor and for the council to immediately come up with a comprehensive employment and job creation plan.”

But Dumba still maintains that street vendors need licences to operate in the city.

“We can’t let people cause total confusion in the city centre just because there is too much unemployment in the country. We cannot allow people to just sell their things anywhere. We are worried about health and hygiene issues.”

Bouazizi may be long gone but his fight to earn a decent living remains a common one for the poor and marginalised in Africa.

Joel Njagi and his son Tinashe sell axes and hoes for a living. They are some of the vendors in central Harare who have clashed with the police in the recent protests.

They have known no other job except making and selling hoes and axes. For them times are tough and they will do anything they can to hang on to their livelihoods. The elder Njagi vowed to take his axe to the head of “anyone who tries to take my property.”

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