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Crackdown on Poor Causing Losses in Zimbabwe's Informal Sector


Two months of turmoil in Zimbabwe's urban areas following the government's crackdown on the poor has affected tens of thousands of street vendors, who have been forced out of business.

Two months ago, President Robert Mugabe's government launched the so-called Operation Restore Order program, in which informal settlements and trading stores were destroyed and the occupants and owners forcibly removed.

Now, a few determined traders with regular customers have quietly returned to trading, but their turnover is greatly reduced and transactions are carried out under cover, as both sellers and buyers are frightened of being arrested.

One trader - a 40-year-old widow and mother of five - keeps receipts with her to prove that she has been licensed by the Harare City Council for the last eight years to sell fresh produce on the streets. She risks arrest every time she sells a small packet of tomatoes or papayas, which are not available in most supermarkets.

Each day she starts work at 4:00 a.m., traveling by bus to the city's vegetable market, in the high density suburb of Mbare, south of the city. There, she buys fruit and vegetables at wholesale prices for resale in the suburbs.

She recalls the day in May when her world changed and she was turned into a criminal. "Now it is two months now when we are stopping. They start at Mbare to take our things there. We do not know what happens. They say we do not want to see anyone selling the vegetable. So we say, 'why?' We have got licence to sell our things. They say 'no, you must stop.' So we just hide our things. We go and buy and come with our things, and hide them," she says.

She trades fruit and vegetables under a tree in front of a small busy shopping centre in Harare's northern suburbs and had many loyal customers. She sits on the sidewalk looking out for customers, who are just as keen to continue to trade with her. Her fruit and vegetables are hidden.

Both parties are wary and look around furtively, before a a transaction takes place. When a sale is about to be concluded, the trader quickly picks up produce hidden among bushes in a flower bed, covers the articles with her skirt and runs towards the customer, who is usually in a vehicle.

Even so, this trader says it is impossible to make a profit. Still, she carries on trying to service long standing customers, hoping for better times.

Before the crackdown, she estimated her income was about $100 a month. Now, she says, her income has slumped to about 10 percent of what it was before the crackdown while her rent for two rooms for herself and two youngest children has doubled. She says her products have been regularly confiscated by police, during the last two months. "Yes, they catch us, when they see us. This week they didn't ,because they are not coming, but last week they catch us. They took all our stuff," she says.

Professor Tony Hawkins - an economist from the University of Zimbabwe - says, although no statistics were available, he estimates the informal sector probably contributed about $2 billion a year, or up to a third of the economy.

This week the United Nations donated $100,000 to help Zimbabwe's informal traders survive.

U.N. estimates arethat Operation Restore Order left about 200,000 people homeless, but it has not reported on the impact on the informal trading sector.

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