Harare was a different place yesterday, at least during much of the day. It was virtually clear of vendors who normally clog Sam Nujoma Street and the First Street Mall. Many of the illegal vendors appeared to have heeded a warning by Minister of State for Harare Provincial Affairs Miriam Chikukwa to move out of the central business district (CBD).
The minister appeared to have been emboldened in her position by a declaration by President Mugabe last week that illegal street vendors should move out of the city to designated structures set up by the Harare City Council. President Mugabe indicated that in the past street vendors seemed to enjoy the tacit support of council officials and politicians who feared their political parties would lose votes if they took decisive action against this menace.
Minister Chikukwa at a Press briefing in the capital on Wednesday evening ordered the street vendors to stay away from the CBD with immediate effect. The meeting was attended by senior officials from the country's law enforcement agencies. The vendors seem to have taken heed; they were few and far between in the morning. Also, unlike in the past, there were no skirmishes with the police or Harare municipal police. That's a positive beginning. The real challenge is whether the city council is prepared to stand by its decision to stop illegal street vending in the CBD. This is not the first attempt to rid Harare of street vendors, but this has tended to be half-hearted and designed to fail.
What happened in the past was that street vendors were chased out in the morning. As soon as the police retreated, they emerged from all manner of corners and retrieved their wares from manholes and backstreet lanes to start trading again. Nothing happened to them. In the end the rest of those who wanted to obey the law felt like it was an April Fools Day hoax. So long as the council doesn't enforce its decision and stamp its authority, this is not the end of the menace of street vending.
The argument has been that the vendors are following the market into the CBD. It is a new trend borne of council's readiness to justify their delinquency than anything else. In the past people knew where to go if they wanted vegetables -- Mbare Musika -- and it didn't matter whether one lived in Borrowdale, Waterfalls or Warren Park. We all converged at Mbare Musika during the weekend to buy our groceries for the week and vendors stayed there. Over the years hustlers have been allowed to hawk their wares on the streets, pleading high unemployment. We got to a point where people were roasting mealie cobs and skinning goats along First Street.
This has now spiralled out of control, with street vendors selling anything anywhere, and literally blocking sections of Robert Mugabe Road and Julius Nyerere Way. In the evenings the vendors turn those streets into a huge open market place. There are no ablution facilities and they are oblivious of the needs of the motoring public and pedestrians. Touts urinate in the open, drink alcohol and scold people.
The message is simply that street vendors are not alone. We have allowed a culture of lawlessness to flourish in our towns "because people have no jobs". As long as we find excuses to justify illegality we are going nowhere as a nation. Law enforcement must operate by the book. For its part, council should not charge exorbitant fees for vendors at its designated places as to make it uneconomical to operate from there, in the process forcing many to once again try their luck on the streets in the CBD. The same goes for registered commuter omnibus operators. The fees must be nominal until law and order are restored.
Commuters who wait for transport at undesignated points must be treated like mushikashika operators -- they are breaking the law and must be punished. After this operation the council should go for foreigners operating in areas reserved for locals, who have bribed their way in by offering higher rentals. This is part of the corruption scourge which has rendered previous efforts to rid the CBD of street vending such a monumental joke. For once, let's see some seriousness.