By Malvern Mkudu
As ruling party activists and influential politicians take control of the informal sector, fears abound that the informal economy is being used as a conduit for smuggled and illegal goods.
Illegal medicines, pesticides and goods that are detrimental to the revival of the manufacturing sector in the country are finding their way on the local markets in the stalls and flea markets that operate mainly at night in the central business district.
Many of these traders are unlicensed and owe their existence to political protection from powerful party chefs who demand rent and other economic favours in exchange for permission and protection to operate with impunity.
Its 7 pm at Copacabana rank in Harare and the central business district has come alive with tents pitched and traders strewn all over the pavements selling various wares. Most of these wares are imports from neighbouring countries and far off countries such as China.
The tents have the ruling party colours perhaps to buttress the point that the ruling party controls proceedings in this sector.
A trader who identified herself as Amai Ryan selling a popular drink called Tweezer and Corn Flakes says business is good and thanks the ruling ZANU PF for providing economic opportunities for her. Asked if she did not fear being chased away from her spot by municipal authorities she bragged that she pushes the drinks on behalf of a ‘Chef’ who she refused to name.
Despite most of the businesses in the informal sector operating in undesignated places and pausing a health risk in the city centre the authorities have not acted or introduced measures to restore order. The majority of these are unlicensed and do not pay any taxes.
“Do you really think we are here because this government cares about our plight? There are big people behind this business. We are just small fish in the bigger scheme of things. Why do you think those policemen are not arresting us “said Amai Ryan pointing towards two policemen milling around the area.
Unseen events occur in this place as well. Bribery, favouritism, mutual favours and other forms of exchange take place in the parallel economy without much disruption from police officers always seen patrolling the area.
The informal economy is generally viewed as economic activities that are unregistered and existing outside the state regulations. It is often activity based on informal access and distribution of state resources.
This includes relief from or avoidance of taxes and duties and the blind eye of the police or customs. Despite the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority having patrol teams on the highway and police mounting endless roadblocks illegal goods find their way to urban markets.
“Order is not wanted in this sector my brother because order means we now operate under the watchful eye of the government.” said Kenneth Mashiri who is selling insecticides for $1 each.
It is in this background that the informal or parallel economy has come under the control of unscrupulous powerful politicians who use the unpoliced informal sector to push smuggled goods and avoid or evade tax for their business operations.
Last week a ZANU PF senior official Joseph Chinotimba staged a one man demonstration in defence of informal transport operators in the city centre and immediately appointed himself as their patron.
Political analysts attributed Chinotimba’s actions to the ruling party’s desire to control the informal sector for political expediency. The politicians offer protection to the informal traders in exchange for votes and rent.
Dr Ibbo Mandaza said politicians will try and get involved in everything in order to control the electorate.’ Yesterday it was churches, and now it’s the informal economy so what is happening is not surprising.’ he said
Chinotimba’s actions of defending lawlessness without raising a finger to rectify legitimate complaints against such operations prove that politicians have a vested interest in the perpetuation of this economic chaos.
This has been going on for a long time, as another ruling party activist Jim Kunaka was reported to be collecting rent from traders operating in Mbare before he fell out with the party hierarchy. Despite several reports to the police to stop Kunaka no action was ever taken.
In 2012, 673 ZANU PF members from Mashonaland East were nabbed at the Forbes border post for trying to smuggle second hand clothes from Mozambique. These clothes and other wares find their way onto the informal market and are sold at places like Mbare Mupedzanhamo and various flea markets in the city centre at prices that have suffocated the textile industry in the country.
Clothes are not the only products being sold in these informal markets. Drinks, food stuffs and detergents have also found themselves in the pavements at cheaper prices than those being offered in retail supermarkets.
Kenneth Mashiri a stout, short man selling his wares near Cleveland House thanked First Lady Grace Mugabe for allowing them to operate from anywhere in town.
“Amai Mugabe has liberated us my brother. This is why we are able to operate from anywhere in town.” However he could not divulge who the traders pay rent to preferring to say it was a sensitive matter.
Powerful politicians muscle their way through by taking control of trading spots. They then determine who can operate their business from these spots by coercing people to come for political party meetings and paying rent.
In Mutare, powerful ZANU PF politician Isau Mupfumi took over the lucrative Miekels Park flea market and is now charging $1 a day to those wishing to operate on these premises. Despite taking this property under the pretext that he intended to build a hotel, he has continued to collect rent from informal traders with no sign that work will commence soon.
Contrary to peddled falsehoods that the informal sector is growing and providing employment for many urban dwellers, it has emerged as a playground of serious exploitation of vulnerable urban dwellers.
Powerful politicians are collecting revenue that is supposed to be going to the treasury as tax through their control of the informal economy. These politicians preach empowerment of the masses when they are the real beneficiaries of the chaos in the informal sector.
A shop owner who refused to be identified in First Street said, ‘While we pay our licences and taxes to the revenue authorities we have not received any protection from the relevant authorities. ‘Someone up there is a beneficiary of this chaos that is prejudicing the state’ she added.
It is believed that $7 billion is circulating within the informal sector and the sector is believed to be employing more than 800000 people in the country.
While many have called for order in the informal sector, the government has continued to drag its feet crafting policies that tax and regulate the operations of the sector.
The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority has announced that it will launch what it is calling 100% search programme’ that is meant to plug the flow of South African goods into the local market.
But these moves are likely to amount to nothing if powerful politicians continue command unfettered control of the informal sector. Without political intervention in these operations the government will continue to lose revenue.