Zimbabwe lockdown: The cost of Harare’s demolitions for informal traders

For 57-year-old Farai Chikanya, talk that people would lose their jobs following the government-imposed lockdown in Zimbabwe was not much of a bother.

Having been retrenched in 2015, all he wanted was to reopen his grinding mill, which he operated at an open space in Harare’s high-density suburb of Glen View.

But besides the loss of income due to coronavirus, Chikanya faces an additional obstacle. His business was operating outside of the sites designated for such businesses – in other words, illegally.

For Chikanya, the lockdown has meant loss of revenue for more than a month, cutting off his ability to pay rent or feed his family.

He knows Zimbabwe’s government is struggling financially and he did not expect the country to be first in line when global lenders doled out support to fight the impact of the coronavirus, he said. He did not expect financial support from government. All he wanted was to return to his grinding mill.

There are many like him.

According to Farai Mutambanengwe, founder and executive officer of SME Association of Zimbabwe, small-scale operators are not holding their breath for a government stimulus package.

‘People just want to get on with their lives’

“From our membership, there doesn’t seem to be much clamouring for support, but rather about being able to operate,” he said in a response via text message.

“The main issue is the disruption of business itself, but the assistance being asked for is pretty much the same things they wanted anyway, outside of the lockdown situation.

“I think people just want to get on with their lives as best as possible. They are aware of the situation, and government’s limitations,” Mutambanengwe said.

Demolitions

But for Chikanya, and many others dotted across Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, the possibility of returning to their workstations has now been dashed.

This is after the Harare City Council began demolishing illegal structures across the capital city.

Spokesperson for Council Michael Chideme said the municipality was taking advantage of low human traffic during the lockdown to move the stands to properly designated sites.

There were, however, fears that some of the businesses that were operating illegally, like Chikanya’s, could not be accommodated at the designated sites.

Chideme said while council would try to accommodate everyone, business operations like Chikanya’s would have to follow approved procedures and look for accommodation at areas reserved for such kind of businesses.

“The rationale for this exercise is to remove all illegal structures. Whether one has a grinding mill or not, for as long as you are operating illegally, one has to move,” he said.

Millions in the informal sector

In a country where the unemployment rate is approximately 90%, according to economist John Robertson, millions had turned to the informal sector, where most also operated from illegal spaces and structures.

The 2019 Labour Force and Child Labour Survey indicated that the share of informal economy employment was 76% of total employment, indicating the high levels of informality in the country.

But, with the Zimbabwe government already facing budgetary constraints and grappling with rampant unemployment before the virus hit, it will be hard-pressed to provide support for people like Chikanya.

The fallout from the virus could place 25% of permanent formal jobs and 75% of casual/temporary formal jobs at risk, according to the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce in a research note in the wake of Covid-19.

Council’s move will only add to the numbers.

Coronavirus and hunger

“We are now fighting the battle at two fronts, Covid-19 and hunger,” said a dejected Chikanya after the corrugated building housing his grinding meal was demolished by Council officials.

Chikanya is skeptical he’ll be able to revive his business once the virus is brought under control.

He said the processes and costs of getting a trading place and an operating licence for his grinding meal were too onerous.

“When the lockdown is over, I don’t think my business will swiftly reopen. By the time the lockdown ends, I would have spent more than a month without any income, where will I get the money to formalise my business?” he lamented.

“This was my livelihood, but I don’t see us winning.”

Chikanya’s plight is shared by small-enterprise owners who, in addition the Covid-19 induced lockdown, have been caught up in the demolition of illegal structures campaign.

Zimbabwe lockdown: The cost of Harare's demolitions for informal traders