Want to buy lunch, clothes, phone cards? Ask a Harare cop

2015-09-21 10:33


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Harare - Walking through the corridors of the homicide section at Harare's main police station, it is the "for sale" signs on office doors that stand out more than the stench coming from the dimly-lit underground hallways.

Most Zimbabweans survive through vending and hawking and the police are no exception.

Zimbabwe has been struggling for five years to recover from a catastrophic recession which led to widespread food shortages, fuelling 500 billion percent hyperinflation and prompting it to adopt the US dollar in 2009. Drought and weak global commodity prices have halved this year's economic growth forecast to 1.5%.

It's a far cry from the joy of independence in 1980, when President Robert Mugabe was revered by many at home and the World Bank rated Zimbabwe the most promising economy in Africa.

Now, alongside maintaining law and order in the capital city, some junior police officers sell phone recharge cards and the staple pap served with beef trotters inside their offices to supplement income.

Cost of living

"It is normal, that's how you earn extra money. Everyone wants to eat and make a call," said a police constable who could not be named because she is not authorised to speak to the press.

Police spokesperson Charity Charamba said she was not aware of the practice, which is against police regulations.

The cost of living in Harare remains unusually high for an emerging economy. The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe estimates an average family of six needs $580 a month to buy enough food and household essentials. The lowest ranking police officer earns a gross monthly salary of $527.

Outside the main station, police charge traders at Harare's busiest flea markets a daily rate of $5 to sell clothes - mostly second-hand and imported from Mozambique, where they are donated by Western charities.

In July, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa banned imports of used clothes. They are now smuggled instead across the long, poorly-policed border.

As Zimbabwe sheds any veneer of formally regulated commerce, a host of vendor unions claim to represent between 100 000 and 6 million traders, nearly half the nation's 13 million people.

Where did the jobs go?

Zimbabwe had the second most developed industrial base in southern Africa at independence and was among the fastest growing economies on the continent between 1996-1998.

But in 1999-2008 it became Africa's fastest shrinking economy, destroying 200 000 jobs outside the agriculture sector.

Power cuts, expensive loans and cheaper imports have helped push the unemployment rate to more than 80%. Mining still generates 52% of Zimbabwe's export income, but this year falling platinum and gold prices earnings are expected to drag down earnings.

Official data shows that just 800 000 people, in a population of 13 million, paid tax in 2014. The 530 000 government workers account for more than half of these, while mining jobs have stuck at 45 000 since 1999.

Many have sought work abroad, and their remittances, which reached $874m last December, have become an important source of income for many families. The central bank expects the figure to reach $1bn by year end.

Economic analysts say it would take foreign investment, a comprehensive infrastructure upgrade and cheaper international finance to revive industrial output, create more formal jobs and boost tax revenue.

Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries president Busisa Moyo says manufacturers are now operating at 36% capacity, near levels in 2008 at the nadir of recession.

'It's not desirable'

"This is a very big worry for the manufacturing sector and commercial sector," Moyo said.

More than 4 600 companies shut between 2011-2014, at a cost of 55 443 jobs. Unions say 25 000 employees were sacked after a Supreme Court ruling in July allowed firms to fire workers by giving three months' notice without paying severance packages.

Agriculture, hurt by Mugabe's seizures of white-owned commercial farms in 2000, has struggled to recover, forcing Zimbabwe to import food.

While tobacco farming, traditionally a major earner, recovered last year to near record output thanks to demand from China and financing to growers, it remains unclear just how much vendors contributed to the official economic growth figure of 3.1%.

The Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency has redefined unemployment to show that 94% of the working population is employed, in the informal sector. That includes vendors.

"We need to come up with measures of transitioning informality to formality. That is fundamental to our growth and recovery," said Godfrey Kanyenze, director of the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe.

Yet Harare's vendor unions complain the city council won't allocate them space to trade and say police constantly harass them as they jostle to sell school uniforms, fresh vegetables and pirated movies.

Moses Karawira, 26, is a trained auto electrician. He spends the day accosting motorists to sell cold water, chewing gum and sweets.

"It's not desirable that everybody is now a vendor," he told Reuters. "If you check all these people, there are so many with the right qualifications but there are no jobs."

Read more on:    robert mugabe  |  patrick chinamasa  |  zimbabwe  |  southern africa

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