CHITUNGWIZA, Zimbabwe (Reuters) – When police backed by armed soldiers arrived at the market in Chitungwiza in early February, Lilian Kashamba was reminded of her childhood during Zimbabwe’s war for independence.
The 48-year-old widow, who had sold vegetables, maize and chickens from the council-owned venue for 15 years, pointed to a heap of rubble where her stall once stood, and told how vendors were given 30 minutes to pack up and leave.
After that, the market was demolished by officials from the council, which has not yet said what it will do with the space.
“From my sales here I raised three children. With no place to sell, I don’t know how else to care for my one last child in primary school,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The demolition of the Zengeza 4 market was one of a number of actions by local authorities – backed by security forces – against thousands of vendors and informal traders in the capital Harare as well as in other cities and towns this month.
Lovemore Meya, a spokesman for Chitungwiza council, said the clampdown in the town about 30 km (19 miles) south of Harare was a joint effort by local authorities, the police and the army to remove illegal structures and businesses.
But Kashamba and other vendors told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they had paid weekly rentals for their stalls and shops to an intermediary, who had not given it to the council.
The market’s destruction followed a spate of violence that rocked the southern African nation in January when a three-day stay-at-home strike was called after President Emmerson Mnangagwa raised fuel prices.
The protests led to mass arrests and a security crackdown.
Zimbabwe has been on edge ever since, with residents and other witnesses saying police and soldiers conducted night-time raids on many homes and removed and beat alleged protesters.
Meya denied the exercise was politically motivated, saying it affected all vendors and did not discriminate on party lines.
Some traders likened the destruction of stalls to the government’s 2005 slum-clearance operation called Operation Murambatsvina, which meant ‘Drive out the filth’.
Joshua Mukungati, 25, who sold furniture out of Zengeza 4, said he had been paying $10 a week to the council and did not understand why he had been evicted and his shop razed.
“It was brutal. We were given only given 30 minutes to remove our wares … we lost valuable property,” he said.
“I don’t have anywhere to sell, and have to keep some of the sofas at my lodgings. The sad part is the authorities have not given us an alternative place to work from.”
Meya, from Chitungwiza council, said some people had sublet market space and were collecting rent without giving it to the council but added the exercise was also about urban renewal.
“People were just erecting structures everywhere and conducting their business anywhere, including along roads, and council was not getting revenue due,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Harare is doing the same. They started their operation in October following communication from the ministry of local government to spruce (up) our image to attract investment.”
Harare mayor Herbert Gomba told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the law clearly stated where people could trade, and citizens should comply in order to protect public health.
He added that notice of the evictions in Harare was given ahead of time and traders had been offered new locations.
However, traders said that was not the case, according to Samuel Wadzai, the director of the Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation (VISET), a Harare-based group.
Demolishing vendors’ stalls without notifying them or offering them a new place to do business was “barbaric and inhumane”, the Chitungwiza Residents Trust (CHITREST) said.
CHITREST director Alice Kuvheya said the group realized that local authorities were obliged to maintain cleanliness.
“(But) we note with concern the use of the armed soldiers to deal with defenseless traders, who were making an honest living through vending and informal work in a very challenging economic environment,” Kuvheya told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Meantime, Wadzai of VISET said more than 2,500 informal traders and vendors had been affected in the capital, and up to 800 more in Gweru, a city about 200 km (125 miles) southwest.
He said the situation in Harare, Chitungwiza and elsewhere remained tense with many vendors traumatised and fearful of being confronted by soldiers if they returned to former sites.
Instead of cracking down on innocent citizens, he added, the government should recognize the informal sector was key to Zimbabwe’s economy and implement policies to reflect that.
“Over 90 percent of the population is surviving through the informal sector, so there is need to review policies like the criminalization of street vending,” he said.