news in depth:BY BRENNA MATENDERE
NOMORE Nsingo has for the past eight years been surviving by selling second-hand clothes at one of Mutare’s busiest informal markets.
Nsingo, like most Zimbabweans running informal businesses, was keenly waiting for the ongoing national lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus to end when the government announced that it would begin enforcing a ban on the sale of second hand clothes.
Zimbabwe first banned the importation of second-hand clothes in 2005 to protect the local textile industry, but the restrictions were relaxed two years later following an outcry that livelihoods of thousands of people that depended on the business had been thrown into disarray.
Cabinet, however, made a U-turn last week and announced that government would now enforce the ban following reports of increased smuggling along the Mozambique border.
The government said Zimbabweans were smuggling bales of second-hand clothes, which it said would fuel the spread of coronavirus that causes the flu-like Covid-19 disease that is causing havoc globally.
“The ban came as a shock to us as there were no consultations prior to the announcement,” Nsingo said.
“I have been surviving through the selling of second-hand clothes that we get from Mozambique and I do not know how I will be able to feed my family if I am pushed out of business at a difficult time like this.”
His sentiments were echoed by Mishrod Nyika from Gweru, who sells second-hand clothes for a living.
Nyika said the ban was badly timed as it came when informal traders were not able to do any business due to the lockdown regulations that came into effect on March 30.
“Our customers are people that are very poor and cannot afford to buy from formal shops,” Nyika said.
“The government’s decision to ban the importation of second-hand clothes will drive many of us into destitution because that was our only source of income.”
In a country where formal jobs are scarce, more and more people are venturing into the informal business sector where they sell goods often sourced from neighbouring countries.
According to a study by Smarter Harare Through Participatory e-inclusion (Shape), the informal sector contributes about 42% of the national jobs.
“In Harare, current statistics indicate that the informal sector contributes 58% of employment, with an estimated 500 000 informal traders requiring trading space,” Shape said.
Zimbabweans have been sourcing bales of second-hand clothes from abroad via Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia and they sell the merchandise at open markets that have sprouted throughout the country over the years.
Lorraine Sibanda, the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Association president, said the ban was ill-timed as it came at a time when Zimbabwe’s economy was crumbling due to the coronavirus-induced lockdown.
Sibanda said the government’s justification of the ban also did not make any sense as there was no scientific evidence linking second-hand clothes to the spread of the coronavirus.
“Traders have no alternative means of earning income and there are no employment opportunities” she said.
“Some of our members have been suggesting that they should be allowed to continue selling second-hand clothes provided they wash and iron them or adhere to set hygienic regulations”.
Sibanda said the government was trying to use the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to clamp down on informal businesses.
Health experts say the coronavirus cannot be spread through second-hand clothes or any other products shipped from abroad because it does not survive on surfaces for too long.
“The likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes Covid-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled and exposed to different conditions and temperatures is also low,” the World Health Organisation said in March.
Sten Zvorwadza, the National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe chairperson, also said the ban was not informed by science and would wreck the lives of thousands of people that depend on the business for survival.
Zvorwadza said the ban was ill thought out and the timing was very poor.
“The idea of banning second-hand clothes in Zimbabwe is not well thought out,” he said.
“The problem is not in the clothes.
“The problem is in the reasoning capabilities of the people enforcing these bans without giving it evaluative intellectual thinking.”
Zvorwadza said instead of punishing informal traders, the government must be focusing on controlling the spread of the virus.
“Instead, the government should focus on how to control the disease without endangering the survival of its informal workers, who eke out a living from selling second-hand clothes,” he added.
“It is on record that Covid-19 does not survive more than three days (on surfaces).
“There is no way this virus can survive for weeks on clothes on a ship from Europe, for instance.
“Zimbabwe should focus on how to mitigate the possibility of re-infection after receiving the second-hand clothes.
“There are so many ways of doing this.”
Zvorwadza said the informal traders had made representations on how they could be allowed to conduct their business in an organised manner without exposing their clients to coronavirus infection.
The vocal activist said their advice had fallen on deaf ears.
“We have the ideas and have suggested the ideas to government. But the government doesn’t listen,” Zvorwadza said.
The government has used the lockdown period to destroy infrastructure used by informal traders to conduct their business in urban areas across the country.
Local Government minister July Moyo issued a directive to all councils to remove the structures as part of clean-up campaigns, but informal traders say they were not consulted.
The traders argue that they do not have access to trading spaces in urban areas.
Critics of the clean-up campaign have begun drawing parallels with Operation Murambatsvina during the late former president Robert Mugabe’s era that destroyed livelihoods of over 700 000 people in urban areas.
Those affected by Operation Murambatsvina were never compensated and some of them are still struggling to get their lives back on track.