Councillors – be serious


The effects of ESAP and the drought are beginning to take their toll. It appears everyone -except perhaps those who work for reputable and very “considerate” companies that offer a housing, food and education allowance – is feeling the pinch.

It was therefore good news indeed to hear Finance Minister Bernard Chidzero as well as Local Government Minister Joseph Msika calling on local authorities to relax their council by-laws to enable people to openly trade and thus earn a little but honest income to sustain themselves in these hard times where even some of the long established companies are retrenching.

For years it has been argued that the informal sector, including street vending, should be legalised. But local authorities have all long complained about the health hazard that might result. At the same time the local authorities have failed to provide alternative sources of income not just for their residents but for the councils themselves. Instead they continue to overburden the very people they deny an honest means of earning a living with excessive increases in rates and other charges.

The local authorities seem to be operating in a vacuum where they have the sole monopoly of deciding what is best for the people and not what the people want or prefer. They have built markets which no one has used because they are located at sites where there is no business. This is all in the name of sound and orderly town planning.

It appears that councillors have not learnt any lesson from malpractices of the past because they are still reluctant to relax colonial by-laws which they often argue they inherited. Although some of them are well travelled they seem to be blind to the fact that the same by-laws only apply in the poor former colonies because the colonisers themselves allow people to sell things on the streets in their home countries. These streets are much busier and more crowded than ours some of which have pavements that are so wide they can accommodate a superette.

It has always been argued that by stifling people from trading openly the government may be forcing them to resort to criminal means. In the first instance the very fact of trying to sell something openly becomes a crime. What do the people do? They delve into much more serious crime because they feel that it is better to go to jail for something much more serious than be penalised for something so trivial. It becomes a question of : “I f I am going to be sentenced to death for throwing a stone at someone, I might as well kill him.”

Dealing in foreign currency openly is illegal. What happens? The black market is created and thrives at times to the detriment of the nation. Although the magnitude of the black market in Zimbabwe is not yet known, since we are still young and corruption has not taken root, Sierra Leone provides a good example. After the recent coup the new military rulers discovered 41 billion leone in local and foreign currency at the homes of ex-ministers and party officials. The central bank only believed 1.5 billion leone was in circulation. Can you imagine that – individuals having 30 times more money than the country’s reserve bank knows?

While there is need to keep things under control, for the sake of good governance – it must also be accepted that the black market arises out of what some citizens believe is bad governance. This has nothing to do with being as supporter of the ruling party or not. In fact, in most cases it is the party cadres who cash in on the black market because they are immune to the law and crush any competitors especially if they do not share the same political (genuine or not) views.

No matter how we try to downplay the problem much-needed foreign currency that could in fact get its way into the state coffers is circulating among the people. A person who changes foreign currency at his bank is considered stupid, not loyal or law abiding. Zimbabwe dollars themselves that the Reserve bank should keep track of are circulating in the streets of Johannesburg, Gaborone and Lusaka.

Those with relatives outside the country dare not accept gifts from them especially if they are to be mailed. The questions one has to answer including the personal details of the donor are so embarrassing you begin to wonder what the real motive is.

Granted state bureaucracy is known worldwide and perhaps things may be changing but for local authorities to be so stringent as to see red over changes that are meant to make life easier for the community smacks of hypocrisy. Who are the councillors really serving, the electorate or themselves?

What is wrong with allowing a mother or father to sell vegetables or tomatoes, or even sweets, anywhere in town? What health hazard is caused by selling these things in the city centre? In most cases they are clean and wrapped in clean plastic papers. After all no vendor wants to be considered dirty otherwise he or she will not get customers.

This should be the ideal situation if councillors relaxed their by-laws as called upon by their ministers. But what is happening today is that a single mother, of say 40, cannot dare sell her tomatoes in the city centre because she will not be able to outrun the police. She therefore assigns these tasks to her sons or daughters who are in a constant cat-and-mouse chase with police. No wonder they do not have time to clean up the place or even to pick up some of their products lost during the chase.

Why should the young boys or girls bother about keeping the city clean when their main concern is to spot the law enforcement officers, in uniform or not, before they pounce on them?

The other thing, perhaps is that, for too long the electorate has never really chosen people who understand them into power. More often than not the ordinary voter will elect a businessman as his councillor or Member of Parliament. This may be on the false assumption that since he or she is already in money he or she will not steal from the council or state coffers. This has proved not to be the case. The little one has the more of it one wants.

The other thing is that these people can buy influence. A free cold drink one day, a packet of sugar when you have been hunting for one for weeks, or a packet of white maize meal when your tongue is almost turning yellow with “Kenya” and half the children are down with diarrhoea, can do a lot to influence one’s thinking.

But now that the state has taken this kind of thinking, they should go ahead and enforce it. After all, if the local authorities want to enforce these outdated, suppressive by-laws they should use their own law enforcement agents. Our state police should not waste time chasing young vendors when tsotsis are mugging people and robbing them of their hard earned cash.


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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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