No protest action will succeed without the informal sector

Malvern Mkudu



All hopes that Zimbabweans are beginning to dump their apathetic ways seem to be fading away after successive calls for protests were ignored. Calls for protest marches and a recent one to sing in the national derby soccer match between Dynamos and Highlanders have fallen flat.

Calls for a mass stay away two weeks ago fell on deaf ears as most Zimbabweans turned up for work as usual. The vendors were on the streets and the big companies opened their doors to business. It seems organisers of protests are failing to mobilise enough numbers to force the government to bow to their demands.

While the calls for protests have not yielded the desired numbers the government has certainly noticed.  This is evident in its attempt to ban protests and tear gassing of opposition supporters. Anti riot police are also deployed on every corner in the city centre. These are the actions of a government that is not sure of what might happen next.

Zimbabwe’s environment is not exactly conducive for citizen action as police often prevent citizens’ meetings and where these are authorised by the courts, the police use heavy handed methods to crush them. The risk of participating in a march is great considering that one can easily be arrested and then denied bail by the authorities. This acts as a deterrent to would be protesters who may have grievances against the government.

Be that as it may, we have already seen that people will protest if such action serves their interests. When livelihoods came under threat, cross border traders engaged in violent protests at Beitbridge which forced the government to temporarily suspend statutory instrument 64 which was being used by government authorities to prevent people from importing certain goods.

After successive days of running battles involving police and protesters that resulted in over 80 people being arrested and denied bail, many Zimbabweans thought the country was moving towards a full blown revolution.

After the Beitbridge protests and the civil servants strike that paralysed businesses on 6 July opposition parties and civic organisations have been organising protest marches to force the government to address a number of grievances. These efforts have largely been a failure and have only been given currency by the police who have used heavy handed tactics to prevent the protests from going ahead.

The grievances include demands for electoral reforms, the stepping down of President Robert Mugabe, refusal to implementation of bond notes and statutory instrument 64 and a call for reduction of traffic road blocks. Churches have also chipped in protesting about the national pledge that has been introduced in schools for children to recite.

A lot of writers have already written on why the 6 July ‘stay away’ was a success and subsequent protests have failed. However it seems those calling for ‘stay aways’ and protests seem to be making the same mistakes. ‘Stay aways’ and protests work in formal economies were business is centralised and controlled by a few captains of industry.

Protests directly hurt the economic interests of the business owners as they have to pay for lost time and damaged property. Zimbabwe is a different country. The workforce is predominantly informal with most of the people being their own bosses. Any time lost or property damaged has to be shouldered by the traders and the majority of them have no insurance cover in cases of property damage or loss of wares.

Between 2011 and 2014 the number of workers in informal employment grew from 84.2 % of the currently employed workforce to 94.5 % rising to 5.9 million workers in 2014.These figures tell of a story of an economy that is in the hands of ordinary people. The majority of informal traders are in the retail sector while a significant number vend on the streets.

They will only heed a stay away call if the chance of losing their stock to violence is greater than the chance of them making profits on the same day. They are profit driven and have no interest in engaging in political actions that undermine their economic interest.

Humans always act in self interests and vendors are not any different. They will assess risk and do a cost benefit analysis before they embark on any sort of political action. We saw them wreck havoc in Beitbridge when the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority  banned them from importing certain goods into the country. Even transport operators caused a mini revolt when they felt that police were now threatening the survival of their businesses through excessive demanding of bribes. This is because their livelihoods had been threatened by the government.



It is therefore unlikely that vendors and other informal traders would participate or support any action that does not promote their economic interest. They will only act if their economic interests or livelihoods come under immediate threat. This means organisers of ‘stay aways’ may need to rethink their strategies if they wish to achieve any tangible results through protests. There is no stay away that will succeed without the buy in and participation of the informal sector.



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