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Street vending

Eyesores and livelyhoods

by Raphael Mweninguwe

In depth

Street vendors in Blantyre in 2007

Street vendors in Blantyre in 2007

In most parts of the world, street vendors are a feature of urban life. While some unemployed people try to make a living this way, others cause mischief and some are plain criminals. In Malawi, street vending, crime and political activism have blended a frightening way – and women tend to be the main victims. By Raphael Mweninguwe

Street vending in the cities of Malawi has many faces. It provides people with cheap goods, but is also considered an eyesore and sometimes even a disguise for thieves. Especially women feel vulnerable.

There are no reliable statistics, but some 200,000 hawkers are believed to roam the streets of Blantyre, Lilongwe, Zomba and Mzuzu. Most are youngsters. According to official data, some 40,000 students finish high school every year, and about 5000 go on to university. Less than ten percent, however, find formal-sector jobs. Matters have become worse during the economic downturn of the past two years.

Street vending first flourished under the rule of President Bakili Muluzi (1994 to 2004), who encouraged young men and women to venture into this business. He even introduced a youth loan scheme to lower the high rate of youth unemployment. In the end, however, not too many youths benefited. Allegations of corruption dogged the scheme and supporters of Muluzi’s party were said to be the main beneficiaries.

The scandal, however, did not stop young unemployed persons from trying their luck in the streets. The government set up flea markets, but they were too small to accommodate all vendors. Some vendors opted for makeshift shops in other places or peddled their goods roaming about. Soon they seemed omnipresent.

Of course, most of the young people concerned never opted for shop keeping as their vocation. They simply did not have any other choice. An estimated 45 % of about 14 million Malawians are so poor that they struggle to get their daily meal.

Youth gangs

Among the street youth, some really are small-scale shopkeepers. Others, however, engage in criminal activities. To outsiders, the “vendors community” looks more like a set of youth gangs.

President Muluzi understood there was political clout in giving poor people a new start. He received young people at the State House and handed out cash for them to start vending businesses. Many were drafted into the ruling political party. They were known as “Young Democrats”, but were prone to terrorising political opponents.

The budding street youth culture enjoyed presidential protection: “If there is someone out there chasing you from the street, tell me – I am the chairman of the vendors,” Muluzi told some of them at the time.

Muluzi’s successor as president was Bingu wa Mutharika. Late last year, he instructed municipal authorities to get the young people off the streets – with the help of the police. At the beginning of this year, there were even gun fights between youth gangs and security forces. During the riots, formal-sector shops were looted and burned down. They belonged to the government or foreign – mostly Chinese – merchants.

Even the army had to intervene. The state ultimately prevailed, and many Malawians were happy to feel safe in the streets again. Especially women had often been molested by male youngsters. Sexual harassment had become a major issue.

In January, some of the street youths in Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba began stripping women by force in public. They claimed to be “punishing” them for wearing “indecent” clothes such as trousers or short skirts. These incidents caused an outrage and public opinion turned even more against the street youngsters. The police promised to protect women whatever clothes they chose to wear.

Mutharika, nonetheless, soon changed course. He was unable to do anything about youth unemployment, so he followed his predecessor’s example and gave some vendors VIP treatment at the State House, telling them to sell wherever they wanted. He too dished out cash and set up a micro-loan programme.

Some municipal governments, however, still insist that the vendors are not authorised to return to the streets. Steve Malunga, the chairman of the Vendors Association in Lilongwe, argues that some people who are busy in the streets are “not genuine vendors.” According to him, real vendors are selling their goods inside markets and not in the streets. But some of his fellow vendors have accused the chairman of being a ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) sell-out.

The new president

Mutharika died in April. He has been succeeded by Joyce Banda, who was his vice-president. Earlier this year, she had stated: “The issue of vendors undressing women must be put into a wider picture.” She pointed out that vendors were venting their anger at the wrong people. Their real cause of frustration, according to her, was not some kind of dress code – but their lack of prospects. It remains to be seen, however, how Banda’s government will deal with the vendors issue.

So far, Malawi does not have a clear strategy for addressing the plight of un- and underemployed young people even though it is obvious that most youths are loafing in the streets simply because they have no jobs. Some members of parliament in Malawi are funding youth activities such as netball and football, hoping to prevent “immoral behaviour”. The problem, however, is that the youngsters concerned need livelihoods. Many are desperate and will do whatever gets them some money.

John Kapito, the chairman of the state-funded Malawi Human Rights Committee, says most of the vendors are really unemployed and that the government should address the root of the problem. At the same time, there are so many young people in the streets that they are a force to be reckoned with politically. After all, they vote in parliamentary and presidential elections.

Many Malawians hope that Joyce Banda will prove a better president than Mutharika, who became increasingly authoritarian in his second term of office and fell out with donor governments. Lacking their financial support, he had to enforce austerity, further compounding Malawi’s economic woes. Banda has promised to improve governance and mend fences with donors. If she manages to kick-start an economic upturn, that would certainly con­tribute to alleviating youth problems.