EDITORIAL COMMENT: First Lady’s empathy on vendors misunderstood

download (2)A well-meant appeal by Dr Grace Mugabe last week to the police not to confiscate goods from or harass street vendors appears to have elicited a wide diversity of responses, from the outrageous to the absurd and malicious. The First Lady told an International Women’s Day commemoration event that where vendors were found selling their wares at undesignated points, police should politely tell them to move to designated points.

She also said the police should not consume the food they confiscate from vendors, but rather borrow if they didn’t have money to buy tomatoes.

She reminded the police officers that some of them had qualified to join the force because their mothers had sent them to school from the proceeds of street vending.

That was the message, simple and straightforward. Typically, she was later accused of either undermining the law or the authority of the police or alternatively, of promoting anarchy and unhygienic vending on the streets. Both interpretations are wrong.

One thing came out very clearly from the First Lady’s appeal. She showed that she is very hands-on and aware of the painful experiences of ordinary people. She is not one who would tell the poor to “go and eat cake”.

The First Lady recognises the tough challenges most people face under current economic conditions. Most of the vendors are making sacrifices to earn an honest living. A majority of them don’t possess any marketable skills, hence her appeal for better training. We know the parlous state of employment opportunities in the country even for degreed people.

The First Lady is able, like any leader should, to think beyond legalistic council by-laws against street vending to bring in personal compassion. That is what leadership should be even when your own circumstances are far removed from the electorate. It is called empathy.

More importantly, however, the First Lady’s appeal for tolerance was a direct challenge to local authorities to provide more designated selling points for vendors.

Harare has gone some way in providing these but they are not enough. Most of the food is sold under unhygienic conditions and much of it is stored in storm drains overnight.

This poses a big health hazard. We don’t believe that is what Amai Mugabe was saying should be condoned. Let’s have cleaner and safer places where vendors can sell their wares, even if it means council charging a nominal fee.

To the police, on the other hand, the First Lady’s message was equally clear.

It is very wrong for the police to confiscate goods from vendors and convert them to own use. Legally, when goods are confiscated, it is for purposes of use as evidence in a court of law.

Only after a competent court has ruled on the status of such goods can they be forfeited to the State.

Thus it is wrong in every respect for the police to seize edible goods from vendors and convert them to own use, like eating their tomatoes, vegetables or potatoes. That is not part of law enforcement.

We are, therefore, at a loss as to how condemning such a practice can be construed as in any way undermining the law or the authority of the police. That is to turn the concept of rule of law on its head. People selling goods on the streets have a right to those goods until proved otherwise.

Conversely, it is patently mischievous to insinuate that by saying the police should not harass street vendors the First Lady is advocating a free-for-all situation where all the rules of hygiene and cleanliness are ignored. We don’t understand how such an interpretation is arrived at.

We believe the First Lady was making the case for a judicious enforcement of the law which recognises people’s dire circumstances.

Street vendors need help from both Government and council and should therefore be treated with empathy.