There are a number of arguments against the vendors: they are unlicensed and pay no rent, they are unfair competition for existing shops; they block pedestrian traffic; they make the city centre unsightly.
On the other side there is the undeniable fact that hundreds of people are earning a precarious living without breaking any law except one or two minor city by-laws; they are not criminals, but generally honest. And equally obviously there are people who buy from these vendors, otherwise they would not be there; they provide a service that many want.
A solution is needed, but it needs to be better and more permanent than simply sending in the police to seize the vendors’ goods and smash the tables or boxes they use. That has been tried several times, right back to the colonial past and does little, but generate sympathy for vendors and divert the police from protecting the public from real criminals.
The actions have also been ineffective. Sooner or later officialdom relaxes and the vendors are back. The Zanu-PF Government, soon after independence, outlined a solution, the idea of Peoples’ Markets. This was never really grasped wholeheartedly by Harare City Council.
Lack of interest and lack of suitable land were problems.
But it was grasped by those responsible for Avondale Shopping Centre. Unlike most suburban shopping centres, where vendors are either banned with enforcement by security guards or are allowed to wander around willy nilly annoying everyone, Avondale lucked out.
An initial agreement saw a limited number of vendors allowed into the private car park, wearing a labelled reflective vest and subject to rules about how to approach customers. At the same time a proper market for flowers and curios was set up and finally the owner of a failed car park seized the chance to turn it into a busy flea market.
The end result is that Avondale is a thriving shopping centre with the retailers ranging from a man with a box of bananas to giant supermarkets and all managing to keep the shopping centre as a secure, clean and pleasant environment.
The system is built around limits, rules, lists of approved vendors and space for vendors. Those criteria need to be applied to the city centre. We know space is limited, but it should be possible to find places where old ladies can sell tomatoes near bus stops; it should be possible to allow those useful young men to sell phone accessories on the street; it should be possible to browse for second-hand books on a busy day.
Some private developers have created thriving legal markets in the city centre, but the opportunities for the person just starting out with almost nothing are still very limited. This is why some public licensing system, approved public places for small vendors, and a set of rules are needed.
Numbers might well be fewer, small licence fees might be required, modest rents for stalls will have to be paid.
A little bit of unsightliness will have to be lived with in some places. But generally it should be possible to have a thriving, vibrant city centre that includes rather than excludes.
The choice is not between chaos and police raids: the correct solution will have public and private input, creative imagination and a clear vision.