The UPND and street vendors: a govt that sees human dirt to be cleaned from our streets- Azwell Banda

Azwell Banda

The UPND and street vendors: a govt that sees human dirt to be cleaned from our streets!

By Azwell Banda,

Let us not beat about the bush: the truth is our rich rulers in the UPND government simply regard “street vendors” as human trash that should be removed from our streets.

It is not just about breaking council by-laws, or making “our streets dirty”, or, for that matter, being sources and spreaders of infectious diseases and such other crass attitudes the rich reserve for desperate poor people: street vendors are simply ugly eyesores and spoilers of how our UPND capitalist rulers want our cities and towns to look like – clean, orderly, safe for them, well-manicured, and populated by clean well-dressed middle class people exuding success.

As in everything else that matters the most to the lives of the majority of Zambians who are desperately poor such as cheap and affordable rent, petrol, diesel, paraffin, transport, electricity, mealie-meal, sugar, salt, saladi, soap, seeds and fertilisers whose prices the UPND promised to lower upon becoming government, in government, the UPND is actually punishing the poor majority in Zambia by overpricing these items in order to enable the UPND government fulfill its International Monetary Fund (IMF) conditions for Zambia to reach “debt sustainability”! The money government “saves” from these overpriced human essentials will be used to pay our debt. Long forgotten are the UPND promises of provisions of improved modern street sanitation, clean water, better street trading facilities and protection of the right to trade, to eke out a living, in the streets the UPND promised street vendors when they were in opposition.

Nothing best testifies and confirms whose economic interests the UPND government prioritises and serves than the UPND government forcing Zambians to subsidise the profits of foreign multinationals and foreign money, by their new taxes and massive incentives for foreign businesses in Zambia. Poor Zambians are subsidising rich foreign shareholders when the UPND government lowers taxes for foreign businesses in Zambia and offers many other incentives, all at the expense of Zambians, while removing subsidies from basic essentials, for Zambians!

The UPND government best demonstrates how the rich in government attack, exploit, punish and “disappear” the poor from their view in order to make the rich richer, all the while further sinking the poor into even deeper poverty. To achieve this, as is always the case with such desperate parasitic petty capitalists as are in the UPND, they are cold, lack empathy and sympathy for the brutal suffering the poor endure to make a living. They have no respect for the political, democratic and human rights of poor people, such as street vendors.

Without open, public, transparent and democratic planning involving government and street vendors, without any prior warning, governments such as the cold, right-wing UPND, simply secretly mobilise and organise the police and thugs to “sweep the streets clean” of street vendors. These kinds of heartless and merciless governments relish their authoritarian display and deployment of state power against the poor, as they “disappear” the poor from their sight.

No one, no Zambian, who could have better and more rewarding options would voluntarily opt to spend the whole day, every day, hustling, street vending, in the city of Lusaka. It is tough work. It is humiliating work. It is mean and extremely lowly rewarding, financially. In fact, frequently, those who trade in our streets lose all their money to thieves, suffer loss of value of the “fresh produce” and other foods they vend, and low demand for whatever they may be trading in. Ruthless competition for “customers” governs street trading. The absence of sanitation and clean water facilities adds to the indignities of street vending. Spending the whole day with the most desperate of human beings such as alcohol and drug addicts, prostitutes, petty and real criminals and all kinds of economic, social and human waste adds to the torturous burden of surviving on the streets, especially in Lusaka, as a street vendor.

Women, wives, mothers, babies and little children suffer the most, trading in the streets. The obscenities and insults they endure in the streets are such that none of the adults happily allow their children to “work with them”, in the streets. And then there is the struggle to choose and buy the right goods, for selling in any particular segments of the streets. A wrong decision made means loss of scarce money and more hunger at home. Hustling for “protection” and potential customers requires long experience, many street survival skills such as a fine honed ability to compel a customer to buy, in order to trade, as a street vendor.

And yet the politicians in the UPND government pretend they are not aware of all these hardships which street vendors suffer every day. No Zambian willingly gives up other easier profitable options to spend their time in our streets, as a street vendor: street vending is usually a last choice for millions of Zambians who are shut out of our extremely small, foreign dominated economy. All the UPND sees, now in government, are masses of dirty, poor and unsightly people messing up their rich visions of our cities and towns.

Zambia is sitting on explosive levels of hunger, unemployment and poverty, all caused by all our post 1991 governments including the UPND who have failed to use government to promote national and local capital formation, capital accumulation and savings, to enable Zambia industrialise, modernise, diversify and grow out of our dependence on a small foreign owned extractive real economy, thereby creating and sustaining decent levels of full national employment, of all our economic factors, including our labour force.

Thirty-two years of ruthless pursuit of neo-liberal structural adjustment reforms to make Zambia a heaven for foreign money has produced hell, for the majority of Zambians who struggle with painful hunger, unemployment and extreme inequalities. To millions of these Zambians, in our rural and urban human settlements, throughout the country, especially for women, street vending is not a simple “career choice”: it is a necessity engaged in, in order to pay rent, feed the family, buy medicines and generally save a family from absolute destitution.

The UPND, by its ruthless and merciless pursuit of promotion of Zambia as a destination for foreign money to make massive profits from which the UPND individually hope to reap rents, commissions, steal some and corruptly enrich themselves, are poised to further grow our already explosive levels of unemployment, poverty, hunger and inequalities.

The UPND is in fact pursuing economic policies best suited to growing mass street vending as a national survival strategy, and main economic activity, for the majority of Zambians. Using the police, and even the army, to remove street vendors from our streets is neither the solution to mass street vending, nor is this sustainable: it risks causing a national explosion of protests. It is clear that the masses of our people who trade in the streets cannot all be bottled and packed in the “markets” currently dotted around the country: the sheer numbers of Zambians forced to become street vendors and the ruthless and vicious competition for “customers” simply exclude this “solution”.

There is also a new dimension to our poverty and concentration of street vendors in our town centres, or “central business districts”: new, hyper modern shopping malls have “killed” our “town centres” and actually made them available for very low-income activities such as “street vending”. Most “high street” businesses are also locating themselves out of our main “central business districts”, reflecting the general decay of these places, as national poverty and new economic and trading trends take root. All these new realities require completely different, democratic, economic and municipal approaches to managing our cities and towns, from the way we did, say, before 1991. Primary in our approach must be acknowledging that our generalised national poverty thrusts the majority of our people into “trading” in anything and anywhere, in order to survive.

Short-, medium- and long-term strategic interventions must be aimed primarily at protecting the survivalist activities of desperate Zambians with a view to simultaneously systematically graduating them out of their desperate poverty which forces them into street vending. Among such strategies, the sadistic, cold deployment of the police to force these Zambians out of the streets does not feature at all.

Immediate provision of clean water, sanitation, safety, appropriate street space reorganisation to maximise value for street vendors are measures a caring government would implement as it struggled to democratically formulate and run with medium- and long-term strategies, to create decent, high value mass employment and economic opportunities, for the majority of Zambians. Such a government would not be offended and repelled, by the sight of street vendors, for rich class aesthetic and selfish reasons. Genuine human empathy, sympathy and solidarity would imbue work to lift the mass of Zambians out of the poverty which traps them into street vending.

But such a government would be a patriotic Zambian government rooted in the interests of Zambia’s real producers of wealth: street vendors, urban and rural employed and unemployed workers, and our poor rural farmers. The UPND is the exact antithesis of such a government!

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