Since the late 1990s, as companies in Zimbabwe have shut down and laid off workers due to the country’s economic crisis, people have resorted to the informal sector to earn a living. It is estimated that 90% of Zimbabweans now have informal sector livelihoods.
Gradually, informal sector organisations emerged in response to fundamental changes in the economy, politics, and social life from the 2000s. They allowed people to network, get training in business, finance and collective bargaining, and campaign for their socio-economic rights.
Traditionally, trade unions and NGOs were a major focus of study for the country’s political scientists. By the mid-2010s, though, informal sector organisations had become prominent civil society actors. They had become closer to people than other organisations.
But how exactly did they contribute to the political sphere? This question is important for two reasons. Firstly, the informal sector in Zimbabwe is highly politicised, and any organisation in the informal sector has a potential for some political outcome. Secondly, the civil society in Zimbabwe has also played an important role in politics, and it is useful to understand the political role of newly emerged actors.
My 2016 study focused on three informal sector organisations that were prominent in the mid-2010s. The Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations grew out of the once politically potent Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. The National Vendors Unions of Zimbabwe was especially politically active at that time. The Zimbabwe Informal Sector Organisation focused on business development. It was led by a former opposition youth leader, Promise Mkwananzi.
For my qualitative study, I interviewed their leaders and regular members as well as civic activists, politicians and city councillors. I expanded my original pool of over 80 respondents during further research on citizenship in urban Zimbabwe in 2017-2018.
I asked them about informal sector organisations and the role they played in their members’ lives. I inquired about how they affected people’s views and relations with the authorities and political parties. I also asked about their place in Zimbabwe’s civic and political arenas.
Shaping perceptions, driving self-reliance
Because of these bodies’ organisational characteristics and relations with civic actors, I expected to find direct linkages with party politics and so-called hashtag movements, such as #Tajamuka and #ThisFlag. These were booming in 2016 in response to the economic and financial crisis, corruption and political oppression.
Contrary to my expectations, I discovered more unique, subtle, and nuanced influences of the informal sector organisations on people’s perceptions of themselves as political actors in relation to parties, social movements, the government, and local authorities. They also influenced how individuals and groups viewed the political community, informal sector, and their place in these structures.
I learned that these organisations had a significant impact on stimulating their members to become self-reliant citizens. In contrast, the government’s approach to the informal sector, especially to street vendors and cross-border traders, was ambiguous and frequently confrontational.
The local authorities’ attitudes were often hostile to street vendors and people engaged in “backyard industries”. For example, they evicted vendors from undesignated vending sites in the city centre many times.
The organisations did not abandon regular governmental politics. They wrote petitions and engaged in protests and demonstrations. But, to a large extent, they shifted to survival, or non-governmental politics. This is citizen-driven political action that is small in scope, with a primary goal of self-help to survive.
National Vendors Unions of Zimbabwe members, for example, united to confront political patronage at a market in the Harare city centre when a pro-ruling party organisation seized vending spaces.
The Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations established a revolving fund to help members save money to use to develop their businesses.
While these actions were quite limited, they helped develop a sense of community. They also provided tools for ensuring safety and support as most people did not rely on help from the authorities. This self-reliance became the norm.
I was surprised to discover that these three informal sector organisations, besides stimulating their members to become self-reliant, also shaped very distinct notions, and consequently practices of citizenship, among them. This was through training and collective action.
The Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Association’s notion of citizenship was collectivist. Its members often referred to it as “family”. This was due to the chamber’s former close connection to the trade unions that gave it a start. Its members expected trade union-like protection from it.
The National Vendors Unions of Zimbabwe, the most politically active of the three, cultivated the classic rights-based definition of citizenship. Its members had a profound awareness of their socio-economic and human rights. Their agenda was quite broad.
They campaigned for issues that affected street vendors directly, such as harassment and confiscation of their wares. They also took on broader political issues. An example was the inappropriate spending of taxpayers’ money by Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko in June 2016. They also opposed the ban on protests in September 2016.
The Zimbabwe Informal Sector Organisation, the youngest of the three organisations, focused on business training and financial literacy. It shaped a notion of citizenship based on respectability.
Zimbabwe has had very particular notions of urban modernity and respectability since the colonial and early post-colonial periods. These are related to formal employment, a clear and direct link between education and employment, urban planning, and lifestyle. Many aspects of this modernity were lost due to the economic crisis that led to informalisation.
In my interviews, the organisation’s members proudly referred to themselves as businessmen and businesswomen and entrepreneurs. They were rethinking these notions of modernity in line with the radically changed economic conditions.
The informal sector in Zimbabwe has been very dynamic, fluid, and affected by broader economic and political developments.
Being novel actors, these and other informal sector organisations try to find the space for themselves to engage with people, other civil society actors, and influence politics. This while combating marginalisation of the informal sector by the authorities.
The development of informal sector organisations in Zimbabwe has no fixed trajectory yet. What is without doubt and unique about their diversity is that they have the potential to influence politics at a personal and societal level – by shaping particular notions of what it means to earn a living in the informal sector.