Life in the Fast Lane

Millions of people in Zimbabwe make their living in the informal sector. Those of us who live and work in the formal sector have little or no idea of what it is like to live in this sort of “other world”. Three incidents in my life illustrate what it’s like to be dependent on the informal sector to make a living.

I was driving back to Harare from Gaborone where I had attended an MDC strategic planning meeting. I was in a pickup truck and on my own when I went through Francistown and found a large group of women at a bus stop on the Zimbabwe side of the town. I stopped and said I was going to Harare and would take some people with me. A discussion took place and after a couple of minutes three women came across with their huge bags containing their purchases. I put one in the front with me and the other two in the open back.

The lady in front was from Highfield in Harare; she was short and stocky and had a keen sense of humor. At the border I left them to deal with customs and immigration and made my way through the normal procedures – they were waiting for me when I cleared and we went to the Zimbabwe border post. Here we repeated the procedure and I noted that even though I had nothing to declare, they beat me each time.

We drove into Bulawayo and they asked me if I could stop at a service station with toilets. I did so and while I filled up with fuel they all went off to the ladies. When they came out I was waiting and I noticed that the lady who was sitting with me in the front of the truck was distinctly more slender. She was now carrying what turned out to be 25 kilograms of machine tools destined for an engineering company in Harare. These had been held in a kind of shoulder harness that she had under her dress.

She saw my expression and said, “At least we are not thieves.” I laughed and we set off for Harare. On the way she explained that she did this trip every two weeks and had a list of clients in Harare for which she was known as a “runner”. Whatever they needed she purchased and then smuggled into the country without duty or tax at the border. I took her to her home in Highfield and found that she had a family with several children dependent on her.

The second incident related to when I was working as an extension officer in the Gokwe District – I was responsible for settling and then teaching families in this vast wilderness how to grow crops in the area. We focused on cotton in the heavy soils and lower areas and maize and ground nuts in the lighter soils at higher altitudes.

We went about our work quite systematically, selecting the better farmers whom we designated as “Master Farmers”. These we helped grow their crops and used them to illustrate what was possible. The people had all been settled on state land since 1962 and were being fed with basic needs for the first two years.

In one village I had a half hectare of maize that was quite magnificent – already tasselling and about two metres high. One morning the farmer woke up to find his maize slashed to the ground. The farmer was devastated and came to Gokwe to tell us about the incident. I drove him back to his village and then asked the Headman to gather the people and when he had done so I asked the people why they had done this?

The group did not look at me and eventually one of the older men stood up and admitted that they had done this. I was mystified and asked why? He responded that they were afraid that if everyone could see that they could grow maize like this, that the government food would stop coming. I was furious and told them that the food aid was for a limited period and was only to help them settle into their new homes. They had to start growing their own food or they would starve. We had no further incidents of this nature.

The last glimpse I had into the other-world of the poor was last year when I visited Beitbridge with a team from Parliament to try and sort out the chaos there. When we had finished our business the bus went back to Harare. I and another MP from Bulawayo decided to hitch a lift home rather than return to Harare. We got a lift with a Kombi from Johannesburg. My colleague elected to sit with the driver and I was given a seat in the back, next to a very attractive young girl.

We got talking and she told me she was a “commercial sex worker” in Johannesburg and she talked quite openly about her life there; she was going home to see her family. Clearly she was making quite good money. After a while she fell asleep with her head on my shoulder and we went through the 8 road blocks on the way to Bulawayo without any movement from my companion. Up front at every road block my colleague would wave her ID card from Parliament and we were immediately waived through – when we got to Bulawayo the driver said; “You can come with me anytime – you saved me at least R600 today in bribes on the road”.

There are no safety nets in Zimbabwe; if you do not work you starve. In a country where the formal sector has collapsed and now only employs less than one person in ten, this means that 90 per cent of every community has to make their living in the informal sector. How they do that is infinitely different – some are involved in illegal activities, others marginally legal, almost always life is hard and tough and when things go wrong, the consequences are immediate.

But they make their way with humor and ingenuity, hard work and effort. Helping them make a better living with security and in a way that preserves their dignity is one of the great tasks of African governments.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo 14th January 2013