Living in the Shadow of the Future

In the MDC I have held a number of positions. In the early days of the Party I was Secretary for Economic Affairs, then Policy Coordinator General, then Secretary for Policy and Research and now, after the last Congress in 2014, I am serving as Secretary for Local Government. It is a substantive post as we control 19 local Authorities – 16 urban and three rural through some 426 elected Councilors and the MDC Mayors or Chairpersons of local authorities.

Under the new Constitution in sections covering the position of elected officials in local Authorities, these have executive responsibility for the welfare of the people and the areas that they have in their local authority Districts. Numerically I think that more than 60 per cent of the population lives in the urban areas. The 2012 census was manipulated by the State to understate the urban populations and justify the skewed ratio of Constituencies towards the rural areas, especially the resettlement areas. For example, the Census gave the population of Chitungwiza as below 400 000 when it is widely assumed that it is well over 1,5 million – especially when the new housing areas are included. Last week the Residents Association told me that they estimated the Chitungwiza population at 2,5 million.

There is nothing new about urbanisation – the drift to the towns has been going on for years and will continue. With the national population now growing at a marginal 1 or 1,5 per cent per annum, (death rates are well above historical levels and together with migration have held our population down to just over 12 million when in fact, at the population growth rates pre Independence, it should now be well over 20 million) the rapid growth of urban populations are going to mean that by the middle of this century the great majority of our people will live in the Towns and Cities.

Cities, not countries, are the main focal points of economic growth and innovation. The USA shows the way where just less than 2 per cent of their population is dependent on agriculture for a living and yet the farm communities in the States, feed not only the continent but generate nearly half of all global food surpluses. In South Africa, my agribusiness friends tell me that just 100 large agribusiness enterprises provide 70 per cent of all agricultural output. Given the likely impact of global warming in the 21st Century, it would seem that Zimbabwe will eventually go the same way.

This means that it is to the Cities and Towns that we must turn to for livelihoods and the struggle to improve living standards. It is urban policy that is going to determine our fates and the fate of those who live in the rural areas. In Zimbabwe the average income is about $1000, in the peasant farming areas, average incomes are very low – about $35 per person and they are perennially close to shortages of all basics and very dependent on transfers from the urban areas and from the Diaspora. Incomes in what is left of the commercial farms is about three times that of the peasant sector and this explains why human migration still takes place from the former to the latter.

If we then look at other sectors of human activity that have emerged in recent years, we have about 500 000 people making a living from small scale mining. This group has an average income of about $300 a year – ten times the income per capita in the peasant sector and three time the income in the commercial farming districts – which again explains why, when new mining fields are discovered, there is an immediate drift to those areas until they are fully occupied or exhausted.

However it is in the urban informal sector that most Zimbabweans make their living today. In 1980 at Independence, when our GDP was about $10 billion and our population was just over 8 million, over 1,2 million people were formally employed in the private sector and by State enterprise or the Civil Service. At that stage the Civil Service was tiny – about 70 000 people, not including the security services which were inflated by the War. Today we have an ordinary Civil Service of 187 000 and still an inflated security sector but for different reasons.

Today I would guess that our employment levels are less than half what they were in 1980, three and a half decades of corruption and bad government have done that. Last week the President of the MDC and I met with the leaders of the informal sector in Zimbabwe and they told us that there were perhaps 2,5 million street vendors, over 60 000 people making their living in the transport sector and some 100 000 people making a living from small scale industry. Over 150 000 women make their living by trading across our borders and they must command at least a third of our foreign trade today.

It is impossible to guess what these informal traders make for a living – some have become quite wealthy – many money traders live in large houses in up market suburbs. Cross border traders often own their own homes and support families. If we assume that their average income is about $200 per person per month then the contribution of these small business persons (for that is what they are) is very considerable. Conservatively their contribution to the national GDP might be about $8 billion – none of it measured by the State. That would put our GDP at about $20 billion and explains how we manage on an official GDP of just $12 billion to raise $4 billion a year in taxes.

It is also their activity that explains how we manage to import nearly $7 billion in goods and services each year on the back of official exports of just $3,1 billion. No formal sector business in Zimbabwe today can operate a business model that does not incorporate the informal sector.

But let’s not glamorize the informal sector; the life of a small scale informal sector miner is short, nasty and very tough. The life of the average vendor who has to rise early to get to markets and buy what they are going to try and sell that day and then walk home, weary after a long hot and dry days work, is very tough and largely unproductive. They are pried on by every sort of urban vulture. In the Mbare markets they must pay “protection” money to local gangs, they pay heavy rentals to “slum landlords”, many of whom are closely allied to the Zanu PF and get police protection and who make millions each year from their operations.

When they get “home” they are often living in a single room with the whole family or with others also trying to make a living. If they fail to pay their “rents” at the level of about $100 per month per room, they are evicted. It is a tough way to make a living, yet it’s better than what they would earn in the peasant or small scale agricultural sector and for that reason they still come.

For those with any ability or training and with age on their side, they opt for migration to another country. So I find that I can order a meal in almost any South African City in one of our local languages and to be immediately served with a shy smile and a greeting before I leave.

Much of what goes on in the informal sector is illegal in one way or another. Some years ago I travelled by pick up truck from Gaborone to Harare. Outside Francistown I picked up three women and their large bags. When we got to the border I was astonished at how quickly they transited and when we got to Bulawayo, one of the ladies stripped off a harness under her dress which was holding about 30 kilograms of machine tools. When she saw the expression on my face she said “at least we are not thieves” That is true, but she was still living in the shadow of the future, like all of us.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 7th March 2015