For six years, Reuben Dube earned his keep selling secondhand shirts, trousers and shoes in this city’s central business district.
BY FORTUNE MOYO
Then came the coronavirus crisis, which shut down Zimbabwe — and Dube’s enterprise.
Now he sells fruits and vegetables out of his home.
The coronavirus has upended the lives of millions in the country’s informal labour market, which includes sellers of secondhand clothes, street vendors, tailors, construction workers and many others.
More than 90% of Zimbabwe’s workers are engaged in the informal sector.
The virus has threatened their already-fragile livelihoods and left many in the country grasping for new ways to make money.
Their struggle began after the virus struck in late March, when the national government locked down all non-essential businesses and services.
On March 26, Bulawayo mayor Solomon Mguni announced an immediate ban on all informal-sector markets in Zimbabwe’s second most populous city, 439 kilometrea southwest of Harare, the nation’s capital.
The city’s five secondhand clothes markets were usually packed with scores of customers jostling in the aisles.
Some bent over heaps of clothing, while still others tried on shoes. Their murmurs and shouts echoed from a distance.
All of this made both sellers and buyers vulnerable to the coronavirus, which spreads via microscopic droplets from the nose and mouth.
Before the lockdown, Dube (35) made as much as $350 a day hawking skirts and women’s shoes along with men’s clothing.
He still sold clothes for a few days after the ban, but his earnings plummeted to about $65 a day.
Most informal traders have struggled to buy food and medicine since the lockdown, says Michael Ndiweni, executive director of the Bulawayo Vendors and Traders Association.
“Even after the lockdown, most will struggle with restocking their businesses and also other obligations such as paying their bills,” he says.
Informal traders got good news at the end of March when the Zimbabwean government reintroduced the use of foreign currency.
The local currency is still in use but is now pegged to the South African rand and the United States dollar.
Dube now sells fruits and vegetables in rands, US dollars or the Zimbabwean dollar equivalent.
He says he makes at least US$8 a day — less than when he sold secondhand clothes but more than he did before the government’s about-face on foreign currency. Still, it’s not ideal.
“We have an extended family which depends on us,” said Sithabile Dube, Reuben’s wife.
Other sellers of secondhand clothes have shifted their markets to Bulawayo’s suburbs, but they’re struggling.
Nomazwe Dungeni, who lives in the Cowdray Park area, hasn’t gained traction in her new location near a cluster of shops.
“There is not much business as compared to the city centre,” she said.
Customers are complaining, too.
They say they now have to patronise retail shops, where prices can be multiple times higher than those of secondhand clothes sellers.
Chipo Sithole says that skirts and dresses may cost up to US$25 in Bulawayo shops but that she typically pays US$1 to US$5 for secondhand versions.
“Now I have to wait for the settlement areas,” she says, referring to planned selling posts for the informal sector in less densely populated areas of Bulawayo.
The government has tagged these posts “settlement points”.
The points, which should open in October, will sit near bus terminals located close to supermarkets and shopping centres. They will offer spots to secondhand clothes sellers, fruit and vegetable vendors and other informal workers.
“Since no one knows when Covid is ending, we are already setting up settlement points for the informal sector to survive long term,” said Dingani Dlomo, the Bulawayo provincial development officer in the Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises.
In July, the government extended the national lockdown. Only essential services, such as hospitals and public transportation, may operate as normal.
Dube, who has two and 10-year-old boys, works every day.
By 7am, he sets up his stall at his gate with bananas, potatoes, apples, cabbage and carrots.
Throughout the day, he wears a protective mask and regularly uses hand sanitiser. He closes up around 6pm.
Dube plans to set up at a settlement point once the government opens them, but even then, he will also still sell fruits and vegetables as a hedge against the ongoing lockdown.
“A prolonged lockdown would be unfortunate,” he says, “because we long for life to go back to the way it was before.”
—Global Press Journal