Will new Zim regime crush this flea trade agreement?
Informal traders in secondhand clothes smuggled from Mozambique are nervous about what comes next
For about 1,000 traders at Sakubva Musika flea market in Zimbabwe's fourth largest city, Mutare, the sale of secondhand clothes popularly known as mabhero has become their main source of livelihood.
The boom in clothes brought in from neighbouring Mozambique follows the collapse of industries that once were the economic lifeblood of the city. The goods called mabhero because they are sold in bales.
Firms such as Karina Textiles, Mutare Board and Paper Mills, Kenge Breweries, Pine Products, Devstar Clothing, Industrial and Domestic Wear, Dairibord Mutare Factory, and Cotton Company of Zimbabwe have collapsed.
Rowen Mukadira is among the scores of traders who shudder at the thought of a return to formal employment should the economy improve. He has been involved in selling secondhand clothes for six years and it has been a lucrative trade for him.
“I have a certificate in hotel and catering. I used to work at a fast-foods outlet before it folded and I am making more money than I ever made then. Right now I earn a civil servant’s monthly salary on a weekly basis,” said Mukadira.In Zimbabwe, teachers earn a basic salary of $270. Mukadira pockets about $1,000 (R13,200) a month in earnings which he uses to support his family. The bales are bought in Chimoio and Beira after being donated by Western countries. While the secondhand clothes are not allowed for resale even in Mozambique, the law is not enforced.
“I have been in this business for just six years and have managed to buy two vehicles, a housing stand and currently I am building my house. I could not have done all this as an employee of a food outlet,” Mukadira said proudly.
The flea market also supports transporters, cloakroom owners and food and airtime vendors. The flea market is owned by the Mutare City Council and has up to 900 tables laid out in the open. Traders pay a monthly rental fee of $20 to use the tables – a pittance, given how much money they make within hours.
Trader David Ngorima said the flea market was their source of life and he also did not see a future outside of selling secondhand clothes.His greatest fear is that the government may introduce taxes on informal traders, which could force them out of business.
With Zimbabwe’s economic collapse over the years, the informal sector has become a vital lifeline for an economy that is starved of foreign direct investment. Independent economists estimate that as much as $4-billion, almost the country’s entire annual budget, circulates within the informal market.
“This is a very risky business. You have to pay for goods, pay transporters, pay police and border officials so that your wares are not taken. It’s a high-risk, high-return business. So for us to pay taxes will be suicidal,” said Ngorima.
The post-election era worries Mukadira. He and his colleagues fear that the newly elected government will tighten the porous border at the eastern city.
Such a move, understandably, would lead to a collapse of their trade that owes its survival to the smuggling of secondhand clothes from Mozambique.
Their well-oiled network of traders has syndicates that include transporters and border unit control officials who bring their contraband into Zimbabwe – thereby depriving the Treasury of duty remittances.
About 50 to 100 bales of secondhand clothes are traded every day while goods worth up to $2,000 are smuggled weekly by their syndicate.
In 2015 the Zimbabwe government banned the importation of secondhand clothes and shoes in order to allow the local industry to grow as it was being choked by cheap imports. However the ban caused an outcry among citizens who wanted cheaper alternatives.The prospect of Mutare’s manufacturing industry springing back to life appears dim for as long as the secondhand clothes make their way into Zimbabwe.
Mike Bimha, the Industry and Commerce minister, said although a law bans secondhand clothes, “it was difficult to enforce”. Recently the revenue authority, Zimra, said it had identified 32 illegal entry points where it was moving in to prevent smuggling.
Silas Mugadza, another trader at Sakubva, said it remains to be seen how the new government will deal with its full in-tray that includes addressing their informal trade.
“We are very uncertain of what is going to become of us after the election. We are keeping our fingers crossed that our business will continue to move as it is now. We hope the elections will not be the beginning of the end of our business,” said Mugadza.