By: Denboy Kudejira, PhD Researcher Department of Anthropology, Memorial University, DKudejira@mun.ca
This blog is a summary of a working paper found here.
Many workers in Zimbabwe rely on trade and travel to South Africa for their livelihood, but with the shutdown of the borders because of COVID-19, this reality is no longer possible. Women especially rely on informal cross border trading (ICBT) to take care of their children, as highlighted in the story of Sandra , “ [ who] has been in this trade for over seven years now … she rents two rooms in Kuwadzana [a low-income suburb in Harare] and gets just enough money to buy food and to pay school fees for her two children” (The Herald, 2011). Sandra’s story is not a peculiar one, it reflects the situation of thousands, if not millions, of Zimbabweans whose survival is anchored on ICBT.
There is significant evidence that ICBT has played a critical role of cushioning vulnerable households against the effects of financial and food crises – but then we must ask:
• What then has been the impact of COVID-19 responses on ICBT-dependent households?
• What measures has the government of Zimbabwe put in place to assist ICBT-dependent households?
• How effective have been these measures?
• What support systems should be put in place to enhance the post-COVID-19 recovery of cross border traders?
Some of these questions are difficult to answer with precision, especially when the world, in general, is still in the middle of containing the pandemic, and the Zimbabwean government, in particular, is ceased with the additional struggle of ensuring that the economy remains functional. This blog will make use of evidence from media commentaries, official government publications and other sources, including NGO reports) to highlight some of the most important aspects of ICBT that have been evolving together with the COVID-19 pandemic thereby providing possible answers to the above questions. More information on this situation can be found in the working paper here.
Firstly; the restrictions on mobility and the closure of borders translated to a loss of employment and income for the traders.
Secondly; the order to close all businesses except those that offer ‘essential services’, can be opined as not well thought out given findings that about 2.2 million of the employed population in 2019 were informally employed. Most of the ‘informally employed’ do not depend on wages from employers, and in some cases, they employ other family members or a small compliment of staffers themselves.
Thirdly; while most countries that effected ‘full lockdowns’ already had functional and effective social safety nets for the poor and unemployed (social grants in South Africa for example), this is not the case for Zimbabwe. For struggling Zimbabweans in general, and ICBT-dependent households in particular, the lockdown, therefore, meant being ‘locked-out’ of their basic means of survival. In response, many have turned to illicit trade, smuggling goods in and out of South Africa to maintain their livelihood as the government’s stimulus package does not provide funding to these informal SMEs.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasise the following key observations and suggestions. Firstly, while ICBT activities contribute immensely to the sustenance of the Zimbabwean economy, their scale of contribution has greatly been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, the country has not recorded as many cases as many pessimistic Zimbabweans feared, but the risk level is still very high, especially among informal cross-border traders. Secondly, government testing and reporting of COVID-19 cases have been shrouded with inconsistencies and ‘lack of transparency’. It was only through an urgent application with the High Court filed by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe on 9 April 2020 that the government was ordered to immediately publish and disseminate information on the private and public testing and treatment centres at national, provincial and district hospitals allocated for dealing with COVID-19 cases (MISA, 2020). Such inconsistencies and lack of transparency would only widen the ‘dent’ on the name ‘Zimbabwe’, which is already tainted in the Southern Africa region and beyond.
The post-COVID-19 recovery of ICBT activities will not only depend on individual investments or support provided by the Zimbabwean government, but they will also be determined by public health measures put in place in the countries where Zimbabwean informal cross-border traders travel to buy their wares. It is, therefore, critical that the country maintains COVID-19 testing systems and reporting procedures that are not questionable. Otherwise, informal cross-border traders from Zimbabwe will be subjected to unnecessary screening processes at the port of entries of countries that the travel to buy their goods in the near future. Thirdly, it is applausable that the government has set aside the ZW$ 18.02 Billion COVID-19 Economic Recovery & Stimulus Package. However, if proper targeting is not done, the most deserving businesses, including ICBT activities, will not benefit from the facility. Instead of only restricting execution of the stimulus facility to the ‘private sector’, the government should consider roping in NGOs, ICBT groups and other players who are already engaging with vulnerable informal cross-border traders.
The Herald, 2011. Cross-border traders’ experiences. [The Herald]
Available at: https://www.herald.co.zw/cross-border-traders-experiences/
[Accessed 13 May 2020].
Media Institute of Southern Africa, 2020. MISA Files Urgent COVID-19 Court Application. [Media Institute of Southern Africa]
Available at: https://zimbabwe.misa.org/2020/04/10/misa-files-urgent-covid-19-court-application/
[Accessed 13 May 2020].