During the early days of the first term for this Government there was undertaken a city cleanup exercise. Informal traders were removed from the streets and many unauthorized structures put up for trading purposes were demolished. Suddenly, streets became clean, some roads which were over-congested with traders became passable.
This situation did not last long, as traders slowly came back to their former locations. Given the political nature of removing informal traders from the streets, pavements, open spaces and other unauthorized places, in a situation of lack of formal employment, I did predict that during the second term of the government it will not replicate the street clean up action it had done during the first term. So far I have been proved right. Today, in all of our urban areas, one finds informal traders everywhere.
The key factor determining the location of such activities seems go be the potential market. Informal traders target areas of high population densities and high pedestrian traffic. This is at road junctions, at bus stops, at markets, schools, work places, at places of high population congregations and so on. Informal trading becomes a problem when traders decide and trade at any place without any law or order.
Increasingly public authorities are finding it a problem to control these traders since their numbers are growing by the day and attempts to remove them from their trade locations by force have met with stiff resistance and sometimes, battles take place between public authorities and informal traders, wares get destroyed and sometimes, life is lost. It is now common to see informal traders occupying bus stop shelters to the inconvenience of travellers.
Pavements which are supposed to be used by pedestrians get taken over and pedestrians are forced to walk on the streets. Bridges are taken over. Areas meant for parking cars get taken over and informal traders may make it impossible for a car owner to park there. Cases where parked cars are converted into shelves for displaying wares are common.
Sometimes, where traders feel that a car parked at a designated car park which however is wanted by the informal traders blocks their trade, they have been known to teach the drivers a lesson by deflating the tyres of such a parked car. Informal traders may occupy a whole street and make it difficult for those with formal shops to conduct any trade in their shops.
The latter have complained of unfair practices against the informal traders who, in many cases do not have a trading licence and would be paying no taxes. Thus one effect of informal traders is to lower the business of those who hold formal licences and pay taxes, to increase their overheads and to accelerate their downfall. Informal traders are a complex social phenomenon
and their activities need to be studied deeply to understand how they function. Where do they get their goods from?
Do they buy or do they pay after they too have traded? Who are they? In Tanzania they are called Machingas because a good number of them in the past came from “Chinga” country, referring to some parts of southeastern Tanzania. But is that still the case? The social make up of informal traders includes almost every social group in the nation, and even foreigners.
The fact that they keep on doing this business means they are getting some profit. An interesting question would be whether there is any movement among the informal traders up the ladder or even into other larger or more profitable businesses; or whether they end up as mere survivors. There seems to be certain lines of trade (such as food provisioning) where women are the majority and other lines where men excel.
Some traders move from place to place while others remain at the same spot for a long period. Some trade in permanent or semi permanent structures, other prefer the open, on the street or on some open space. Some operate as a community and may even have their own byelaws, others operate individually. Some operate with some understanding with another person eg who may own the land or structure, some operate on land or space for whose occupation they have no permission.
Certain lines of trade are conducted at certain times only and this means the same piece of trade spot can be used for one type of trade in the morning; another in the afternoon, another in the evening and another at night. In some areas of the city the streets get flooded with traders in the evening hours as the general public returns home after their daily chores. Most traders will tell you that their enemy number one is the City Militias who chase them around and impound their wares.
The activity of these militias, as well as forcing informal traders into specific buildings or locations has invariably failed. There is as yet no viable solution to bringing law and order into informal trading in urban areas. One form of trade that has developed in recent times, reflecting the colossal growth in car ownership, is car washing. Everyplace where cars are parked are now de-facto car washing places.
Gangs of youth are always there on the look out for a car that is parking and they will insist on it being washed (even if it is quite clean). The end result is that many parking places are polluted with dirty water and oil, as well as with dirty water containers and dirty mopping pieces of cloth. One paradox out of this situation is that in order for you to get into your “clean” car, you have to step onto mud and dirty water. An offshoot of this is windscreen washing at key road junctions.
Here, youths carrying buckets of (dirty) water and a windscreen wiper blades will splash water at any car they identify which has had to stop at a junction, and start cleaning it and drying it with the windscreen blade as the driver watches much to his anguish but can do nothing about it. At the end, the unsolicited screen washer will demand something from the driver. This activity is clearly wrong. It is trespass on somebody’s property without their permission simply because they are trapped at a road junction.
Many drivers do not want it, but it is done all the same. The water and the “soap” used may not be appropriate to the car’s windscreen but who cares? Who should take action? Should it be the police standing nearby? For the moment nobody is taking any action and drivers will continue to be at the ransom of these unsolicited windscreen cleaners. Not giving them anything can attract sanctions.
For the time being it is dirty words but it will get worse. The city of Kampala has recently cleaned its streets of informal traders, but, if past experience is to go by, this is only a temporary success. The streets, pavements and open areas will be occupied once again. Law and order is certainly required for informal trading but nobody has identified the right solution. (To be continued with unauthorized land use changes and noise)