Selling out Angola's street vendors

By Louise Redvers | January 16th, 2014
Street vendors are under attack from the Angola government © James Oatway/Sunday Times
Street vendors are under attack from the Angola government © James Oatway/Sunday Times

The announcement that Angola plans to enforce laws banning street trading is another example of ham-fisted policy application by a government that has lost touch with its people and their basic needs.

Street vendors will be subject to fines of up to 50 percent of the value of the goods they are selling, while punishments for those who buy from them will be announced in due course, José Tavares, the President of the Administration Commission of the City of Luanda, told the government mouthpiece the Jornal de Angola this week.

The crack down is part of a wider policy to reduce the role of the informal sector, which according to best estimates accounts for around two thirds of urban and peri-urban economic activity in Angola.

The government wants to put an end to un-licensed, un-regulated and un-taxpaying street sellers whom they say clog up the traffic, cause a nuisance and make a mess. They assert that consumers are exposed to poor quality items and that food sold in insanitary conditions poses health risks.

No-one can argue against the benefits of a strong and well-regulated formal economy, providing a healthy tax-base and steady jobs, but there are ways and means to achieve that – and criminalising street selling is not one of them.

Angola’s street vendors – known as Zungeiras from the word ‘Zunga’ that means move around in Kimbundu – are among the country’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, many of whom fled to the capital during the war years. Few can read or write and most have no identity documents. Getting an education or a formal job, or even social support, is beyond their reach and tragically, probably, most of their dreams as well.

Worse still these women are regularly abused by exploitative police officers and government inspection teams, who beat them, steal or damage their goods and subject them to bribes. You can read more about the scale of this horrific abuse – and the seeming impunity of the officials involved – in this damning Human Rights Watch report released last September.

The majority of Angolan Zungeiras are women. They sell everything and anything, from fruit, vegetables and fish, to clothes, flip-flops and toys, though many young boys also walk the streets clutching large boards displaying phone chargers, CDs and sunglasses. In Luanda, you’ll find these hawkers everywhere, lined up on crumbling pavements, next to pedestrian footbridges, walking between traffic queues, as well seated in shady spots outside banks and offices, often with young children playing next to them in the dirt.

The adoption of Marxism followed by decades of civil war shut down Angola’s formal economy and for many years the black market was the place to go for anything, from basic items like food and clothes, right up to more expensive things like cars and machinery. When I moved to Luanda in early 2008 – six years after the end of the conflict – there were still only a handful of poorly-stocked and overpriced supermarkets so I, like everyone else, relied on food and other items from the Zungeiras.

Fast-forward to 2014 and Angola has opened up, supply chains have improved, there are now more shops selling more things at better prices, but despite this Luanda’s Zungeira population has continued to swell and, sadly, so too has the level of abuse against them.

It’s hard to talk about Zungeiras without mentioning the city’s famous Roque Santeiro Market, supposedly the largest open-air selling site in Africa, which was shut down in 2010. Named after a Brazilian soap opera, Roque was the beating-heart of Angola’s informal economy and in some ways a city in its own right.

Its unregulated density was as much its charm as its downfall, the government citing crime, prostitution and insanitary conditions as reasons to clear the plot next to the Port of Luanda. Some of its sellers – many of whom had worked there for decades – referred to Roque as ‘mother’ and they were distraught about it being shut down.

A new market was built by Chinese contractors some 25 kilometres away at a place called Panguila, one of several new satellite cities going up around the periphery of Luanda. But while Panguila boasts running water, electricity and order, its location far from sellers and customers means it has not taken off and the latest photographs I saw from there showed rows of empty concrete banks.

There are many other official markets spots around Luanda, but according to several reports they are either badly oversubscribed, or as Human Rights Watch notes, simply too difficult to access for undocumented Zungeiras, who are manipulated by bribe-taking officials. Moreover, few people have the time to visit formal market sites, and why would you bother when you can sit in traffic and let the supermarket come to you.

Instead of criminalising street vendors, the government needs to take a step back and find a way to help these people. No-one starts to sell on the streets out of choice, they have no other option – they need assistance, not persecution.

And what does the government think is going to be achieved by fining these women? They have no other source of income and they will just have to keep on selling to pay what they owe, while their children go hungry in the meantime.

Primary education is supposed to be free in Angola, but it’s not really because state places are maxed out forcing people to go to private schools – often poorly regulated – and parents are ‘encouraged’ to pay teachers to secure classroom access. If it’s a choice between eating and education, the latter will fall by the wayside first, condemning many children to a lifetime of poverty – a bleak future that their parents had sacrificed so much to try and help them escape from.

Tavares said he had noted concerns about corrupt inspection teams and allegations of brutality by police officers and that this would be closely monitored. Few will hold their breath for this to happen.

In his 2013 end of year speech, Angola’s aging president of nearly 35 years, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, made a policy pledge to support the country’s rural women, many of whom are subsistence farmers supporting large families in difficult conditions. I applaud this show of solidarity, especially given the struggles of so many in the south of the country who fell victim first to a drought and second to a highly-politicised and inadequate response.

But what about Angola’s urban and peri-urban women? The Zungeiras who traipse the streets of Luanda for 12 hours a day, parched babies tied to their backs, hoping to make enough to feed their family and service their debts, they need help too.

However, it is clear that help is not on the agenda. On Wednesday, the editor of Jornal de Angola weighed into the debate. In one of his typically confrontational editorials, Jose Ribeiro said: “People need to stop selling on the roads! Street selling is responsible for the loss of human lives and the traffic chaos.” He added that it is not an excuse to say people are selling to support their families, and that it is better to work in a formal, legal job. Helpful advice, Mr Ribeiro, but perhaps in your next editorial, you can you point out where all those jobs are.

And it is not just Ribeiro. Talk about Zungeiras with anyone from Angola’s newly-monied elite and they will tell you ‘they have to go’. I remember very clearly one very well-dressed and expensively US-educated Angolan oil worker telling me: “We can’t have these people on our streets anymore, not in the city centre next to places like Sonangol. We need to improve our image, we are a modern country, these people can’t be here like this.”

This is social apartheid and is mirrored in the way that many poor families across Angola are being forcibly – and often violently – evicted from their communities to make way for shopping malls, office blocks and condos for the rich. It is very sad when a country - and a ruling party with its roots in Marxism, such as the MPLA – loses sight of its own people because it is too busy showing off its new-found wealth.

However, I also believe that it is dangerous for the MPLA to be so arrogant. In the 2012 election they won more votes in rural areas than they did in the city and in parts of Luanda, they even polled less than the opposition party UNITA. This is extremely significant. The MPLA grew up as the urban party, now it is alienating its core followers. Perhaps this explains Dos Santos’ generous nod to rural women. Perhaps he will oblige them with electricity, water, schools, healthcare and jobs as well – or perhaps not.

Zungeiras have very little to lose. Choosing to continue targeting them in this way is only going to stoke what is a growing anger among some of Angola’s poorest people, who have never enjoyed even a crumb of their country’s rich oil and peace pie – and it could spark civil unrest.

A well-respected Angolan expert I spoke to this week described the criminalisation of Zungeiras as “totally wrong”.

“It is a crude attempt to shut down the informal sector that is only going to backfire,” he said. “No-one is against the policy for a stronger informal economy, but there are ways and means to go about it. This is a clumsy approach that is going to make people very upset and shows up the weaknesses of a government that doesn’t think properly about how it will apply policies and just launches in.”

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