street vendors: Congo war on Kinshasa's informal sector FWD

Tom Boland (
Wed, 10 Jun 1998 02:12:13 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  CNN - 8 June 1998 - 20:04 SAT, Johannesburg time (18:04 GMT)


KINSHASA (Reuters) - An official campaign to spruce up the streets of
Kinshasa is targeting a way of life that offered the only means of survival
for many during three decades of dictatorship in the former Zaire -- the
informal economy.

The drive to clean up the crumbling capital of the renamed Democratic
Republic of the Congo has spread panic among a multitude of small traders
and others who live by their wits and scratch out a living.

Across the sprawling city of five million, police and city hall workers are
smashing and removing terrace bars and makeshift shops housing
hairdressers, cobblers, and vendors of every kind.

The campaign, spearheaded by Kinshasa governor, Theophile Mbemba, is
accompanied by efforts at the central tax inspectorate to broaden the
state's fiscal base and impose controls on the informal sector.

"It is like a child that has not been washed for years and has wounds all
over. To clean up the child and heal its wounds you have to inflict some
pain," a senior city hall official told Reuters.

For the majority of Kinshasa residents, abandoned by the state under the
corrupt regime of former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, roadside trading still
is the only way to feed the family a year after President Laurent Kabila
took power.

They say that with few signs of the formal economy picking up, the timing
of the campaign could spell disaster for many households.

"Up until now there is no other work. People earn their living on the
street," says a barmaid at a popular pavement terrace in the process of
being dismantled.

"We'll see if the state has an alternative, but in the meantime how will we
pay the rent and feed the children?"

FENDING FOR THEMSELVES The ruling principle of survival in the minds of
most Congolese who grew up in Mobutu's Zaire, is "Article 15" a term
referring to a fictional clause in the constitution meaning "Fend for

The vast majority of Kinshasa's inhabitants -- and millions of poor people
across Africa -- live in this world of street hustle and ragged

In the latter years of Mobutu's rule, army-led looting and political
anarchy tore the heart out of what was left of the Zairean economy by
decades of corruption and misrule.

Civil servants -- whose salaries, when they were paid, scarcely bought them
a day's bread -- were obliged to supplement their living with scams and
small-time commerce.

In theory, Kabila has boosted state salaries. In practice, strict controls
on public expenditure, a tiny working budget, and the overall failure of
the government so far to attract investment and aid, mean they are still
paid irregularly.

"The government could have attacked the problem at the root by paying
regular salaries for regular work," says hairdresser, Dieudonne.

PERMITS TO BE INTRODUCED Along with two women, he clipped and platted hair
in an abandoned truck container whose dented exterior hid luxury inside:
paneled wood walls, air-conditioning and an impressive array of beauty
products. All this was broken up last week.

The salon earned as much $500 a month. For Delphine who took home $100,
this meant food for an invalid husband and her own three children as well
as her sister's family.

It also meant $100 a month in municipal taxes to the commune. Delphine says
that the salon had actually been paying these since Mobutu and his regime
of kleptocrats fled Kabila's advancing army.

In a bid to net profits from the informal sector, the central tax
inspectorate intends to introduce permits for every kind of trader, down to
homeless shoeshine boys.

"After 30 years of pillaging, some kind of order is necessary," says a
barman who applauds the moves.

Along with many other inhabitants, he also appreciates efforts by the
governor to tidy up Kinshasa's squalid image.

PLANTING GRASS, CLEANING DRAINS The city has employed 1,200 workers for the
face-lift. Dressed in yellow uniforms and armed with spades and paint, they
can be seen all over the city, replanting grass and clearing out drains
clogged with decades of refuse.

Such cosmetic changes, however, attract characteristic irony from the
city's numerous cynics disappointed by the failure of the new
administration to initiate an era of freedom and prosperity.

"They're planting lawns everywhere. Soon our country will be Africa's top
exporter of grass, but we won't become rich like that," says a taxi driver.

With "Article 15" still at the back of their minds, many of the traders who
have been moved on in recent weeks, have bounced back and reappeared in
nearby spaces.

In cities across the continent, this has tended to be the rule after
frequent crackdowns on the ephemeral structures thrown up by the world of
the street.

"It's only when the state has provided an alternative space for trading
that this kind of operation has proved successful," says one senior
Kinshasa banker.


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