The struggles of ordinary Malawians for a place in the city

19 May 2009 - 3:38pm

Malawi's current government, which is led by president Binga wa Mutharika, who came into power in 2004, has been praised for increasing economic growth to 9% and improving food security through the introduction of a fertiliser subsidy. However, millions of Malawians continue to live in poverty, often surviving as street vendors in the country's informal economy. As a result of trade liberalisation introduced in the 1990s, many Malawians lost their job as factories producing textiles, garments, soaps, detergents and oils were closed down because they could not compete with foreign imports. Currently, only an estimated 12% of Malawi's labour force is employed in the formal sector.

Mutharika's government became well known for its tough stance against street vendors. In April 2006, the government imposed a deadline on traders to vacate the streets. In the name of 'restoring order', police launched a harsh campaign during which it fired tear gas to disperse vendors who were protesting against the 'clean-up' campaign launched by government. Since then street vendors have been forced to play a hide-and-seek game with local government officials for mere economic survival.

While Mutharika considers the removal of vendors from Malawi's streets a major achievement, organisations such as the Malawi Union for the Informal Sector (MUFIS), a War on Want partner, have highlighted the ways in which these measures have destroyed people's livelihoods. MUFIS campaigns for an end to the stigmatisation of street vendors and argues vendors should be treated as workers contributing to the economy, not as tax-evading criminals. In recent years MUFIS has become an affiliate of the country's trade union movement, the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU).

President Mutharika's main rival in today's elections, John Tembo, from the opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP), has promised street vendors that they will be allowed back onto the streets if they offer him support. Opposition parties want to see vendors selling their wares or operating their businesses in streets and towns without any hindrance.

However, MUFIS has seen these tactics all before. During the election campaign, politicians have employed street vendors to organise meetings, raise party flags in their markets and advertise campaign materials at their places of work. Vendors and traders constitute a major part of Malawi's labour force and are therefore a major voting constituency for politicians. Street vendors have, however, lost hope, having heard these promises for years from politicians. MUFIS' members are still looking for a political party that will genuinely advocate for the interests of street vendors and informal workers instead of using them for political gain.


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