Wisborn Malaya



ZIMBABWE Educator Profile: Wisborn Malaya – Zimbabwe Chamber Of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA)

Your position in ZCIEA? I am the Secretary General of ZCIEA. I became a member of this organisation since its inception in 2002, when I was still a young boy. (smiles 5’02”)

How did you become a member? I used to engage in different forms of informal work activities, I have been a cross-border worker coming even to that side of Cape Town – I used to mainly go to Knysna, where I was selling curios by the Blue Lagoon, so I know a lot about Knysna! I love that place.

Tell us about your youth in Zimbabwe? I was born in 1975 in a location called Mbare, it is one of the oldest locations in Harare in Zimbabwe. That’s where I grew up, that’s where I went to school for my primary and secondary education until I finished my O levels in 1992.  During my primary school education, that’s when my father passed on and we were 5 children in the family. So my mother had to take care of the 5 of us, I remember I was still in grade 4 at that time, she had to see us through primary school to start secondary education.

 A family of informal workers – My father was also just an informal business person, so you know how it goes in terms of issues of social protection – when he died, life changed completely. So our mother had to do some form of informal work activities to take care of us. Part of the work she used to do, she started coming to South Africa to sell doilies, collect second hand clothes and resell, that’s how we survived to keep going to school. It reached a stage when it was no longer feasible for her to cross the border, so we identified a market place Mbare Musika which is a very big one in Harare, where we sold tomatoes and other vegetables.  So we would go to school and weekends we the older grown up ones would relieve her – myself the second born, and my brother was the eldest.  So Saturdays and Sundays it was our duty to be at the market place selling vegetables while she was at home doing all the housework like washing the kids’ clothes. There are sacks that people use in Zimbabwe to carry their bulk groceries, so we would sell the sacks to people in front of big supermarkets like OK – that’s how we managed to live.

Getting educated – The good news is that we all managed to finish our basic education, which is O level in Zimbabwe, my brother went on to A level he is intelligent and could have gone to university, but had to quickly find employment to assist my mother in taking care of the rest of us so we could finish school. I didn’t pass all my O levels, I was the only one of out of a team of 30. It was a painful time for me because I was not a bad student, little did I know it was to separate me from others to the way of life I should lead. It took me two more years to finish 5 O levels, but I could not proceed to college, I had to get a job.

Working in South Africa: I was looking for a job, and the economy was not conducive to employing many people. My mother had a friend at church who had the project of selling curios in South Africa, and she approached my mother asking if we could join the team – I would take and sell the curios in South Africa, and my mother would source the curios as they would come from rural areas in Zimbabwe, and she would take orders for the wooden carvings? 14’29”. That is the partnership we developed at family level and I started doing that project and continued for 3 years, until the economy became bad, in terms of the value of the Rand in Zimbabwe’s economy.

Criminalising migrant work – Another contributing factor was that I went through a bad patch in South Africa. At the border we got visitor’s visas which was a problem, and I was arrested by immigration officials in Knysna at the Blue Lagoon. I was put in jail in George for 3 days, to be deported to Zimbabwe, that was an ugly and painful process to experience. From George we were taken to Lindela Repatriation Centre – that place is terrible, I was there for 9 days as they said there was a que. Life was miserable, it was a bad patch and I lost so much weight. You start thinking you are worthless… do you deserve this treatment? To be frank the Home Affairs does not mess with anyone it was a rough ride. If it was not for my cousin’s sister – you know South Africans believe in freedom – who heard I was there, came to speak to them and they deported me quicker. If not for her, who knows how long I would have been there, it was quite bad. We had a family meeting and decided I would stop working in South Africa, and started local projects. One project was cross-border trading, buying goods in South Africa for resale with the third born younger brother, who had just finished high school – he was into selling vehicle parts and I assisted him. I then connected with a friend and started doing print broking – you source and supply business cards for example for people… It is along this road that I bumped into the ZCTU guys who were organising some informal workers, with a view of setting up an informal workers’ organisation.

The vulnerability of informal workers: cross-border corruption – I have lived the experience of informal workers. When you cross the border post there are challenges as you are forced into corrupt activities because of ignorance – you don’t know the law, you don’t know which amount of goods to pay tax for – or how much. You are vulnerable so you are forced to put money in the passport for immigration officials to let you pass through with your goods. You pay the police as you exit the border so you can pass – along the way if you meet more police you pay the police so they don’t stop and unpack the transport with your goods – you pay so much, so that was a bad patch. Then you go by train to Port Elizabeth, and connect by taxi to Knysna – only when you get to the Blue Lagoon can you say you have survived.

The challenges: difficult living and working conditions – There we lived in houses, you call them shacks or “makukus”, in one of the locations. There would be 5 or 6 men renting one room, and contribute towards cooking together. There would be people of different characters: some may be alcoholics, some are smokers, some bring their girlfriends overnight and you are in the same room – it was an ugly lifestyle, sometimes shocking and lacking in decency. For the sake of earning a living, you force yourself into the system. Trading was high risk because business could be bad, it was good sometimes – the police would come at any time and raid you – so you have to pay them something to let you go. Immigration officers would also arrest you and you have to pay them to let you go, and trade again. You only feel relief when you are going back home, and you have managed to raise money to take back.

How does the power of education impact on informal workers? People are suffering because of a lack of knowledge, and the power of education is key to reducing these levels of vulnerabilities. If there was education and training when my family had started the cross – border trading project – the knowledge of how to cross the border for example, then you work from an informed position. The person will know how to operate in that space and their vulnerability will be reduced – it is so important, powerful and highly needed. Now I have a very healthy and productive educational background which is worker focused because of the courses and trainings I have attained under ZCIEA where I have benefitted from ILO, GLU just to mention a few.

What education activities does ZCIEA do? We look at the informal worker, what challenges they have, and how best they can be assisted to overcome the challenges. The organisation operates with a 5 pillar approach: 1 organise, 2) educate, 3) empower, 4) represent and 5) advocate – and we use these to develop educational programmes for our members with their consent – looking at what affects them and what is their priority to learn. Like now, informal work is criminalised in Zimbabwe and all over the world – government officials fail to understand the contribution of informal work activities to the economy, as well as employment creation. Informal workers are paying for children to go to school, paying local authorities for water and electricity bills, to name a few – because of working in this economy.


ZCIEA has educational programmes on rights awareness – informal economy workers should know their rights as citizens of the country according to the constitution, and their global rights as human beings. We also do paralegal training for understanding laws – for protection or knowing what happens if a law is broken. We also teach negotiation skills at different levels for their interests to be considered by authorities. We also do trade union education to incorporate the decent work agenda, and highlight the importance social protection – this is education for the members. Also, the importance of being organised so we can build a collective voice on the issues that affect us. We do education on cross cutting issues like health and safety in the workplace, and HIV & AIDS, and climate change. We try and push education levels higher on any wave that affects the economic activity of the informal worker.

Women in the informal economy – They play a key role and make up 65% of members of ZCIEA. Youth are a group coming on board as there is a high level of unemployment and they are joining the informal economy, some with educational backgrounds having university degrees. We also have educational programmes on inclusivity for workers with disabilities in the informal economy.

Education in ZCIEA – developed by methodology and content: We choose the style and topic of education according to the worker’s needs. We will do participatory workshop where one person gives the subject matter and notes, then we get the input from the members on their understanding and we discuss. We do pre and post evaluations of the education to make sure the workers are receiving the education at their level of understanding. We also do education in meetings, in the form of study circles, via shop stewards, as well as using and developing educational materials like pamphlets.

Increasing the impact of education: We translate the educational material into vernacular languages to get more mileage in the target group. For example recently before the election we were doing voter education across the country using our membership structures. We material we used to educate the members was the most common languages English, Ndebele and Shona, depending on the region.  Generally the literacy levels (English) is good among Zimbabweans, so it is the average language that you can use to communicate and disseminate information with many people, with exception of some deep rural areas – this is the approach that we take.

Accessing technology – online education: We have also gone the route of online education, we just have to ensure that the gadgets are available for access as we want to introduce this technology to the members. We want to have a project, invest in gadgets that belong to the organisation and members can use it for a form of education for example take it to a deep rural area. Here we are transferring the education to the members, and including them in technology – this is the futuristic plan to introduce members to online education.  We have a lot of youth but they are tech-savvy, so they can easily access online education. We must take care of all our members whose average age is over 40 + to ensure they are also included in educational activities.

Has the education and organising of informal workers had any impact on the labour movement of Zimbabwe, in your opinion? ZCIEA operated under ZCTU until 2008, that’s when we developed some independent initiatives, in 2009 / 2010 we started operating semi-independently and by 2012 we were completely independent. What drove us to become independent is the growth in the organisation, we grew from 22 associations to 32 territories. Harare is an example of one territory which include a number of chapters and trade zones. This confirms how informal workers are embracing the trade union education and information that we are bringing. They understand the importance of being organised, and associate with the benefits of such a structure: for example with saccos and housing co-operatives – members’ lives are changing for the better.

The political situation in our country – it is not a friendly spot to operate under, but we managed to sail through the difficulties we faced, because we maintained a non-partisan status. As a member it does not matter what party you belong to – what defines you as a member of ZCIEA is that you do informal work – that’s what qualifies you. We entered a new dispensation, with the hope of recognition by the new leadership of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. It is unfortunate that just after the harmonised elections the purported restoration of peace and freedom has vanished from the leader. It is our obligation to soldier on and maximise recruitment and mobilisation so that the organisation’s visibility and representation on the ground can be more solid. During the Mugabe time issues of human rights were a thorn in the flesh and now under Mnangagwa it has also become a hot potato. This clearly represents how our governments operate under the neo-liberal structures. Such is an unfriendly environment to operate in.

What are the biggest challenges facing informal workers, and their organisations? Firstly, criminalisation of informal work is still a major challenge – with criminalisation comes harassment, violence, confiscation of goods, politicisation of work spaces, defamation of character and inspection by tax officials – these are serious challenges in the workplace. We’ve identified that these challenges are a result of the policy framework, which is not supportive of the informal economy workers. So we are pushing for change in the legal framework, the policy must accommodate and respect the existence of the informal economy and promote its transitional processes. The second challenge is the vulnerability of workers due to criminalisation – they become desperate, compromising on quality, efficiency, health and safety. The third challenge is corruption of informal workers by officials due to criminalisation you pay – to be able to continue working. This corruption affects young women workers and girl children specifically, as they are forced to provide sexual favours.

For example recently in Gweru City there was a cholera and typhoid outbreak, and the Provincial Minister declared that the street vendors trading there should be evicted, blaming them for the outbreak. The typhoid outbreak was a result of a contaminated borehole water in one of the locations, how can that be associated with someone selling cellphone gadgets in the street to earn a living? This is the level of criminalisation of informal workers – there were running battles between the vendors, police and local authorities in Gweru in the streets because of that statement. The situation further spread to the whole country where street traders are being harassed and brutalised all over.

Another example: the Mayor of Harare was recently inaugurated and the first statement he makes he says they will make sure to remove vendors from the street. Why is it a priority? Currently in the country we have the challenge – we have no clean consistent water supply and there is no consistent refuse collection in communities. There is no support from local authorities for safe trading places, like the provision of public toilets to use – you have to pay which people cannot afford, so they use whatever corner they can and this is unhygienic. The trading is seen as illegal spaces, and we are pushing for this to change in the new dispensation.

What values are expressed in the work of ZCIEA? The spirit of Ubuntu clearly exists in Zimbabwe, especially in those who have received trade union education and training.  (“Ubuntu” is term meaning “humanity”, often translated as “I am because we are”, “humanity towards others”, also used in a philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”, “solidarity”)

For the past 37 years the previous leadership and the ruling party put a divide and rule system in the country, even dividing informal workers on party lines.  They put up a bureaucratic system, so if you belong or associate with their party there are benefits and you can step on others! This affected and divided workers, and we found people asking which party you belonged to before associating with you, so it a serious issue and we must make sure we bring these workers together.

For those who have embraced the trade union movement spirit – they have accommodated and understood how it runs, and everyone wants to be part of it. Formerly the culture of leadership meant that people were ahead of the rest, but not really part of the people.  We want close that gap so that every informal worker knows that outside partisan lines, the vulnerability levels are the same for everyone. If there is a need for education, then everybody needs it and we should embrace the spirit of Ubuntu, and together we push for the agenda that transforms the livelihoods of informal workers.

What slogans do ZCIEA use to keep the spirit on unity and solidarity going? ZCIEA has a slogan “The Chamber That Delivers”, and we interlock our fingers and move the joined hands backwards and you say: “The Chamber” and the members will answer “That Delivers”, we do this 3 times. ‘The Chamber’ represents our collective, and the joined hands and fingers represents that ‘United Together We Can Make It’. The second slogan was embraced from the global StreetNet family “Nothing For Us Without Us” – we use this on all platforms especially bargaining. We are saying we don’t want to be people discussed at the table, we want to be there to discuss our issues. These are the two major slogans we use mainly use when we do our work.


What message would you like to give to educators in our global community? Firstly my personal message: I got my O levels but it did not end there because I got education and training which strengthened my educational levels in the trade union movement. Education in the trade union movement is a solid and important system which can change the life of a person, I am living proof of that – I am sharing platforms with professors doing presentations with no fear or struggle, even presenting better than them because of the trade union movement you are presenting reality issues based on the background and the space we operate in. There should not be any underestimation of a worker who has gone through the trade union movement education platform because they don’t have a university degree –  is not just about degrees anymore in the world we are living in. It is about the education which informs a person to be equipped in the space they operate in, and they represent accordingly.


Secondly it is important that we expand this education through our IFWEA family, because every worker needs a form of education at their level so they can respond to the events of the day from an informed position. This world is changing, and so is the space of work, many things are happening: companies are closing and workers are going into the informal economy, permanent workers become contract workers. This affects workers and if they are not educated on how to demand their rights, how to fight for their freedom – they will continue to suffer at the expense of a few who benefit from their sweat. Education is key to continue to strengthen the spirit of trade unionism, the spirit of Ubuntu, and continue fighting this struggle as a united force – so we are able to change our lives as workers in this universe at the moment.