JOHANNESBURG, 9 June (IRIN) - With two-thirds of Swazis living in chronic poverty, and unemployment beyond 40 percent, the Swazialnd may seem an unlikely destination for economic refugees, but 17-year-old Samito is emphatic that his future was bleaker in Mozambique.
Samito is one of several hundred unlicensed vendors in Swaziland's central commercial town of Manzini.
He considers himself lucky to be able to slip the inexpensive watches he sells into his pocket - and avoid arrest by the increasingly aggressive city ranger patrols.
"The women who sell fruits and vegetables cannot run like I can: all their things are confiscated," he said, keeping his eyes on the crowd of passersby to detect a likely customer.
"My sister also works on the pavement; she sells oranges - we cannot afford the fee for a market stall," he said.
When his family could no longer afford to send him to school, he took the three-hour bus trip to Manzini, where he shares a room with four other young men from Maputo in a shack beside the Mnzimene river, which runs through the town.
Manzini City Manager Churchill Fakudze said, "We are concerned: women vendors running away from city rangers run into traffic - there will be accidents. There are more and more vendors - we sympathise - everyone has to earn a living, it is a human right, but shopkeepers and pedestrians have rights, too."
Earlier this year the city announced the construction of a
US $8.3 million vendors' market on the site of the current city market, which was last extended in 1983. In the intervening 22 years the city's population has doubled, which is reflected in the chaotic congestion of the market.
In the capital, located 35 km west, where the illegal vendors tend to be Swazi, Mbabane city authorities have raised similar concerns about congestion.
They have tried to relieve crowded sidewalks by providing covered stalls for vendors in areas with a high volume of pedestrian traffic, which has reduced the number of illegal vendors.
Unable to afford the stall rentals, illegal vendors crowd along the Mbabane river, where their goods are exposed to the hot sun, and customers disappear when it rains.
In the main vendors' hall of the Mbabane market Samantha Simelane restacks her tomatoes after each sale to make perfect red pyramids on the polished concrete counter. "People who used to be my customers, when I see them now they say they want to buy at the big supermarkets - the vegetables come wrapped in plastic - my old customers say this is healthier," she said.
But many buyers still throng the informal markets, where most of the vendors are women struggling to support families.
"After my husband died, I put two children through school with what I earn selling apples and fruits," said Sibongile Hlatshwayo, quietly knitting behind her counter.
Women vendors sleep on the pavement, even on cold winter nights, to have first crack at the best spots when the market gates are unlocked in the morning.
"The informal sector is no match for formal-sector jobs, which offer benefits and better working conditions, but a developing economy needs them. There is a lot of respect for the mothers who are out there vending," said Jan Sithole, Secretary-General of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions.
The union has asked the government for protection for the informal traders.
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