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Political maturity required for vending solution


In St Vincent and the Grenadines, as in many of our neighbouring states, political partisanship colours approaches to almost everything, even sometimes issues which have little to do with one’s political choices. Red and yellow, or blue and green, the favourite choices of Caribbean political parties, come to signify much more than one’s dress taste and can sometimes saddle the politically naïve by pre-judgement.

Given the heavy involvement of the State in daily life, whether as employer, provider of political patronage, regulator and enforcer, almost every problem seems to be approached from a partisan angle. Yet, many of our national challenges are far more all-encompassing and any resort to partisanship ends up being more of an encumbrance than a mechanism for finding solutions.{{more}}

The situation with vending in Kingstown, which this paper addressed in its editorial of last Friday, is the latest example of how a problem facing us all in our respective capacities can be made more difficult for resolution, because of the perception of it being tainted with politics. It is a situation that has been with us for some years now, at times resulting in acrimonious exchanges between vendors and the State and worsening with every passing day, to the satisfaction of virtually no one. What is making it so difficult to resolve?

The man charged by the State with the responsibility for finding a solution is none other than the ‘action man’ of the governing Unity Labour Party (ULP), Minister of Transport, Works and Informal Human Settlement Julian Francis. He also holds the post of General Secretary of the ULP and is its main organiser, the ‘go-to’ man in the administration. Francis possesses the experience and ability to handle such situations, but can also be somewhat abrasive at times when taking on opponents. To his credit, however, he has never shied away from facing up to his responsibilities. Where many of his colleagues might be more timid to face a group of aggrieved and irate people, Francis has never shirked and has gone to face the music on more than one occasion.

Vending in the Kingstown Market or on the streets of the city is no cake-walk. It takes a particular kind of toughness to succeed, a factor often overlooked by many and for which these small entrepreneurs are not always given enough credit. The largely disorganised and informal nature of the vending business often causes many conflicts – betwen the State authorities and vendors, between vendors and the formal business sector, between vendors and the public, and even among the vendors themselves. One has to be very sensitive in handling such conflicts, while at the same time being firm, lest a show of weakness lead to more chaos and disregard for law and order.

In the midst of trying to sort out the mess in which Kingstown is rapidly being enveloped, there is the added complication of partisan politics. The city of Kingstown is, in political terms, an Opposition stronghold, all three Kingstown constituencies in Parliament being represented by Opposition Parliamentarians. It is important that the Government recognize this fact and, where possible, always seek to involve the Opposition MPs in seeking solutions to problems affecting the city. True, there is a record of contentious exchanges between these MPs and the Government, but that must not be an excuse for exclusion.

In addition, many of the vendors support the Opposition and, as any Opposition would do, the NDP Parliamentarians are certain to try and gain maximum political advantage from the situation, portraying themselves as defenders of the ‘small people’ being wronged by an ‘uncaring state’. Already many vendors tend to ignore the wider problem and take the narrow view of persons being prevented from earning a living in this proverbial ‘hard guava crop’. One cannot afford to lose sight of the wider picture.

The SEARCHLIGHT editorial of last Friday also raised a very pertinent issue. This has to do with the absence of a proper system of local government, with the relevant authorities being legitimised in a poll of electors. In the absence of this, one gets a poor apology for a local government system, in a Kingstown Board, broke, administratively weak and dependent on the State. That makes it difficult for the Warden and officials to exercise the moral authority so necessary in times of conflict. Any lasting solution to the impasse must bear this in mind.

What then can we expect of the outcome of last Tuesday’s meeting? Clearly, the unsightly and chaotic mess in Kingstown cannot be allowed to continue or to deteriorate. As more and more vendors flock to the streets, not only will conflict with the authorities increase, but as space gets more cramped, tensions among the vendors themselves will intensify. It is to the benefit of all that lasting solutions be found.

One major stumbling block seems to be physical in nature, the Kingstown Market itself, constructed in controversial circumstances just over a decade ago and posing serious environmental challenges. Minister Francis himself has singled this out as a major stumbling block. It is ironic that this market, cynically dubbed the “Poor People Palace” by its creator, former Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell, should today evoke strong abhorrence from supporters of his own party, when asked to come off the streets and ply their trade in that “Palace”. Such is the nature of our politics!

The meeting with the vendors was useful, but by itself provided no easy solution. It is imperative to now get representatives of the vendors (hopefully, they can put their political preferences aside and choose worthy representatives), the formal business sector, the relevant government agencies and, in my view, the Parliamentary Opposition, to work out a framework for a comprehensive settlement. Political brinkmanship, on one side or another, will bring nobody any good. We all stand to lose by conflict and to gain, by displaying maturity, common sense and patriotism.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.