As Zimbabwe's economic problems have led to heightened social instability, the National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe (NAVUZ) is increasingly becoming the target of violence.

On Tuesday, vendors clashed with people described by some as suspected activists of ruling Zanu-PF, who were reportedly enlisted to confiscate the hawkers' goods.

Conflicting reports stated the youths pelted residents with stones and destroyed market stalls, while others said the attackers chanted slogans similar to the ones used by NAVUZ. NAVUZ denies any role in the violence.

IBTimes UK deciphers the increasing role of the vendors' union in Zimbabwe's political and social struggle.

1. What is the NAVUZ?

Founded in 2008, the National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe (NAVUZ) represents street vendors, who – in recent years – have become a common feature in cities across Zimbabwe.

The trade union, which provides solidarity centre for vendors, also engages in advocacy efforts and lobby initiatives "targeted at the central legislation of vending, creation of public social safety nets for vendors and the national acceptance of vendors as workers".

2. Why is its role critical in today's protest events?

Since June, the civil society organisation participated in mass mobilisation and staged peaceful protests against the mismanagement of the economy and high levels of corruption by the Zanu-PF.

Earlier this month, NAVUZ leader Stendrick Zvorwadza urged dozens of people to ignore a ban on demonstrations in the capital's central business district.

Zvorwadza was one of 28 members arrested when a delegation of NAVUZ officials went to Town House in Harare to inquire about the confiscation of their wares by municipal police, following what the union describes as "a heightened blitzkrieg of violent attacks on vendors and arson on their valuable properties".

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), which tracks and analyses conflicts worldwide, describes Zimbabwe's police response to NAVUZ' protests as "repressive". A recent report from the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum stated the riot police had "violently broke up" NAVUZ demonstrations by "firing large amounts of teargas".

Street vendors in Harare
A street vendor tries to save goods from fire as Zimbabwe opposition supporters clash with police during a protest march for electoral reforms on August 26 in Harare WILFRED KAJESE/AFP/Getty Images

3. Why is NAVUZ at the centre of a new controversy?

Vendor groups engaged in running battles with municipal police on 26 September after officers attempted to evict them from their selling points.

On 27 September, the organisation claimed that suspected Zanu-PF youths pelted vendors and passersby with stones, destroying hawkers goods worth $7,000 and damaged some buildings in the business district in downtown Harare.

"The NAVUZ would like to distance itself from violent clashes that occurred in Harare's Central Business District today (Tuesday)," the union said in a statement following the riots. "As NAVUZ, we view this as one of the ploys by Zanu-PF to use their rogue youths to cause violence after which they will abuse their stranglehold on the police and judiciary to institute a series of arbitrary arrests of opposition and civic society activists."

The statement added: "We would like to reiterate that NAVUZ is a peaceful organization and violence has never been our way of resolving issues. Rather, our members have been victims of police brutality while protesting peacefully."

NAVUZ claimed that its offices were also pelted by the same group of youths "who were claiming to be vendors and belonging to NAVUZ".

4. Who is Kudakwashe Kambakunje, aka 'Welly'?

The Chairperson for NAVUZ' Central Business District, Kudakwashe Kambakunje, also known as Wellington or Welly, was allegedly abducted last night (27 September) and found this morning badly injured at a farm about 22km from where he was kidnapped.

Many believe the alleged abduction is linked to the commotion that happened the previous day in Harare's business district.

"Yesterday (Tuesday) was a difficult day for us. Around mid-morning, a group of rowdy youth members from Zanu-PF came and broke windows at the NAVUZ offices. After that, we thought that was enough (...) and reported it to the police," NAVUZ leader Zvorwadza, is quoted as saying by Zimbabwe Eye on 28 September.

"Unfortunately, last night, five vehicles – two twin-cabs and three small private cars – went on the corner of Chinhoyi and Kwame Nkrumah where Welly sells (his goods). They fired warning shots, they fired the guns and then they abducted him," Zvorwadza said.

Kambakunje was found on Old Mazowe Road, about 22km from where he was allegedly abducted earlier today. NAVUZ confirmed the vendor leader had been "severely beaten" and "left for dead".