Urban poverty in southern Africa is a multi-dimensional issue comprising both deeply rooted historical factors expressed in the built environments of cities and contemporary factors related to ongoing political and economic changes. The tension between states and street vendors throughout southern Africa is part of a perennial struggle for the use of urban space. For many low-income urban people, vending provides crucial resources, both in terms of household income and the distribution of basic goods through informal networks. This article focuses on the consequences for urban food security of street vendor evictions in Blantyre in 2006, under Operation Dongosolo. Dongosolo reshaped the geographies of where people could buy food and where they could earn a living. It re-established the primacy of formal-sector businesses and middle-class lifestyles, which served both contingent political purposes and long-standing expectations of what urban space should look like. I elaborate on three factors that led to Dongosolo: problems with the decentralisation process and the implementation of local democratic institutions; the formation of the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) as the governing party and the associated shift in patronage networks; and the cultural attitude that the poor do not belong in the city. Close reading of the causal factors and consequences of Dongosolo for the urban poor demonstrates the structural nature of urban poverty in Malawi, which is embedded in local debates over the purpose of cities.