Close to Joburg’s Park Station on De Villiers Street, Jeanette Zitha, 35, sells vegetables and some snacks from her “illegal” trading space. On the other side of the street, traders carry on with their business. Unlike Zitha’s side, this area has been demarcated as a legal trading space. Both sides of the same street have different stories – and only one is supported by the city.
It’s been almost a year since the City of Johannesburg forcibly removed informal traders from the streets, but “Operation Clean Sweep” still looms over them.
“They should just let us work here, because if they don’t people start bothering others and turning to crime,” says Zitha. “Most of those people [criminals] could be street traders if they had the chance.”
Zitha has traded for six years and struggles to make a profit each month, but she is adamant it works well enough to support her and her three children, aged between five and 16.
“All we ask is that they provide stalls for us so we can keep selling here. We would pay at the end of the month. Business is also slower because most people prefer buying at stands,” she says.
Zitha and the traders on her side of the street must make do with crates and boxes, which they stack together and cover with tablecloths so they have a surface on which to display their goods.
Despite a lack of clarity from the city about the standards and procedures that make traders “illegal”, some are still frequently harassed. But according to Edmund Elias of the South African National Traders Retail Alliance, the city has indicated the criteria it uses to determine which trading sites and pavements are considered legal.
A consultation process was started in late July in which the city presented to various stakeholders its revised approach to informal trading following a Constitutional Court judgment in April that ruled the city’s interference with the traders’ business practices unlawful.
Brian Phaaloh, who has traded in the CBD for four years and is also the secretary of the South African Informal Traders Forum, says that although the city has made some effort to follow the ConCourt orders, it is reluctant to engage the traders sincerely.
“They started a process of consultation, but in that they jumped some steps already,” he says, adding that he was not convinced the city had conducted any meaningful introspection.
“The JMPD [Johannesburg Metro Police Department] is not operating according to bylaws, going in and out and troubling our members. We are even thinking of taking them back to court,” says Phaaloh.
“The city went ahead with the consultation process without first doing an investigation concerning the traders, what conditions they are working in and how there can be better management,” says Nomzamo Zondo, who was part of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri) legal team that represented street traders after Operation Clean Sweep.
September 2013’s Clean Sweep left many street traders, legal and illegal, without a source of income – many for more than three months.
For Reneilwe Mawela, who runs a pap en vleis stand on King George Street, her family of four had to make do with her salary after the city evicted her from the street. They were forced to stretch her husband’s salary to take care of the family, which was challenging. “We were going very hungry at that time; I won’t forget it! For an entire three months I struggled to feed the family. Afterwards we weren’t told anything. We were just told that we won the court case and we could return to our posts,” Mawela says.
Mawela inherited her stall from her mother, and she has been running it for the past 14 years. With the help of her assistants help she makes about R500 profit a day.
“The police don’t bother us any more. The place where we are is for legal traders so we do not get any problems; those who are harassed are those who are trading in areas where trade is not allowed,” says Mawela.
But whereas she trades without interference, others are not so lucky. In some parts of the CBD, the city has not returned the structures taken down during the initial displacement, and there are still instances of harassment from the authorities.
On Plein Street where Thembisa Sixhiba, 27, sells tubs of atchar, cheese and beef flavoured chips, and sweets, business is much slower than she would like. “This is not a business. I’m not making profit. I can only make enough for food and taxi,” she says.
She adds that although it is better than being unemployed, it is even harder to make the little she earns go further because of her expenses and the bribes she sometimes has to pay.
“Metros [the police] like bribes. Even those people at the MTC [Metropolitan Trading Company] who gave us these stands … if I am not here for a few months − maybe I’ve got a problem − I’ll find my stand sold. The police also like to disturb our customers; they ask our customers for their ID so the customers run away,” Sixhiba says. Traders are required to have smart cards in order to sell their goods.
Traders describe how JMPD officials “inspect” their stands as a pretext to extract bribes. If a crate is even a few centimetres out of the designated stand’s area, a “fine” will be imposed.
“If your structure goes over the line, even a little bit, they will give you problems. Luckily for me, they have not confiscated anything. I just move my stuff so that it’s in the line,” says Machamplani, 34. Machamplani has been trading batteries, socks, beanies and wallets in Joubert Park for 16 years and supports a family of five.
Zondo says part of the problem is that the city does not understand how to manage the areas properly. “They are quick to enforce restrictions using the JMPD, but they have not investigated [what the traders’ needs are],” she says.
“Since 2000, city institutions have tried to push traders into markets, which are arguably easier to manage, but do not work for a majority of the traders, and leave the streets empty – which new street traders then use, but illegally,” says Claire Benit-Gbaffou, who co-ordinates a research support group for street trader organisations at Wits University.
Machamplani applied to the MTC for structures for his stall in January, but his application is still being processed. His current stall comprises four poles welded to one another, without a covering; his merchandise of hats, socks, beanies, batteries, and other small items laid on the ground on top of a cloth and others hung from the poles.
The trader organisations have been willing to co-operate with the city in the consultation process, and they have advised their members to abide by the law, urging them to pay their rates to the MTC, keep their smart cards (which show their registration numbers) on them at all times, and to follow the rules for stall set-up and maintenance.
But so far the tactics have yielded unsatisfactory results.
“We told people to pay rentals, but what are they paying for? They [the city] keep taking money, and recently they asked us to pay rent directly into their bank account,” Phaaloh says.
Traders pay rent of R100 a month to the MTC. Alfred Kazembe, 30, who sells slap chips and coffee from his stall, has paid his R100 fee to a city official each month, for more than a year. “There is a chairman or whatever who comes and collects a fee, just for cleaning this place,” Kazembe says. His stall is located on King George Street, which was one of the areas targeted in Operation Clean Sweep last year.
“So far they have used divide and rule tactics rather than investing in the sector to facilitate constructive engagement,” says Benit-Gbaffou. “They are rather trying to exclude street trader organisations and their leadership [from] being further involved in the process.”
The city’s tactics include allegedly causing friction between rate-paying traders and those who don’t pay rates, evasiveness about their management plan, and criminalising street traders.
“When they confiscate my goods because I sell here, they write up a fine for me of R1 000, which is what I have to pay for them to return my goods. But I don’t even make that much. I usually use between R300 and R500 to stock more goods. So I am forced to leave it and get more stock and come back to start again the next day,” Zitha says. “People don’t want to steal, but hunger makes people do lots of things they don’t want to do.”
There is a sense among some traders that they need to organise more closely if they are to provide an effective response to the city’s methods: “There is a communication breakdown because our unity is not so strong. We don’t know what is happening there,” Kazembe says, pointing to the other side of King George Street. “They don’t know what is happening here.”
His sentiment is echoed by Julia Sobi, 54, who has been a trader since 1980, selling scarves, hats, socks and bags. She notes the biggest problem between traders is the tension and disunity caused by corruption.
“The people who are lucky are the foreigners who are given places where there is good business, because they have money to buy the better stands. They [the foreigners] find the money from selling drugs,” she says.
She has reported this activity to the police before, but it only made relations between her and some of the Nigerian traders difficult. Sobi prefers to keep to her friends on Plein Street, where she trades.
“If you ever have to go away for a bit [a few days] to attend to a pressing issue, when you come back you’ll find your stand has been sold for R5 000. Our government is making things hard for us. On this street, we [South Africans] are the foreigners. We are the ones who have to take out tjotjo [bribes] just so they can leave us alone. Here in Johannesburg, money is what rules everyone. If you have money you can get away with a lot,” she says.
“Our members are suffering because they [the city] are not doing what they are supposed to do,” says Phaaloh.
After three weeks, Fred Mokoko, spokesperson for City of Johannesburg, had still not responded to The Con’s requests for comment on its consultation process and relationship with informal traders.
Main Pic: Feya Moyo, a street trader who operates between King George and Wolmarans Street in Joubert Park by Dianah Chiyangwa