Permit struggles force Cape Town’s informal traders into ‘cat-and-mouse’ game with the law
The City claims to have simplified the registration process for Cape Town’s informal traders – important role players in driving the local economy – but they face challenges when trying to operate legally.
Cape Town’s informal traders play a significant role in the local economy. They provide unique goods and services while contributing to the vibrancy of the city’s streets.
However, accessing the permits to trade legally in the city is a daunting challenge for many.
Daily Maverick spoke to traders at various trading bays to hear about their struggles and triumphs while operating with or without trading permits.
A Zimbabwean beadworker in Rondebosch, Lovemore Makondo, told Daily Maverick about his personal journey as an informal trader. He noted the challenges of starting his business without a permit.
“When I came here [to South Africa], I was expecting to get a job and I didn’t get a job, so I tried to use my subject that I was learning in school, arts and craft. I started to make these items I am selling now to make an honest way of living. I was selling at the traffic lights but normally the police used to chase us away because we didn’t have permits to sell,” Makondo said.
Getting one of those permits is like trying to catch a fish with your bare hands.
“But we managed to get the bays to sell, so now we are paying to the city council then we trade; we pay something like R220 a month.”
Makondo added that the City had suspended payments of tariffs for trading bays until July 2024 to make up for the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on informal traders.
“We don’t have a storage place provided by the City but fortunately we have a good Samaritan, an old lady who chose to help store our stuff in her garage. At first we didn’t pay but now we are paying her R200 every month,” he added.
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At Camps Bay beach, Tawonga Chirwa (not his real name), a “small-time” trader from Malawi, told Daily Maverick that although tourists love to buy his handmade crafts, trading is not as easy as it seems.
“The City of Cape Town requires permits for people like me to sell our goods at the beach. But getting one of those permits is like trying to catch a fish with your bare hands. I’ve been trying for months, but there’s always something missing from my paperwork, or a trading bay isn’t available or something else. There is always something. So, I end up playing a game of hide-and-seek with the law enforcement officers,” Chirwa said.
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Chirwa highlighted that he has to quickly pack up his belongings and disappear into the crowd every time he sees law enforcement officers, because the fines are hefty if caught.
“This is how I support myself and my family. I’m just trying to make an honest living. I wish there was an easier way, but for now I’ll keep hustling and playing my little game of cat and mouse. It’s a tough road, but it’s the only one I know.”
According to the City, anyone who is unemployed can apply for an informal trading permit by registering with the City of Cape Town’s e-Services and following the “easy steps”, subject to the provisions of the Informal Trading By-law.
According to the City: “A permit can take anywhere from 20 to 30 days to be issued, assuming all requirements are met.”
You don’t choose where to trade
“Traders are limited to the specific bay or space allocated to them on their permit and can only apply and compete for bays that have been advertised on the system per specific trading plans,” it said.
Lungelo Qwabe, an informal trader from Nyanga operating at the Cape Town taxi rank, told Daily Maverick: “Getting a permit to trade legally in Cape Town can be draining. I’ve got all the documents they ask for, but it seems like luck isn’t on my side when it comes to actually getting a bay. The bays that are available are always in places that are far from where I would like to sell my things.
It is important for traders to invest the time and effort in acquiring these permits because it will give them security of tenure and allow them to operate legally.
“What worries me is the law enforcement. They’re always cracking down on informal traders. I’ve heard stories of fellow traders getting fined or having their goods confiscated, and that’s the last thing I need because I don’t make as much as the fines on a good day. I’m just trying to make a living so I can afford myself,” Qwabe added.
In 2020, Daily Maverick reported that traders without permits were fined R500 by the authorities.
Malvern de Bruyn, Cosatu provincial secretary in the Western Cape, told Daily Maverick: “The City must provide proper placement and infrastructure for informal traders, and these are the people that are struggling – why should they pay money to make business?”
“I think the City could either give it for free for people to make money or maybe have a flat rate, a minimal amount,” De Bruyn added.
In response to the concerns raised, the City told Daily Maverick that R184-million has been allocated to informal trading infrastructure over the next three years, aiming to provide improved conditions for informal traders.
“The projects include the refurbishment of existing sites in areas such as Athlone, Blue Downs and Philippi, and the development of new opportunities in places such as Somerset West, Masiphumelele and Pelican Park. In Mitchells Plain and Gatesville, the City is working on the design and multiyear development plans for sites,” it said.
Alderman James Vos, the mayoral committee member for economic growth, said: “We understand that there are some bureaucratic processes that traders have to follow in order to get a trading bay and permit allocated to them, but we stand ready to assist them in navigating all these processes, and thousands of traders across Cape Town have been successful in doing so. We are also in the process of looking for ways to further streamline the process so that people can obtain these permits more efficiently.”
“It is, however, important for traders to invest the time and effort in acquiring these permits because it will give them security of tenure and allow them to operate legally, especially in those areas that are highly contested.” DM