Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 23 April 2014

Good news for a change – especially for informal traders

Operation Clean Sweep left many informal traders in Johannesburg destitute for weeks. But, in a break with the bad news, these traders have secured a victory in court – and can once again follow the route to productive entrepreneurship.

With only two weeks before our fifth democratic election, amidst the legal and salacious intrigue of the Pistorius and Dewani cases, a beacon of light has appeared.

It’s news that perhaps went largely ignored, but earlier this month, the Constitutional Court set aside an order by the Johannesburg High Court that prevented informal traders from doing what they do best on the streets of Johannesburg; that is, trade. The narrative surrounding the poor is usually slanted toward the negative, but for once the marginalised in society give us cause for relative joy.

These informal traders – largely consisting of people that sit on our city sidewalks selling anything from single cigarettes to vegetables to super glue – banded together and approached the Constitutional Court, walking away as victors.

This is the point where many who work within the inner-city of Johannesburg would lose their cool and accuse leftist, middle-class types like myself of not having to deal with crowded walkways, littered with all kinds of rubbish from plastic bottles to human waste (and need I mention the smell?) And sure, there is something to be said for critics of these salesmen. I cannot but concede that the city is dirty, illicit materials are sold and the conditions many of these traders find themselves in are inhumane and hazardous for themselves and everyone else.

It is also true that many of these informal traders do not have access to toilets as they sell their wares to people passing by. It is also true that a huge portion of Hollywood and Nollywood’s profits are lost due to illegal DVD copy sales on these street corners, and if I can put my faith in anecdote, illicit drugs are also up for sale at times. Children who should be in school or playpens – in essence a less hazardous environment – spend their days on dusty sidewalks breathing in exhaust fumes and playing with discarded cigarette butts.

Walking on the sidewalk is a nightmare in itself, and the layout of some of these stalls forces you into busy streets where you have to weave your way through hooter-blaring taxis and agitated motorists.

Yes, that’s all true. But does this mean that we should remove these traders from our streets because they inconvenience us, make us nervous as we pass them in designer suits and worry that amongst them lurk those who want to rip the Rolexes from our wrists? Or do we find that elusive, innovative solution for us to all co-exist?

A conversation with an up-and-coming entrepreneur, Tebogo Mogashoa, cast my mind back to those informal traders, despite the fact that our conversation was not really centred on them. Despite some progress in unemployment figures, he paints a stark picture via his blog: “The unemployment rate in South Africa is staggering. It has averaged 25.26% from 2000 until 2013, but the last quarter of 2013 saw the jobless rate slow to 24.1%. It is quite clear that there are simply not enough jobs and expertise to go around. How, then, does South Africa remain the economic powerhouse on this continent; how do our citizens survive economically, with the real question being, how do we go about saving South Africa from potential economic oblivion? The answer is surprisingly obvious; entrepreneurship!”

The new buzzphrase for this upcoming election, from every conceivable party, relates to the economy or employment in one form or the other. From the ruling party promising six million job opportunities if they return to government to the main opposition also aiming for the five million mark. Agang, via the good Dr. Mamphela, sticks to education as the poverty alleviator, and most sensational soundbite provider, Commander-in-Chief Malema himself, wants to place “the means of production” back into the hands of ordinary citizens.

As convincing as politicians tend to be before elections, I think Mogashoa has a point when he asserts that when it comes to economic opportunity, you really have to count on your own resourcefulness to make ends meet. “With 16 million social grant beneficiaries, serious strides need to be made for our citizens to be active participants within the economy, being self-reliant, building livelihoods for themselves. But to achieve this, we need to cultivate a fertile environment within which Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs) can thrive,” Mogashoa writes.

Is it therefore not counter-intuitive for the city to have displaced more than 2,000 potential entrepreneurs by kicking them off our streets in their “Operation Clean Sweep” initiated in October last year? In my opinion, most certainly. Whilst these traders were kept off our streets, the Constitutional Court agreed that the undisputed evidence showed that the traders and their families’ livelihoods depended on their trading in the inner city. By the time the hearing was held, these people and their families had been rendered destitute for over a month.

“Enough with the bleeding heart crap!” I can hear some say. “What about the crime, the mess, the indignity of using toilets on the streets?” Okay, then, let us look at the cold, hard facts. The very same Johannesburg Metro Police that impounded the goods of these traders and arrested some – including a former classmate of mine, Social and Economic Rights Institute (SERI) lawyer Nomzamo Zondo – can be used to ensure that the mess and the crime is dealt with.

Rather than sticking to antiquated by-laws, a few simple examples could be considered, a few examples that might turn Joburg into the world-class city it claims to be:

  • The city could look at by-laws and review these, ensuring that a conflict of interests is prevented – for example, if an informal trader is running a chesa nyama, they should not be allowed to trade within a certain distance of a takeaway or restaurant.
  • In an effort to bring together traders and pedestrians in harmony, limit the size of stalls.
  • Provide people, those trading on our streets and people just passing by, with public toilets.
  • Re-look inner city infrastructure and consider setting up inexpensive, if not freely accessible day-care for the children of these traders.
  • We don’t only need the soft, kind approach; hard, consequence-based approaches should be applied when needed. With the use of existing law enforcement such as the JMPD, individual traders who do not keep their surroundings hygienic, and who fail to comply with by-laws that benefit themselves and the rest of the general public, should be sanctioned with fines and if need be, closure – as with any other business.

As for illicit goods such as drugs and illegal DVDs, a whole new set of by-laws are moot, as this is criminal in any event. Real policing, rather than turning a blind eye, is what is needed to quell this issue.

I agree with what Judge Dikgang Moseneke had to say in his ruling: “The ability of people to earn money and support themselves and their families is an important component of the right to human dignity.” It is really not that tough to aid in protecting people’s dignity. All we need to understand is that a little out-of-the-box thinking is needed to facilitate creative ideas that keep people from two horrible choices; resorting to crime or starving. DM



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