In a recent strange turn of events, union leader and proclaimed champion of the working class Zwelinzima Vavi launched a twitter attack on unassuming foreign street traders in Mount Frere. At the same time, he voiced support for one of the country’s largest corporate retailers.
Vavi’s twitter posts not only invoked xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiment but also revealed a profound lack of understanding about how South Africa’s poor and unemployed seek out livelihoods in challenging economic environments. For a political leader maintaining to work in service of the impoverished groups one would expect a lot more.
On 4 January Vavi posted a photograph of a group of black men in Islamic dress walking peacefully on a grassy verge beside a quiet road. In stark contrast to the tranquil scene depicted in the image Vavi commented:
“These are new shop owners going for midday prayers. Too many things going wrong? How did their goods come this far? How did they go through boarders [sic] – were duties paid? What contributions to the tax man? What is the impact to local manufacturing sector? What’s happening to jobs?”
This was followed by a tweet stating that “Every shop owner is foreign and selling foreign goods — part of the mass dumping from mainly East”. He then attached photographs of clothing stalls in Mount Frere and went on to allege that these “mass dumping activities” were also “behind the cannibalisation of township and rural spaza shops”.
Vavi’s tweets lacked any reliable evidence base and showed little concern towards the circumstances in which informal traders find themselves. Instead, his observations were anecdotal and fed off long-standing prejudices. Having worked with foreign national informal traders in Cape Town as a researcher for over eight years, I’ll try to address some of his misconceptions.
One problem with Vavi’s tweets is that they show an absence of awareness of how small business markets in townships function. Informal businesses serve low-income customers, many of whom live below the breadline. Their customers — unlike the middle-class purchasers of Ubuntu Baba baby carriers — are not able to afford the mark-ups often entailed in sourcing locally manufactured clothes. Thus, without imports, many of these small businesses would simply not exist, and the people of Mount Frere would probably not be able to access cheap and affordable clothing items.
Later in his tweets, Vavi vilifies clothing street traders by claiming that — unlike Woolworths — they were selling imported items without furnishing certificates of origin (once more without any evidence). This demonstrates further misconceptions about how the poor make a living on the margins.
Street vendors in Mount Frere might not possess import certificates because they did not import the clothes themselves but bought them from suppliers. Furthermore, many informal traders possess low levels of formal education, and cannot afford the professional services of lawyers, architects and accountants. As a result, they are often left to operate in states of legal uncertainty, not knowing whether their businesses are legally compliant, and if so how to comply. It is astonishing that a left-wing unionist is not aware of small informal traders’ predicaments in relation to the law, and views them on the same playing field as large corporations.
But Vavi goes further. He claims that mass dumping of foreign goods is behind the “cannibalisation” of South African spaza shops — implying that foreign national spaza shops engage in mass sales of illegally imported goods. This allegation is once more made without any evidentiary basis.
My research in Cape Town indicated that both foreign and South African spaza shops sourced most of their products from large South African wholesalers. Some of these wholesalers belonged to conglomerates such as Massmart (e.g. Jumbo Cash and Carry and Makro), whilst others were large independent businesses (e.g. 1-Up Cash and Carry in Epping). South African wholesalers that I interviewed confirmed that they supplied many foreign businesses in the grocery sector — including spaza shops and foreign-owned wholesalers. Although illegally imported goods might make their way into the spaza market, it is a far cry from Vavi’s Trumpian depiction of “mass dumping” and “cannibalisation”.
Vavi ignores other broader economic dynamics. Wholesalers supplying foreign spaza shops employ many South African workers. For example, the former manager of Jumbo Cash and Carry in Philippi stated that the business — whose customer base was 50% foreign national — employed more than 100 South Africans and two foreign nationals (himself, an Israeli national and a Somali interpreter).
Furthermore, almost all foreign spaza shopkeepers rent their premises from South African landlords. Many South African traders have thus not been “cannibalised” by foreigners as claimed by Vavi, but simply elected to become landlords rather than shopkeepers.
Vavi’s tweets illustrate that leaders who wish to uplift low-income and unemployed people should start by making basic enquiries into how informal economies operate. This would likely cause leaders to support rather than castigate informal entrepreneurs (be they South African, Muslim, Christian, or immigrants alike). It might also lead them to focus more of their energies on syndicates responsible for illegally importing goods, or smuggling counterfeit or illicit products, rather than calling out and maligning small informal businesses. For example, large South African tobacco companies have been releasing illicit cigarettes into the country for several years, seemingly with impunity.
In addition, reflecting on what low-income consumers can afford could, in turn, motivate the country’s leaders to find ways to develop South African manufacturing in a way that it could compete with low-cost imports. This would go a long way towards seeing locally manufactured goods being sold on the streets of Mount Frere.
Through his outburst, Vavi has joined the ranks of many other political leaders in South Africa who have made damaging accusations against marginalised groups based on stereotypes and uninformed generalisations. Fortunately, his misconceived posts drew significant outrage on Twitter indicating that many South Africans are not buying his populist sloganeering and believe that the country deserves better leadership. DM
Vanya Gastrow is a freelance researcher who specialises in migration, law and society.