Street traders are some of the most marginalised people in South Africa. They are also one of the groups of people who were hit hardest by the Covid-19 lockdown.
In Durban, the municipality has harassed street traders, many of whom are women, for years. Their stalls are sometimes destroyed, their goods stolen and the traders subjected to various kinds of abuse. Some years ago, an attempt was made to shut down the main market and replace it with a mall. This was a direct attempt to deprive poor black people of a place in the city and of their livelihoods in the interests of a new black elite.
The most prominent leader of the street traders in Durban is Verushka Memdutt, of the Market Users Committee. She grew up in Balfour, in the then Transvaal. Her father was a builder and Verushka’s activism was influenced by her mother, who was a fiery champion of social justice.
After getting married, she worked at the Clairwood market, running a fresh produce stall with her husband. It was here that she was attacked by a man who hurled abuse and boxes of fruit at her. She decided to challenge this bully, and took her case to court, and was successful.
With this momentum she started the Market Users Committee about five years ago. It has swiftly become an important grassroots organisation in Durban, and works closely with other grassroots organisations in the city. Memdutt credits Abahlali baseMjondolo for sharing its knowledge of how to organise with her, and she is always an honoured guest at its rallies.
She says solidarity is critical for grassroots organisations. A number of the members of her group belong to other grassroots organisations and she says that “joining the struggles makes things so much easier”. For Memdutt there is power and security in numbers and she believes unity strengthens struggles significantly.
Street traders always have multiple challenges. Some don’t have permits and are not able to trade. The irregularities and lack of transparency at the eThekwini municipality make things much worse, resulting in people not being able to work. There is also the constant harassment from the police.
But the Covid-19 lockdown plunged many street traders into serious crisis. As their income dried up they ran out of food and many went hungry. The Covid-19 grant did not reach the traders living in informal settlements. Organising became difficult as organisers could not move around and, as people ran out of money, they also ran out of airtime. Things are a lot better now, but the lockdown experience shows that street traders live a very precarious life.
The state has systematically failed to support the poorest people in Durban, and around the country. But grassroots activists have consistently challenged this, and often won small but important gains.
Discussion about activism in the media and other middle-class spaces often focus on middle-class professionals. Many of these people do amazing work, and fully deserve to be recognised. But it is grassroots activists who are on the front line of organisation and struggle, and who pay the price when there is repression. It is vital that, if we are to think about democracy in a genuinely democratic way, we take grassroots activists like Memdutt seriously.
While important gains can be won in the courts, and via policy reform, it is, at the end of the day, the organisation of the poor that is the best guarantee of their interests.
In the 1980s, millions of people were organised under the banner of the United Democratic Front (UDF). When the ANC was unbanned, and the UDF disbanded, much of that organising knowledge was lost. It is long overdue that we rebuild that knowledge and work to support the organisational capacity of each sector of vulnerable people in our country. DM168
Dr Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI and research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN.