Helping informal traders to help themselves

unemployment informal traders
Wednesday, 18 November, 2009 - 11:10

Getting into informal trading is one of the ways in which poor people can overcome socio-economic hardships associated with unemployment and hunger. To grow the informal trading sector, local governments should improve the conditions under which informal traders do business. SANGONeT intern, Isaac Mnguni, investigates the problems that informal traders face in the City of Johannesburg. His investigation also highlight the need for Johannesburg-based informal traders to enjoy their constitutional right to practice trade of their choice and heed government’s call to do it for themselves in the spirit of vukuzenzele.

South Africa’s poor have headed government’s call to do it for themselves in the spirit of vukuzenzele. To millions of people affected by poverty and unemployment, the most obvious option to ‘do it for yourself’ is to start small business initiatives such as selling fruits and vegetables, clothes, fast food at a street corner, and operating ‘spaza’ shops.

For them, starting their own businesses is the only way to ensure that they participate meaningfully in the informal economy, provide for their families and create jobs to the unemployable. However, government is seen as not doing much to help informal traders to help themselves.

In the City of Johannesburg (CoJ), the city’s Trading Policy defines informal trading as the ‘sale of goods by individuals and or groups in locations designated for informal trading’. However, Johannesburg-based informal traders continue to clash with the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) and the Metropolitan Trading Company (MTC). The JPMD and MTC accuse informal traders of trading illegally instead of going through the latter to be allocated a space to sell from. MTC is a CoJ-owned entity, tasked with the responsibility of regulating trade and transport facilities within the city.

The JPMD and MTC blame the so-called ‘illegal’ informal traders for trading in locations were trading is prohibited within the city. Unlike those who operate at locations designated for informal trading by the city, informal traders who sell illegally within the city often suffer as JMPD officials confiscate their goods.

Many informal traders feel that the CoJ should step up its efforts to ensure that all informal traders enjoy their constitutional right to practice trade of their choice. They argue that failure to do so will leave them with no means to generate income to sustain their families.

Other informal traders are of the view that the CoJ should invest resources into growing the informal trading sector rather than focusing only on income-generation projects. To them, growing the informal trading sector can help poor people to sustain their business initiatives and make the sector more sustainable.

Only a few informal traders have been provided with locations designated for informal trading. However, many informal traders fear that relocating them to areas that are not accessible to most of their customers will limit their ability to make profit.

Just like informal traders who operate legally within the city, illegal traders’ biggest wish is to be moved to designated locations that are close to taxi ranks where most of their potential customers can reach them. However, it is important that the CoJ, through the MTC and JMPD, consult with informal traders and organisations that represent their interests, when taking decisions that affect informal traders.

In the same vein, Orange Farm-based informal traders criticise the MTC for attempting to relocate them from where they are currently selling from. They claim that the MTC argues that the reason for the relocation is that their current location falls under a property sold to developers by the city.

“We are generating a lot of money and they want to move us. They want to move us to a place that only has 30 stalls. What about the other informal traders,” explains Nomvula Mkhwanazi, one of the 70 traders who feel that moving them will marginalise their businesses.

Her view is reiterated by the spokesperson for the Orange Farm Hawkers Association (OFHA), Mxolisi Sibeko, who argues that the MTC should stop viewing relocating informal traders as the only means to deal with the problems they face. Sibeko calls for the establishment of a task team that will represent the interests of informal traders. He argues that: “The MTC is doing its job but in a wrong way. It should not take decisions for us without consulting us.”

On the other hand, concerned customers such as Thabiso Mahlangu, believes that relocating informal traders to places that are ‘out of reach’ will make it difficult to continue buying from them.

Zodwa Khumulo, a domestic worker in the central business district (CBD), has been buying lunch from informal traders for the past four years. Khumalo prefers buying lunch from informal traders because the food is affordable and of high quality. Just like Mahlangu, Khumalo is against the relocation because regular customers will no longer receive the services that they are accustomed to.

“It’s unfair for us as customers,” says Khumalo.

Another association representing the informal traders, Concerned Hawkers and Traders Association (CHATA), slams the city’s bylaws for being unconstitutional and for violating the informal trader’s right to trade. CHATA deputy chairperson, Mischka Cassiem, says that a framework should be established in which both government and informal traders can engage and deliberate on issues affecting the informal trading sector. In addition, she is of the view that government should create a platform for the informal sector in Parliament.

“Nobody is looking after informal traders,” she argues.

General problems faced by informal traders

The Ecumenical Service for Socio-Economic Transformation (ESSET) is also blaming the CoJ by-laws for marginalising informal traders. ESSET argues that the city’s by-laws fail to take into account that most informal traders are poor and illiterate. ESSET communication and information coordinator, Thabo Koole, argues that, “Bylaws are imposed and there was never any engagement with hawkers. They are also written in English.”

Informal traders from Greater Kliptown and Sisulu Square Informal Traders Association (KSIA) has also voiced their concerns about how the MTC is treating informal traders. KSIA spokesperson, Sam Takara, accuses the MTC of relocating informal traders to designated locations that are not complete. Takara challenges the MTC to stop the relocation until such areas are complete.

Responding to the concerns raised, MTC chief executive officer, Alfred Sam, has expressed willingness to engage informal traders and other roleplayers on issues and problems affecting them, including the allocation of stalls in demarcated trading areas. According to him, preference will be given to informal traders who meet the requirements set by the MTC when allocating space to informal traders.
On a positive note, informal traders realise the need to be empowered to better run their businesses.

Tau Qwelane, an informal trader who has been selling goods at Johannesburg’s Noord Street since 2001, thanks the MTC and the University of the Witwatersrand, for partnering to provide them [informal traders] with basic business skills. Qwelane argues that, “The MTC has done enough to upgrade my business skills.”

In the same vein, Xolani Nxumalo, deputy director for the CoJ’s department of economic development, says that, “Basic business skills are being taught to informal traders, equipping them with the means to grow their businesses.”

Participants are provided with food packs and transport allowances during the training. However, University of the Witwatersrand’s Johan Swanepoel notes that, “Illiteracy continues to undermine this initiative.”

In conclusion, with the 2010 FIFA World Cup coming to South Africa, the majority of informal traders fear they might be prevented from doing business close to the stadiums as FIFA insists that the venues should have ‘smart surroundings’. As the country’s municipalities gear up for clean-up initiatives in preparation for the event, the fear is that municipalities will target informal traders. This will further violate their right to practice trade of their choice and heed government’s call to act in the spirit of vukuzenzele and lift themselves out of poverty.

- Isaac Mnguni is an International Human Rights Exchange Programme intern at SANGONeT.


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