Fighting Poverty and Saving Street Vendors in South Africa
How is South Africa’s treatment of street vendors emblematic of several pervasive problems facing the country?
- Raids against street vendors are not only an indictment of a South African government that won elections on a pro-poor ticket, but also a blatant infringement of the traders' constitutional right to earn a living.
- Lessons can be learned from other countries, notably India, where an estimated 93% of jobs are in the informal economy and urban planning has had to accommodate street vending.
- Two out of every five South Africans live in abject poverty — with half of all households living on less than $75 per person per month.
Images of a recent showdown in Johannesburg’s inner city assail me: women running with crates laden with fruit and vegetables. Potatoes, cabbages and tomatoes are strewn over pavements, and idle young men are ready with makeshift push carts to stash some of the goods away. Vendors call out a warning of looming danger to their peers farther down the street.
All this happened in July, while a metro police minibus crawled down the grimy street and officers patrolled the pavements, sending hawkers into panic.
Such raids are not only an indictment of a South African government that won elections on a pro-poor ticket, but also a blatant infringement of the traders’ constitutional right to earn a living.
Two out of every five South Africans live in abject poverty. A 2007 government study of incomes and expenditure found that half of all households lived on less than $75 per person per month, while the poorest 20% of households lived on less than $125 a month.
These are the people who voted overwhelmingly for the African National Congress in April's general elections. The party's manifesto promised, among other things, "a better life for all; education, health and the creation of decent jobs."
The confrontation with the police was not only a contradiction of these electoral pledges, but also a major exercise in futility. As soon as the police vehicle drove past a block, traders further up the street simply retrieved their goods and set up shop again.
The courage of street vendors notwithstanding, the work is arguably the most vulnerable career, after prostitution.
Because the central government is conspicuously silent on this vexing matter, it is up to every municipality and province to determine its own by-laws to regulate street trading. The inadequate regulation opens vendors up to all sorts of problems: from paying bribes to avoid arrest and confiscation of their goods to sourcing finance at exorbitant rates.
Moreover, they have no social security protection, and marauding gangs of criminals prey on them. In some cities, the privatization of law enforcement puts vendors at the mercy of security companies, which grant or revoke permits on a whim.
Vendors have no option but to use public spaces as their workplace, with virtually no toilet or storage facilities, and no protection from the elements.
The reality is that these are people who, were it not for vending, would be consigned to an abyss of joblessness, poverty and misery. South Africa has an unemployment rate of 23% if you use the narrow definition of unemployment, which excludes people who have not sought employment in the four weeks prior to being interviewed.
Most of the vendors are illiterate and have no skills to take up any of the half a million vacancies in South Africa’s public and private sectors. However, they have to feed their families. Fortunately for those with prized assets, they have not resorted to crime — yet.
Whether city officials like it or not, there is a market for the goods sold by hawkers, especially among the urban poor.
And with the thousands of jobs that have been lost in the South African economy during the global economic crisis, alternative ways of earning a living have to be found. The low barriers to entry and small start-up capital requirements make hawking one of the first options.
Hawkers are not about to quit for the sake of “aesthetically pleasing” streets. Imaginative and innovative solutions must be found. There is a clear need for the sector to join the mainstream economy.
Lessons can be learned from other countries, notably India, where an estimated 93% of jobs are in the informal economy and urban planning has had to accommodate street vending.
In his "State of the Nation" address last month, President Jacob Zuma reminded South Africans of his government’s pledge: “For as long as there are workers who struggle to feed their families and who battle to find work; for as long as there are women who are subjected to discrimination, exploitation or abuse; we shall not rest and we dare not falter in our drive to eradicate poverty.”
Mr. President, this is as good a place to start as any.