Unemployment forces many to street trading

As South Africa’s unemployment lines keep growing in its first post-apartheid recession, Johannesburg’s downtown sidewalks are increasingly crowded with street vendors hawking their wares.

Unlike many African cities, where curbside hawkers form part of life’s daily rhythm, South Africa tends to frown on street vendors in favor of its ever-expanding mall culture and efforts to create more formal employment.

“Informal trading is seen as a sign of underdevelopment and primitive — a sign of weakness,” said Thabo Koole, spokesperson for the Ecumenical Service for Socioeconomic Transformation, a church group that works with the poor.

“Most of the informal traders are illiterate and poor and therefore treated as nuisance and eyesore that has to be wiped off the streets of the city,” he said.

But with unemployment swelling to 23,6% in statistics out last week, President Jacob Zuma and the African National Congress (ANC) are already backpedalling on promises to create 500 000 jobs this year.

“We will die of hunger if we are going to wait for the ANC to create jobs,” said Sthabile Mahlangu as she pleaded with passersby to buy from her stall in downtown Johannesburg.

She lost her job as a domestic worker in 2007 and turned to street trading to make ends meet. She briefly gave up after being slapped with an R800 fine.

“I couldn’t afford to pay it so I stopped. I stayed at home for about two months then decided to do this again,” she said.

The mother of four from Diepsloot township sells everything from hats, gloves to sweets and cigarettes, but has to compete with six other traders in within a block.

“Look around you there is more of us … the number has more than tripled within the past three years alone,” she said.

Actual numbers are hard to come by. During apartheid the sidewalks were largely empty.

Once South Africans were allowed to move freely, vendors began setting up shop on the sidewalks, offering everything from fruits to haircuts.

An International Labour Organisation report estimated in 2000 that the country had 500 000 vendors. A South African government survey estimated the number had nearly doubled to 987 000 in 2007.

As the government has struggled to beat down unemployment, University of South Africa researcher Andre Ligthelm said more and more people see street trading as their only hope to escape poverty.

“The majority of hawkers enter the business world in an effort to escape poverty and unemployment,” he said. “The majority will always remain survivalists with limited business growth potential.”

Ligthelm said street trading contributed between 7% and 8% to the country’s economy, but advocates note that government provides them with little support — and sometimes outright opposition.

“Our government policy-wise is lacking in terms of recognising street vendors. It seems like the government doesn’t want to acknowledge their existence,” said Pat Horn, coordinator for StreetNet, an alliance of vendor organisations.

Many big cities are pushing out vendors to make way for new roads, trains, bus stations and other projects under construction across the country, leading to sometimes violent clashes.

Earlier this month Durban authorities tried to forcibly evict traders around a proposed new development to demolish a 99-year-old market and 10 surrounding informal markets, where more than 7 000 traders make a living.

“The local government seem to have not taken into account that there is a crisis at the moment, they [municipality] are selling public spaces and then try to throw out the people trading in these spaces,” Horn said. – AFP

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