"Sometimes they come with batons, sometimes they come with sjamboks," said Peter Ndazamo (28), who has been trading at the Kerk Street Market in Johannesburg for four years.
He is referring to the uniformed and plain-clothed Metro police officers who have infiltrated the pavements and markets that were once the legal workplace of Johannesburg's informal traders.
With their allocated stall spaces now out of bounds, the traders play a daily game of cat and mouse with the police, staying mobile while trying to eke out a living by selling cigarettes or fruit in secret.
The traders say the raids are regular, sometimes two or three times a day, and the sale of loose goods takes place in a bizarre, black-market arrangement that sees them constantly moving around the city centre to avoid undercover cops.
"You only take with you what you can carry on you; if they see you with any goods, they [the police] will take it away," said Ndazamo.
Since Operation Clean Sweep began in October this year (although one informal trader said his stall was raided in August), about 7 000 traders have been frog-marched off the streets, their stock confiscated and their stalls shut down.
Operation Clean Sweep is the City of Jo'burg's removal of all informal traders – legal and illegal – from the inner city centre. The city says the operation will make it safer.
The Socioeconomic Rights Institute of South Africa, representing the South African Informal Traders Forum and 1 500 informal traders, sent a letter to the City of Johannesburg and the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) demanding they be permitted to return to trading in the inner city on Friday.
They received no response, and are expected to file papers early on Tuesday morning, seeking to interdict the city from implementing its "clean sweep".
Once-bustling street markets are eerily quiet, with the exception of one or two traders who have boxes or black bags ready to cover their stock should a suspected cop approach.
Since the evictions, traders interviewed by the Mail & Guardian say they are routinely harassed by the police, searched, and sometimes beaten, and any stock they carry with them is immediately confiscated.
"Yesterday [Monday], three guys in plainclothes came here, showed me their Metro badge, searched my bag and took three packets of cigarettes and some sweets. I've locked most of my merchandise in my house," said Ndazamo.
Since the raids he has earned about R500 selling loose cigarettes. He owes his landlord R1 600 for last month's rent.
The JMPD said on Monday it was not aware of any officers who took traders' goods and in the process harassed them.
Spokesperson Chief Superintendent Wayne Minnaar said allegations of corruption must be lodged in writing with the city's internal affairs department. No such complaints have been lodged, he said.
"The JMPD does not tolerate corruption. There have been reports of street traders who run away during the evictions, so some goods were confiscated, which were put into a pound."
Some traders were given claim receipts after the confiscation – others were not. Traders claimed their attempts to retrieve goods from the police were unsuccessful, and some said they were told their stock did not arrive at the station.
"That is not true," Minnaar said, adding that the Metro police know this, because no formal complaints have been lodged. Minnaar said the plainclothes officers are not a part of Operation Clean Sweep but many traders, interviewed on Monday, independently claimed this was not true.
Search and seizure
Saidi Kamwendo, a trader of six years, is selling loose cigarettes "just to buy some food". But the three Courtleigh boxes and two boxes of matches are nothing compared to the monthly income he used to make from selling belts and clothing.
He says he is searched at least once a day.
JMPD admitted plainclothes police officers were on the inner city streets. But were they deployed as part of Operation Clean Sweep?
"No. Officers in plainclothes are used to stop criminality, and in some areas people are still being mugged. And they are also used to take action against people selling pornography and fake DVDs on the street," said Minnaar.
He admitted they use force but claims this is only proportional to the "force" used against the Metro police.
Minnaar said the police were authorised to carry batons and sjamboks to protect themselves from would-be attackers.
"They are permitted to use force equal to the force that is being exerted on them," he added.
Pressed for examples of where officers have been beaten by traders, Minnaar said a protest against the removals turned violent recently, and a brick was thrown at one officer, who was treated at Milpark Hospital.
But JMPD was not aware of any officers who harassed or assaulted traders.
Bananas on the black market?
Dorah Bopape, who has traded in the inner city since 1989, carries two or three handmade hats in a bag on her back. She shows the M&G the contents, looking anxiously over her shoulder.
"If they see me, they will take this away."
The city charges her R310 per month to rent her stall space. The steel frame of her stall was also confiscated during the October evictions.
She has four children living with her mother in Hammanskraal, whom she visits once a month.
Comfort Chivhima sent his three children home to Zimbabwe early in November. He says his fruit and vegetable stall was shut down in August.
"We had marked stands and I paid R500 to the city. We had permits. The police came here, saying this was a clean-up."
He is two months behind on his rent and by midday on Monday, Chivhima had not made any money from the bananas he carried in his backpack.
"This is xenophobic. Most of us are foreigners: Zambia, Mozabique, Malawi … but I have papers. I'm not here illegally. Now when we asked when we could trade again they said the South Africans would get first preference. They are saying all of this will be over in January, but we don't believe them. They are lying. I don't think they are going to let us trade again."
Saidi Kamwendo has forgotten the exact date, but somewhere around October 20 he arrived at his stall – which costs him R60 a month to rent from the city – to find Metro police who told him he could not trade there anymore.
"They said it's the law that says we can't display. I asked where else we could display and they said there was nowhere. They took my stock and didn't give me a claim receipt. Everyday at about 4pm they come back to take my cigarettes if I don't hide them away in time," he said.
Another trader, who asked not to be named, also claims her stock was confiscated during a stop-and-search operation, after she was evicted from her stall. She earned about R4 000 per month from selling hair extensions. Now she earns nothing.
Ndazamo was given a different reason for the removals.
"They said it's because they need people to pay [rent for their stalls]. And they said, 'we are cleaning Jo'burg'."
"I've seen them hit a man who resisted the evictions," he says.
Chivhima doesn't understand why he is treated like a criminal.
"If they want to clean the streets, let them hire people to actually clean the streets. Why are they 'cleaning' the streets of people?"