/ 21 November 2013

City of Jhb faces court challenges over informal trader evictions

Protest action will escalate if Jo'burg's informal traders do not get the relief they seek in court on Tuesday.
Street traders are central to food security in Johannesburg. But since being declared an essential service under lockdown, street trade in South Africa’s biggest city has returned to uneven ground. (Felix Karlsson, M&G)

The city embarked on Operation Clean Sweep in late October, leaving thousands of Johannesburg's legal and illegal informal traders and their dependents without an income, in an "illegal" spate of violent evictions. 

The applications are brought by the South African National Traders Retail Association (Santra) and the South African Informal Traders Forum (SAITF), and there is a strong likelihood that the applications will be joined on Tuesday. 

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri), acting on behalf of SAITF, filed an application for an urgent interdict in the high court in Johannesburg on Tuesday afternoon. 

Santra brought their application hours earlier. That hearing was postponed and the application will be heard on Tuesday, along with SAITF's application. 

Negotiations with the City of Johannesburg, seeking to avert the court application, broke down this week, according to the Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp), which is part of SAITF's application. 

Spokesperson Mametlwe Sebei said the city promised both applicants that a number of traders would be allowed to return to their demarcated spaces. The number varied between 600 and 800 traders.

But Sebei said the offer could not be accepted for two reasons: firstly, the number of traders evicted is estimated to be 10 times higher than the city's offer. Secondly, he said the city had negotiated in bad faith before and the traders were not willing to risk recanting on their court action, only to be "duped" by the city at a later stage. 

Day in court
The city had yet to respond to SAITF's letter of demand by Wednesday this week, Sebei said. Now, the traders will not settle for anything less than what they have demanded in their court papers. 

"If they were serious about their offer, they would put it in writing. That way, we have something enforceable to work with. The city has made promises in the past and those promises have come to naught. So we are going ahead with our interdict," he said. 

Protest action will escalate if the traders do not get the relief they seek in court on Tuesday, Sebei said. And it is in the traders' interests for both organisations to unite in their action against the city. 

SAITF ​urgently wants the court to direct the city to allow the traders to trade, in terms of the city's informal trading by-laws, at the locations they occupied before they were evicted. 

They also want the court to instruct the city to re-erect the trading stalls that the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) confiscated during the evictions, or to allow the traders to operate from the sites where the stalls were erected.

SAITF wants to interdict the city from continuing its operations and from confiscating the traders' goods and impounding them.

Traders allegedly trading illegally will not be evicted without written notice from the city and two days' notice, if SAITF gets its way in court.

Political angle
The "clean sweep" operation took a political turn outside the negotiations, with the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance attempting to galvanise support around the issue. 

Neither party is involved in the court bid and neither has negotiated on behalf of the workers. Yet both claimed to represent their interests this week. 

The DA has made it clear they want to wrestle Gauteng out of the ANC's control, while the EFF feels it can use its burgeoning influence in the province to upset the apple cart and emerge as kingmakers.

Both these organisations have sought to use the ongoing impasse on street traders to win over potential voters.

DA Gauteng spokesperson on economic development Les Labuschagne challenged Gauteng Economic Development MEC Eric Xayiya this week to intervene in the stalemate.

"The DA calls on Gauteng economic development MEC Eric Xayiya to intervene in the ongoing Jo'burg inner city street trader's saga. The continued devastating effect of the Johannesburg 'Operation Inner City Clean Sweep' is evident. Informal traders have lost their livelihoods and once bustling parts of the CBD stand eerily quiet," Labuschagne said.

Labuschagne said the DA will ensure an effective data collection exercise that enumerates the needs and struggles of the millions who work in the informal sector in Gauteng, and host a biannual imbizo for small traders.

The EFF angle
The EFF is planning a new strategy to support the street traders. They have previously joined the hawkers during marches around the city, including one where they presented a petition to mayor Parks Tau.

EFF Gauteng provincial organiser Lufuno Gogoro said they are meeting on Wednesday to plan a more effective way to raise the demands of the traders.

"Within the province, we have an action committee who have been involved with the street traders and we will review the last march we staged jointly with the traders to see what new impetus we can give to the struggle of the hawkers," Gogoro said.

At least 6 000 street traders have been removed from trading in the City of Johannesburg for over seven weeks now. This is part of the City of Johannesburg's "operation clean sweep", meant to fight crime and grime.

'Negative ramifications'
The department of public safety/JMPD supports this initiative through Region F's integrated safety and security plan. South African National Traders Retail Alliance spokesperson Edmund Elias has admitted that the ban on hawkers has "negative political ramifications for the ANC".

He said they have decided to take the City to court to force that they be allowed back to the street. The urgent application will be heard on November 26 2013 in the high court in Johannesburg.

Elias revealed that their attempt to meet the regional leadership of the ANC on Friday had failed to materialise.

"The ANC regional leaders indicated to George Mahlangu from Cosatu that they could not meet us as we were still dealing with the City on the impasse. They said they wanted to talk only to Cosatu as an alliance partner. For that reason the meeting could not take place," he said

Nthatisi Modingoane, the city's deputy director of communications, said they have managed to record a lot of improvement in the city since their operation.

"The City of Johannesburg is making progress with its programme. It seeks to create not only a habitable and safe inner city environment, but also an environment conducive for growth and development for all its inhabitants, businesses, residents, investors and all relevant stakeholders …The City of Johannesburg believes that it is well on track to realising the aspirations of the Jo'burg 2040 – Growth and Development Strategy by empowering communities to actively participate in determining the development priorities," Modingoane said.

He said they managed to impound 528 counterfeit goods, one bad building and arrested 192 illegal immigrants.

Manqoba Nxumalo is the Mail & Guardian's Eugene Saldanha Fellow for social justice reporting in 2013.