Johannesburg street traders hugged, sang and screamed with joy when the Constitutional Court ruled on Thursday they could be allowed back to trade in the city.
They were evicted from the Johannesburg city centre in October as part of the city's "Operation Clean Sweep".
The judgment follows a review application filed by the South African Informal Trading Forum (SAITF) and the South African National Retail Alliance (Sanra), who were assisted by lawyers instructed by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri). They wanted the court to set aside a judgment by the high court in Johannesburg, authored by Judge Ramarumo Monama, which dismissed the traders' application for lack of urgency.
The Constitutional Court ruled that the legal traders who had approached the court for interim and urgent relief – at least 2 168 of them – should not be harassed by the city and that they must be allowed to return to trade from their stalls.
Their main application, which asks the high court to rule on the legality of the evictions in general, will be heard next year. However, this does not mean that all those who were removed from the city will be allowed back – the judgment applies only to the 2 168 members of Sanra and the SAITF.
An excited Edmund Ellias, the Sanra spokesperson, said outside the court that the traders would not even wait a day to get back to work.
"Some of our members are already back in the streets. For those who are legal traders but were not part of the application, a window of opportunity has been opened. They can now approach the court and ask to be reinstated as well," Ellias said.
The traders, mostly women, were emotional and at times appeared uneasy during the lengthy submissions.
Their anxiety reached fever pitch when the court asked for a break to allow the City of Johannesburg's lawyer, Gcinumuzi Malindi SC, to take further instruction on an amicable solution to the hawkers' plight. He had conceded that the city had acted illegally in removing legal traders from their stalls.
Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke advised him to consult his client about a possible solution, particularly in reinstating all the legal traders, as it was evident that the city had acted in contravention of the law.
Malindi conceded that it was "convenient" for the city to evict both lawful and unlawful traders from the inner city centre. Moseneke interjected: "Did counsel just say 'convenient'? Just deal with what is lawful, not what is convenient."
Malindi consulted the city but told the court that his client was unwavering: it did not want the traders back unless they had been verified by the city in line with its ongoing process of re-registration.
Meanwhile, the traders were being briefed regularly by Seri's attorney, Nomzamo Zondo, who interpreted the legal jargon for those unable to follow it. However, when the court asked for a break to make a final decision, the traders gathered in a huddle and began to pray.
When the verdict was announced, Zondo burst into tears. "We have been vindicated," she said. "Now our clients can get back to trade because they were legal anyway," she said.
Manqoba Nxumalo is the Mail & Guardian's Eugene Saldanha Fellow for social justice reporting in 2013