Unemployment and the rising cost of living force many people to make a living in the informal economy, particularly street trading. While it is difficult to measure the size of the informal economy, some studies show that more than 60% of employed people in the world work in the informal economy. It’s over 80% in Africa, and the trend is increasing.
But many governments discourage informal trading, considering it the antithesis of development. In their view, informal trading causes street congestion, contributes to crime and grime and threatens public order.
This is often the case in major cities, such as Johannesburg, South Africa’s economic engine, which aspires to be a “world-class city”. “World class” is equated with formality and orderly streets. This aspiration, which is about maintaining an image of a city that is orderly and well managed to attract investments, is unsympathetic to street trading.
But the activity is burgeoning in Johannesburg. This poses urban management challenges for authorities. These challenges include overcrowding in busy streets, trading in non-demarcated spaces as well as the obstruction of foot and vehicular traffic and waste management.
The city’s street trading management approach is mainly restrictive. This is manifest in the limiting of the number of legal trading spaces – through evictions, relocations, harassment of traders and confiscation of their stock.
Some studies have found that there was a growing number of organisations that seek to represent the interests of street traders and influence policy and practice.
These organisations engage with the government at various spheres and participate in urban governance to influence the management of street trading. They employ a number of strategies to put pressure on the government to include them in decision making processes.
My recent PhD research focused on the role and influence of street trader leaders in urban governance in Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg and Tshwane, the three major metropolitan cities in Gauteng Province, the country’s economic hub. I wanted to understand their role in urban governance.
Understanding the role street trader leaders play in street trading management is crucial to informing the development of appropriate, practical and inclusive management approaches.
For my study, I reviewed media articles and government documents, and conducted in-depth interviews with city officials as well as street traders and their leaders.
In the case of Johannesburg – the metro least “friendly” to street trading – I interviewed one former city official, eight trader leaders and eight street traders between 2017 and 2018.
Respondents were asked about everyday management of street trading, the relationship between street trader leaders and authorities, and the extent to which the leaders participated in managing trading.
I found that leaders of street traders represented traders in different ways and interact with the government in various ways. There are leaders who operate on the margins, with no institutionalised relationship with authorities and quasi-state bureaucrats who have been formally included in the everyday management of street trade (they have the power to allocate trading spaces together with officials and manage waiting lists for spaces).
The leaders on the margins of the state that have been excluded from formal processes find other ways of inserting themselves into the management processes (allocating trading spaces in areas not demarcated for trade). These findings matter because they show what is really happening on the ground in terms of street trade management. Some of these practices can inform the adoption of an inclusive management approach.
Street trading policy and practice
Johannesburg’s informal trading policy generally acknowledges street trading as a feature of the urban landscape – at least in rhetoric. This, amid the triple challenge of high poverty, unemployment and inequality. Over 50% of South Africans live in poverty, unemployment is over 30%. The country is one of the most unequal in the world.
Despite the inclusive nature of the city’s informal trading policy, authorities tend to adopt restrictive and punitive approaches. The translation of the policy into technical tools such as bylaws and authorities’ management practices create an environment that is inimical to street trading.
The restrictive management practices manifest in various ways. One is the creation of scarcity of trading spaces – by limiting the number of legal, demarcated spaces for street trading. This makes most traders in the inner city “illegal”. It criminalises them and fuels competition for lucrative trading spaces. (The city does not publicise information about the number of legal traders).
Evictions and relocations of street traders from their sites are another manifestation of the city’s restrictive management approach. For example, in 2013, thousands of street traders in the inner city were evicted in a large-scale operation, dubbed Operation Clean Sweep.
The street trading management approach in Johannesburg relies heavily on enforcing bylaws. This results in ongoing harassment of street traders considered “non-compliant”, and the (often unlawful) confiscation of their stock. Intimidation and harassment by city police occur daily.
Intimidation and corruption
The city’s approach has opened space for abuse of power and corruption by the authorities. When law enforcement officers confiscate the traders’ stock, they sometimes issue high fines, which are more than the value of the stock.
This is often a strategy to get the street traders to pay bribes to avoid their stock being confiscated. In other instances, city police do not issue confiscation receipts. So, traders have no way of claiming their stock back.
All this has given rise to alternative forms of management by street trader leaders.
For instance, the leaders have forged informal partnerships with authorities to manage trading. Some leaders assist authorities in the everyday management of street trading, such as maintaining order on the streets and allocating trading spaces. This alternative form of management strengthens the capacity of the state to govern street trading, and helps provide pragmatic solutions to complex issues.
But, there is also a dark side to this alternative form of management. It has in some instances opened a window for extortion of fellow traders by the leaders.
There are instances where they collect “protection fees” from traders, promising to protect them from law enforcement officers who harass and confiscate their stock.
Some of the leaders even have the power to evict “non-compliant” traders and take away their officially allocated trading spaces.
The vicious cycle of street trading management in Johannesburg manifests in various ways, from evictions to limiting legal trading spaces. This is despite policies that acknowledge the role of street trading.
Such punitive practices criminalise the efforts of poor people to earn an honest living, and drives corruption. There is, therefore, an urgent need to find better approaches to street trading management that value the role the activity plays in job creation, poverty alleviation and mitigation of the high cost of living.