Several days ago, the City of Johannesburg embarked on a campaign to “clean up” the streets of downtown Joburg by evicting informal street traders. As I understand it, the Johannesburg Metro Police swept through the city and ordered every single street vendor to pack up and go home. Tons of goods were confiscated and the police reportedly used force in some cases. (Read more in this article published in the Citizen.)
If you live in Joburg and have spent any time at all in the inner city, then you know what a huge deal this is. Informal trading is the main form of business (the main form of activity, really) in downtown Joburg. I have no idea how many informal traders there are (or were), but the number has to be in the thousands.
When I first heard about this I couldn’t fathom what downtown Joburg would even look like without street vendors. Yesterday afternoon I went down to the Kerk Street Mall — the main avenue for downtown Jozi street traders — to take a look.
Joubert Street, just off Kerk Street in Joburg’s main shopping district. A few days ago this street was filled with vendors — those yellow lines are supposed to demarcate trading stalls. Yesterday the street was virtually empty.
I first heard about the evictions over the weekend, through an open letter to the city posted on Urban Joburg. Since then, outrage over the mass evictions has erupted over social media.
Here’s a photo I shot of hair-braiders on Kerk Street, the busiest shopping street in Jozi, last summer. The shot shows how busy this area normally is. There is a covered, pedestrianized walkway down the middle of the street, designed specifically for vendors.
Kerk Street yesterday afternoon.
There were a few fruit and vegetable vendors still working on Kerk Street yesterday. When they see the cops coming they quickly gather everything up before it can be confiscated, then put it all back when the coast is clear. The stands that were still open yesterday were very busy, which reminded me that these evictions are financially impacting not only the vendors themselves and their families, but the entire city. The people who buy food from the vendors are affected because they now have to shop at more expensive grocery stores. And what about the suppliers?
There was a weird vibe on Kerk Street yesterday. Parts of the street were very busy, filled with pedestrians and security guards. But instead of buying or selling things, as they would normally be doing, people were just hanging around. There was tension in the air — not unfriendly tension but tension nonetheless.
I don’t want to get into the gory details of why this is happening, or to go on a political rant about it, because: 1) I don’t understand the situation well enough to do so; and 2) this isn’t really that kind of blog. I also don’t want to idealize Joburg’s informal economy because it certainly presents challenges, for both the city and the traders themselves.
But as a blogger, photographer, and Joburg-lover, I will say this: I think that Jozi’s street vendors make the city beautiful, colorful, and unique. I don’t like the fact that the vendors are (nearly) gone. Not one bit.
I’ve taken lots of photos of Jozi street vendors over the years. Here are just a few.
Bananas for sale in Hillbrow.
Guy selling a random assortment of stuff near Diagonal Street in the center of town.
Selling sweets and cigarettes in Hillbrow.
I shot this just outside the Rand Club on Loveday Street. It’s not the best photo because the lady appears to have an arrow sprouting from her head. But I love the colors and the variety of stuff she is selling.
Woman selling roasted mielies (corn). I can’t remember exactly where I took this.
Yesterday afternoon, I spotted a lone elderly woman selling ama kip-kip (a popular snack among South African kids), just off Kerk Street. She was parked between the painted yellow lines of her demarcated trading stall, with no one else around her, doing a brisk business with passing school children. I walked over to talk to her and found out her name was Stella.
I think Stella might be partially blind.
I tried to talk to Stella about the evictions but I couldn’t understand much of what she said. She was definitely angry though, and I think she plans to keep selling there regardless of what the police say. If they take away her merchandise, she will just figure out a way to get more and start again.
I have a feeling that somehow, some way, the rest of Jozi’s informal traders will eventually follow Stella’s lead.
Joburg’s two informal trader unions, as well as the Workers’ and Socialist Party, have organized a march to protest the evictions for 11:00 a.m. today. The march begins at Pieter Roos Park on Empire Road, two traffic lights down from the Hillbrow SAPS. For more information, call Matron at 079-556-8170 or Phumlani at 078-471-9727.