Vendors Evicted from Jozi’s Streets

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.

Empty street2

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.

hair braiding

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.

Empty Kerk

Kerk Street yesterday afternoon.

Still on Kerk

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?

Busy Kerk

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

Bananas for sale in Hillbrow.

Sidewalk salesman

Guy selling a random assortment of stuff near Diagonal Street in the center of town.

Hillbrow

Selling sweets and cigarettes in Hillbrow.

Lady at Rand Club

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.

selling mielies

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.

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.

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25 Comments

  • Reply Gail Wilson October 24, 2013 at 8:49 am

    Very sad indeed, they not only were earning a honest living but as you said bringing that certain vibrance to the city.

    • Reply 2summers October 24, 2013 at 8:54 am

      Yes, definitely Gail. I really hope this situation gets worked out.

  • Reply Erin Archer October 24, 2013 at 9:39 am

    What??!!

    Do you want to come to a movie with me and my folks at the troyville hotel on Wednesday?

    Sent from Erin’s iPhone

    >

  • Reply Fiver October 24, 2013 at 11:17 am

    Thanks for writing this, Heather! But I think you are wrong, this blog is that kind of blog. Channel your inner Ruth and go for it. This needs your unique style of humane coverage.

    • Reply 2summers October 24, 2013 at 4:16 pm

      Haha, I’ll think about it. Political ranting is a tricky area to venture into.

  • Reply Just a Little Background Noise October 24, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    It does seem a great shame; wonderful pictures though.

    • Reply 2summers October 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm

      Thanks. Hopefully I’ll be able to take more vendor pics in the future — I would hate for this beautiful part of Joburg to be gone forever.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough October 24, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    Wow, this is a big deal in a developing country, where so much of economy is based on what happens in the informal sector. I can’t imagine how these folks will make a living.

    it’s hard to imagine my city in Ecuador without street vendors. I have to agree. They make the street beautiful and interesting.

    Blogging from Ecuador,
    Kathy

    • Reply 2summers October 24, 2013 at 4:13 pm

      I know, crazy right? I’m still shocked.

  • Reply Yasmin October 24, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Ugh why would they shut down people trying to make a living? 🙁

    • Reply 2summers October 24, 2013 at 4:13 pm

      I know, it seems to make very little sense. From what I’ve heard, the government is trying to institute some kind of smart card system that will ensure every street vendor is registered and licensed. Which makes sense in itself, but it certainly doesn’t make sense to shut down all the vendors, licensed or not, while they try to figure out how to institute a new system. The whole thing is tragic.

  • Reply colin October 24, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    An interesting fact about Joburg that I didn’t know before. Sort of what to use to happen in NY.

  • Reply inkybrigs October 24, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    I’d like to do a cost assesment – when i did my reserch on street vendors about 7 years ago – Fashon district alone had about 100 stalls and Kerk Street had probably another – 25-30 daily. thats just street bellow – small to end about 12/15 blocks. Certainly not the business section. That number has only increased. A number of the street vendor support between 2 – 6 persons at home. take away that lively hood and conservatively your looks at – between 375 – 875 directly effected persons. a food stall for example has a turn over of between – R300 – R1000 / per day – thats what R37 000/ day loss in revenue – R187 500 per week / 750 000 per month / that’s 9 000 000 a year. That are not going into the low income household and that’s a lot of cash. that’s only at 5 days a week at a turn over of R300 / per stall. Well you get the picture….

  • Reply Eugenia Parrish October 24, 2013 at 6:06 pm

    A lot of cities feel that “informal” means they’re losing out on business fees and taxes (and control). A shame they thought no one would notice if they evicted everyone in order to force it into effect. They confuse indigenous with indigent.

  • Reply Sine October 25, 2013 at 4:00 am

    that is the last thing I would have thought needs doing in Joburg. How about dispatching all the police that was needed for this and make them direct traffic at all the broken robots?

    • Reply 2summers October 25, 2013 at 10:40 am

      Haha, that would definitely be a better use of resources!

  • Reply Maurice Smithers October 25, 2013 at 10:36 am

    The problem is not the street traders. It’s the city’s long-standing inability to devise a sustainable management strategy for street trading, combined with a lack of vision – street trading could be an amazing asset for the city, a tourist attraction for domestic and international tourists, as it is in so many other countries in the world. It must be managed, it must be controlled, traders must behave responsibly, but they must not be hounded off the streets in pursuit of some misguided tunnel-vision notion of what a ‘clean’ city looks like.

    • Reply 2summers October 25, 2013 at 10:39 am

      Well said, Maurice.

  • Reply JoburgBoi October 31, 2013 at 10:56 am

    No No No! The road to hell is paved with good intentions Heather. By turning a blind eye to hawkers and other nuisances that is how other African cities deteriorated so badly. Street traders do not pay rates and taxes nor rents thus enabling them to compete unfairly with legit businesses. Not only that, they detract from the ambiance of a city and thus depress investment (genuine). Thirdly a lot of illicit goods are sold by traders, thus hurting South Africa’s own manufacturing/productive economy. All the traders sell are cheap Chinese imports, which are detrimental to the SA economy. Fourthly there’s a lot of illegal immigrants involved in this street trade, think of all the possibilities to lander money and conceivably to even fund terrorism (not so far fetched, Al Shabab etc). So in this instant I think you’re wrong Heather. By not following city by-laws, these traders are commiting a crime and as a rate-paying citizen of Joburg, I’m glad the city is doing this.

    • Reply 2summers October 31, 2013 at 12:12 pm

      Hi JoburgBoi, thanks for the comment. I have no doubt that your points are valid, and there are definitely street traders who operate illegally and break the law. However, not every street trader is a criminal. Many of the traders who were evicted had valid licenses and were not trading in illicit goods. Evicting all of them, without proper due process, was simply unfair in my opinion.

      Nonetheless I appreciate the fact that you presented a different point of view here.

  • Reply Brando November 7, 2013 at 7:23 pm

    It might be nice for tourists to come and see the hawkers, however as a native Joburger, I want my city to move away from the informal and into the formal. The street vending is ILLEGAL according to the by-laws of the city. The only reason that there are so many hawkers around is quite simply because the LAW has not been enforced properly for all these years. Our city centre is coming aiive again and next on the list of things to go are the illegal hawkers. The utter disregard for the city by-laws is what ruined Joburg CBD in the first place. I support the JMPD on this issue.

    • Reply 2summers November 7, 2013 at 7:29 pm

      As I’ve said in previous comments, I totally agree that many of the vendors were illegal, and illegal street trading shouldn’t be tolerated (even though it had been tolerated for years and years, due to poor enforcement by the city government). However, many of these vendors were NOT illegal. The city grants legal street trading permits, and many of the evicted traders were in possession of such permits. Especially many of the vendors in places like the Kerk Street Mall (shown in photos above), which was designed and developed specifically for safe, legal street trading. In the cases of those evictions, it was the city who broke the law, not the street traders who were in possession of legally issued permits but were evicted anyway.

      The bottom line is that issues like this are never black and white. There is always another side to the story.

      • Reply Brando November 8, 2013 at 5:55 pm

        I agree with you about Kerk street. If they had legal permits, then they should not have been evicted. The error in this case lies with the general incompetence of the police. They were given a directive and went crazy, as usual.

        Most traders in the city centre are in fact illegal. Nobody has a permit to trade on pavements, which are not specifically designed/built for such trading. Open fires on street corners (roasting mielies) is illegal and should not be tolerated. The city has by-laws, which must be enforced. We need a revival like NYC had. I have seen a butchered cow on the streets around Bree St Taxi rank. It was filthy and degraded the look of the area, and lets not forget about how unhygienic it was. I agree the place appears vibrant, but unless the third world element is removed (illegal activity), the city will not complete its revival. Johannesburg has seen enough decay. Im glad the city management has finally awoken to this.

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