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Joburg street traders in limbo

INFORMAL TRADING: Street vendors display their wares. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane

INFORMAL TRADING: Street vendors display their wares. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane

Published Nov 23, 2013


Nomater Phakathi crouched on the pavement along Plein Street, pulling packs of cigarettes out of her handbag to sell to her customers.

Just east, near the Noord Street taxi rank, the sidewalk hums with people calling customers’ attention to the clothes, belts, cellphone accessories and perfume on sale – but none are visibly displayed like before.

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“They might be watching us right now,” Phakathi said nervously. “We have to keep an eye out in case they come get us.”

Phakathi, 42, has been selling cigarettes and sweets at the corner of Plein and Twist streets in the Joburg CBD since 2004. To date, she has paid the City of Joburg more than R10 000 in monthly fees for the stand she was allocated as an informal trader and she has kept all the receipts to prove it.

On a typical day she goes home with R500, but for now just R50 for transport home would suffice, she said.

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In the past month, Phakathi has found herself roaming the streets, unable to settle at the stand she has paid for. As part of its “Clean sweep” campaign, the city has cleared informal traders off the streets so they can be reregistered.

The council said the drive was a response to the challenges of pollution and criminal activity in the inner city. The authorities claim the challenges have placed the inner city “on a slippery slope to potentially becoming a slum”– leading to the crackdown.

When the city called on all informal traders to verify their trading permits, Phakathi led the queue, hoping she would be able to return to her stall so she could provide for her two children.

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However, her ID book and permit were seized because the authorities told her she was not South African, but Zimbabwean. And they wanted to know how she had come to hold a South African ID.

“I don’t know what to do because the officials told me to bring proof that I am a South African,” she said. “All these years they have been accepting money from me and now they claim I got my ID fraudulently. They have no right to do this, but I am just a poor person with no power like them, so they can simply harass me like that.”

Phakathi is not the only one who faced potential “extortion and profiling” by the authorities, according to Matron Mhlanga of the African Traders Committee – one of the organisations battling the council in court over the removal of informal traders from the inner city.

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“People’s passports and IDs have been seized, especially Nigerians, who have been fleeced of money to get their passports back. It’s extortion,” she said. “Removing people on the streets is an attempt by the city to rid itself of those they claim are illegal immigrants. The clean sweep should have started in their own offices and not in the streets.”

In the linear markets along Kerk Street, the immigrants who once sold fruit, vegetables and other goods huddled together, clearly nervous. They scattered every time they saw a traffic cop or policeman.

But they said they would keep selling as long as they could, because they feared immigration officials would come after them if they filled out the paperwork required by the council to be licensed at the market.

“They can chase me wherever they want. I’ll go and hide some place for a few minutes and then I will come back again,” said one trader, who refused to give his name. “The best they can do is confiscate my vegetables and fruit. I have got a pallet full of this stock that is now rotting in the store room where I live.”

This week, following an application brought against the city by the SA National Traders Association to compel the council to allow traders to return to their stalls, the city called a meeting with the street vendors to request that they withdraw their court action and settle with it, according to Mametlwe Sebei of the Workers and Socialist Party.

“What we could not agree with is when the city suggested it would return only those traders whose names appeared in the application in court,” he said. “There are only 1 500 people on the court application, but our conservative estimation is that there are about 8 000 traders affected by the city’s campaign. We can’t settle because we know the majority will be excluded.”

Sebei said they could also never say that all traders would be compliant with the requirements of the verification process, but insisted that their removal was arbitrary and unlawful. -Saturday Star

The questions the City of Joburg won’t answer:

1. How many trading permits did the City of Joburg issue to traders and when?

2. Are these permits renewable and transferable and if so, when can all these be done and by whom?

3. How much does a permit cost? Is it a once-off fee or does it have to be regularly paid for and at what intervals?

4. What basics does the city provide for those who have acquired a trading permit?

5. What fines can be issued to traders who are found in violation of their permit provisions?

6. How many fake/fraudulent trading permits did the city come across among informal traders in the CBD?

7. What are the distinguishing factors between a real and a fake permit?

8. How many permits is the city prepared to give out to informal traders in the aftermath of its current verification process?

9. Who can obtain a permit and what are the requirements for a person’s application to be successful?

10. Are there conditions that prohibit foreign nationals from acquiring these permits if they wish to apply for them?

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