Operation Clean Sweep… a dirty game?

Police arrested hawkers around Joburg's CBD in a clean-up operation of the city's streets last month. Picture: Adrian de Kock

Police arrested hawkers around Joburg's CBD in a clean-up operation of the city's streets last month. Picture: Adrian de Kock

Published Nov 10, 2013


For a place that claims to be the best “African City”, Joburg’s decisions over issues involving inner city trading is mind-boggling, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana.

Johannesburg - Does anyone understand Joburg’s idea of a clean city? The cleaning isn’t just about removing litter. It also involves taking hawkers off the pavements.

“Operation Clean Sweep” has not only seen thousands of hawkers pushed off the streets, but has also cut off their source of livelihood.

Officials reckon hawkers are part of the city’s unseemly sight, a manifestation of urban decay. In removing them, city planners hope to bring an end to “illegal trading; illegal dumping and littering; land and building invasions and other by-law contraventions; illegal connection of infrastructure including theft of electricity and the lack of a sense of civic pride and ownership”. Downtown Joburg sounds like a real mess, doesn’t it?

Any law-abiding citizen must of course sympathise with the city government. It is, after all, their job to maintain law and order.

However, a closer look that casts the eye beyond this particular incident, to how the city has generally treated its hawkers, reveals a much more fundamental problem than just a dirty pavement.

A two-year study on poverty, inequality and patronage-politics that the Mapungubwe Institute

is scheduled to release next Tuesday, shows that officialdom suffers from a paradigmatic problem.

In hawkers, city planners don’t quite see entrepreneurs. They see a nuisance. Inevitably, the official demeanour is to control hawkers, limit their movement so that they don’t infest the entire city.

In other words municipal by-laws and initiatives don’t seem geared to aid hawkers to thrive, but effectively retard their economic activity.

Take the trading permits, for instance. Permits confine hawkers to a particular spot. This meets the city’s impulse for regulatory control, but is unhelpful to hawkers. In the interviews conducted as part of the study, hawkers complained that their economic activity flourishes on mobility. They go where their customers are located, moving from one spot to another.

A construction site, for example, is an instant market to hawkers. They sell foodstuff and other daily needs to labourers at the site. Once the construction is complete that customer base disappears, but a new construction site elsewhere provides yet another customer base.

To capitalise on the mobility of their customers, hawkers need to be similarly flexible. Tying them to one spot is obviously unhelpful.

If not downright disruptive, hawkers berate the officialdom of being inconsiderate. They’re not forewarned of roadworks, for instance. This probably appears trivial to some of us.

But repairs on roads that carry a large concentration of pedestrians and even motorists interfere with business. It denies hawkers of customers, which entails a potential loss of income.

Because they sell perishable food-stuff, quick sales are crucial to prevent their stock going off.

The hawkers we interviewed for the study felt quite strong about getting advance warning of impeding repairs on their “business sites” so that they’re able to prepare accordingly.

And the problem is not confined to Joburg. The Western Cape’s Overstrand Local Municipality suffers from a similar problem, albeit in a different form. It is a problem of unequal access to the natural resources of the area.

Hermanus, for instance, which is a coastal town, is endowed with natural beauty and has a thriving fishing industry. The town’s coloured residents, however, bitterly complain that they don’t enjoy similar access to the sea as the established fishing industry.

Only a limited number of licences are issued to fishermen. They fish largely for subsistence. They don’t have boats, do packaging of their “catch” or marketing of the fish. This commercial aspect of the industry is dominated by established white business. They have the capital base to take full advantage of opportunities offered by the industry. Inequality thus offers a lopsided benefit from what is a natural endowment.

In other words, coloured fisher-men fish for subsistence, while white business does so for commercial gain. This contrasting benefit from the ocean has consequently led to racial tension.

Fishermen see the limit imposed on the number of licences as a way of entrenching commercial dominance over the industry. They dismiss conservation measures geared at protecting fish population as a ruse to keep them out.

Their sense of grievance is aggravated by the sense that coloured folks in Hermanus are criminalised. They complain that a mere sight of a coloured man wearing a swimsuit at the ocean is an instant police suspect for poaching, while a white person in a similar outfit doesn’t attract similar police attention.

Just as in the case of Joburg, Hermanus’s poor feel that the municipality is not on their side.

Instead, they charge that it sides with property developers and the town’s wealthy white residents, a significant number of whom are foreigners.

The town’s natural beauty is a magnet for property developers and property seekers. From the interviews with locals, it appears that the municipality is eager to make Hermanus attractive to wealthy residents.

An example of this, we were told, was the municipality prioritising constructing entertainment facilities, such as golf courses, over providing housing and basic amenities for its residents.

And locals, especially those with houses facing the ocean, are being approached by property-seekers to sell their homes. This, and municipal behaviour, has even created a sense among some of the poor local residents that there’s a “conspiracy to drive them out” of the town to make way for wealthy people.

If not by prejudice, poor people also protest that efforts purporting to promote local economic activity are blunted by sheer nepotism.

In Free State’s Nketoana Local Municipality, near Ritz, numerous co-operatives, most of whom are led by women, are idling.

Locals were encouraged to form co-operatives in order to take advantage of various economic activities that would supposedly follow in the community.

But now they complain that tenders go only to certain companies.

For a semi-rural place such as Nketoana, whose economy has historically relied on a flagging agricultural sector, unemployment is a dire problem.

What is certainly clear is that South Africa’s policy regime and official conduct is not consistent with the country’s high level of poverty and unemployment. There’s no urgency to assist struggling informal traders out of poverty.

And the informal sector already employs a sizeable number of people, almost 2 million. This is quite significant for a country that’s failing to create jobs.

It also shows self-initiative that should be commended.

Too many South Africans, more than 16 million, already depend on social grants and services.

These range from cash-transfers and free electricity to paraffin and food packages. Their livelihood is effectively sustained by the state.

This is not viable, especially because the revenue collection is dropping while the number of recipients of social welfare is increasing.

Informal trading lightens the burden on the fiscus, enabling people to fend for themselves.

And for a city that claims to be the best “African City”, Joburg’s posture is mind-boggling.

Africa’s economy suffers from a structural problem that is a legacy of its colonial past. It’s primary-based, with a relatively small industrial sector. That is why the informal sector is booming on the entire continent. Africans have taken to creating a livelihood for themselves. Joburg cannot be located in Africa, yet hope not to suffer from African problems. Or the city telling us that we “shouldn’t think like Africans, in Africa… generally”.

* Mcebisi Ndletyana is head of the Political Economy Faculty at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent

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