Johannesburg ambivalent to hawkers

SUN JOURNAL

Vendors: The South African city tries to preserve the flavor of street markets while defeating crime and grime.

July 03, 2005|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Though the promise remains largely unfulfilled, Charles Chinedu regards his stretch of sidewalk downtown on Jeppe Street as a small part of the Promised Land.

Unemployment in South Africa hovers at 40 percent, crime remains rampant, but street hawkers keep arriving. Chinedu, a Nigerian who runs an unlicensed phone booth selling phone time for 30 cents a minute, is part of that growth industry.

"I thought I would meet my dreams," he says, gesturing at the two touch-tone phones set up on a table in front of his dilapidated apartment building. But "this is not what I came for."

He takes in about $15 a day, barely enough to pay for a room shared with a friend. "We're just getting our daily bread," he says, "since there is nothing else for us to do."

Hawkers were banned from "white" Johannesburg until 1991, when the municipal government lifted its restrictions and traders poured into the city center from Soweto and other black townships.

Their arrival heralded a transformation of the city that serves as the business capital of southern Africa. As the hawkers were arriving, white residents and businesses moved north to the city's well-to-do suburbs. By 1998, even the Johannesburg Stock Exchange had abandoned downtown, and every major hotel had closed.

Another, slower transformation is under way as the city tries to find a place for hawkers along with tourists and the middle-income residents it hopes to lure back downtown.

Local officials boldly envision a city center as lively as London's or Tokyo's, with a degree of order and sophistication not associated with street hawkers. Yet there is also a push to embrace a long-suppressed African market flavor that, even if not always tidy or calm, reflects a genuine exuberance.

Achieving both aims might not be easy. Whatever the city's efforts to "regenerate" downtown with high-end housing and cultural attractions before the country is host to the 2010 soccer World Cup, the estimated 18,000 street traders - most of them black and illegal immigrants- now seem to be part of the city's fabric.

"It's a question we battle with all the time," says Neil Fraser, a founder of the nonprofit Central Johannesburg Partnership. "Hawkers are an essential part of an African city and an essential part of our economy. Somehow one needs to try and capture the informal side of things and order it a bit."

The city is trying. It has opened markets for hundreds of informal traders and allocated sidewalk space for others. It has joined with universities to teach hawkers business skills. It has enacted, and now largely enforces, bylaws to keep sidewalks passable, gutters clean and swaths of downtown free of hawkers.

"We're trying to allow people access into our economy, to include them. This puts food on people's tables," says Sean Dinat, the city official who oversees informal trading. "On the other hand, we want to maintain law and order."

Many traders have resisted the restrictions. In November, 2,000 of them protested police seizures of vendors' merchandise. And the chairman of the South African National Traders Alliance likens the formal markets to apartheid-era homelands, or Bantustans, to which blacks were forcibly relocated.

"They take black hawkers and put them in places where there is no business," says Livingstone Mantanga, the chairman. "It's because they say they are creating a world-class city."

Mantanga adds, "When you chase them out, are you increasing criminals in this country? If we don't give people an opportunity to create jobs, how will those people survive?"

Immigrants, meanwhile, continue to stream into the city; roughly a third of street traders are believed to be foreigners, especially Zimbabweans, Ethiopians, Nigerians, Somalis and Mozambicans.

Hawkers operate across the metro region. In wealthy suburbs, they work busy intersections. Downtown, long stretches of sidewalk buzz with commerce in a vast range of products - oranges, clothes hangers, cell phone chargers, trash bags, avocados, patio chairs, Nike knockoffs.

In the 1990s, the hawkers contributed to an atmosphere of chaos. Their customers were the homeless squatting in downtown buildings, as well as the maids and day laborers riding mini-buses from Soweto into the city en route to jobs in mostly white suburbs.

"There was no management; it was a free-for-all," says Dinat, the city official. Under pressure to control "crime and grime," the city - by now led by black officials - added new regulations. In 2002, a sprawling public market called Metro Mall opened, with a taxi rank and stalls for 550 vendors.

"It was great for a month or two," says merchant Dennis Lemmer, whose family has owned the nearby Selwels Man's Shop for half a century. "It was clean; pavement was empty."

The sidewalks soon filled again with sellers, legal or not, he said. Every evening, it is the same: "Gutters are full; it's all a mess."

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