Xenophobia – The Informal Traders perspective

March against xenophobia in Johannesburg, 23 March 2015. Picture by Nic Dieltiens.

It is not xenophobia, it’s an ideological struggle, it’s a socio-economic struggle, unfortunately the African migrants have been used as scapegoats in the process.

The Migrating for Work Research Consortium (MiWORC), an organisation that examines migration and its impact on the South African labour market, released two studies last year that drew on labour data collected in 2012 by Statistics South Africa.

They found that 82% of the working population aged between 15 and 64 were “non-migrants”, 14% were “domestic migrants” who had moved between provinces in the past five years and just 4% could be classed as “international migrants”. With an official working population of 33,017,579 people, this means that around 1.2-million of them were international migrants.

According to the MiWORC research, 32.65% of international migrants are employed in the informal sector in South Africa compared to 16.57% of “non-migrants” and 17.97% of “domestic migrants”.

The studies suggest that this is because the informal sector offers the lowest entry cost into the labour market. The majority of international migrants also come from African countries that have large informal sectors.

This does not mean they dominate the informal sector. Late last year, the Gauteng City-Region Observatory – a collaborative project between Wits University, the University of Johannesburg and the provincial government – conducted a limited survey of the informal sector in Johannesburg.
Dr Sally Peberdy, a senior researcher at the Observatory said that they found that less than two out of 10 people who owned a business in the informal sector [in Johannesburg] were cross-border migrants.”

She observed that international migrants do play a positive role in South Africa. “The evidence shows that they contribute to South Africa and South Africans by providing jobs, paying rent, paying VAT and providing affordable and convenient goods.”

The Observatory’s study found that 31% of the 618 international migrant traders interviewed rented properties from South Africans. Collectively they also employed 1,223 people, of which 503 were South Africans.

Mzwandile Mavula, Informal Trader and Secretary for ACHIB (African Cooperative for the Hawkers and Informal business) commented on the situation:

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“A huge percentage of the population is unemployed, a majority of them are Africans, and millions go to sleep without food. In the specific context of street trading our government does not support South Africans who try to make a living by selling goods, instead, they harass us. They are using apartheid Style Street trading bylaws whose main aim is to discourage street vending. Even though government has formulated informal economic policy, but they have failed to reform bylaws. As a result of this, we have a situa on where a progressive policy is implemented together with bad apartheid bylaws. In this case our government has (wittingly or unwittingly) collaborated with poverty against the peoples, poor South Africans.

What I can guarantee you is that when you have a army of unemployed youth who sits around and do nothing, who are discouraged by their own government to make use of their skills and talent you are sitting in a time ticking bomb that can explode any me. The stomach knows no principle. The culprit
is our government who has no practical program to support the development of our people, the government continues to create theories that are a gross violation of our development.

It is not xenophobia, it’s an ideological struggle, it’s a socio-economic struggle, unfortunately the African migrants have been used as scapegoats in the process.

On behalf of my organisation ACHIB, I want to condemn government for everything that is happening, but I urge government to listen to plea from our people, we are in solidarity with our sister organisation Siyagunda (whose members are exclusively from central Africa). We will do everything in our power to support them, I cry on behalf of all foreign brothers whose shops have been looted. I speak on behalf of my organisation whose members are South Africans and non-South Africans. My heart is heavy when I think about what those African migrants have lost and still stand to loose. For if I am human, nothing that is human is alien to me.

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Gaby Bikombo, Founder of Siyagunda and an informal trader came to South Africa in 1997 to escape the war in Congo. He says that by targetting immigrants would not be good for the country. “ Many contribute to the buying power of the informal sector.

Also right now, attack on immigrants is also causing a backlash in other African countries, where South Africans are not seen in a good light and the products could be boycotted.”

Bikombo advises that is important for people to put their differences aside, unite and pool resources together and explore opportunities. “Right now I am not sure about my situation as even during the peace walk which happened recently, violence broke out. We can be attacked at any me.”
Bikombo also stressed that police need to manage this situation, as they don’t seem to be helping
them enough especially if violence gets out of control.

Pearl Olatunde, an informal trader and General Secretary from Ubumbano Traders Alliance, where they have many members expressed the organisation’s concern. “When this outbreak happened, I was a witness to the violence. It also affected us, as we could not earn an income due to the city coming to a halt. There are opportunists who are taking advantage also and participate in the looting. We work with traders who are from all over Africa and support them. There is tension also about those who are illegal but people should report it not attack those who they think do not have papers as violence is never the answer. Also I advise traders that they should join trading organisations, so that can have support and organise for support of government.”

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