Informal traders resist forced removal by the City of Johannesburg

Thrift stalls, also known as KwaDunusa, are common in central Johannesburg. Photo by Ramatamo Sehoai

The informal traders in the city centre of Johannesburg lament bad treatment by the City of Johannesburg.

Informal traders who were evicted from their trading posts in central Johannesburg last month after what the City of Johannesburg refers to as ‘Operation Buya Mthetho’ say that it will take months or even years for them to recover the loss of income. On the 19th of July, over 400 informal traders were prohibited from trading by the office of the member of the mayoral committee (MMC) for economic development, Nkululeko Mbundu.

Represented by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI), the South African Informal Traders Forum (SAITF) urgently applied to the high court to reverse the eviction of informal traders from the trading precinct in the centre of Johannesburg, situated on De Villiers, Plein, Twist, Joubert, Eloff and King George streets. The court issued an order allowing the traders to return to their stalls.

Speaking to Elitsha, informal traders in De Villiers trading precinct said the operation by the city has left them bitter and angry, and they accused the city of leading a witch-hunt.

“We are being used as political pawns by the MMC of Economic Development, Nkulu Mbundu and his party, Action SA. They are obsessed with illegal foreign nationals and tend to forget that Home Affairs is the only competent entity that can check who is here legally or not. I’m a Nigerian by birth, been selling on the street since 2002. I’m married to a South African and all my children were born here,“ says Franklin Eneh, at the corner of De Villiers and Wanderers Street where the operation took place last month. He is also the chairperson of African Traders Organisation.

“A lot of informal trading is a hand-to-mouth business; if they close you down [it] means you don’t have money to survive the next day. Imagine a women selling fat cakes. She would have mixed all her ingredients at home only to get to the street trying to sell and all of sudden she can’t sell. That’s a blow to her business. It’s a blow to everyone depending on her business to survive. Honestly, we were badly affected by this operation especially when we know we’ve got every right to sell on the street,” he said. Over the years, they have given back to the neighbourhood, creating employment through their businesses in the form of security and cleaning.

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His fellow countryman and street trader selling used clothes, Alex Ngene, concurs on their distress: “My wife who is a South African passed away in April and left me with four kids. Now imagine eight days without an income. It was really difficult. There is nothing wrong with verification, but please don’t do it while business is closed. That could not make sense.”

Thepa Motjoadi says she lost an income of about R3,000 on the days that she was not trading

Thepa Motjoadi, a mother of two who sells cooked food, said that during the period of the city’s operation, she lost about R3,000: “That’s too much money to lose. Jobs are not coming by. This is the only way to make a living for us here. I don’t understand why our government is doing this to us.”

The general secretary of the SAITF, Brian Phaaloh says they were busy engaging with the city on the new informal trading policy when they were confronted by a surprise operation by the city’s law enforcement. “It was really shocking. That is why we had no option but to go to court and the order was granted to get us back on the street selling again while the city is getting its house in order. Our members have every right to sell on the street. They have stalls and designated places to sell and they pay monthly rentals to the city. The new policy is not ready yet as we are busy with proposals and amendments,” he said.   

Threats of violence against SERI staff and others

Following the court order, the economic development MMC, Nkululeko Mbundu used his Twitter account to criticise SERI and its clients. According to SERI, “He falsely asserted that the City had been interdicted because the case against the City ‘used locals as a front'”. In a series of social media posts and in a media interview, Cllr Mbundu also claimed, falsely, that SAITF is “pretty much all foreign nationals… with a front by South Africans”. He also suggested that the De Villiers trading precinct will be “invaded” as a result of the order. He implied that the SAITF and SERI constitute “a syndicate with big vested interests”.

Action SA has come out in support of Mbundu (black jacket) and defended his tweets, which SERI says incite violence against its staff. Photo from Action SA website

Mbundu is a member of Action SA, a political party which has come out in support of the xenophobic vigilante group, Operation Dudula. “The effect of Cllr Mbundu’s tweets has been to incite threats of violence against SERI and its staff. Xenophobic groups and individuals have acted on Cllr Mbundu’s tweets by circulating pictures of SERI’s staff, together with their cellphone numbers. They have threatened to burn down SERI’s offices, to kill the lawyers who represented SAITF and to harm other SERI staff. SERI staff have also received threatening phone calls,” said SERI.

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Brian Phaaloh, the general secretary of SAITF, says they have opened a case against Nkululeko Mbundu

Addressing media on Monday, SERI’s board chairperson and former constitutional court judge, Zak Yacoob said that they have increased security at their offices with all staff members working from home. “The clean up of the streets by the city cannot be about getting rid of informal traders,” said Yacoob.

“We have received solidarity messages and one of the organisations has offered to trace the identity of the people behind the tweets that threatened our staff and our partners with violence. We think that is one of the ways we are going to fight this,” said Nomzamo Zondo, SERI’s executive director.

SAITF’s general secretary said that they will not be deterred by “vigilante groups” and that they will be laying a charge against Mbundu. The prohibition on trade, according to SERI, took place despite a constitutional court order prohibiting the city from interfering with the traders’ rights.

“In 2013 they did the same thing going through a verification process that they referred to as ‘Clean Sweep’ to determine if our members were trading legally or not. They found out that we were trading legally and that we were paying tax towards the City of Johannesburg. We are taking them on that claim,” said Phaaloh. In 2016, SERI launched a damages claim worth R120-million on behalf of 1652 informal traders who were temporarily evicted from their places of business during the 2013 operation.

The City of Johannesburg has distanced itself from the inflammatory statements by Mbundu and apologised to SERI and the informal traders. “We condemn the tweets of the MMC, retweets and statements that were made there. An investigation has been launched to ascertain who or what went wrong in the operation and essentially why the constitutional court order was not properly looked at,” said Mabine Seabe, the mayoral spokesperson.

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