Article written

  • on 10.12.2015
  • at 04:07 PM
  • by Kimberley Evans

Making African cities open to street trading: Q&A with Professor Claire Benit-Gbaffou 0

The Save the Hawkers Campaign, including multiple organisations of informal traders, was launched in the wake of Johannesburg’s Operation Clean Sweep, when police evicted 7,000 traders from the streets in 2013.

Last week, at the Africities Summit, Save the Hawkers launched an informal street trading charter championing more inclusive policies across the continent. Greg Nicolson asks Professor Claire Benit-Gbaffou from Wits’ Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies (CUBES) what it’s all about.

Why was it necessary to draft such a charter?

The main objective of the charter is to demonstrate, through quite practical and simple steps (based on international ‘best practices’ as well as lessons from Johannesburg street traders practices and experiences in particular), that inclusive street trading management is actually possible. Many officials tend to dismiss any attempt to accommodate and integrate street trading in inner-cities on the basis that street trading management is ‘intractable’. That was the motivation behind Operation Clean Sweep – ‘it is unmanageable’, let us ‘clean sweep’ – but also behind policies conducted since the late 1990s: ‘let us clean the streets and put all traders into markets’, which we know from global experience cannot work for all traders. So, the charter is bringing together what we could learn from mistakes, from street traders’ own initiatives, from other municipalities’ initiatives, on what are concrete steps that would make street trading management possible, inclusive, sustainable.

What’s the motivation behind making it continental?

The first motivation is to make it gain visibility, to start having street trading management put on municipal African agendas. Street trading is a reality that all African cities face, but very few take seriously. It is under the development radar: it is not yet SMMES that one can invest with developmental hopes, it is hardly talking to core economic development strategies. Yet it is what a vast proportion of African cities’ residents live on and support their families on.

The second reason is to challenge dominant practices and discourses on street trading management, beyond Johannesburg. What dominates on the continent and in the world is a repressive or restrictive approach to street trading, for a number of reasons (post-colonial inertia, dreams of the northern or global city with sanitised streets, design and planning education struggling to integrate the informal economy in proper city-making, and vested interests in producing a scarcity of legal trading stalls to create a black market and a rent).

The third motivation is to learn from other practices in African cities, some of which are far more trading oriented or tolerant to informal economies as a way of economic empowerment. The charter in a generic way embodies a number of these ‘best practices’, but we still have a lot to learn, as these ‘best practices’ are seldom fully documented.

If we use the City of Johannesburg’s stance on informal traders since Clean Sweep as an example, it seems such proposals can easily be overlooked. How do you see South African cities’ view of informal traders?

SA cities, especially metropolitan areas where the competition over inner-city spaces is more rife, are not particularly progressive nor leading the way in terms of street trading management. To say it very briefly, and surely with a lack of nuance, City of Cape Town has ‘successfully’ excluded most of the street traders from the inner city (because it is a small inner city, and the structure of the city is more segregated than others) at the cost of increased exclusion from the city centre. eThekwini led the way in the late 1990s, exploring inclusive informal trading management ideas (perhaps because of the context of political violence that marred the city), but has not followed up on these approaches. Johannesburg has continuously adopted a restrictive approach to street trading: there, some institutions and policies have changed in a more progressive direction, but their actual implementation, and the drive behind it, have remained highly restrictive and not developmental.

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by Greg Nicolson

Photo credits EPA/Nic Bothma

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