Time to Demonstrate Solidarity with Joburg's Street Traders

By Frank Meintjies · 21 Nov 2013

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How does one make sense of the injustice of Johannesburg’s “clean sweep” campaign? In the name of cleaning up the streets of downtown Johannesburg, thousands of street traders have had their stalls demolished in recent days. The lack of strong or widespread objection from the public and urban planners in response to this merciless act by the authorities is remarkable. Perhaps more disappointing is the lack of solidarity action on the part of civil society organisations.

The city’s response and some of the debate in the media seek to mask the real issues under a swathe of legalese, bureaucratic rules and public interest in litter-free streets. But even such arguments cannot conceal the cruelty, inhumanity and sense of injustice associated with the crackdown. Thousands of traders are affected, abruptly stripped of their means of livelihood, apparently without proper due process, consultation or exploration of alternatives.

Some of those affected had originally been granted permission to operate by the city. But they are also swept away by the iron bristles of the City’s so called “operation clean sweep”. The irony is this: if the city does not respect its own approval process, issued as a form of regularisation, why should anyone else be bothered about formalisation?

The “clean sweep” appears to be arbitrary and draconian. Although the scale is different, it has echoes of Robert Mugabe’s 2005 Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out Rubbish) campaign. It also calls to mind the steps taken to present a first world façade and push the poor off the streets and out of sight in cities such as Durban before the 2010 World Cup.

Many good urban planners are advocates for understanding informality. It is recognised that in the developing world and other parts of Africa, informality is the place of resilience, of important livelihood strategies and of urban people staking their rightful claims to the city. It is recognised that developing urban solutions based on the idea of eradicating of informality is ill advised and usually deepens exclusion and inequality. In some ways government has recognised this: Government has launched the National Upgrading Support Programme which is a nationwide programme to assist municipalities to bring improvements to – rather than crush – informal settlements.

Although the Johannesburg clean-up campaign has only hit the headlines now, Tanya Zack, who also consults to the city, raised the alarm on 16 October 2013. In an open letter to City authorities she wrote about her experience in the Ethiopian quarter in Jeppe Street earlier that day when street traders who even possess permits were evicted. She noted:

“There were many JMPD and SAPS officers on the street. A number of SARS and Customs police were also present. The uniformed people were stopping traders and passers by, checking asylum papers. They were chasing traders and searching them. Goods - including goods such as boxes of apples - were being confiscated. Shopkeepers were closing their shops and police were shouting at them to close their shops. Some JMPD and SAPS officers were entering buildings. I saw a person being dragged out of his vehicle. I saw a JMPD officer threaten a female trader with a broken stick, and pull the trader by the arm. I heard her shout at the trader, ‘I have tolerated you for too long’.”

Zack is horrified that the city’s litter clean up campaign is being interpreted as, sweeping human beings away from the places where they generate income.

Civil society organizations and concerned individuals ought to be more active in opposing such actions. They should realize that this is not just a disagreement about hawkers and the city. It is in fact a fundamental clash in how we understand the city. It is part of land struggles. It constitutes the struggle of the poor to have access to the city.

The problem, apart from a disdain for the poor, is the official “imagination” of what the city is. The city is meant to be neat. Space is meant to be tightly controlled and regulated based on rights gained through purchase and exchange. In this mindset, the city should, as far as possible, come as close as it can to resembling places like London, New York and Zurich. What this denies is that we have our own path of development to follow. We should shape our cities in line with our own vision; we should forge our own conception of what bustling, vibrant and inclusive cities are.

For civil society organizations, a response to the clean sweep should be linked to other struggles. Firstly, it should be linked to the struggles against poverty and the fight for economic inclusion. Secondly, it should be linked to the land question. The struggle for “return of the land” is not just about farms and rural areas; it is about use of space and access to land where – especially in a time of high unemployment – people can undertake entrepreneurial activity. Thirdly, it should be linked to notions of citizen participation – the right of the poor to be involved in decision-making regarding the city.

The challenge for us all is to see how the big social and political issues of the day - citizenship, combating poverty, accountability - are embedded in “small” struggles. Social change is then advanced through building solidarity around such struggles.

Johannesburg’s inner-city traders may not know it but, through their struggles, they are advancing the Right to the City, a concept that arises from the World Urban Forum and which aims to ensure that “people live with dignity in our cities”. The Right to the City emphasizes the collective use of the city over individual use. The movement’s charter says the right “is the collective right of the inhabitants of cities, in particular of the vulnerable and marginalized groups, that confers upon them legitimacy of action and organization…to achieve full exercise of the right to free self-determination and an adequate standard of living.”

Cape Town-based, Isandla Institute argues that there are three immediate priorities that emerge from an understanding of the Right to the City. They are: ensuring the right of the urban poor to be in the city, their right to access the benefits and opportunities located within the city, and their right to be involved in the planning and decision-making about the development and functioning of the wider city.
Meintjies is an independent consultant and a Visiting Research Fellow at Wits School of Public & Development Management.

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21 Nov

An Excellent Piece

This language "clean sweep" really does evoke Murambatsvina again. Where is civil society when the chips are down? In workshops?

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21 Nov

This Is Just Awful

Awful, awful, awful. Sometimes it feels like we are back in the 80s.

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28 Nov

Solidarity and Unity to Resist the Brutality of the Johanesburg Police Department

Dear Frank, we knew each other from the Planact days. Thank you for this thoughtful and thought provoking piece. We find ourselves going back to our roots as the chickens that were hatched in 1994 come home to roost. The Western Cape, where I now live, and Cape Town in particular has been harassing traders for quite a while already, not on the scale of Johannesburg's Mugabe operation but equally brutal in the sense of lives and livelihoods destroyed for individuals. I thought your comparison with the first world cities was useful - our public policies and language have thoroughly internalised the sanitised language of the developed world, which continues to hang over our very thoughts it seems. We need to reclaim the language - and the memory - of the 80s and 90s when we dared to dream of something totally different to what is happening now before our eyes. Regards, Paul Hendler

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