The streets of Yeoville are a buyer’s paradise – not only is there a sprawling, vivid green market with hundreds of stalls showing off their wares and services, but outside the market there are hawkers selling sweets and vegetables, second-hand clothes and cheap nail polish.

The market traders are legal but the street traders are breaking the law, creating a tension between the two forms of sellers in one of the oldest suburbs in the city.

FORMAL SALE: The market was built to replace hawking, but is too small to accommodate traders that have spilled into the streets. Photo: Robyn Kirk

Taking up an entire city block between Hunter and Raleigh streets stands the Yeoville Market, a large building painted a vivid green both inside and out. Home to over 200 stalls, it sells varied goods: food stalls – mini-restaurants really – waft tantalising smells throughout the day. Clothing-design stalls display handmade dresses and brightly patterned fabrics, their owners curled over Singer sewing machines. Not far away, in a different section, more Western clothing is sold – an array of luminous tekkies (sneakers), and shirts emblazoned with slogans. On one, “London” is scrawled over a British flag, while another reads “Thug Life”.

Every stall is cramped with as much stock as the traders can fit in. The fresh produce and grocery stalls in particular have shelves stuffed with both expected and unexpected goods: there are bananas and onions, red cans of Lucky Star fish and large plastic bottles of vegetable oil. But there are also goods from the rest of the continent: dried fish, boxes of instant fufu, two kinds of yam, plantain chips and, in one stall, a six-pack of Bavaria Beer jostles packets of maize meal for space on the shelf.

The traders outside the market, trading on street corners or on pavements outside shop fronts, stand in stark contrast. These hawkers sell from simple stalls – boxes in most cases, or crudely constructed stands made of wood. They sell only a handful of goods: small towers of potatoes or tomatoes, secondhand clothes, or perhaps a handful of Chappies bubblegum mixed in with a cheap brand of suckers. Here and there a woman cooks mealies for sale over a brazier crafted from an old tin can and some wire mesh.

All the hawkers outside the market carry the minimum of stock – whatever can easily be packed up if a quick getaway is called for. In Yeoville, this contrast represents the Johannesburg struggle – how to make a living legally in a situation where most people are forced to hustle outside the system to live from hand to mouth.

“All the hawkers outside the market carry the minimum of stock – whatever can easily be packed up if a quick getaway is called for.”

Problematic police and public reaction

The South African National Traders Retail Alliance (Santra) is considering legal action after the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) attempted to confiscate the stock from hawkers at the Baragwanath taxi rank in Soweto on October 12 2014. What made this event different from other such police actions was the public response. According to witnesses and Santra, members of the public (including taxi drivers, pedestrians and traders) reacted to the swoop by preventing the JMPD trucks carrying the stock away by trapping the officers and their vehicles.

Eventually police reinforcements were called in and five people were arrested. This incident highlights tensions between legal and illegal forms of trading in Johannesburg. While some areas, like the CBD and the Bara taxi rank, allow for legal street trading, it is still illegal in most parts of the city. Yeoville is situated east of Johannesburg, one of the oldest suburbs. Originally white, then mixed (in 1990 the population was 81% white), it has become almost exclusively black since democracy. In 2011, it was estimated to be 98% black.  Yeoville is now also an entry point to the country for people from all over the African continent, including Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Ghana. On the streets people speak in French, Shona (a dominant language in Zimbabwe), Swahili and Portuguese.

Although Yeoville was and still is classified as a residential suburb, sales people are everywhere – in the Yeoville Market certainly, but also on practically every street corner.  All traders, however, are not equal. The market is a legitimate trading space under official management by the City of Joburg, with house rules, a rent system and organised security and cleaning.

The hawkers on the street, however, are seen as “pests”, according to Santra spokesperson Edmund Elias, blocking movement on the streets, breaking the city’s bylaws and often forced to move by the JMPD.

All trading on the streets is illegal under the City of Joburg’s bylaws, which specify that an area defined legally as “residential” cannot house street traders. Of the estimated 8 000 hawkers found in the inner city, Santra estimates 500 are in Yeoville, although a walk through the streets makes it seem this number must be much higher.

“Traders are sometimes desperate,” explains Elias. “The people who become traders on the street are a wide variety – unskilled, semi-skilled and retrenched people, and also people who just want to be their own boss. The slow rate of economic growth [in South Africa] means that, for many, this is the only entry point into the economy. You also need to understand that urbanisation means people from other parts of South Africa and from the rest of the continent are streaming into the city, and there simply aren’t enough jobs for them.”

Elias believes there is room in Yeoville for both the Yeoville Market and street traders: “A market is a destination where people go for specific items [while street trading] is just when you walk past the item, you see it and you buy it. This is more impulse shopping.”

FRESH STOCK: Traders buy spinach arriving outside the market. Photo: Robyn Kirk

A legitimate space – the Yeoville Market

Yeoville Market is near the centre of the suburb and was started in late 1999 as an alternative to street trading. The city built it in the hope that all hawkers would be able to move off the streets, which would bring them within the law. It contains 212 stalls which provide a number of goods (like vegetables, clothes and cosmetics) and services (like hairdressing and shoe repairs) to the Yeoville community. Only 5% of the stalls are run by South Africans, with the other 95% being owned by people from other African countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. It employs a full-time manager to oversee the building, along with a support staff, which includes six on-duty security guards.

For the past three years, Sabatha Mekuto has been the manager appointed by the City.  A young man from Soweto, he explains passionately that he walks around the grounds several times a day, interacts with stall owners and is responsible for the functioning of the market.

There is strict organisation in the market, he says: each trader signs a lease before setting up and is subject to a number of house rules. Every stall owner pays rent, and this ranges from R60 to R300 a month, depending on the location and size of the stall.

Mekuto has been in discussion with the eight-member committee of existing traders, his line manager and the managing director at the City of Joburg, about increasing the number of stalls. But the space within the building will only allow for a maximum of five new, rather small stands. When he took over from his predecessor in 2011, he also inherited a waiting list for spaces in the market. This list, which started in 2005, now contains approximately 4 000 names.

Mekuto admits the opportunity to trade there is hard to come by. One reason is the difficulty in evicting people. “I’ve only ever got rid of two people,” he says. “One for fighting, which is against house rules, and one woman who got a job outside the market and never came in to work.” The second reason is that once traders are established in the market, they are reluctant to leave.

“…once people get a space in the market they don’t want to go,’ Mekuto says. “I’ve even heard rumours that some stall owners do so well that they hire someone else to work here for them and they [the owners] sit around at home, or go to other jobs on the outside. But we don’t work with rumours here, and what can I do without proof?”

Sebastian Zaremba has been trading in the market since 2000 and is a member of the market committee. From Mexico originally, he is the only Caucasian in the market. He has a slight build and a well-maintained moustache and is always wearing a blue, knitted hat with a yellow stripe. He owns a stall on the outer edges of the market, selling mostly imported foodstuffs like rice, cooked fish and fufu. He started out selling tea and coffee to people who would pass the Yeoville Market on their early morning commute, and with the money this created was able to expand his goods to include Thai rice, roasted peanuts and semolina.

“I was fortunate to put my name on the waiting list, and to be allocated a stall in the market,” he says. “But other people are only [trading] on the street because they need to make a living, they have to survive. It’s hand-to-mouth, we must appreciate that and also respect that.”

“I do feel it’s unfair to those in the market if people sell the same goods for less on the street.”

At the same time, Zaremba believes the majority of street traders are only there because they do not want to follow the rules and pay the market rent. He also believes the illegal traders create a bustle in the streets that can lead to an increase in crime.

“I like the market, I like my neighbours, I like my colleagues in the market, we’re like one big family,” Zaremba says. “We help each other, and we succeed. I do feel it’s unfair to those in the market if people sell the same goods for less on the street.”

Selling on the streets in order to survive 

One of those traders can be found close by, also on Raleigh Street, but a five-minute walk away from the market. Nolicent Ntete and his wife Brita are Zimbabweans, and have lived in Yeoville for five years. Together they sell vegetables outside a discount grocery store. From 8am until the Yeoville Market closes at 8.30 at night, you can find one or both of them sitting a couple of metres from the store entrance. Nolicent usually wears a brightly coloured shirt and Brita a wide-brimmed straw hat to shade her face.

They sit on empty plastic crates behind a stall made from a piece of wood balanced on stacked tomato boxes. Small piles of tomatoes and potatoes are arranged neatly next to hand-knotted bags of chumaulia, a spinach-like plant popular in Zimbabwe. Sometimes they get chillies for a good price and will sell those as well. To their left, a woman sells shoes (mostly sandals during summer) placed neatly on a square of material laid out on the pavement. Brita chats amiably with customers and passers-by. Nolicent spends much of the day chopping the chumaulia, which they buy in big bunches and chop to sell in smaller quantities.

“There is too much problems selling here [on the street],” Nolicent says. “The metro [police] come, when the rain is falling we get wet, and when the sun shines like now we can’t go to the shade. When the police come, they take our stock and it’s too expensive to get back. When they write a ticket, it’s going to be R1 500 to get it back. I just leave it because that’s too much money, I can’t [get] that money. I will only make that much extra after two weeks.

“I left Zimbabwe because the situation was bad there, everyone knows how it is there,” Nolicent explains, when asked why he trades illegally. “My children are in Zim, I’ve got two daughters, one is seven and one is two. I send money home at the month-end, I make sure I send something home for my kids to eat. My mother will take care of them, but she needs to pay.”

Every day when Nolicent and his wife trade on the street, they break at least five of the City of Joburg bylaws, mostly the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality Street Trading By-laws of 2004. These include selling in a space which could block pedestrian movement, trading outside the entrance to a public building (which also sells the same type of goods), being there without written permission from the city council and, finally, from a position closer than five metres to a road intersection.

PASSING TRADE: Police are struggling to enforce bylaws that prohibit hawking. Photo: Robyn Kirk

According to press statements by councillor Ruby Mathang, a member of the mayoral committee for economic development, talks started in June this year between informal trader organisations such as Santra, Centre for Urbanism and Built Environmental Studies (CUBES) and Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri) to find a way to accommodate informal traders throughout the city. However, in all talks so far, both the city and organisations involved have made it clear that they are only concerned with legal traders.

“Bylaw enforcement [against illegal trading] in the city is continuing to take place to ensure that the inner city does not become chaotic. This remains vital in managing the inner city and serving as a deterrent against illegal trading and crime,” says Virgil James, a communications specialist for the City of Joburg.

In another press statement, Mathang adds: “The City embraces its hawkers – we want to make life easier and more stable for those who trade legally because we want a commercially viable and dynamic informal trading sector in a clean and welcoming environment.”

This means that, while there is some progress towards improving the situation for street traders, it is aimed at aiding legal hawkers and will not necessarily aid those who break bylaws in the course of their trading.

“I like selling on the streets, because here I get quick money,” says Nolicent. “In the market it is a big mess, and you have to pay rent.” He doesn’t plan to stay in South Africa for much longer. He says in his home language, Shona: “Ndiri kuda kuZim muma kore anotera [I want to go back to Zim in the next two years], I want to take care of my children.”

“I don’t want to trade on the streets forever,” adds Brita. “I want a job. A real job.”

Because of the growing number of street traders in Johannesburg, Santra is in the process of talking to City of Joburg officials to find resolution. “There is a so-called process of engagement, which started in June or May of this year,” says Elias. “They were supposed to call us last month [September] but they haven’t yet. We want Yeoville designated as a mixed-usage area so that street trading is legally allowed there, not as a residential area where it isn’t.”

Santra also wants more street trading rights across Johannesburg. “We’ve requested that the city has a database of traders so we have an accurate number of traders that we can keep updated. The City says there are 2 000 legal spaces that can be made available [for legal street trading], but there are 8000 people. We’d like designated legal trading areas with security and cleaning services, for this we’d want the traders to pay between R10 to R30 a day.”

Until the city and organisations reach an agreement, however, the Yeoville Market is the only place in the suburb where traders can sell their goods legally. This means that 212 people can feed their families without fear of legal repercussions, while the hundreds of other traders in the area, like Nolicent and Brita, must break the law in order to survive.

The lives that revolve around the selling of tomatoes. By: Robyn Kirk

FEATURED IMAGE: The market was built to replace hawking, but is too small to accommodate traders that have spilled into the streets. Photo: Robyn Kirk