South Africa: Migrant Street Traders Worse Off After Lockdown

In Durban, migrant street traders struggling to recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic face municipal red tape and hostile policing.

Nadin* was in her early 20s when she started street trading in Durban. In search of a safer, better life, she left her home in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her husband, who worked as a local tailor at the time, encouraged Nadin to start anew in South Africa.

Nadin, now 47, admits she was unprepared for the realities of her new life. Now mother to three children, she says her socio-economic condition as a migrant vendor has deteriorated since the onset of Covid-19 as fewer people have cash to spend.

Nadin sells avocados for R5 and R10 each. She has positioned her stall at a corner near a shopping mall in Glenwood. Avos completely fill two basins. With a smile, she helps customers pick the ripest ones and shrugs away derogatory remarks from passersby.

Working on Nadin's left is another woman, Mama Leki, who also sells avocados. Both seated on buckets, they work together and guard each other's basins when one is away. Leki has taken a bathroom break.

Neither woman has a permit to trade on the busy corner but both need this work to survive. To avoid fines or her goods getting confiscated, Nadin leaves her designated corner just after sunset.

"I have to work in the streets every day now to make a living. The only days I am not able to sell is during windy or rainy days because I have no shelter, and this is an awkward spot." She shouts to people passing by: "Yes, R5 and R10 avocado! Ripe and ready."

Mama Leki returns and adds: "When the police come, I leave right away. But I quickly return after they're out of sight. When they come through again, I just go home and return a few days after because I am scared to lose my goods.

"We left home when we were still young and with a burning desire to escape the extreme poverty in the DRC. At least here, I was able to grab an opportunity that was critical for me and my family's survival back home. I was able to send money back home."

Making a living

The Covid-19 hard lockdown exposed the precariousness of street trading. Like workers in the hospitality industry, their livelihoods have been devastated by the pandemic. Despite restrictions loosening, migrant street traders in Durban say the effects are still being felt. Many find themselves without an income.

The informal sector in the central business district of Durban represents a sizable portion of KwaZulu-Natal's economy. In the absence of material support from the South African government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, asylum seekers and refugees create work for themselves in this sector, which is typically characterised by poor working conditions, low or nonexistent worker protection and uncertain job prospects. Migrant street traders also often lack legal protection.

Verushka Memdutt, secretary of Durban street traders' movement the Market Users Committee, says those working in the sector face an ambiguous policy environment that has occasionally supported but largely "ignored" and at times actively "destroyed" livelihoods.

"The policy environment in which migrant street traders operate is not governed by refugee legislation but by national, provincial and local policies towards the informal sector. Refugees and asylum seekers hold temporary residence permits issued under Section 41 of the [Aliens Control] Act, which allows them to trade in the informal sector," says Memdutt.

"There is a preoccupation with the most visible element of the informal sector - street vendors - who operate in public spaces over which there are often competing interests. Policy statements on street trading or the informal sector show that, on paper, the positive contribution of the informal sector is sometimes recognised."

The eThekwini Municipality regulates and issues permits for street traders in public spaces. But getting the paperwork done is a laborious process dogged by red tape. The City's actions - including rigid policing of permits and the confiscating goods - reveal an ambivalent, if not actively hostile, approach to vendors. There is also competition for trading permits between local and migrant street vendors.

The municipality did not respond to a request for comment.

With consistent delays and inefficiencies at the Department of Home Affairs, asylum seekers are often without permits. Police officers and municipal officials therefore deem them undocumented, effectively disqualifying them from getting trading licences. In a municipality where obtaining a trading licence may take years even for documented locals, this is a double blow.

In 2015, Durban Street Traders won a legal case challenging the constitutionality of confiscating goods, forcing the City to redraft the street trader by-laws. "Proving that the only way for street traders to be recognised was through the courts," says Memdutt.

All for survival

Ayesha* from Malawi has been a street trader in Durban since 2017. She sells a variety of children's clothing, crushed peanuts and black beans near the Durban train station.

"With every little money I make each day here, I am able to have food on the table. Before the lockdown, I was even able to send money back home because we leave our homes and risk our lives so they can survive better. The risk is often humbling because you endure the hardships of belonging and poverty. Here, I must deny or hide my identity in order to survive. It's all for survival," says Ayesha.

Durban's Refugee Social Services director Yasmin Rajah says restrictions associated with the pandemic have made it even more difficult for refugees or asylum seekers to access or renew documentation.

"Negative attitudes about street traders have been tied to societal perceptions of informality associated with poverty [and] unemployment ... so the sector remains undignified. These attitudes towards street traders have led either to the political neglect of street trade activities or to policies and regulations that render street traders powerless," she says, adding that everyone lawfully residing in South Africa is legally allowed to earn a living through street trading. Municipal by-laws governing street trading should thus ensure migrants and South Africans are treated equally.

"In doing so, municipal councils should also take care to ensure that possibly neutral language in municipal by-laws or policies governing informal trade does not have a discriminatory effect in practice. Any discriminatory by-laws or policies would be unconstitutional," says Rajah.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

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