Facing the challenges of street trading in an open, inclusive way

The City of Johannesburg has recently embarked on a new process of trying to deal with the challenges of informal trading. But it is not doing so entirely voluntarily.

Towards the end of 2013, the city dusted off a strategy called Operation Clean Sweep which had been adopted in late 2012, but never implemented. This was a strategy to ‘clean up’ the inner city of Johannesburg, addressing all the major socio-economic challenges that had both caused and been caused by the economic and spatial decline of the area. One of the most important recommendations in the strategy document was that the city should embark on a process of engagement with all stakeholders (internal and external) before taking any other action.

This engagement may possibly have happened internally, but there was no attempt to engage with external stakeholders in any meaningful way. The first that most people knew of Operation Clean Sweep was when the media reported on the mass removal of street traders from the pavements of the city. There was a quick reaction from trader representatives, especially because there were allegations that Joburg Metro police had behaved in a violent, brutal way when carrying out the removals. Members of the public welcomed the clean(er), less congested pavements, but were not comfortable with the allegations of brutality and with the fact that thousands of people were losing their livelihoods. Many called for a solution which would both guarantee clean streets AND allow for trading.

This sorry saga ended in the Constitutional Court with a ruling that found that the conduct of the City of Johannesburg had impaired the dignity of the traders. What’s more, the opening statement of Justice Dikgang Moseneke implied that the city had acted outside of the law in removing the traders. The CoJ was ordered to allow the traders to return to their trading spots and not to interfere with them.

On Monday 28 July, traders were invited to a meeting with the City of Johannesburg. They arrived not knowing the details of the agenda of the gathering. Only after this was raised did the CoJ distribute a document which contained the agenda, a setting out of the process and a presentation of the CoJ’s findings to date. With proposals.

These proposals were not discussed beforehand with stakeholders. What’s more, the presentation of the proposals was done in English with fairly complex bar charts and pie charts and tables and so on, which many traders present didn’t properly grasp. Despite a request by a senior community member for translations to be done, this did not happen.

The process as outlined in the document envisages consultations with different stakeholder groupings in separate meetings. The CoJ will then draft a final set of proposals, based on the outcome of those meetings and present a draft document to the public and all stakeholders with a call for responses within 30 days.

This is a flawed process. First of all, it is being rushed. The ‘consultation’ period is too short and too superficial. The period for responding is too short for proper consideration and for stakeholders to refer back to their constituencies.

Second, what is needed is an inclusive participatory process, not a segregated consultation process through which the city listens to what people have to say and then goes away with no commitment to include all or indeed any of the inputs from stakeholders when drafting the final proposals. These proposals will, as indicated, be published, giving people a very short time to respond and, even if they do, there is no guarantee their inputs will be considered or included. The new law or regulations will then be enacted – and they are very likely to fail, because stakeholders cannot be expected to commit themselves fully to a process in which they have played a minimal, poorly-managed part.

The first meeting, with street traders, was well-attended. This was inevitable. After all, they were evicted from the streets, they are the ones who get chased by the JMPD and lose their goods, they are the ones who live and work in a state of insecurity. So they would be bound to attend because their futures depend on the outcome of the process.

But they came not knowing what exactly was to be discussed. They had received no agendas or documentation to prepare themselves for the meeting. When they raised this at the beginning of the engagement, the city made no attempt to apologise, did not refer them to the agenda that was in the belatedly-distributed presentation pack, and tried to shunt aside their objections in favour of getting on with the meeting.

On Wednesday night, two days later, there was supposed to be an evening meeting for another stakeholder grouping – residents. It seems that the meeting failed because there were not enough people present.

There are many residents who are concerned about the discomfort and other socio-economic consequences of unmanaged street trading. But this is just one of many challenges that residents face and, for most, it is not of primary concern. Nevertheless, they are stakeholders and therefore must be given an opportunity to express themselves. Much more effort therefore needs to be made to get them to a meeting, to motivate them to give up their time on a cold night to come and listen to a presentation, to give them a sense that their concerns will be listened to and taken seriously.

Attendance may turn out to be a problem with other stakeholders as well if there is not enough done to get them to the meetings.

The CoJ has missed a golden opportunity to embark on a truly participatory process. Instead of calling people to segregated stakeholder meetings, where different groupings have no opportunity to engage with and listen to each other, they could have adopted a Nedlac-type approach. This would see the establishment of a task team, comprising representatives of the major stakeholders affected by the phenomenon of street trading. These include street traders, market traders, formal businesses, property owners, residents and workers in the inner city, the South African Police Service, the City of Johannesburg and possibly others.

Each stakeholder grouping would have to select or elect delegates to represent their interests on the task team. The task team would then set about the job of finding a solution. This would not preclude the holding of larger stakeholder meetings for the purpose of soliciting inputs and giving reports back. But then it would not be the CoJ ‘summoning’ stakeholders to meetings, but the task team inviting their own constituencies to take part in the process. They would be much more likely to attend if they knew they were represented on the task team and if their representatives on the task team took primary responsibility for ensuring that they did attend.

This would send a very different message to stakeholders – they would feel like true participants and not simply target groups being consulted by the CoJ which would then go away and write up the policy document on its own. If the task team were to be given the job of writing up the policy document collectively, it is much likely that all involved would feel much more committed to the final outcome and be willing to ensure that it is implemented properly.

It is not too late to adopt this approach. It might take longer. There will be frustrations along the way. But the issue is important enough to give it more time, to make the effort to overcome the frustrations, and to work together to find a lasting solution. After all, the authorities have been grappling with the challenges of street trading since the early 1990s. That’s a lot of history to work through. It will need time and patience and goodwill. But it will be worth it because stakeholders will be able to own the process, to take responsibility for their part in ensuring a successful outcome, and to hold each other accountable for its effective implementation. The City of Johannesburg will not be seen as imposing itself on the different stakeholder groupings, but rather as a social partner willing to listen and respond to the legitimate concerns and interests of the people of Johannesburg.

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Publication of “Re-imagining post-apartheid Yeoville Bellevue


After 18 months of hard work interspersed with other hard work, I finished writing a report on my 15 years of working in Yeoville Bellevue on neighbourhood development. Readers of this blog will know that I am not yet a regular blogger – and this is linked to my not giving enough time to the writing of material for the blog. My report suffered the same fate – it was originally supposed to be completed in three months, but I was just not able to devote all my attention to it.
I am not sorry, though. The extra time gave me more time to reflect on the topic and on the detail and nuances of my years of working in Yeoville Bellevue. I was able to consult with more people and read more source material. There were many things that happened in the extended writing period which also added value.
So there is now a printed document, thanks to the South African Research Chair in Development Planning and Modelling, School of Architecture and Planning, University of the Witwatersrand, in particular Prof Phil Harrison, who commissioned me to write the report and who supported me through the process of getting it done.
It’s a very readable piece of work, not intimidatingly academic at all, and I hope those who go through it enjoy the journey. I enjoyed writing it.
You can download it for free in a PDF version identical to the printed one. Go to: http://bit.ly/yeovillesmithers.
You can also visit the website of the Wits Urban Transformation Research Project and see the other publications in the series (http://www.wits.ac.za/academic/ebe/archplan/sarchi/resources/14468/urban_transformation_research_project_utrp.html).
If you do read the report, please let me know what you thought of it. Feedback is very important.

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What a place …..

Story 1

Yesterday, Saturday 8 September, the streets of Yeoville Bellevue were teeming with children. Children from all over Gauteng, bussed in by the Gauteng Department of Education to participate in an Children’s Carnival. Different schools were dressed in various brightly-coloured traditional and not-so-traditional and simply fanciful costumes. The streets were crowded with the carnival procession, the pavements hijacked by buses.

DSC_0083[1]On the Yeoville Boys sportsground was a serious stage with DJs having a mock competition (that most kids were more or less ignoring). Dressed-up teens struck poses as I walked by with my camera, one group dressed in blue insisting that I take a series of BFF pics for them (though there were no arrangements for them to get the pictures – they were just happy they had been taken and that they had a chance to see them on the back of my digital camera).

A foursome of boys clamoured to see their picture and I smelt alcohol. They were barely 15 years old. I asked them if they were still at school and they confirmed they were. When I asked why they had been drinking, the one whose breath I had smelt waved away my question in denial. When I insisted, he back-tracked and said they hadn’t had much. As they left, another in the group assured me that it wasn’t all of them. People more than three blocks from where this event was happening were blissfully unaware of it – publicity had been minimal.

Story 2

Late last night, around 11.30, George Lebone sent a Please Call Me on his cell phone. I obliged and he told me he was in Raymond St, near Rockey, outside Green House, a somewhat dubious night-spot, highlighted in the press some years ago for allegedly procuring Mozambican teenagers for under-age sex work. He said he was watching the police cover up the body of a man who had been in Green House when a group of men arrived in a taxi, stormed into the premises, hauled him out and shot him dead in the street. The men then left.

George had no idea what the story was behind this cold-blooded execution. Meanwhile, he said, inside Green House the drinking and partying continued as though nothing had happened.

Walking back home, he came across a fight in the street outside Hunger Jack Inn, a guest-house cum club half a block away from my house in a residential area. He watched bemused as the group of men manhandled and shouted at each other, competing with the noise of music from the club.

Story 3

Together with other members of the Yeoville Bellevue Ratepayers Association, I have been doing a house by house visual audit of the area, so that we can compile a comprehensive list of challenges in our area to give to the MMC for Planning in the City of Johannesburg. This morning, one of my fellow ‘auditors’ came to my house while I was finishing breakfast and we chatted until we were ready to leave and do our counting.

She is a black South African married to a Congolese man. She is part of a street committee in her road, one of a handful of concerned residents who go out and clean the street once a week and who try to deal with some of the anti-social behaviour taking place in their area. She asked me what was to be done about the many water meters that were leaking in her street and elsewhere. She was worried about the wastage and we spoke about recent newspaper reports which said that Johannesburg is losing millions of litres of water due to leaks in the city’s old and failing infrastructure, water that is purified and then pumped at great cost over 60km from the Vaal Dam, Johannesburg being one of the few major cities without its own water supply. She spoke of how some meters had been repaired only to leak again. She spoke of her frustration in trying to get Joburg Water to take the situation seriously. She fretted over her general sense of despair at the difficulty in getting people to take part in the street committee, leaving it to a handful of dedicated residents, to whom others always came when there were problems.

Later on, when we were working in a particularly run-down and dirty street, she wondered how people could live in such squalor and not feel motivated to do anything about it. I reminded her of a comment by an enlightened CoJ official who once said to me that ‘if the municipality treats people in such a way that they feel as though the authorities don’t care about them, they will stop caring about themselves’. Besides, there are many people who are so absorbed with basic survival that it is unrealistic to think that they will easily find the motivation or the time to be ‘responsible citizens’.

Story 4

We spent three hours trawling the streets, noting down the good and the bad of each property. Most people who have taken part in this exercise have been amazed at the number of well-kept properties. There’s a sense that there are many people in the area who take pride in their homes, despite the challenges posed by more neglected properties around them. One person who accompanied me last week was very excited about seeing parts of Yeoville Bellevue that she hadn’t seen in 15 years. She tends to move from her flat to work, from her flat to the shops in Killarney, from her flat to her friends. She has no relationship with Yeoville Bellevue anymore, even though she lives in the area. She was delighted to have a second opportunity to go out today, telling me that she had spoken about her experience with her friends, some of whom had also lived in the area before.

I too am consistently shocked and heartened by what I see. There are some really horrible properties – we wondered what it felt like for someone who kept their property in very good shape to live across the road from a small block of flats that was in terrible condition – run-down, broken-edged, litter-strewn.

We finished today, more or less. Now it all goes into a database and we can get a global sense of what is happening in the area. One thing we have noticed is that there is a disturbing spike in the number of additional buildings, often two-storey flat blocks, being built at the back of a 500 sq m property with a three-bedroomed house already on it. While they provide accommodation for the burgeoning number of people in the area (over 38 000 according to the 2011 census), most of them are probably not approved by council, so there is no check on the quality of materials and construction. In addition, no-one knows what the impact is on the infrastructure of the area – water supply, sewerage, electricity.


We intend to invite the planning people to come and drive around the area with us. There are at least three properties that suddenly have a large pile of bricks in front of them – bricks that weren’t there when we did out rounds last weekend.

127 Yeo pic 2

Yeoville Bellevue is an exciting, worrying place.

Story 5

After our audit today, I drove my colleagues back to their respective homes. While dropping one person off, a man with a guitar slung over his back rushed up to the car. He greeted me by name while I puzzled over who he was. He asked my colleague to wait and listen to what he had to say. It seems there was a house around the corner whose occupants had already had the misfortune of having a minibus taxi plough through their wall. Their other concern was that ‘the Congolese’ spaza shop near their house was dumping waste on the street corner their house – and the waste contained the remains of fish that was apparently being cooked by the owners of the spaza shops and sold to the public. The man with the guitar asked us to go around and talk to the corner house people and discuss with them what could be done. He stressed that it wasn’t about the people being Congolese – ‘I’m not being “racist”‘, he said. ‘But we have to teach them the right way of doing things.’

Before he left, I asked him how he knew me and he said: ‘ Maurice, I’ve known you for a long time, we used to fight a lot. But also I played in your 2010 Africa Week Festival.’ I asked what we used to fight about. ‘About the work you are doing in Yeoville Bellevue,’ he said. ‘I thought you were full of shit, causing problems for people by trying to clean the area up, but now I realise that you’re doing a good thing. The place isn’t like it was when I first came here in 1997. It’s bad. Someone must do something to clean up Rockey St, especially between Cavendish and Raymond. I have seen how people get robbed at half past one, two o’clock in the morning. There are no knives or guns, People don’t get hit. The thieves come up and grab them around the neck and hold them until they empty their pockets. I’ve seen people throw out everything from their pockets and then be released. The worst place is that passage where the ‘coloureds’ live, that broken white building. The drugs and violence there. Those guys smoke crack and then need more money and go out and get it from whoever comes along.’

It’s not the first time that someone has told me that I am considered to be troublesome. It’s also not the first time someone has come around and realised that there are challenges that must be addressed in the area and that there are people around who behave in very anti-social, destructive ways who need to be challenged.

He walked away, guitar over his shoulder, satisfied that he had done his ‘civic duty’ by telling us of the problem of the fish. I will let the councillor know and ask him to go around and talk to the spaza shop owners, making it clear to them that there are more correct and more respectful-of-your-neighbours ways of doing things.

Just another couple of days in Yeoville Bellevue.

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A scream in the night

At around 11pm on Sunday night, as I sat working, I heard a scream – a clearly terrified woman’s scream – coming from somewhere nearby. I ran to the front door and pulled it open to try and determine the source of the scream. I could hear nothing. As I stood listening, my partner, Theresa, came through from the bedroom to ask if I had heard the screams.
I went to the back of the house, into the garden, to see if the screaming came from somewhere behind our property. Still nothing.
I waited awhile, willing the woman to start screaming again so that I could pinpoint the locality and see if there was something we could do to help.
When all I could hear was the music of Tandoor in Rockey St bouncing off the wall of the cottage behind us, I went back inside.
When people wonder out loud why I do the work I do in Yeoville Bellevue, one of the answers I can give is that I want to help create a neighbourhood where we never have to hear such screams. It’s a tall order, I know, given that we live in a society, in a country, in a world, where such screams happen all the time. But we all have to do what we can to change the situation.
Happy Women’s Day

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Metropolis conference

From tomorrow, 16 July, to Friday 19th July, I will be attending the international Metropolis conference in Sandton. South Africa or, more correctly, Johannesburg is hosting the event which will be attended by people involved in city development and city management from the world over. Topics range from safety to housing to the informal economy. There will be a discussion on the funding of urban development, something I am particularly interested in.

Of course, it is, like all others, a conference, and it therefore cannot guarantee that anything concrete will come out of it. But it does seem as if there will be some exciting discussions by people really committed to their cities or to their ideas about cities and how they can be developed and improved.

I do hope something of value to Yeoville Bellevue will come out of it. There is so much we could be doing if we had the resources, the support of the authorities and buy-in from the community (and an end to divisions and petty politics in the community).

I will attempt to give an overview of the conference (or at least the sessions I attend), either by day or at the end.

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Oh for a responsive state!

‘Active citizenry’, as punted currently by all and sundry, is a worthy goal. If every South African and other-than-South-African living in the country was an ‘active citizen’ (which is not likely so let’s say that if just 25% were active citizens), the country would be a different place. But I believe that such a situation will only come about if we have a responsive state.

On that score, I just wish that officials and politicians in the City of Johannesburg would have the courtesy to respond to emails that are sent to them by citizens? If I, as an ordinary citizen, take the trouble to send an email to a CoJ official or politician on a matter related to the governance of the city, surely I deserve to get at least an email in return saying that my email has been noted and will be attended to or will be responded to in due course? I have literally hundreds of examples of emails that I have sent to the CoJ on a variety of issues and over 90% have not been responded to in any way whatsoever. The only thing I know is that most of them have received the messages because the software my computer tells me so. But I have had almost no responses.

What does this lack of response say to me as a citizen? It says that I and my issues are not important. It says that the people I am emailing do not think me worthy of attention or respect. If I walk up to someone in the street and greet them, they are unlikely to ignore me. Even if they do not like me or resent the fact that I have addressed them, common decency and common practice (across all cultures) requires that they respond. So why can we not apply the same principles to communication by email?

Of course, some people will say that they are inundated by emails and they do not have time to answer each one. If they did, they argue, they would never get their work done. Firstly, I have worked as a director in government myself and, in spite of my heavy load of work, I always tried to make sure that I responded to every email that was directly addressed to me in my official capacity. Secondly, the main function of a public servant is to serve the public and part of that service is to respond to queries. So responding to an email is in fact part of the work of a public servant. (If I’m not mistaken, responsiveness is one of the Batho Pele principles which are supposed to guide the conduct of civil servants). Thirdly, if answering emails does prove to be a challenge, particularly for those without secretaries or personal assistants, it is very easy to set up your email system with an automatic return message which can acknowledge the receipt of an email, give further contact details, advise people on the correct channels to follow when raising an issue, thank people for taking the trouble to send the email and thereby take responsibility for what is happening around them, announce that you will be out of office for a period of days or weeks, or advise people on when they might expect a response to their query. I honestly do not think this is too much to ask.

In their professional and private lives, public servants deal with the private sector. Often their contact with the private sector will be by email. I am sure that, if the emailed companies do not respond, the public servants who sent the emails become irritated, frustrated, angry. In short, they would not be satisfied with the lack of response. Why should we as citizens then be prepared to accept this lack of response from public servants?

I do believe that half the battle to win over the hearts and minds of the people can be achieved simply by practicing this simple courtesy. This is not rocket science. It’s plain and simple common sense.

I am sure that someone reading this will be able to point to an email to which I have not responded in the past. Let me apologise in advance if that is the case. But that will not provide sufficient reason to challenge what I am saying. I am not talking about individual instances of an email being overlooked. I am talking about my overall experience of trying to communicate with government, more particularly the City of Johannesburg, with whom I otherwise have a good working relationship. I am also not saying that all public servants are culpable. There are some very good, responsible and responsive public servants and I applaud them for that. May they serve as an example to others.

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No power to the people

In 2012, at a hearing in Alexandra for the proposed Gauteng Regulations on Shebeen Licenses, a shebeen owner made it clear that he was not happy that there were community members in the meeting. ‘If community members have a say over this issue, 80% of shebeens would have to close down’, he said

This is an extraordinary and illuminating admission by a shebeen owner that the vast majority of community members are not happy with the presence of shebeens in their neighbourhoods.

On 1 March, the Gauteng Department of Economic Development published, in Gauteng Government Gazette 56, the Regulations which will govern the long-awaited process of converting shebeen permits to shebeen licenses.

For those who do not know the background to this, here is a quick summary.

In the mid-2000s, the Gauteng government decided to take control of the ever-increasing problem of illegal liquor outlets in the province. They invited all unregistered liquor outlets to apply for a Shebeen Permit which would regularise their legal position and allow them to sell alcohol without fear of action being taken against them. The Shebeen Permits were supposed to last for one year, after which the registered shebeens would in some way be licensed in terms of the Gauteng Liquor Act of 2003.

This did not happen. The validity of the permits was extended a number of times as the Department sought solutions. Our concern is that the Regulations that have now finally been published have not taken into account some of the key issues raised in the hearings and in written submissions.

Foremost amongst these was a request that the Shebeen Regulations give communities, the SAPS and municipalities the opportunity to object to applications for Shebeen Licenses. The published Regulations provide no such opportunity. The comment by the shebeen owner at the 2012 hearing in Alexandra has great significance in this regard – if he is right that an empowered community voice would mean that up to 80% of shebeens would have to close because community members would not approve their applications, the Regulations have effectively prevented this from happening.

Is this deliberate? We know that one of the objectives of government policy on liquor is that those people who were previously excluded from the liquor industry because of apartheid should now be given access to the economic opportunities offered by the industry. We know also that the department wants to minimise the financial burden on those who want to apply for a Shebeen License.

We do not disagree with these objectives – in fact, we support them. But it should not happen at the expense of the general quality of life and rights and safety of community members.

The Gauteng Liquor Act of 2003 allows community members the right to comment on applications for liquor licenses. Applicants must publish their applications in the Government Gazette and in two local newspapers. This means that it is possible – difficult but possible – for community members and the SAPS to get information about applications and to make a decision on whether to oppose such applications. Municipalities are consulted directly because there are issues related to zoning rights and land use and planning that have to be taken into account.

However, the new Shebeen Regulations do not seem to allow the possibility of objections being lodged by anyone, not even municipalities. There is a section which says that the process is subject to clauses in the Gauteng Liquor Act, but only insofar as ‘prohibitions, exemptions, enforcement and judicial proceedings, offences and penalties, compliance and renewals are concerned’. The Regulations state that inspectors will inspect the premises of applicants and submit a report and that the Board must take into cognisance ‘whether the premises are suitable for the purposes for which they will be used as per the inspectorate report’, and ‘ in the case of a shebeen license, on consumption, whether there are sufficient toilet facilities and whether meals will be served’.

There are no guidelines as to what makes a premises ‘suitable’, so it is difficult to see on what grounds the Board would properly assess an application.

Also of concern are the following:

  • There can now be ‘off-consumption shebeens’ ie bottle stores. Because most shebeens are in residential areas, this means that someone can operate a bottle store from their house. And nothing in the Regulations seems to prevent an on-consumption shebeen from becoming an off-consumption shebeen.
  • There are no restrictions on ‘entertainment’, which means that a shebeen owner is free to play music or even have a live band to entertain his or her guests – once again, in a residential area.

Here is one example of how these Regulations will disadvantage others just so that one shebeen owner can have approval to operate. One of the many shebeens in Yeoville Bellevue has been operating with a Shebeen Permit since the mid-2000s. It was run fairly well until recently. The music was quiet and the neighbours were not unduly disturbed. If a complaint was made, the shebeen owner apologised and corrected the situation.

Now things have changed. Younger family members have taken over. Disturbance levels are very high. People gather on the pavement in large numbers. The noise is affecting a number of residents in the properties opposite the shebeen. The guest house next door has seen a decline in business because of the noise and the congestion on the pavement. Properties behind the shebeen now hear the noise until the early hours of the morning.

The problem is that, under the new Regulations, this shebeen can apply for a license and no-one will have the opportunity to object, even though their rights are already being violated by the current operations. 

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