Writing titles for a blog entry can be challenging …….

I haven’t written for a few days again. I started out thinking it would be easy to write something everyday – and I’d still like to get there. This is a record that I hope will be interesting to others and useful to me, insofar as I can read it and reflect on it. Still, it’s not easy finding the time to do it – espeically as writing doesn’t always flow smoothly.

Wednesday 6 April

Got up just after 4am. I had to produce a newsletter. It has to get to the printers by just after midday if I want to get it back the same night for distribution early on Thursday. The printers are great – Shereno  is their name and I’m happy to say so. They provide us with a great service for a reasonable price. In fact, they haven’t raised their costs for over two years.

I had barely begun n the paper the day before. It’s only four pages (A4), but it takes deceptively long to get it done, especially if I want to ensure that there are no mistakes. It can be easier if I have copy from elsewhere – though it depends on the writing. Sometimes I have to do a great deal of editing – often to make it more accessible. This week, the focus was on street trading – which is a very hot issue, as I shall show later. In fact, I wouldn’t have published the story if I had known how the meeting later in the day was going to go.

I worked at home trying to get the paper done. But I had a double deadline. I had to get the finished product through to the printer, but I also had a meeting at 11am, the afore-mentioned meeting on street trading. I didn’t make it. I went through to the meeting with the paper not quite done and had to ask my assistant to call the printers to book space with a promise that I would send it through by 2pm.

The meeting on street trading started at 11am and it was not an easy one. Street trading (unmanaged) has been a problem in South African cities since the 1990s with the demise of apartheid, the scrapping of the Group Areas Act, and the opening up of the economy (sort of) to the previously economically-disenfranchised black community. The first manifestations of street trading in the previously white areas were stalls selling products that whites wanted – much of it was African craft. But as time went on and whites moved out of the inner city (Yeoville Bellevue is deemed to be part of the inner city), the product mix changed to suit the new customer base. So more stalls sold basics such as fruit and vegetables, with a smattering of sellers hawking shoes, handbags and other such items.

And as more people moved to Johannesburg from the townships and other parts of the country (and the continent), the number of traders increased – the response of a desperate people in search of an income in a country beset by unemployment.

The reponse of the City of Johannesburg to the street trader problem in Yeoville Bellevue was to build a market (with the unfulfilled promise of a second one) and then to ban street trading altogether in the area. This could have worked if the ban had been enforced. But it wasn’t. And this lack of enforcement, together with other manifestations of ineffective urban management, led to the current situation in the area – a free-for-all where everyone does what they can because they can. This is particularly the case with new arrivals who come into the area and ‘do what they see’, as a perceptive Metro cop once said.

So today – 2011 – twelve years after the ‘great solution’, we have between 150 and 250 street traders in the main street and a pending war looming between traders in the market who are paying rent and are relatively disadvantaged by their location, and street traders who are in more advantageous positions outside busy shops and pay no rent, but are subject to very occasional but unexpected raids by the Metro Police who swoop on them and seize their few tomatoes – it seems that the threat of raids is one reason why some traders do not diversify into selling more expensive items – they would lose so much more if the goods were confiscated.

The meeting was tense. Attended by five representatives of street traders and five of market traders, as well as a member of a commnunity structure and propery owner, it is supposed to be a task team of all interested stakeholders who are meeting to find a mutually-agreeable, sustainable solution that works for everyone.

It’s a difficult process and, and with hindsight, one which did not start out with a clear terms of reference. So, not only are some participants taking intractable positions, they cannot understand why others are in the meeting, thinking this is only an issue between market traders and street traders – and, even then, both of those sides claim the moral high ground, the one based on law, the other on a sort of moral human right.

The rights or opinions of the community (or consumer, as one person put it), the formal business sector and the property owners in the area are not being considered. Yet they are clearly affected stakeholders.

It’s going to be a long process. All parties need to be persuaded that there is no easy or quick solution. But a solution is necessary if we are to rebuild the economy of the area into one which is sustainable, which creates real jobs and which gives dignity to those participating in it.

From there, I raced back to the office to complete the newspaper (only later did I think that perhaps I should have held back the article on street trading, given the sentiment in the meeting, but I was preoccupied with meeting our deadline and not rethinking the content).

Fortunately another meeting I was supposed to attend was postponed, so I got the paper out of the way and could attend to other issues such as preparing documents for our funding, working on getting support for our Africa Week Festival, meeting with people who wandered into the office in search of all kinds of things and – finally – rushing to complete the list of liquor outlets in the area (over 100), prior to going to our Community Policing Forum meeting in the evening. As I was working with one of my colleagues to complete the list, I remembered that my car was at home as I had lent it to someone and he had dropped it at my house (six blocks away) because he could find no parking near the office.

So I raced home through the darkening evening to fetch the car and get to the policing forum meeting. That meeting (through predictably long) proved to be one of the most congenial and productive in a while. I think relations between the policing forum and the police are becoming more professional and therefore more respectful. There is (and always will be) tension between the two parties – it’s inevitable when you have two such different bodies with such different mandates, trying to find common ground. But it seems we might be finding each other.

The meeting finished at 8.30, and my day of work more or less ended, 14.5 hours after it started. Back home, I still had to send some emails and read a document or two. The newspaper was due to arrive from the printers at around 2am, ready for collection by our distributors at 6am. Fortunately for me, someone else heard the doorbell this week and received the papers. I slept through.

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