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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