November 2016

View from the Street

This, our fifth blog in the ‘Livelihood Struggles’ series, deals with the difficulties street vendors face in South Africa’s big metros. Enormous thanks must go to The Big Issue, who provided invaluable input into this blog, and two of whose vendors, Xolani and Tinzi, are co-authors alongside SLF researcher Caitlin Tonkin. However, the views put forward in this blog are not necessarily those endorsed by The Big Issue as a whole.


“My name is Xolani… I am working for The Big Issue for six years now… some customers, they don’t understand why we sell on the street… But I explain that there are no jobs and [selling] the magazine stops the suffering of people.” (Xolani, Big Issue vendor)


A typical stall selling a selection of fruits and vegetables.

A typical stall selling a selection of fruits and vegetables.

Xolani earns his living on the city streets. Hawking goods on the streets, both in the city and in the townships, is what provides the proverbial bread and butter (and rent, transport, school fees, healthcare etc.) for at least a million South Africans (and African foreign nationals) – and forms an approximate 8% of the national economy. Contrary to the common belief that street trade is opportunistic and impermanent, successful street trade is characterised by consistency. In many cases, street traders have worked the same pitch, selling fruits, or sweets, or fashion accessories to the same loyal customers, for upwards of five years; they have strategically chosen pitches which see high levels of traffic (foot or vehicular); and they have established agreements with surrounding shops regarding storage, access to water and use of ablutions. In reaction to a saturated formal job market, these are entrepreneurs who have made a plan to support themselves and their families, and in so doing generate productive economic activity.


The Big Issue is a non-profit organisation positioned within this space of street trading. By publishing and selling a monthly magazine to vendors, The Big Issue gives its vendors, all marginalised and unemployed adults, both a product to sell and experience in managing their own stock and money (among other forms of educational, social and psychological support provided). If you live in Cape Town, you’ll most probably be familiar with the blue-bibbed vendors who sell their magazines at busy intersections. To gain insight into the daily struggles of street vendors, SLF spoke to vendors and staff at The Big Issue. Tinzi, a vendor, explained:


“I became a vendor as I could not find a job… Selling the magazine isn’t easy as people just look at you like you a beggar or you going to rob them, they close their windows and lock their cars… Being a vendor is tough. You have to stand in the rain during winter as its difficult to get permission from the malls for us to sell there. Sales drop and you get sick and when you don’t work you don’t get money to provide for your family. Sometimes the law enforcement officers confiscate your magazines and say you can’t sell here, but the social-worker [provided by The Big Issue] will tell them that we have permission…”


Xolani added, “…we have people thinking we are lazy…”


A social-worker from The Big Issue explained further:


“[One of the issues] vendors face on the streets is the law enforcement, especially when we start in areas they don’t know The Big Issue. Their magazines will be confiscated and they will be dealt with rudely. But we do have an agreement with the City of Cape Town for our vendors to sell at the robots…”


The Big Issue vendors’ thoughts, and prominent research in this space (including research by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute and Professor Claire Benit-Gbaffou, from Wits’ Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies), points, broadly, to two major struggles which street vendors in South Africa face.


The first is a struggle with the state. In general, South African municipalities, who are responsible for the day-to-day regulation of street trade, see street vendors as bringing dirt and crime into cities. Municipalities over-restrict and over-enforce street trade, while simultaneously under-regulating and under-supporting it. For example, many vendors experience regular harassment from law enforcement, particularly if they are selling near malls or formalised shops, yet they lack the basic infrastructure, such as shelter and storage facilities, which formal shops have and which the state could easily provide for street traders. Municipal investment in supporting street trade could be a powerful development tool – and yet municipalities generally adhere to a practice of treating street traders as nuisances, who threaten private interests and spoil ‘world-class’ city spaces.


A vendor in the township selling eggs and aromat.

A vendor in the township selling eggs and aromat.

The second struggle traders face is with the negative perceptions the public has of them. Both Xolani and Tinzi point out that public perceptions of them and their profession range from lack of understanding, to lazy, to outright criminal. These perceptions are not so different to how the state sees street traders. As this blog, and indeed this series, seeks to show, these demeaning perceptions obscure a more complicated reality of jobless South Africans making work in very marginalised spaces. A change in public perception towards street traders could play a role in pressurising municipalities into better practices towards street traders; more than that, though, is that a change in public perception towards street traders could improve the quality of their daily experiences. In Tinzi’s words, “Life will be easier if people understand that we want to be treated with respect, as we doing an honest job and trying to make a living and provide for our families.”


Read the previous blog in this series here.

Obstacles for ECDs

‘Obstacles for ECDs’ is the fourth in our ‘Livelihood Struggles’ series. It is written by SLF associate Mapaseka Jack, based on her experience of interviewing ECD owners and staff. The ECD interviews formed part of an independent Masters research project, in which SLF is playing a supportive role.


“The most important phase of learning takes place in the first 1000 days of a child’s life, and if that opportunity is missed, the damage can never be undone.”

Marelise Van Der Merwe (Writer @ the Daily Maverick)


In partnership with a Masters student who is researching ECD centres, I recently spent a week in Vrygrond, talking to various ECD centre owners, to better understand how they operate. Vrygrond, situated near Muizenberg (Cape Town), is one of the oldest informal settlements in the Western Cape. Early Childhood Development centres (ECD centres) are any building used for the admission, protection and temporary care of more than six children away from their parents (UNICEF definition). Depending on registration, an ECD centre can admit babies, toddlers and pre-school children. The term ECD centre can refer to crèche, educare, a playgroup, a pre-school, after school care.


Location of Vrygrond in relation to wider Cape Town area.


South African Law requires that all ECD centres be registered and that they should follow a programme that ensures that the children get adequate education required by the national government. Currently, government provides an operational subsidy of R15 a day per pupil, a subsidy restricted to ECD centres that comply with certain standards on infrastructure. Some of these standards are: the structure must be safe and well ventilated; it should have enough windows; and each child must have enough space to move about freely, meaning there must be 1,5 m² of indoor play space per child and 2 m² of outdoor play space per child. These rules make it hard for the ECD sites we visited to comply. Because our government does not have a subsidy that funds infrastructure additions or improvements for the ECD centres, centres that do not meet the standards defined by the department are not assisted at all.


Most of the ECD centres interviewed were not formally registered with any government department and they stated red tape and the lengthy process as the reason. Not being registered means they cannot apply for funding for their ECDs. Although their main reason for opening the ECD centre was to help the parents and give the kids an education, they are struggling to work around the bureaucratic requirements of the state. One owner said, “I’ve been applying since May this year and there’s a lot of red tape and requirements.”


The Department Social Development (DSD) can make the process quicker and simpler when they want to. One of the ECD centres we interviewed was registered in 24 hours by the department and the department donated land for centre. This is one of the prime examples that government can make this process easier. The pastor who owns the crèche said, “The Minister showed up and the registered the ECD Centre in one day and donated tables and chairs.”


One of the ECD owners extended her house in order to open an centre. Her ECD centre is well managed with an office. The classrooms are divided by age and there’s a schedule followed by each class, the kitchen is fully stocked with a helper. There’s play area outside with swings and space for kids to run. Yet, she told us that DSD said I can’t register the ECD Centre because the extension doesn’t have enough windows.” The owner only found out about this standard when she applied and this is the only reason she cannot be registered even though her educare is one of the best educares in that neighbourhood.


After going through a long process of being registered, ECD centres are not guaranteed that they will receive funding. There’s a lot more paperwork that the ECD centre owner must complete. One of the ECD centres visited is legally registered and they are in a process of closing due to lack of funding and support. One of the owners we spoke to said ”I’ve been applying for funding since 2015 and there’s a lot of documents to fill. Other people have received funding not me. I don’t know why and now I am closing the educare because I cannot afford to run it.” The only help she has received has been from various organisations that provide food.


The formalities that the department impose on ECD centres to qualify for funding, especially in neighbourhoods such as Vrygrond, make it difficult for the ECD centres to survive or continue. The current laws cater for well-established ECDs or ECD centres that operate in the formal economy, yet make it impossible for the ECD centres that we interviewed to benefit or receive support from the government. A separate subsidy should be created to fund construction of new facilities, upgrading and maintaining existing facilities for informal ECD centres to help them get to reach a state that allows them to become formal. Without such interventions, the current subsidy will not reach the kids who need it most and education inequality will continue.


Children sitting quietly in a brightly-decorated ECD centre.


Read the previous blog in this series here.

No Time to Think of Dying

This, the third blog in our ‘Livelihood Struggles’ series, uses the story of Louise (in addition to others) to highlight the resilience of poor South Africans to ‘idiosyncratic shocks’ which affect their livelihoods. Louise is known to SLF through our Safe Shebeens project, and gave her permission for her experience to be featured. Written by Caitlin Tonkin.


“I have no time to think of dying…”, says Louise, a shebeener from the Sweet Home Farm informal settlement, outside Cape Town. She says this because herself, her children and her boyfriend depend on her shebeen for an income. “Ek sal nooit survive sonder my shebeen.” (I will never survive without my shebeen).


Louise was one of several shebeeners with whom the Foundation worked in 2012, on a project to promote safety in shebeens in the Sweet Home Farm community. As part of this project, shebeeners were helped to produce their own digital stories. It’s in her digital story (featured below), that Louise explains her shebeen’s central role in keeping her family financially afloat, and thus how important it is that she stays healthy to run her shebeen, despite her HIV positive status (about which she is very open).


Since 2012, Louise has fortunately remained healthy, and has grown her business to include a take-aways section. On a recent visit to Sweet Home Farm, Louise tells SLF that her business was providing enough that she always had petty change in her pocket, to give to her grandchildren to buy sweets. But, earlier this year, two men were shot in a gang confrontation in Louise’s street, and died on her property, where they had run to escape further shooting. Because of their jealousy of the success of her business, Louise suspects, the families of the two men forced her to pay for the funerals. R 20 000 later, Louise’s savings are spent and she can barely buy stock for her shebeen, let alone keep her take-aways business running.



Louise’s experience shows the devastating effect that unexpected expenses, often related to illness, dying and death, can have on people whose income derives from survivalist economic activity. Although Louise has been impacted by a specific set of circumstances, she is not alone in her small, informal micro-enterprise(s) and the income/savings generated by that being insufficient to keep her financially secure in the face of unexpected, shock expenses. Joey and Megan, a Delft couple, were similarly affected by unexpected illness: Joey’s heart operation, subsequent months of hospitalisation and return home wheel-chair bound meant that his wife no longer had the time, human labour or money to to continue running their succesful spaza, on top of caring for him.


SLF’s research has revealed thousands of examples of South Africans, like Louise, Joey and Megan, for whom a micro-enterprise is their key means of economic survival, either because this is their only source of income, or because revenue from that one micro-enterprise supports a host of other informal micro-enterprises which collectively contribute to household income. For these South Africans, a small micro-enterprise is at once the source of their income, their savings and what they need to continue that micro-enterprise. This makes them highly vulnerable to unexpected expenses (both financial expenses and time/labour costs) like funerals, medication, hospitalisation, or theft, which can obliterate the narrow margins of their economic survival.


 Survivalist business An informal business, usually with little dedicated business infrastructure and no growth vision, which aims to generate supplementary household income (i.e. a business for survival, not profit).
 Idiosyncratic shock Unexpected ‘shocks’ which affect the individual household (rather than having a system-level effect, as currency devaluation or price hikes would), like death in the family, illness, theft or drug-addiction in the family.


Idiosyncratic, or household, shocks disrupt poor South Africans’ fragile economic balance. Without financial security, absorbing these shocks is incredibly difficult, as Louise’s experience shows. And yet, South Africans like Louise don’t just stop surviving – they can’t. As Louise catches SLF up on her situation, she remains positive that she will find ways to continue providing for her family – already she has started renting out rooms in her shack and taking on adhoc char work, as well as continuing to make some cash off her pool tables and juke box. Louise’s story is a story about struggle, but is also a story about resourcefulness and resilience in the face of struggle. Like other South Africans who experience such unexpected shocks, Louise demonstrates a kind of heightened resilience that comes from literally having no other choice but to continue surviving.


As Louise says, “I have no time to think of dying.”


Read more about ‘idiosyncratic shocks’ and how South African micro-enterprises respond in SLF’s Andrew Hartnack and Rory Liedeman’s research paper, here.

Read more about the shebeen sector in townships in the previous ‘Livelihood Struggles’ blog, here.