This ‘Livelihood Struggles’ blog series has highlighted the experiences of humiliation, hardship and exclusion which many South Africans face, when they try to earn money and support themselves. From Gideon du Toit’s account of living in a cave in Mosselbay, as a result of being blocked from informal trading, to Louise’s telling of the loss of her take-ways and shebeening businesses, to the harassment and negativity described by Big Issue sellers Tinzi and Xolani, a number of different voices from a number of different informal sectors (street trade, shebeens, educares, spazas, and traditional healing) have shown that economic exclusion is widespread. Poor South Africans face great difficulty in gaining access to formal markets and building livelihoods for themselves, regardless of how they are trying to earn an income.
The kinds of difficulties faced by poor South Africans, and illustrated in this series, include legal restrictions around where businesses can operate and in what kinds of places and spaces, access to licences and permits, lack of ability to absorb unexpected financial shocks, harassment from law enforcement, and negative perceptions from the public. In our understanding, these case studies highlight three inter-related concerns. Our first concern is the apathetic, impassive, and/or negligent response of local government, which has the effect of denying people access to opportunities to earn an income. The failure of local municipalities to provide basic infrastructure for street-based businesses is one example of this; another example is the failure to reduce the complexity of licencing processes. Our second concern is misguided development approaches and government policies which impact negatively on livelihoods. The impact of inappropriate policies is amplified when government agencies are incompetent, wrongly-or-under informed, or corrupt. The cases of both informal liquor retailers and street traders provides an example of how repressive actions impact on people at the margins of society who, in pursuit of a life of dignity (not lawlessness) engage in informal businesses in response to poverty and economic marginalisation. This second concern highlights state action rather than inaction.
Our third concern is pervasive and negative perceptions of informality. Tinzi and Xolani (Big Issue sellers) both experience this when motorists roll up their windows and refuse to engage with them, and Neville, a Rasta herbalist, similarly feels that part of the harassment and hardship he faces is because people are ignorant about what he does. While at first glance negative perceptions of participants of the informal economy seems a less severe challenge than state action/inaction, it in fact becomes part of the rationale for a social and political system which supports systemic economic exclusion.
From this perspective, systemic economic exclusion as an issue is about the denial and fulfilment of rights.
The South African Constitution, one of the most comprehensive and progressive constitutions in the world, promises that the human dignity of all South Africans will be respected and protected. In 2014, in a judgement relating to the illegal removal of street traders from Johannesburg city centre, Constitutional Court judge, Justice Moseneke, explicitly stated that being able to earn a living and provide for one’s family is an important part of having human dignity. The stories shared through this series certainly show that without this ability, many South Africans do experience great indignity, and do not enjoy the right to protection of their dignity. From this perspective, systemic economic exclusion as an issue is about the denial and fulfilment of rights.
What this series has highlighted is the need to see economic inclusion as a right due to all South Africans, and to see informal economic activities as a way to realise that right for the poor and marginalised. Furthermore, the series has exposed the failure of both local governments and broader society to act in the spirit of our Constitution, and makes clear the need for a systemic change in how informality is seen and approached. As our Constitution makes imperative for us in its founding provisions, we need to strive to “improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person.”
Additional essays and references to some of the SLF research can be downloaded here.
Words by series editor, Caitlin Tonkin, with editing and writing support from Andrew Charman.