30 Apr
  • By Jess Drewett

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.

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