"I wish Joburg was New York": 'Sweeping' poverty in Johannesburg

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 25 November 2014

The South African Constitution demands that "a municipality must [...] give priority to the basic needs of the community," "promote the social and economic development," and grant every citizen "the right to choose their trade [...] freely," although this "may be regulated by law." In October 2013, however, 'regulation' drowned out any higher societal values when the City embarked on a plan dubbed "Operation Clean Sweep." In its drive to rid central Johannesburg of 'illegal' street trading deemed to bring disorderliness and criminality, the "sweep" evicted and confiscated the goods of thousands of street traders (including 'legal' traders) for whom this is a largely survivalist livelihood (fig. 1: before and after).

The City's action ended it in two court cases involving the three main associations of traders (SANTRA, SAITF and One Voice), supported by SERI, labour federation Cosatu and law firm Routledge Modise's pro bono associate Michal Johnson. Academic support also came from CUBES at the University of the Witwatersrand. Eventually, the Constitutional Court would lambast the City's "flagrant disregard of informal traders' rights."

'Legal' traders (rent paying, licensed, and belonging to recognized trader's unions) must now be accommodated only in legally demarcated trading bays (currently a mere 800 bays approximately). Those outside of these demarcated spaces, effectively some 90 percent of an estimated 8 000 street traders, have been unapologetically excluded. The City simultaneously also released a draft by-law that would evict land invaders and occupants of so-called bad buildings without the legally required court orders and provision of alternative accommodation. Behind this officially sanctioned violence toward the most vulnerable lay the understanding that their mass evictions will assist private-sector inner-city regeneration projects—of which the city is increasingly supportive—and boost the residential property market.

The privileging of the formal economy and repression of the informal economy has a long history in South Africa. Today, private-sector regeneration / gentrification, the City's failure to provide sufficient low-income urban accommodation, while preventing the same people from earning a livelihood on its streets, together make for a powerful exclusionary paradigm. In an urban setting never made to facilitate informal livelihoods, the status quo is thus wholly inadequate. Rather, urban space itself must be restructured, in addition to policy transformation. A more inclusive paradigm would include developing low-income rental accommodation that enables live-work or other economic opportunities (fig. 2), as well as pedestrianization of streets to allow for street trading. A longer term plan could transform the largely defunct railway infrastructure that runs through the inner-city into a public open space system, which could dramatically increase informal economic opportunity (fig. 3: a railway-to-park 2009 City competition proposal).

There are also much larger issues at stake: about what a democracy and a city is, and for whom it is. For contemporary cities constantly in change, and South African cities recovering from historic injustices, Johannesburg should be less concerned with misplaced modernistic notions about what it wants to look like ("World Class" or otherwise), and more with its role in securing the ethical foundations upon which anonymous city actors collectively shape city form.

The "sweep" provoked moral outrage (as well as support), worsened by evidence of police brutality. Ultimately though, the call to government authorities is really only what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — here appropriately invoked — called his government and society to: "All we say to America is, 'Be true to what you said on paper.'"

Johannesburg's Mayor also has a dream: "I wish Joburg was New York."

Photo credits: Google Maps / Street View, Joburg Trade Resources, Keep Street Traders‏, City of Joburg, ARUP / AED / StudioMAS / Urban Solutions.

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