Restricting hawkers and traders in the townships is unsustainable and dangerous – GG Alcock

Many countries who have placed restrictions on economic activity to protect their communities against Covid-19, are trying out new measures, but in some instances emergency regulations just don’t make sense, are too strict or lead to different interpretations by law enforcing officials. In the United Kingdom, known for its benign Bobbies with only a baton to defend themselves, the new powers appear to have gone to the heads of some law enforcing officials who have been criticised for the manner in which they have been handling the new measures. Derbyshire Police used drones to film people parking their cars for walks in the Peak District and fines have been dished out in Cheshire for people who used their cars for the purchase of non-essential items, which led to a backlash with a judge describing the UK police as ‘disgraceful’. In South Africa, informal sector guru GG Alcock relates the stories of local hawkers and traders who have been blocked from operating and buying goods from markets. For some people who are used to finding their veggies around the corner from their home, it meant as Fats describes here, driving to Pick n Pay where queues are terrible,  a risk which he was not prepared to take for veggies. Alcock warns that the present situation is unsustainable and that hawkers and traders who are frustrated by the situation have burst their way into a market. Restricting what he calls “Kasi Convenience” could prove to be dangerous for people who would normally not travel far from their homes and for law enforcement if customers and the traders regard the rules as unfair to them. – Linda van Tilburg

Excavating silence #2:  SPUDs & The Kasi greengrocer

And there are many people on whom the written record is almost completely silent. To get to know anything about such people we have to excavate silence. Mbongiseni Buthelezi, Excavating Silence: Kasi Convenience

I have decided to do a series of profiles on informal businesses over the lockdown called Excavating Silence. This to 1) tell the stories of people who are otherwise invisible & unrecognised, 2) get them noticed and maybe help them get partnerships with larger businesses, and 3) maybe the lessons they contain can help authorities consider them and cater for them.

Fats Mncedisi Maluleka is my friend and kasi insights whiz at my former business Minanawe Marketing. Fats has been helping me with remote control insights on kasi businesses.

I asked him about Kasi Veggie sellers. “Yo GG,” he said, “we had no veggies at home yesterday, so normally we walk down to the veggie seller uShezi, at the corner next to the spaza. But uShezi was banned from selling so he was not there, so we I drove up the road to Pick n Pay. Eish the queues were terrible, so I was not risking infection for veggies so went home!”

That was Fats who owns a car, what about the normal kasi shopper, let’s call her MaDlamini. MaDlamini would take a taxi squeezed in with 10 to 16 other strangers, then MaDlamini would queue at the ATM to draw money, then she would walk through the packed supermarket and queue again at the till, then jump into a taxi again to go home with the other 16 people! This is the reality of township life. So I must ask the question, WHY,WHY, WHY are the authorities blocking local traders and spaza shops from operating albeit with restrictions? Where is the bigger risk – the street corner/spaza shop or supermarket retailer?

I send Adrian Haas, a trader at the Joburg Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Market in City Deep who focuses on potato sales on behalf of farmers (and Kasinomic Revolution enthusiast), a WhatsApp “how are things at the market?”

I get an angry response…

“It’s a mess, there’s a lot of confusion regarding who’s allowed to buy. It’s actually a mess as the prices are dropping and some lines don’t sell. Ultimately it will be the farmers who lose since we’ll have to dump quite a bit of stock if I don’t sell it.”

“So what’s the impact of the kasi greengrocer and food outlets lockdown on your business?” I fire back.

“The informal sector is a vital part of our business. I would argue that 60% of produce on our market gets bought by these traders. For example on potatoes a farmer delivers 1st grade, 2nd grade and 3rds. Large, LM, med and smalls. Retailers only buy LM and med. The large and LM get bought by fish and chips stores plus the kota industry (which are also closed at the moment) and the rest is all bought by hawkers. It’s a total bugger up! Today I sold large for R20 – R25, the prices are totally unsustainable for our farmers,” Adrian replies.

Let’s put that into perspective: just the potatoes at a market turnover of about R1bn a year, or up to R3m a day, that’s excluding the other vegetables. So up to 60% of that is going into the informal sector. Agriculture is being sustained by this sector!

Adrian’s recommendation “the easy answer is to allow traders to have access to the market as usual. The government should work with the market to look at ways to let the process comply with coronavirus safety measures i.e. control the amount of people in the halls, supply masks and sanitizer, etc.  Imagine the chaos if all the supermarkets were just told to shut down, yet that’s what happened today at the market.”

In Kasinomic Revolution I wrote about Mike, the Kasi Greengrocer. Here is an excerpt…

“When I went home I bought vegetables from the hawkers, and I thought ‘I can do this better’.” So he asked around and found out where the fresh vegetable market was in City Deep. “I got my wages that month and I walked away, I knew I would never go back, so I took the money – I did not eat that month-end – and I took a taxi to City Deep and bought my first vegetables.”

At first Mike found an old trolley which he pushed down the street, ringing an old bicycle bell he had rigged on the trolley handle. He sorted his veggies according to meals and to price points and they sold well. “You need to know people, what they eat, how much they need so they don’t waste, what they can afford, that’s the secret of this business, but then also you need fresh vegetables and to have relationships with your customers. You know, sometimes they are short and I say how much do you have, they say R5, I give them R7 vegetables for that R5. They respect you and they come back.” I smile trying to imagine Pick n Pay doing the same!

“HA!” he exclaims, grinning a bright white smile in a dark-skinned face under his floppy hat. ‘Today, look, I employ three South Africans, I have my own bakkie, a Nissan, business is good!”

Mike turns over R10,000 to R15,000 a day; he stocks up every morning at 5am spending between R5,000 and R10,000 every time he stocks up. He phones and checks prices all the time, and if there is a special on certain veggies he gets it first. His stall is open from 5am to 7pm, seven days a week.

Back to Fats this morning, he’s got some veggie sellers rigged up on a conference call kasi stayela.

I try to see the faces, the expressions, the concerns, as I listen in on the phone speaker.

“I’m Velile Mabaso*, I’ve been selling vegetables for 24 years,” he says loudly overcompensating for the phone, probably making sure the voice reaches me in faraway Kyalami. He continues. “I sell from home ‘ejaridini’ Emdeni (a Soweto suburb). I wake at 3am to duck the police but before I was going at 5am. I normally stock up three times a week, now I am going two times a week so I have less harassment from the police. The police now stop me, like this morning, where am I going why am I not staying at home? I tried to go to the police station to get a permit, they said I need a permit from City Deep, because I have a City Deep payment card. At City Deep they said to me they can’t help me, the government must give me a permit. No-one told us that we could not sell, that we could not stock at City Deep, we just saw this on TV and were blocked at the City Deep gates. People are afraid to come out of their homes, so now people sneak out to come buy from me, so business is down a lot but they have no choice, they need vegetables. If this ends, then I want to get a business licence so that next time this happens, another virus, I can continue selling. I am ‘forcing” when I go to the market but no-one works in this home, just me selling vegetables so I have no choice. I am lucky because I sell from home and I sell in bulk so people can still come to me. You see I had a bakkie of veggies earlier but I have sold 10 bags to the youngster down the road who is selling from a trolley, but now he is delivering house to house.”

Velile’s neighbour is Neliswa Mbhele*. Fats chats to her. “I sell veg and fruits in the street, I’ve been selling for the last 21 years. I make between R800 and R900 a week, month end I make R1,500 a week. I stock from City Deep, but right now with the lockdown I am not allowed inside. This inability to get stock is a problem, also I cannot sell in the street anymore. My customers know me though and are desperate for veggies, so they all come to me, they are my long-term customers so they know who to come to for veg even if I struggle to get stock. I am very afraid of the police when I go and drop off at people’s homes, but what can I do, I need to survive. I really struggle to stock up and I am afraid I could be arrested in the street. We want to know how we can get a permit to sell, why can’t they tell us how to get that? Now they make me illegal, but I want to be legal. Before we would hire a bakkie between a few of us to stock up, it cost me R90 when there were a few of us sharing a bakkie, but now we can’t travel together I must pay the person R150 or more to take me to the market to stock up.”

I’m on the phone and a customer arrives to buy from Velile. Velile & Fats laugh loudly. “GG, it’s a policeman,” Fats tells me in a stage whisper. He’s put onto speaker phone after a short explanation by Fats that although my Zulu is fluent, I am white, and I can be trusted.

“My name is Phiri*, coming to stock from Glen Ext 16 about 15km away.” He’s coming to get a bag of onions, potatoes etc. He explains that his wife has a creche, which is closed now. But she normally also sells vegetables to the parents of the creche kids. The policeman says, “ngamula, the people keep coming asking for vegetables from my wife. You see they are coming to us because the only open shops are Pakistani shops. They only sell tin fish, and dry goods, so people can’t buy veggies for seven colours. People want vegetables and fruits, not just tin fish.” (Seven colours is a plate of food with different vegetables i.e. colours).

I say “why are you coming to buy from Velile?”. He says “kuba ngamula, it’s bad we can’t get vegetables anywhere else”. He is in his state vehicle, so no one will bother him. I ask, “so why do you stop people selling veggies if you know there is a need?” Phiri says, “it’s not us, we have to support metro police, they tell us about the municipal bylaws”.

Back to Velile, I ask him where else can people get vegetables. “Yo, only at Shoprite, but if you only want two tomatoes you will queue all day, ‘it defies logic’,” he adds in English for emphasis!

Today Adrian sent me a video of hawkers and traders bursting their way into the market and streaming in… the metro cops stand back and hundreds of traders rush past security. Is it a sign of things to come when unsustainable and inexplicable regulations are set?

*Except for Fats and Adrian, all names have been changed.

Next in Excavating Silence – The Somali Spazarette.

  • GG Alcock has been at times a shebeen owner, political activist, community worker and African adventurer, and more recently the founder of Minanawe Marketing, a leading marketing agency in the mass market.