Immigrant traders in Johannesburg say they have been operating their stalls in fear for their safety and livelihoods amid threats of attack by a xenophobic group.
The SA Informal Traders Alliance (SAITA) has urged the government to intervene.
“There are many foreign workers. They are our colleagues. Who gives anybody the right to harass and psychologically torment our colleagues?” asks Rosheda Muller, SAITA president.
The alliance, which represents about two million informal traders across South Africa, said it was concerned by the harassment of immigrant traders, which flared up about two weeks ago in Johannesburg. A group operating under the name Operation Dudula (“push away” in isiZulu) forcibly removed immigrant traders from the Bara Taxi Rank in Diepkloof, Soweto.
Muller said the state and informal sector should work together to come to some resolution.
Muller said many more people are now relying on the informal sector to earn a living. According to Statistics SA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey the official unemployment rate was 35% in the third quarter of 2021.
A shortage of trading spaces has also caused a rift between traders, said Muller. She suggested more markets be opened and regulations be implemented.
Operation Dudula came to light around June 2020 when posters under its banner started circulating on social media, calling for action against immigrants. The harassment of traders started in Soweto and spread to other communities across Gauteng, including Rosettenville and Turffontein.
GroundUp spoke to a Soweto resident who has been part of Operation Dudula. The man, who asked that his identity be withheld, claims that he only joined the movement because foreigners get opportunities that locals are apparently denied. “Our own people are suffering and jobless. When you get into a taxi and go to a shop, you are driven and served by a foreigner. Why are these jobs not given to our people?” he asked.
Some traders outside the Jabulani Mall in Soweto told GroundUp they are working in fear since rumours of a call to action against immigrants on social media.
“We heard that on 22 January, Operation Dudula would be coming to Jabulani. For about four days, I did not set up my stall because I was scared they would come and take my stock,” said a woman who has been trading since 2013. She sells socks, hats and wooden spoons to support herself and her two children.
“The money I lost on those days affected my ability to put food on the table. I have set up my stall now but I am still scared because they [Operation Dudula] could come at any time,” she said.
A Zimbabwean trader said, “We can’t even run into the mall for safety because if there is any commotion outside, the mall will close and the gates will be locked. We have been coming to work in fear.”
According to Pat Horn from Women in Informal Employment, a major contributor in the tension between South Africans and immigrants is the municipality’s failure to enforce informal trading regulations.
“A lack of equal treatment and compliance creates fertile ground for bribes, where people who pay [officials] get better treatment,” Horn said during an online discussion hosted by SAITA on 25 January.
Last year, the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) released the Public Space Trading Guidelines for Local Government. The purpose of these guidelines is to assist local governments execute their mandate on public-space trading.
Included in the recommendations are provisions for the inclusion of the voices of South African and immigrant traders in decision-making. This, according to the guidelines, must be “led by bottom-up approaches to respond to real needs” in the informal sector.
Muller said she is happy that SALGA released guidelines for local governments and hopes these will be implemented.
In response to questions on the harassment of immigrant traders, the City of Johannesburg told GroundUp that it is revising its Informal Trading Policy. The City said it would take into account SALGA’s proposals.
“There are plans to expand trading spaces to accommodate the fast-growing informal trading sector.
“There are also new taxi ranks, such as Johannesburg International Transport Interchange and Florida taxi rank in Roodepoort, that are going to accommodate traders. The City is in the process of allocating traders at Jabulani traders market at Jabulani Mall,” said the City.
In response to concerns raised by immigrant traders, the City said the Joburg Metropolitan Police Department — responsible for implementing City bylaws — will ensure that “traders allocated spaces in designated [areas] will continue to trade without being harassed or attacked by anyone”.