The Business of Hawkers

Nomfundo Zakwe

In the streets of downtown Johannesburg, as prominent as the concrete itself are hundreds of makeshift stalls and tables where small businesses are booming. Day in and day out there are thousands of people “hustling” to make ends meet with these portable mini supermarkets. If you ever take a walk down the length of Bree street, you will find anything from meat to milk to an assortment of vegetables and other fresh produce, clothing, toiletries and all manner of household goods.

In late November of 2013 Johannesburg CBD saw the forced closing of many of its legal businesses and traders at the mercy of hawkers when the courts dismissed the application by street traders to interdict the City of Joburg from barring them from trading in the inner city.

In the fourth quarter of 2013 unemployment levels rose to a staggering 15,2 million in South Africa and as one might come to expect, Crime statistics went up as well. The argument of whether unemployment rates are in direct proportion with the growth of crime statistics is still very much in question.


So we ask: Of the thousands of street hawkers who have set up shop on various street corners, if the City of Johannesburg were to remove them, what would these people be expected to do in order to make a living and survive?

I took the time to talk to a few of these individuals and most of them told me the same thing:

They do not like working in the streets but they have very few or no other choices left. There are not enough unskilled jobs for everyone and most with little or no formal education would fall into the unskilled section of the population that struggles to find decent paying jobs, very few business owners want to employ people with little or no skills and previous work experience.

Agnes, a 35 year old mother of four said that she wakes up at 3am every day to make amagwinya, (fat cakes/vetkoek), to come and sell them here to people like you and I who are scurrying up and down the streets of down town JHB trying to make our way to work. “People don’t know that the little money we make selling in the street is enough to put food on the table and some clothes on our back. And the government wants us to register our businesses or move. We don’t have the money to pay rent at taxi ranks and other places for selling” she said.

Saliem, is a 27 year old Somalian national who runs a stall with his brother just outside park station, he sells mostly cellphone gadgets, sweets and cigarettes. I asked him a few questions:

I could not find work because I do not have the right papers. So I started selling cigarettes outside my flat…

Is it hard selling in the streets as a foreign national?

Not always Sister, everyone here understands that we are all trying to make money to feed our families. Sometimes people fight over who came here first and stealeach other’s customers but we work nicely together with the other people.


Where to you buy the products that you sell, how do you know which items people will buy?

We buy at the factory, sometimes people don’t buy and things stayshere with me for a long time but we pray every day that someone walk past and see something they want.

How long have you been selling here?

We came to South Africa in 2009; I could not find work because I do not have the right papers. So I started selling cigarettes outside my flat, until I made enough money to buy other things to sell. We moved to Park station last year because there are more people, business is better.

Saliem like many other street tradesmen here takes pride in his small patch of pavement, he sweeps and picks up rubbish around his stall, and the common culture among street vendors is the understanding that these tables are their bread and butter. These small informal businesses keep them a part of the rat race, a part of the life cycle.

The small tables and stands we walk past every day without giving much thought or maybe even thinking how they take up space on the pavement and blemish the image of the city are actually the life blood of thousands of families. Although the products one might buy there do not come with a warranty and a return policy, we have to commendthose who wake up every day and put in an effort as opposed to turning to a life of crime. These small informal businesses are a vital part of our economy, thousands of rands trade hands on a daily basis over the street market.

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