From A No-Go Zone To A Shopping District; It’s Possible!

Politicians are usually adamant when it comes to unreported employment. They consider the ‘informal’ economy a free zone for tax evaders, or worse, criminals. However, that is not necessarily the case. The South African port city of Durban went for a different approach altogether: they decided to give legal security to street traders (also known as informal traders) and give them a right to exist.

  • © Stefaan Anrys © Stefaan Anrys
  • © Stefaan Anrys © Stefaan Anrys
  • © Stefaan Anrys © Stefaan Anrys
  • © Stefaan Anrys Warwick Junction © Stefaan Anrys
  • © Stefaan Anrys © Stefaan Anrys
  • © Stefaan Anrys © Stefaan Anrys
  • © Stefaan Anrys © Stefaan Anrys
  • © Stefaan Anrys © Stefaan Anrys
  • © Stefaan Anrys © Stefaan Anrys
  • © Stefaan Anrys © Stefaan Anrys
  • © Stefaan Anrys © Stefaan Anrys
  • © Stefaan Anrys © Stefaan Anrys

We are meeting at the Warwick Junction, a jumble of roads and railways in the inner city of Durban, South Africa’s second largest city. We’re slightly on our guard, as the harbour city is not only known for its grabby sharks along the shore, but also for its high crime rates. Even among some South Africans, Durban has a bad reputation.

Of all places, this is where I went to visit the second largest ‘informal’ market in the entire Sub-Saharan African region with a couple of Belgian tourists. 

The Markets of Warwick – was the guided tour that we booked via the non-profit organization Asiye eTafuleni (AeT)– which covers nine different markets, operated by 6,000 to 8,000 informal traders.
They are located in the heart of Durban’s inner city, at a crossroads of big and busy streets. During apartheid, this was the public transport interchange for thousands of taxi and bus passengers. Even back then, street traders of all sorts could see the business opportunities this place offers. 

Today, thousands of South Africans (and immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa) now legally sell their goods and services to some 460000 commuters who pass there every day. The informal traders are geared towards their customers’ needs to the extent that they offer different products to the commuters in the morning than at noon and in the evening.

© Stefaan Anrys

No-go zone

For many decades, the apartheid regime was harsh with illegal street traders who wanted to sell their goods there and were fined, jailed or dispelled for doing so. From 1973 onwards, traders could only work on the move: they could not trade more than fifteen minutes on the same spot and had to do so at least 100 meters away from official businesses. 

In the early eighties, the Progressive Federal Party took a more lax attitude in Durban, but even after apartheid ended in 1994, the city’s primary transport node remained a thorn in the eye of many people. It was a dangerous and filthy ‘cesspit’, overcrowded and unsuitable for the influx of new street traders.

Participation and involvement

To make the markets safer and more hygienic, Durban launched an urban regeneration initiative, says architect Richard Dobson. Just like the former civil servant Patrick Ndlovu, Dobson was part of the project and now carries on his efforts in the independent nonprofit organization, Asiye eTafuleni (AeT).

‘26 tons of mealies, also known as corn-on-the cob continues to be prepared in the streets every day, which was done on wood fires in big 200 litre barrels. You can imagine the smoke and waste that was produced. Street traders also used to sell their traditional medicines in the streets or they cooked cow’s head meat served with dumplings, a sort of steamed bread, which is a Zulu delicacy. The city wanted to make a clean sweep but soon realized that would not be so easy.’ 

‘The city wanted to make a clean sweep but soon realized that would not be so easy.’

Therefore, the city council tried another approach and embarked on a thorough process of participation and joint-decision making. Not only local residents and informal traders were involved, but also public servants from various departments, like Health, Law Enforcement, Sanitation, Housing, etc. During the eighties, street traders had already organized themselves in multiple associations, like The Informal Traders Management Board, which were also acknowledged by the government. 

The starting point was the ‘big clean-up’ of 1996, which was meant to get rid of the waste that had been piling up during the years of neglect and repression by the government. Initially estimated at three months, the clean-up would eventually take six months. At the same time, the entire operation set the tone for an intense collaboration and relationship between government officials, planners, neighbourhood residents and informal traders. 

Curbing crime

In the following years, many City and AeT-driven projects and initiatives together with informal traders, came about to provide more amenities to informal traders as well as visitors.  These have included building markets, installing public bathrooms and first aid stations. Anti-crime informal trader brigades pushed back the number of murders and thefts heavily and intensive crime prevention courses as well as changes in the infrastructure, all gave more security to informal traders. To curb the often arbitrary or corrupt actions of law enforcement officers, Dobson said,

‘We have been organizing workshops with legal experts and set up know-your-rights programs, where we trained informal traders with relevant legal knowledge. That way, the trader at the stall next to you could well become a specialist in confiscations for instance and a community resource.’ 

© Stefaan Anrys

International frontrunner

The Warwick Junction project already got many international prizes and gave other cities food for thought. ‘In a country known for spatial segregation, Durban was the first city to lay down its own policy for informal traders’, Dobson says. ‘This informal economy policy was first of its kind and has been similarly developed  in India.’

Dobson accounts a couple of highlights, among which is the construction of a brand-new – and cost-effctive “traditional medicine market” on an unutilized fly-over. Here, within less than a stone’s throw of the city hall, some 700 informal traders can sell medicinal  herbs, animal skins and muthi (traditional medicine) of all sorts in response to their custormers’ cultural preferences. Illegal during apartheid, these goods are now sold with the support of the local authorities, so to speak! We could not take pictures though, since the Izinyanga – traditional healers – prefer to maintain their privacy.

FIFA

But even Warwick Junction has suffered some blows, like when the city council proposed to tear down the 100-year-old fresh produce market to make room for a shopping mall in the run-up to the 2010 FIFA-World Cup. 

With the help of activists, urbanists and academics including Dobsonof Asiye eTafuleni, and sympathetic media who rooted for the fresh produce market, the traders were able to stand up against the proposed demolition of their market.

In support of this campaign and to attract visitors to Warwick Junction generally, the guided tours of the markets of Warwick also started back then. The traders wanted to show the world that the urban informal economy does work and is not synonymous as filthy and dangerous places: at the same time, this was a subtle tactic to prevent the demolition of the fresh produce market.

‘The shopping mall never came about’, Dobson points out. ‘It successfully proved that the demolition of the fresh produce market would leave 80,000 people in the lurch, while a shopping mall would only provide temporary jobs for 400 people at the most. For every trader you see here, three to five other people are busy behind the scenes: carriers, storage operators, the men who transport the products and so on. What’s more, one informal trader has seven to twelve mouths to feed.’

‘It was a milestone, but at the same time there was a growing understanding that Warwick would not necessarily last forever. Will it still be there tomorrow? No one can tell. That’s why we’re trying to make the traders activists as well as engaged citizens.’

© Stefaan Anrys

The informal economy is growing

Even though the informal traders’ situation is still far from enviable – especially looking at the deplorable situations faced by some of the women traders – ‘The Warwick Junction Project’, as it became known, did manage to improve their working conditions. 

In South Africa, 16 to 20 percent of the working class is employed in the informal economy and their numbers is projected to grow, as the population becomes younger and younger, the economy stagnates and migration does not seem to cease, with more people moving from the countryside to the city. Just like elsewhere in Africa and maybe even in Flanders?, it is time to think outside the box and stop focusing on repression and clean-ups. 

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