On the last Saturday of each month, Rwandans partake in compulsory community service known as umuganda, where traffic is stopped and civil society takes to the streets to pick up litter, maintain the roads and commit to the general maintenance of the capital city, Kigali. When one first sees it (roadblocks, large crowds cutting grass with machetes or picking up trash from the sidewalk), one is filled with a flurry of philanthropic awe and respect for a country that was in the heat of a genocide 20 years earlier.
Kigali is unlike most African cities, with plastic bags being deemed illegal, buses that run on time, few beggars in sight and street vendors only found down dark alleyways. It does not take long to realise that beneath the immaculate mirage of a “perfect” African city, are autocratic policies holding this image in place - forcing vendors out of sight and beggars to rumoured “islands”. This is a trend not unique to Kigali, nor Africa alone. Yet, this policing of the poor on the continent with the second fastest rate of urbanisation, means that the livelihoods of millions depend on the very streets that are being cleaned up.
Rwanda’s oppressive media censorship means that the headlines about the city revolve around the impeccable cleanliness and safety. There is little space to ask: for whom is the city safe and clean?
In South Africa, there is greater media freedom and so the press and civil society have begun asking these questions after the recent spate of “street cleaning” that followed the harrowing xenophobic attacks. Operation Fiela (meaning to sweep away) is the crudely named street-cleaning initiative that has seen the arrest of thousands already. Many are claiming that Fiela is, at its core, institutional xenophobia used by the government to rid the country of unwanted immigrants, many of whom are street traders.
Yet the policing of the poor and vulnerable is not something reserved just for foreigners. With a 26% unemployment rate, street vending is a form of income for an estimated 33% of the South African population.
The human faces
Jah Ruben Solomons is part of this 33%. He is a street vendor who turned away from a life of crime to support himself “in a more Godly way”. He sits on the pavement by Wynberg taxi rank, one of Cape Town’s socially divided suburbs, where a large park acts as the geographical and social divide between gourmet restaurants and the informal market that pulses around the train station.
You see that tunnel down there, that is where we hide when the police come. I must hide like a criminal when I am actually an artist.
“Ya, we have to run from the police, maybe three times a week,” he says, sitting on his haunches behind his spread of wild ginger, honey, garlic, mountain potato and an array of herbs. “If they catch you, they can fine you. If you can’t pay the fine, they can arrest you, sometimes for up to three months.
“This is my daily bread,” he says, spreading his hands above his mountain-sourced finds. “It is better than the life I lived before.” He sells his goods alongside other vendors he calls “his brothers”.
For Usher Asante, selling his innovative street art has been a part of his search for “greener pastures”. Working near a highway onramp in Cape Town’s southern suburbs, he sells his plastic creations to housewives, tourists, students and other middle class drivers.
“You see that tunnel down there,” says Usher, pointing towards a concrete opening through which water is gently rolling, “that is where we hide when the police come. I must hide like a criminal when I am actually an artist.” He uses “we” naturally throughout the interview, emphasising that the other vendors “are his family”.
They tell me to vend legally at the taxi rank, but my clientele are not there! There are no tourists there. People will only laugh at my plastic chickens, saying they will only want a chicken with a heartbeat, a chicken they can eat, not look at.
Usher uses the skills taught to him by a Jamaican Rastafari who came to South Africa to teach unemployed individuals how to craft an array of animals from discarded plastic - literally turning trash into cash. Brightly coloured chickens, flamingos and piglets dangle from his hands, as he advertises his work at the windows of his passing customers.
With each snout, wing and beak he creates with his hands, he entrusts the education of his children, the financial freedom of his parents and wife, and a brighter future for himself. Yet he is forced to run from police sirens on a daily basis, his plastic animals dangling from his hands as he is chased for illegally vending in a non-vending area.
“Police take away my work. They fine me R500 to get it back. I can’t pay this so I have to let my work go sometimes. They tell me to vend legally at the taxi rank, but my clientele are not there! There are no tourists there. People will only laugh at my plastic chickens, saying they will only want a chicken with a heart beat, a chicken they can eat, not look at.”
For vendors like Jah Ruben and Usher, this tango with the police comes hand in hand with their work. Their “daily bread” is seen by many as dirtying the city, cluttering the streets with unnecessary (potentially dangerous) flotsam that stands in strong contrast to the quiet, glistening streets of Kigali.
The ghosts of apartheid
Naturally, these perspectives are inextricably tied to South Africa’s history, where the clean and the safe urban spaces were privileges reserved for the wealthier, whiter minority of South African society. In the final years of apartheid, the South African government adopted the 1991 Business Act, a tolerant law that promised to protect street traders from local authorities.
But apartheid’s ghosts linger on the street corners, pushing people of colour to the outskirts of the city, forcing long and costly commutes on those who can least afford it while luring the privileged of the city deeper into gated communities and high-walled suburban castles. The socioeconomic divides linger on in the city’s perspective of the poor, their interactions labelled as “loitering”, their businesses as breeding grounds for crime.
More inclusive development policies cannot take place without a psychological shift too, one that refines both the citizen’s and the government’s perspectives of the street vendor: the hustler, the entrepreneur.
Social and economic capital
In a research paper by Caroline Skinner, a senior researcher at the African Centre for Cities, we are reminded that street vendor numbers are on the rise as citizens strain to find incomes in often hostile economic environments. They are the informal middlemen and women who both support their family members and provide affordable, much-needed goods to the city’s working class. Statistics South Africa acknowledged that of the 141,000 job gains in the last quarter of 2013, 123,000 were largely due to the informal sector, a whopping 87%. Accumulatively, their economic contributions are a buzzing, bustling and important part of the city’s economic growth.
I have been here for six years, we look out for one another.
Quanita Smith, a fruit vendor also in Wynberg, stresses the deeply entrenched social capital and innovation that exists in the lives of the street vendors. “I have been here for six years, we look out for one another. If my friend, who is also a vendor, is not able to buy from the Epping fruit market where we all buy our stock, then I will sell her some of my fruit and veg [sic] at cost price. I will sacrifice my profit on that bag of tomatoes, because I know she will do the same for me if I need it one day.”
As the accounts of Jah Ruben, Usher and Quanita emphasise, informal trade involves the celebration of social capital and cohesion, the dependence on other traders who are seen as family and a searing drive to succeed, despite restrictive trade policies and deeply entrenched historical ideologies around the street trader.
Cape Town is not Kigali. Grilled corn, mountain garlic, beaded animals and counterfeit goods are not hard to find. The streets are not immaculately kept, nor can they be walked on at night without the fear of potential criminal acts. Neither city has the perfect policies in place to protect the economically vulnerable: the tenacious innovators and fighters of the streets. Yet it is the individual stories of the street vendors that remind us of the greater, functioning system that they have created for themselves; a carefully constructed beehive of economic activity that does not wait for the the government to provide, but instead provides for itself. It is a trademark of the African city that could do with being celebrated, rather than muted - although it may not wait to ask for permission either way.