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Mon, Aug 03, 2009 - Page 10 News List

Rising jobless rate means more street vendors in S Africa


As South Africa’s unemployment lines keep growing in its first post-Apartheid recession, Johannesburg’s downtown sidewalks are increasingly crowded with street vendors hawking their wares.

Unlike many African cities, where curbside hawkers form part of life’s daily rhythm, South Africa tends to frown on street vendors in favor of its ever-expanding mall culture and efforts to create more formal employment.

“Informal trading is seen as a sign of underdevelopment and primitive — a sign of weakness,” said Thabo Koole, spokesman for the Ecumenical Service for Socio-Economic Transformation, a church group that works with the poor.

“Most of the informal traders are illiterate and poor and therefore treated as nuisance and eyesore that has to be wiped off the streets of the city,” he said.

But with unemployment swelling to 23.6 percent in statistics out last week, South African President Jacob Zuma and his ruling African National Congress (ANC) are already backpedaling on promises to create 500,000 jobs this year.

“We will die of hunger if we are going to wait for the ANC to create jobs,” Sthabile Mahlangu said as she pleaded with passersby to buy from her stall in downtown Johannesburg.

She lost her job as a domestic worker in 2007 and turned to street trading to make ends meet. She briefly gave up after being slapped with an 800 rand (US$100) fine.

“I couldn’t afford to pay it so I stopped. I stayed at home for about two months then decided to do this again,” she said.

The mother of four from Diepsloot township sells everything from hats, gloves to sweets and cigarettes, but has to compete with six other traders within a block.

“Look around you, there is more of us ... the number has more than tripled within the past three years alone,” she said.

An International Labour Organisation report estimated in 2000 that the country had 500,000 street vendors. A South African government survey estimated the number had nearly doubled to 987,000 in 2007.

University of South Africa researcher Andre Ligthelm said more and more people see street trading as their only hope to escape poverty.

Ligthelm said street trading contributed between 7 percent and 8 percent to the country’s economy.

But many big cities are pushing out vendors to make way for roads, trains, bus stations and other projects, leading to sometimes violent clashes.

Last month, Durban authorities tried to forcibly evict traders around a proposed new development to demolish a 99-year-old market and 10 surrounding informal markets, where more than 7,000 traders make a living.

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