Covid-19: Informal traders will need support after the lockdown

Millions of South Africans are dependent on the informal economy

Photo of a woman

A shopper walks past empty street vendor stands in Pretoria during the lockdown. Archive photo: Mosima Rafapa

By Sarah Heneck

23 April 2020

South Africa’s informal economy provides jobs for more than three million people. Informal traders make up a large proportion of these informal workers. They sell essential and non-essential goods at affordable prices in accessible locations, mainly to the country’s urban poor. Many people rely on informal traders for their food.

However, informal traders survive on meagre incomes and at the best of times they are often subjected to harassment from the police and treated with hostility by government. Now the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have worsened the already very precarious nature of their livelihoods.

In central Durban lies the city’s major transport hub – Warwick Junction. About 460,000 people travel through this interchange daily, on their way to and from work. Nine distinct, yet interrelated, informal markets have developed to cater to this huge volume of commuters. About 8,000 informal traders sustain their livelihoods in these markets by selling everything from food to traditional medicine to electronic equipment.

On 27 March, these spaces emptied of human life and it is impossible to say when people will return.

The Warwick Junction informal traders face numerous challenges as a result of the lockdown. Only traders who sell fruit and vegetables have been given permission to trade, which means that all the other traders have had their income cut off. The fresh food traders are legally allowed to work only if they acquire a special licence. Much confusion has arisen regarding the legislation and the police have been confiscating traders’ stock. Furthermore, as a prerequisite for obtaining a license, the trader must already have a valid permit. This immediately excludes many of them.

Taxi services have been limited, which means that the traders who have acquired licences still have difficulty getting to Warwick Junction to trade or to the bulk market to buy their stock.

Barrow-operators (informal workers who use carts to collect and deliver stock to the traders and help set up their stalls) are prohibited from working, further disrupting the food supply chain.

The lack of running water and soap within Warwick Junction means that the food traders are not able to practice adequate hygiene and therefore those who are working are putting themselves and their customers at risk of contracting the virus.

The fact that the majority of Durban’s residents are not working during the lockdown means that the number of commuters – and therefore the number of potential customers – passing through Warwick Junction each day has drastically diminished.

The informal economy in Warwick Junction and in similar spaces across the country offers a safety net for many people. It is common practice for traders to offer customers the option of purchasing goods on credit and to support fellow traders if they are in need of food or financial help. This support network has now been destroyed.

While many formal businesses, particularly smaller ones, will also be hard hit, the implications of the lockdown for all informal workers, including informal traders, are likely to be more devastating and harder to recover from.

Formal businesses are able to take out loans to tide them over, but informal workers will most likely have to resort to “loan sharks”, paying high interest rates and risking their personal safety.

After the lockdown, South Africa is not going to simply return to “normal”. If the informal economy is not supported, there will be devastating consequences for countless people living in this country, most viscerally in terms of food security. Protests in various informal settlements are already showing that residents are suffering from hunger.

Informal workers will need to be compensated for their loss of income during this pandemic.

Government should collaborate with NGOs that have experience in the informal sector and with the informal workers themselves in order to come up with interventions for informal workplaces (improved sanitation, for example), such as Warwick Junction.

This will help both to curb the spread of the virus after the lockdown and to improve informal workers’ working conditions. Informal workers should be valued for the immense contribution they make to society, and should be afforded the rights, protections, support and dignity that they deserve. In times of crisis there are opportunities for widespread improvements to society, and this opportunity should not be wasted.

Sarah Heneck works at Asiye eTafuleni, an NGO that aims to dignify and enhance the lives of the informal traders who work in Durban’s largest informal trading hub, Warwick Junction.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.