When Meghan Markle visited South Africa last year with the Duke of Sussex, she gave a thumbs-up to a spoonful of sorbet made by two Joburg entrepreneurs.
It was an incredible moment for Thula Ndema and Thato Masondo, the couple behind Sobae Frozen, as the product endorsement went viral on social media. But it was swiftly back to work as the royals moved on to their next handshake and photo opportunity.
Typically the two have to prep their product, promote their brand and find new markets. But accessing markets, Ndema says, has been frustrating and distracting as they’ve had to deal with bureaucracy. As informal traders they have to negotiate contested city spaces for trade and constantly fill in the paperwork while working through the conflicting information on city policies and bylaws from different departments including City Parks, the Metro Police and the Department of Enterprise and Development.
The red tape became suffocating for Ndema and Masando when they started trading at a Houghton park called The Wilds about a year ago. Before this, for about a year, they traded at food markets in Maboneng and in Braamfontein. Trading at markets, festivals and sporting events aren’t subject to the same bylaws of trading in public spaces such as parks.
The Wilds is a success story of one person’s commitment to the community. For decades the park was a no-go zone as a rash of crime in the late 1990s and 2000s entrenched a climate of fear. But in 2014, artist and Killarney resident James Delaney decided to walk his dog in the park and realised it was perceived as unsafe because parts of it were overgrown and in need of general maintenance. He spent his weekends cutting back overgrowth, weeding and beautifying the park with art. As Delaney promoted the space, people started to venture back to the city’s green lung.
Sobae Frozen was one of two small traders Delaney thought would be a good fit to add value to the park experience for the growing number of visitors, including dog walkers, photographers and outdoor yoga enthusiasts. The traders would be an asset for the city, for visitors and for start-up micro businesses, Delaney thought.
Ndema also liked the collaboration. She says: “Our sorbet is about nature and health, and we liked that we could promote our brand and promote the park.”
The other trader was Dion Makgati, of mobile coffee brand Bean of Hope. Makgati started trading at The Wilds during a Mandela Day cleanup campaign last year and was keen to help punt the park while selling his coffee.
“I was excited. Customers loved the coffee, and I enjoyed the people who came to the park who became my customers,” says Makgati.
But within weeks of trading, the Sobae duo and Makgati were chased out by park rangers and security guards.
“When we started at The Wilds we didn’t know that there would be so many problems. We had to start the process of getting permits that we couldn’t afford so we had to write to City Parks for permission while we were getting our permits, but still the rangers and the guards harassed us. I understand they also have a job to do but it’s the way they speak to you; they bully you,” says Ndema.
“I can’t understand why the city isn’t helping micro businesses. What they don’t know is that it’s really hard. In the beginning, we carried our own ice boxes to the park because we couldn’t afford transport. Some days when we were chased out we would be like, ‘Well, today we won’t be eating.’ We want to follow the rules, and we believe health and safety is important, but the city needs to understand that [a] one-size fits for all traders doesn’t work.”
Sobae Frozen eventually connected with an entrepreneurial support hub at Victoria Yards in Lorentzville where they could rent premises cheaply to comply with requirements for health and safety inspections for food preparation.
Makgati says his initial enthusiasm for getting his business off the ground is shattered. He sunk all his savings into it but trading ground to a halt in October last year. He requires the use of electricity from The Wilds, which he’s prepared to pay for in addition to permit fees, but he’s now caught in bureaucratic limbo.
“I’ve been sent from pillar to post, and I still don’t have all that they want. City Parks had given me permission, but then JMPD [the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department] said I needed to get permission from them, and I’ve been to their offices like five times.
“Then recently I heard from City Parks that I can’t pay to use their electricity, and they want me to get a silent inverter generator – I can’t afford that.
“We young entrepreneurs are coming with solutions to unemployment but these officials are making it impossible for us to liberate ourselves; this is not what freedom should taste like,” Makgati says.
Delaney says the situation at The Wilds shows short-sightedness as the council uses bylaws to block job creation and an opportunity to improve the experience of city parks and spaces.
“There could be simple, inexpensive, transparent and well-defined tendering processes for two or three trading permits in every park in the city. In that way, there would be regulation and the instant creation of thousands of jobs.
“We need a culture of supporting small business but the city keeps putting endless bylaws in people’s paths – it shows their lack of intent to assist,” says Delaney.
But while Makgati, Ndema and Masondo face problems as the new generation of micro businesses, they are in the same margins as traders like Lulama Mali. Mali has traded on President Street in the inner city for about 10 years and on Market Street for at least another 10 years before that. She sells beads, hats and scarves and heads up the Johannesburg Informal Traders Platform, one of seven organisations in the city that represent small traders.
“Year in, year out we are made the very same promises from council and nothing changes. Government will say, ‘Vuka uzenzele’ (‘Get up and do it yourself’), but they don’t want to help us so that we can feed our families,” she says.
For Mali and many other traders, one of their immediate needs is overnight storage facilities. Currently they make use of the cage-like trolleys stacked along Ernest Oppenheimer Park.
“Our goods stay there in the rain and the sun. Perishables go rotten and goods get dirty and damaged. Sometimes people break the locks and steal our stuff.
“Council invites us to meetings or to comment on their policies, and I’ve even made presentations to the council telling them we need an abandoned building where we can store our things. We could manage the space, collect rent from the traders, and we could work out a plan to pay the council rent over time – but it’s two years now, and we hear nothing,” says Mali.
Over the years the traders have had to fight hard by organising and standing together for small gains like getting JMPD officers to stop harassing them or confiscating their goods.
“If we have a building we can put in daycare so the women don’t have to bring their children onto the streets. We can also have a place to meet because right now we meet in the park,” she says.
Louise Gordon of City Parks’ Enterprise Business Development and Stakeholder Management referred New Frame’s queries on trading at The Wilds to Elliot Dubasi, assistant director of the Department of Economic Development: Informal Trading.
Dubasi says the city is reviewing the informal trading bylaws from 2007. He admits many of them are not aligned to the changing trades that these days include waste pickers, traffic light traders and a pop-up food truck sector.
“Some of these bylaws are from the apartheid days when they wanted to keep black traders away from whites-only parks. But we want the new bylaws to be informed by policy, not the other way round. We know traders go where there is foot traffic and people, so we have to look at spaces where we used to say people aren’t allowed to trade like outside council buildings, clinics, hospitals and schools,” he says.
Amended policies won’t mean relaxing health and safety standards but will, it is hoped, streamline processes. Those include introducing a one-stop shop for traders to register, undergo short workshops for health and safety certification and to schedule site inspections by environmental health and the JMPD for food preparation and the suitability of trading sites. Dubasi also hopes that by the time the public comment phase on the draft policy is completed by April this year, some of the silo mentality in the city’s various departments dissolves.
JMPD spokesperson Wayne Minnaar meanwhile says he’s unaware of the trading policy review process under way in the Department of Enterprise Development. He’s also unaware of concessions made for traders at The Wilds.
“The JMPD is a law enforcement agency, and we respond to complaints, be it illegal trading in a public space, noise, illegal dumping or obstruction of traffic.
“JMPD isn’t here to make people’s lives difficult. We understand many people are just trying to put bread on the table, but we have bylaws to enforce. We need better communication between City Parks, [Department of Enterprise Development] and the JMPD,” says Minnaar.
He adds that the JMPD does not grant permits of any kind. This contradicts what Makgati says he’s been told to do to finalise his permit process. Minnaar also advises those with complaints against the conduct of metro police officers to file reports at JMPD offices.
For Johannesburg’s estimated 4 800 traders and small entrepreneurs, it’s a case of wait and see while still getting onto the streets and into the parks to try to survive another day.