“When you see police or those Home Affairs officials, you just want to die.”
“You want the roads to open up so you can walk underground. There are many problems here and in our own countries, but where will we find money? Who will we leave our children with?”
Virginia Keha, 46, who came to South Africa in 1998, says that after her South African husband died she was left with young children to care for. She now works as a street trader in Ermelo, Mpumalanga.
Ermelo, a farming and mining town, had its heyday when demand was high for labourers who came in from different parts of the country, and the rest of Africa. Because of this, many of the street traders who work here are from various parts of the continent.
In its integrated development plan for 2017/18, the Msukaligwa local municipality, in which Ermelo is located, identified unemployment as one of the town’s major challenges. Despite this acknowledgement from the municipality itself, some street traders in Ermelo have found themselves without employment for months after their trading permits were revoked by the municipality.
Last year, the municipality’s community safety councillor, Julia Bal, was quoted by The Highvelder, Ermelo’s local paper, as saying that “the issue of hawkers in town [Ermelo] would be dealt with shortly”.
Street vendors claim that although they used to receive permits to trade after applying and paying R50, this suddenly came to an end in January 2018. Now they face harassment from authorities.
Keha says: “I am raising these kids with money from the street, I don’t have another source of income. I have to put them through school. I have a 21-year-old son who had to quit school because he wanted to protect me after we were harassed. He has not gone back to school since because he fears what may happen to me.”
The municipality’s Mandla Zwane told New Frame the municipality was concerned about the “mushrooming” of “foreign nationals” in the area, adding that they were “killing local businesses” by trading right in front of Ermelo Mall.
“As much as we have to encourage job-creation, we cannot, in that endeavour, act in a manner that would discourage the formal traders and shops around Ermelo and make it impossible for them to conduct their business by allowing hawking in front of shops, as they also are important in the fight against unemployment and poverty that engulf our community,” says Zwane.
A letter from the municipality, which was circulated among the street traders, states that a valid work permit is required to trade, along with a permit from the Msukaligwa local municipality, which forms part of the Gert Sibande district municipality.
According to Zwane, the municipality issues permits to migrants who are able to produce valid work permits or asylum-seeker permits.
Today we are harassed . . . We’ve been everywhere to get what they want from us but we are still not allowed to trade.
Angelica Sibiya, who sells fresh produce on the street and is originally from Mozambique, has been living in South Africa since 1998. “Today we are harassed; we have children, even grandchildren, here. They used to give us cards, now they are telling us we are not on any system. We have been to Pretoria, Nelspruit, SARS [SA Revenue Service] and Mozambique to get the required permits. We’ve been everywhere to get what they want from us but we are still not allowed to trade,” she says.
According to Zwane, South African nationals who trade in designated areas are still issued permits. But he questions the validity of the documents presented by migrants. “Most of these permits are either forged or not legitimate,” he says.
“This is why we have ceased to issue trade permits to foreign nationals unless we are assured by the SAPS and/or Home Affairs that the holder of the permit or asylum is legitimate.”
Street traders serve as the main distribution channel for various products in Ermelo, especially for small business and small-scale farmers in the area, who have no other means of getting their products to market.
Section 13 of the Msukaligwa local municipality’s by-laws states that an officer may only confiscate goods if they have a valid reason to believe that the goods are being traded unlawfully or being traded in a prohibited area.
However, many traders claim that they have had their stalls kicked over and damaged, and their goods sometimes confiscated despite having in their possession the trading permits that were issued to them.
Zwane says the municipality receives complaints from the local business association, which accuses the municipality of issuing permits to street traders who sell similar products as those sold in formal retail establishments such as the mall.
He says the goods sold on the streets are sold at cheaper prices because the hawkers’ products “are not SABS approved products, hence theirs will be cheaper compared to those sold in the shops”.
Zwane encourages street traders to approach local police to lay charges if they feel that any official acted in a discriminatory or derogatory way towards them.
The police are supposed to help us, but they don’t. They threaten us with Home Affairs officials, telling us they will send them to deport us even though we have passports.
But turning to the police offers scant solace, according to Anita Anton, 30, who is originally from Mozambique and works as a street hairdresser. “The police are supposed to help us, but they don’t. They threaten us with Home Affairs officials, telling us they will send them to deport us even though we have passports,” she says.
For Silva Mula, 32, also originally from Mozambique, going to the police is simply not an option. Mula claims he was assaulted by three police officers and a captain, then had his goods confiscated in January 2018. He claims he was then intimidated into silence so he did not report the matter. He has been living in South Africa since 2003 and started working as a trader in 2010.
“They pushed me and confiscated my goods, then told me to leave because I didn’t have a permit. I was told I had to pay a R1 500 fine to have the goods returned to me. Sometimes the most I make is R500, where would I get that money?” he says.
Municipal by-laws indicate that fines should not exceed R1 000.
Mula quit school because there was no money at home, and came to South Africa in the hopes of creating a better life for himself and his family back home. “I will leave my kids here, but who will support both of them if I leave because my wife is from here but she doesn’t work. Mozambique is home and we suffer, we could not get jobs, but I have a family here now,” he says.
The street vendors say their earnings are erratic. They sell various products, ranging from fruit and vegetables to cellphone accessories, rat poison and shoes made from recycled tyres, while some work as hairdressers.
“I can leave here with R500 a day, but I need to pay rent, buy uniforms for the kids, and pay creche fees,” says Mula. “Sometimes we make R150, sometimes R600, sometimes nothing at all,” says Anton.
The municipality established a street trader committee whose representatives went around and collected R20 from each of the hawkers but excluded them from all meetings. The hawkers were told that the R20 was for permits, which they are yet to receive.
Zwane says: “We are not involved in the collection of any R20, but we are aware that the hawkers’ committee agreed on the amount to ensure that their office affiliate to the National Hawkers’ Association to be kept abreast on hawkers’ issues nationally.”
Mary Mlotshwa, 63, married a South African miner after moving to Ermelo in 1971. She says when her husband died in 2008 and she went to to the municipality to apply for a trading permit she was told that she needed evidence proving that she is South African.
She was told that since her husband died, none of her documents were valid and that she had to go back home. “They told me they don’t want me to trade here any more, and that I must either return to Swaziland or get my [deceased] husband’s documents. His family said they would give me his death certificate, but they still have not,” she says.
Another woman was married in South Africa and when her husband died, a worker at the municipality suddenly turned on her and told her she must “go to the cemetery and wake up her dead husband” or remarry.
“How can someone say that to you? I don’t know which law allows them to let them treat us like that. Why must we remarry when all we want to do is make a living?” she says.
In March and April 2018, the traders chipped in for a trip to Pretoria to seek legal counsel from Lawyers for Human Rights. They say that they were advised to go back to the streets and trade until someone was arrested so that they could have a stronger case. They are hoping to go back to Pretoria soon.