Princess May Pela used to be a street vendor on Eloff Street in central Johannesburg. Her life is tough as it is, but has been made even tougher by regular rounds of confiscations she and her fellow hawkers experience by police.
“The police and metro officers are the ones who are encouraging crime.”
She believes that police officers dealing with street traders have turned justice into a commodity: “Sometimes the Metro officers … act as if they are confiscating [from] a person but they’re actually looking for a bribe … they say: ‘My brother, hey, please give me a cool drink,’” Pela says.
“The police and metro officers are the ones who are encouraging crime,” she continues. “How do you expect crime to decrease if they are constantly taking bribes? This is not a story but a reality.”
Pela’s home is in Tjovitjo, a shack settlement adjacent to the Golden Highway near Orange Farm in southern Gauteng. She lives with her daughter, her young sister and their two children in a small, one-room shack.
Pela began trading in 1996. She made traditional outfits and sold them in town. She stopped selling in late February 2018 after her stall was forcibly taken by a mashonisa (moneylender).
She says when her brother died in January 2018, “no one had money at home, I used about R10 000 of the money I saved for the business so that my brother would be buried with dignity”.
After the funeral, she realised she was left with too little to maintain her business. “I decided to borrow R1 000 from a mashonisa because I had hopes of managing to pay back the money.”
The agreement with the moneylender was to pay R60 every day for 20 days. “They took my whole stall,” she wept, “When there were no customers I couldn’t manage to pay because I had to have money for transport as well. I really couldn’t pay, not because I did not want to, there was no money at all. He decided to take my stock.”
Of the 20 days she had to pay, only four days were remaining to settle the outstanding amount of R260.
Facing regular confiscations from metro police and the moneylender, Pela couldn’t cope. “Right now, as I speak to you, there is no food here. I was the only person working,” she says, adding: “To tell you the truth, we only survive now with the money my son-in-law gives us.”
Other vendors have similar stories of police regularly confiscating their goods. Johannes Javas sells fruit and vegetables on Bosman Street in central Pretoria. He is the breadwinner for nine dependants, including some in Zimbabwe, his home country. According to Java, during police raids on hawkers, officers take the food seized home to their families.
“These metro officers have their own people.”
“These metro officers have their own people, I’ve seen them selling it to their friends who are street vendors,” he says.
Javas isn’t just upset because he loses stock. “I feel like a slave. Seeing someone of your same skin [raiding] your stuff is painful. When you refuse, they promise to beat you up or arrest you,” he says.
The memory of a raid in 2017 is still raw in Javas’s memory. “They [Tshwane metro police] came with big trucks and … they were just taking everything and destroying the tables. I will never forget that day … all the money I made [was taken] during the raid.”
The experiences of street vendors like Pela and Javas are common across South Africa.
In April 2012, a video captured four police officers beating, kicking and stamping on a hawker in Tembisa, eastern Gauteng. In 2014, Foster Jan Rivombo was shot dead during a demonstration outside the Pretoria Magistrates’ Court following police seizures.
Crime is also a serious issue for hawkers.
Thandi Shabalala makes cakes and hot food to sell on the streets of Johannesburg. Some years ago, around 4am, she was passing Joubert Park when five men approached to attack her.
“The God I am praising was with me. I told them the nearby shop hadn’t opened and they started yelling at each other: ‘Hey we told you let’s leave this mama,’” she says.
Once she found another woman lying on the street, badly injured, after a gang rape.
Most hawkers work all day for small returns. Shabalala started her business in 2001 and now employs five people – four kitchen workers and another vendor.
“Life is not fair on this earth,” she says, adding: “The journey of life is not easy, there is no one who do not wish to be off from work. But I can’t because if I get off I will go back to square one … my children will starve.”
Yet, despite her exhaustion, Shabalala stays warm and welcoming towards customers, never failing to greet with “Hello, my love.”
For Shabalala, a holiday would mean seven free hours a week.
When New Frame met Pela in February 2018 when her business was still operating, her dreams were equally modest. She wanted just four days off for some peace of mind.
“I want to go to Durban, to the beach, where there’s tranquillity in a peaceful environment. And stay in a hotel alone, just to listen to myself. And later on to listen to my favourite music, the likes of Don Williams,” she says.
Now Pela’s dreams have been shattered. “Had the government protected small business owners like me, I wouldn’t be in this situation,” she says, adding: “I really love my job but now I do not have capital to start my business again.”