A broad, and socially accepted definition of commerce is simply the activity of buying and selling. Trade, is defined as the act of buying and selling goods and services. These are but two of many terms which, used collectively, make up the jargon used to construct the South African economy. This jargon, language, is the point of departure in attempting to understand why the majority of black South Africans are still excluded in South Africa’s mainstream economy and, consequently, its benefits.
When playing economics in South Africa, one often hears, and utters, words like hawkers, informal traders, the black market, oonoztand (stand people), street pedlars, without observing the (deliberately) negative connotations these labels have on black men and women who, more than anyone, live the economic principle of scarcity. Its one thing to have scarce or limited resources, these men and women have nothing at all, yet they still manage establish themselves, albeit at the periphery, in a system that is designed to exclude them.
The legitimate business people we call hawkers and informal traders are not only excluded structurally and institutionally in our economy, but the everyday language we use in business seeks to delegitimise their legitimate and legal business activities. Take fruit and vegetable stalls for instance, the owners buy or produce fruit and vegetables, and then sell them to willing buyers on the street; an act of buying (or producing) and selling. Why is that not called commerce? Why is it called informal trade, instead of just trade? Is it because they have no access to land nor capital to build the fancy air conditioned fruit and veg cities of this world?
The other day, while loitering around Pretoria CBD looking for a retailer for my monthly supply of veggies, I walked past Shoprite in Church Square. In front of Shoprite are a number of fruit and vegetable traders with stalls set up (in a formal shopping mall, they would be called pop up stores). I decide to buy from the stalls outside instead of inside Shoprite. The first thing I noticed is that: fruit is fruit and veg is veg, as long as they are not rotten. Onions from the stalls outside are just the same as the onions inside Shoprite. The second thing I noticed is that the onions on the stalls outside are much cheaper than the formal onions of Shoprite. I bought more than a month’s supply of vegetables for less than R100! And, something you would not believe, they are still in my fresh in my fridge. OMG! Who would have thought!
What I am trying to say is, the use of language in the South African trade and commerce front suggests that there is a distinction and segregation between black business and white business. Anyway, besides language, that distinction and segregation is clear in terms of access to capital and markets.
Above that, these business people not only face a focused attempt to delegitimise their commercial activities, they also face an attempt to criminalise their activities. It has become a familiar sight to see these business people being harassed by police, being the subjects of random searches and all. I have never heard of any of the big corporates, even those ones who outrightly break the law, being subjected to random searches.
As if that is not enough, even legislation is against these business people. take, for example, some of the municipal by laws of the Joburg metro with respect to informal traders:
- The (municipal) council may declare any place in its area of jurisdiction to be an area in which informal trading is prohibited.
- An authorised official may remove or impound any property of an informal trader which (a) he or she reasonably suspects is being used or which is intended to be used or has been used for or in connection with informal trading and (b) is found at a place where informal trading is prohibited.
- Informal traders are not permitted to create smoke, fumes, odours, noise, or pollution of any kind.
These are just 3 by laws among quite a few. And one can immediately observe the difference in treatment of informal traders and mainstream, formal, business. There are areas where informal traders are prohibited from operating, notwithstanding the possibility of any demand for their goods and services in these areas. Yet mainstream business is allowed to operate almost anywhere, anytime, and as we see everyday, anyhow.
The property of an informal trader is not protected, as is that of mainstream, formal, business.
Informal traders, oomama noo tata bethu (our mothers and fathers), may not, under any circumstances, create smoke, fumes, noise, even if those elements are products of the fusing of inputs to their operations. Needless to say, it is only formal business that can do this. They are the only ones who are allowed to poison the environment and make a profit from it.
The reason I wrote this, is, that I would like to make a call to lovers of progress in general, and black people in particular, to observe the language we use. The black men and women who weather the storms and sit everyday along the side of the road in the name of commerce and trade, are legitimate business people. And that is what we should start calling them, instead of words that are deliberately used to denigrate and malign their commercial activity.
Considering the fact that these business people have very little to no resources, I would say they are more advanced business people than most, if the respected economic principle is anything to go by.
They are business people. Qha.
Linda Sidumo is a BCom graduate, a public servant, and chairperson of the Education Access Campaign (www.educationaccesscampaign.org). Views expressed are strictly his views and do not represent the views of any organisation or group of persons.