Wits academics attack Johannesburg Inner city ‘clean up’ of traders

clean sweep

Posted on 16/11/2013

Published in the Sunday Star

16 November 2013

In an opinion piece in Saturday Star of 9 November, Pressage Nyoni of the Trust for Urban Housing Finance (TUHF) rationalised the City of Johannesburg’s Operation Clean Sweep in terms of the ambition to be a ‘world class African city’. He defended the eviction of more than 4000 traders in terms of a need for the city to be an attractive and clean space for residents, visitors and investors. He wrote approvingly of Clean Sweep as a way to promote cleanliness, lower crime levels, stimulate inward investment, create pedestrian friendly environment, enhance the tourist experience, and more.

The piece made no reference however to the dark side of Clean Sweep – to the ways in which it has interrupted the livelihoods of thousands of people; damaged the informal sector which contributes so enormously to Johannesburg’s economy; stirred tension in the inner city; and violated the rights and dignity of many individuals. His argument played directly into the hands of critics who have long argued that the urban poor have no place in the City’s vision of a renewed and globally competitive inner city, and that property developers hold sway over inner city policy.

In responding to Nyoni we acknowledge that the City of Johannesburg has an extraordinarily complex task in managing the different imperatives of governance. The city administration does have to ensure that: order is maintained in the city; the health and safety of its residents is protected; investment is attracted to create much needed jobs; and, the administration remains fiscally sustainable. But, in doing all of this, it must fulfil its primary constitutional obligation to be ‘developmental’. It must accommodate and balance the needs and interests of a massively diverse population, giving special attention to the livelihoods and dignity of those who have been historically disadvantaged or who are currently marginalised in the city.

We have had close experience with local government and know that governance is often an unenviable burden. We also know that there is no other space in Johannesburg where it is more difficult to achieve balancing of different imperatives than the inner city which is truly a polyglot of interests, and a place of intense pressures and fluidity.

We are however profoundly disappointed with the actions taken in the name of Clean Sweep. To begin, Clean Sweep has subordinated the developmental imperative of local government to the apparently single-minded imperative of securing an orderly environment. We are in full agreement that the inner city must be properly managed, and that a grimy environment, and a deteriorating public infrastructure, is in no-one’s interest, but urban management must happen in a way that supports livelihoods, economy and personal dignity.

Secondly, the operations linked to Clean Sweep seem to have happened in the absence of a coherent plan for the future of the traders. What we have witnessed is muddled, ad hoc, and frequently excessive interventions by the JMPD which have targeted both non-registered and registered traders. There are current attempts to develop the plan ex post facto but it would have been immeasurably better for the plan to have preceded the operation, and to have been properly negotiated with the traders. The City does have a broader framework within which specific actions within the inner city should be placed. The Inner City Charter formulated in 2007 has been reworked into the Inner City Roadmap which is a positive statement of intent for transforming the inner city, acknowledging the multi-faceted nature of inner city challenges by offering five clear pillars for renewal (a well-governed inner city; a clean and safe inner city; a sustainable inner city; a productive inner city and an inclusive inner city).

Thirdly, we are concerned that Clean Sweep is likely to be counterproductive even in terms of its own narrow objectives. It may be intended to counter crime but by diminishing the livelihoods of large numbers of people, and by removing the surveillance and protection that comes with active streets, it could well end up exacerbating crime. It may help clean the pavements and streets of the inner city, but it is likely to displace traders into other areas as desperate people find spaces of survival wherever they can.

Clean Sweep may be part-driven by a desire to make inner city Johannesburg attractive to investors from outside but it has damaged a real existing economy of considerable size. Goods sold by informal traders in the inner city are sourced from many parts of Africa and Asia. They are sold to local consumers, to long-haul cross-border shoppers, and also to intermediaries who sell them elsewhere in Johannesburg, and in townships across South Africa. This informal trade is also closely linked to formal wholesale and retail, and to economic activity in the transport, storage and residential sectors. Preliminary research suggests that billions of Rands may be flowing into vibrant informal economies in the inner city, and that inner city Johannesburg may be Africa’s premier shopping hub.

This activity may need to be better regulated, and should contribute more to the national andlocal fiscus, but the disruption or even destruction of this economy through poorly informed interventions will come at great cost to the city.

Nyoni calls for us all ‘to be engaged in the clean-sweep programme’. We think not. Grand, quick-
fix interventions may seem attractive but they are also hugely risky, often counterproductive, and generally blunt instruments within a context of huge complexity. What is needed is a broad-based partnership in which sustained interventions to manage and develop the inner-city are negotiated and then implemented in a firm, fair and consistent way. This is what a world-class city would do.

Professor Philip Harrison

Dr. Sarah Charlton

Dr. Tanya Zack

The authors are academics in the School of Architecture and Planning but have had extensive experience within local government.


One thought on “Wits academics attack Johannesburg Inner city ‘clean up’ of traders

  1. Feel good nonsense, street traders bring the standard down and are an eye on the city center, what do other first class cities do?

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