Editor's note: The current national lockdown and the strict regulations that have accompanied it saw many questioning whether or not first-world solutions are the answer to African issues. While the government has somewhat relaxed the policies around informal trading, Mpiyakhe Dhlamini feels it simply isn't enough.
Allow all informal traders/hawkers to trade without permits during the national lockdown. South Africa has millions of poor people who cannot get jobs, who have generally been let down by politicians and are hardly spared a thought by the rest of us. These people should be allowed to eke out whatever living they can if we don’t want to precipitate a bigger crisis than any that could possibly come from Covid-19.
According to reports, various hawkers and informal traders have been left stranded in Johannesburg since the government instituted the lockdown. People are being denied their livelihoods in the name of saving the rest of us from Covid-19. So far we have had 18 deaths due to the virus, there are already signs that a bigger humanitarian crisis is looming due to the economic effects of the lockdown.
The people who are suffering the brunt of these economic effects are the people routinely brutalised by the government at all levels, especially at the local government level. The government needs to take responsibility for the consequences of its decisions. Regardless of whether the lockdown is justified or not, at a moral level, it cannot be that the toll, as it always does, falls on the poor informal trader.
To be an informal trader means that you have already been failed by the government. Your business often falls foul of regulations written by people who are convinced that they know more than you do, what you need. You are almost never consulted, decisions are taken on your behalf, your status means you are left at the mercy of the ‘law enforcers’, who have a ridiculous level of discretion as to whether you should be allowed to trade or not.
Take the requirement of a permit, it might seem reasonable enough to some lawyer who has never had to deal with municipal bureaucrats from that position, but in reality, since informal traders generally have no legal representatives or anyone to ensure their rights are not violated, they are left at the mercy of people who through malice, incompetence or simply corruption, can take away their means of survival.
Discretion on the part of officials is not only a violation of a core tenet of the rule of law (discretionary powers are always open to abuse), it is also the chief enemy of millions of entrepreneurs. It is not only a problem for informal traders, but it is also a problem for every small business that has to navigate the tangled web of regulations imposed at different levels of government, the problem being exacerbated when your business is essentially illegal according to the government.
The answer to this is simple: liberty. We are often told that the enemy of the poor is business or capitalism itself, but it is clear that these people, who have been let down by the state, have instead resorted to free markets in order to survive. We should simply allow them to earn this living, it will not cost the state anything.
Some South Africans may complain that hawkers stalls are sometimes dirty/unhygienic, and therefore permitting is a necessary public health measure. While it is true that you will not have pristine streets if you allow hawkers to freely trade, when it comes to hygiene, every customer is responsible for their own health. The second complaint is that these entrepreneurs obstruct store-fronts of businesses that pay rates and taxes to the municipality as well as the national government, there is merit to this argument, and municipalities can implement measures such as demarcating spaces for these traders.
In fact, all that need be done by any municipality is demarcating these spaces on pavements by simply painting a rectangular area of reasonable size and allowing anyone to trade as long as they keep to the demarcated area. This would immediately take away all discretion and also prevent the obstruction of other businesses. But during the lockdown, this is less of an issue since most businesses are closed anyway.
The hygiene issue has to be left to the judgement of customers. All that the municipality need require is that the hawker removes all rubbish adjacent to their stall or place of business.
This is also a moral issue. What do we expect these people to do, having been shut out of the ‘formal economy’? Do we expect them to just lie down and die? Accept seeing their children starve without doing anything about it?
We can talk about what would be a rational policy for street vendors/hawkers after the lockdown. A policy that would have the express intention of removing all discretion from officials in deciding whether someone may trade or not. But in the meantime, since we are asked to give up our liberties for the declared state of disaster, municipalities should also suspend all permitting and licensing requirements for all informal traders, not just hawkers.
If the government can loosen competition regulations for the banks if the reserve bank can relax liquidity requirements for the banks, why can’t we also ease the burden on the entrepreneurs who most need help? These people will not be receiving any financial assistance from the department of small businesses since their businesses are not registered. It is interesting that South Africa’s policy-makers use the language of solidarity with the poor, while simultaneously creating policies that ignore or bypass the very same people.
We live in a country which had 40% unemployment (using the expanded definition) going into this current crisis. This number will certainly increase because of the measures our government and other world governments have taken. The reason we could have such a high unemployment rate and not have millions of people starving due to famine are the millions of entrepreneurs who disregard senseless government regulations. If we continue treating the informal sector as an afterthought, it will not only be a great moral failure, it will also precipitate a disaster that will eventually reach all of us.
About the author:
Mpiyakhe Dhlamini is a data scientist and researcher. He is also a policy fellow at the IRR (Institute of Race Relations). He believes passionately that individual liberty is the only proven means to rescue countries from poverty.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Briefly.co.za.
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