During his State of the City address a few days ago, Johannesburg mayor Councillor Parks Tau was at pains to point out the strides the city had made in improving the lives of especially the poor who reside within the perimeters of the Johannesburg metro.
As I have stated in this column over the past few months, a vibrant township economy will play a central role in improving the lives of citizens only if small businesses are allowed to flourish. Initiatives like the Corridors of Freedom, which seeks to focus on development in routes connecting the city centre to peripheral townships like Alexandra, will go some way towards ensuring that township economies are not sidelined, as was the case in the past.
A cause for concern, though, is the continuous use of by-laws to stifle hawker trading in the township economy, as well as historical imbalances in the provision of services like electricity.
By-laws are designed to ensure that life in any city does not become chaotic and their enforcement in the city centre is always welcome. Cities like Johannesburg have gone out of their way to ensure that they accommodate informal traders and allow them a portion of pavement space to sell their wares. While this works in metropolitan cities, because of the ample pavement space and demarcated parking for vehicles, enforcing these laws to the letter within township economies can actually stifle economic activity instead of creating those much-needed jobs, which should form the basis of the fight against unemployment.
A month ago, I approached a vegetable hawker to buy bags of potatoes for a business I run. His business is set up within a stall erected by the city for the purposes of selling on the pavements. Because I was buying in bulk, he respectfully requested that I bring my vehicle closer so that he could load the bags onto the vehicle. I had parked a block away to avoid blocking traffic. To bring it closer would mean breaking the law. Very few townships were designed with parking space in the streets. Weighing my options and my need to support the street vendor, I brought the vehicle closer. As luck would have it, a Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department vehicle came by two minutes later to issue me with a parking violation fine. The price of the potatoes I had just bought came to only half the fine issued.
It would be remiss of me to blame law enforcement for my misfortune. However, considering that this was a business transaction that would not otherwise have happened had I dutifully obeyed parking by-laws, I believe there is a need to look at by-laws enforcement in the township context. The street where this happened links Ivory Park and Tembisa, an economic ‘corridor’ in its own right. These township economy hubs need to be nurtured instead of stifled.
Also linked to using laws to nurture township economy development is the issue of historically skewed services provision. Many businesses in the township economy are folding because of inexplicably high electricity costs. This happens mostly because the prepaid method of providing electricity has not been introduced to businesses that owe a lot in rates and service fees stemming from years and years of rent and services boycotts in the townships.
An application for prepaid electricity requires a business tenant to have cleared all debts with the municipality. Most businesses fail to do so because the debts are astronomical and, as a result, stay on the postpaid electricity method, which has seen businesses accumulate electricity arrears to levels that would not happen on prepaid. By the time the municipality issues legal warnings concerning the debts, the business owner is forced to sell or rent his business out to avoid losing it altogether. In the current economic climate, people in a position to buy a business with a huge debt appear to be mostly foreign nationals. This, in the long term, will lead to a hardening of attitudes because foreign nationals are viewed as “taking our businesses”, whereas the underlying problem can be sorted out at municipality level.