Street trade is tough

Sipho Mzizi* is a 24-year-old man from rural Mpumalanga who lives with his brother in a bachelor flat in Braamfontein. He came to Johannesburg to look for work.

Sipho Mzizi* is a 24-year-old man from rural Mpumalanga who lives with his brother in a bachelor flat in Braamfontein. He came to Johannesburg to look for work.

Mzizi sent out CVs and even secured interviews, but he failed to land a job.

His brother is a security guard and could not support him, so Mzizi decided to start a small business to support himself.

He decided to sell fruit and vegetables and borrowed start-up capital from his brother. Mzizi sought a good location for his enterprise, but soon stumbled on the hard reality that he could not afford to rent a proper outlet for his unregistered business.

He decided to set up as a street merchant and was determined to find the best open space for his table and stock. He tried many spots until he struck gold, a small space outside the bustling Bree Street taxi rank in the heart of Jozi.

Mzizi left work elated that day, convinced he would be able to move mounds of stock to hurried commuters. But when he arrived bright and early to set up shop, another street seller had taken possession of his prime spot. Without a licence or other official recognition, he had no recourse to the law to defend his rights.

Bowed but not beaten, he asked someone to look after his table and his stock as he set out to scout for another trading spot. Fortunately, he found a location near the first. He has been trading there since July 2005, though Mzizi knew his new spot was not ideal.

"Business is not so bad. Half a loaf is better than nothing," he says with a wan smile.

The money he makes helps the brothers buy food. He sometimes earns enough to send a few rands to his mother back home in Mpumalanga.

"Were it not for the costs I incur, I would save something," he says.

What are those costs?

Mzizi lives in Braamfontein, but trades in central Johannesburg.

He can't walk that far with his stock each day, so he rents storage in a nearby building from where he trades. If he had his own trading location, he would not have to pay this daily rent.

The daily rent cripples his cash flow and he struggles to plan, budget or save.

Though many potential customers pass by each day, the vicissitudes of insecurity cost him dearly.

Apart from the daily rent, he loses time moving his stock to and from storage every day.

Street sellers are also subject to the whims of the weather.

"It is not bearable to work when it is raining, windy or cold," he says.

Ironically, street sellers are bound to their spot.

Once he sets up his table, he cannot leave to attend to other things.

When he wants to go to the toilet, he must arrange for a temporary caretaker or risk losing stock to thieves.

He hopes to one day rent a lockable case that will give him a little more freedom.

But as a street vendor, Mzizi will never have water, electricity or a toilet on site.

He says street vendors operate in constant fear of police, who confiscate their stock.

He glumly recalls a day when he and fellow traders failed to spot one of these raiding parties and lost all their stock.

"You have to be on the lookout for the Metro police. When you see them you have to take whatever you can and run."

* Name changed to protect the vendor's identity