Jozi City Feature

A boxer’s dream survives the streets

 He gets up to train at 5am. Two-and-a-half hours a day, six days a week. Thud, thud, punch, punch; wrapped fists on a punch bag; the sound of shuffling feet on concrete; the rhythmic sound of heavy weights being lifted.

The first hours of the day are the ones 25-year-old Tyson relishes most. It’s when he is in his element, at his happiest before the work day starts. He trains alone in his rented room in Soweto, boxing and lifting weights.

“I box because I love it. It’s in my blood,” he says. He is so passionate about the sport it earned him the nickname of Tyson. Few people know his real name: Enoque Pondza.

Tyson looks a little like an American hip-hop star: he wears chains, rings, earrings that, perhaps, once shone. His image is something he takes pride in. On any given day you’ll find him cutting a cool figure in fashionable threads. He’s equally proud of his home country and often wears a sweater or T-shirt that pays homage in bright and bold words: “Mozambique”.

“I love my country. I’m proud of Mozambique; I lift it up. It’s just that… things aren’t working out.” Tyson also worries his clothes aren’t as nice as he’d like; that his body is not showing the results he desires despite all his training. “I’m not getting strong, because, you know, the food [I can afford] isn’t great,” he says.

After 7.30am, every day except Sunday, training ends and Tyson has to start thinking about the day ahead, how to make money to pay for rent, for transport, for food, for clothes. With no other prospects, he trades on the streets of Johannesburg to make ends meet.

“Since I‘ve been in Jozi, I’ve always sold on the street,” he says. He arrived in 2006 and his place of business is a 1m-long patch of cardboard on Bree Street, engineered to hold a display of pirated DVDs. Metal railings to the north, KFC to the south and vendors, also Mozambican, to the east and west are his borders.

Tyson’s location is precarious, subject to the whims of nature and the city. At any time it may rain or he may arrive to find a huge hole – dug to maintain the city’s underground pipe network – where his table should be. On those days there is no trading, and no money, for him.

Tyson arrives at his spot between 10.30 and 11am, after he’s freshened up and made the trip to town. Each morning he carefully lays out the DVDs so that even the X-rated ones (although those are at the very back of the table) are clearly visible.

The inner city is rich in pedestrian traffic and from the thousands who pound its pavements every day, a few stop to browse Tyson’s goods. Some even buy.

While Tyson waits for potential customers, he has one other thought: when will the cops come? Because they always come.

 

A man's got to eat: Traders sell an assortment of goods on the pavement of Sauer Street while a JMPD (Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department) truck stands parked in the background.

 

Long arm of the JMPD

None of the punch combinations Tyson has perfected over the years are of any use when it comes to the JMPD (Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department or simply “the Metro”, as the traders call them). They have the power to halt his trade, and impound his goods – an almost god-like power in street trader terms.

“When they’ve impounded they’ve impounded,” chips in his friend, who goes by the alias “Young money”.

“All I can do is hustle together some money to buy new stock.”

Tyson has learnt to be alert, always on the lookout, so much so that on any given day of the week he can tell you when the metro police go on and off duty. It is his business to know.

He’s sensitive to all the sounds around him, especially those that sound like sirens, because one never knows when the JMPD might come out to play.

When they do it is common to see vendors, mostly young men, running on the pavements of the inner city with crates and cardboard boxes laden with an assortment of goods: fruit and vegetables, sweets and chocolates, chargers, sunglasses and DVDs. Those whose goods are less cumbersome swiftly pack them up by grabbing the corners of their lace tablecloths and carrying them over their shoulders like knapsacks.

The streets become chaotic, a sense of panic saturates the air. The message that the Metro is around seems to be transferred by some sort of chemical communication, because if one trader knows they all know and the “Great Upheaval” begins. People scatter on the tiny, congested pavements, loose fruit and veggies escape their owners and roll into the street. Sometimes, in the mad rush to get away, a pair of stray sunglasses is left behind.

Just around the corner, a few tables away from Tyson’s stand, is 17-year-old John Mathabela. He arrived in South Africa from Maputo in 2006 and started selling on the streets last month after his employment at a brick manufacturing contractor ended. Mathabela is quiet and gentle natured. His eyes tell the story of the hardships he’s faced.

“I came to work [here] because otherwise I would starve. I’d have to steal from other people, highjack them, which I wouldn’t be able to do.”

Mathabela is the nervous type. At every hoot of a car he looks up, his eyes darting this way and that. “You never know,” he thinks. “It might be the Metro.”

Like Tyson, he sells illegal DVDs. Among his selection are popular media like Trevor Noah’s comedy skits, the Lion King series, all on one disc; Toni Braxton and Rihanna CDs share space with lesser-known pornographic DVDs that entice buyers with titles such as Phatt Ass, Bubble Butt and Phatty Girls.

Although he won’t reveal his supplier, saying only there is “a guy” who delivers the DVDs, Mathabela says he buys each disc for R7,50 and sells them for R10. On an average day he sells about 10 DVDs and every rand he makes is accounted for: R17 for the return trip to Freedom Park, Siyaya, in the south west of Johannesburg where he stays; R20 towards food, if it is a good day. He’s vegetarian and eats only one meal a day.

Asked what he does when the metro police are around, Mathabela’s answer is simple; “I run,” he says. This is enough to elicit laughter from the other traders.

 

Devastated: A trader whose goods have been confiscated stands with her arms folded in Wanderers Street. Her table, made of flattened cardboard boxes, stands empty while a neighbour begins to display his wares after the JMPD have left.

 

One man’s business another man’s headache

According to Zacharia Ramutula, leader of the 20 000-strong One Voice of All Traders Association, selling on the street is a form of business with few barriers to entry, and is accessible to the many who are unemployed.

“There are no jobs. People turn to informal trade due to the shortage of jobs and because it’s simple and an easy way to make a living,” he said.

That’s how Mathabela started his business.

“I asked the guys who were selling here already whether I could put my table here,” he says pointing to the boxes holding the DVDs. “They agreed. You must ask before putting up a table.”

The City has a rather different take on the issue.

Irene Mafune, the inner city regional manager whose department is responsible for the upkeep of the inner city environment and minimising urban decay, is not very tolerant of illegal traders.

“The street traders are trading on our turf,” she says emphatically. “We need to ensure all users of pavements [including pedestrians] are happy.”

Illegal traders who sell in areas narrower than the three metres required by the informal trade by‑laws pose an obvious challenge to this.

Mafune is equally adamant, however, that they are not opposed to people who are trying to make a living.

“The City makes efforts to accommodate them by designating areas to trade,” she says. “Unfortunately, our relationship [with the traders] isn’t good. From our perspective, we are accommodating them fairly. From their perspective, they feel they are harassed [by the JMPD],” she says.

 

To sell or not to sell: Traders are uncertain whether to lay out their goods or not after the JMPD have gone through their street, confiscating goods. A man holds the end of his plastic table cloth in case he needs to grab his goods and run.

 

Mafune mentions Johannesburg is aiming to become a world-class African city by the year 2040 through its Growth and Development Strategy, GDS40. Getting there will be an effort.

“Any city should be governed by the law. There should be order, proper infrastructure and government should create a liveable environment. The traders are setting us back through their infringement of the City’s by-laws,” she says.

Zed Mangaliso, the JMPD superintendent for by-law enforcement, is equally unyielding to traders who break the law.

“The by-laws are meant to govern the city and the people staying in it. The street trading by-laws inform where the traders can sell and how they should behave. If they are not enforced we would have anarchy, lawlessness. It would just be a mess,” he says.

Mafune acknowledges, however, that the plan to take Johannesburg into the future should recognise that it is an African city, and one with unique challenges.

“We can’t be trying to be like New York; there are socio-economic challenges [here],” she says.

What’s a little friendly competition?

While the JMPD and the City of Johannesburg are determined to get the informal traders off the streets, formal business is not necessarily of the same opinion.

“I don’t mind them, as long as they don’t disrupt the flow of traffic to my shop,” says Ismail Mayet, a supervisor at Akhona Furnishers in Jeppe Street.

“Poverty is rife and they’re trying to make a decent living. Everyone has to make a living and they [JMPD and the City] have to understand we’re not a first world country. We’re still developing,” he says.

Remla Ibrahim is a businesswoman who has been in the CBD for just a month and owns a clothing shop close to the Noord taxi rank downtown. She also sees no problem with the hawkers trading on the street, especially in light of the unemployment faced by many of them.

“If you’re not working and find a place to sell on the street, according to me, that’s not a problem. The government needs to give the people places to sell so the metro won’t chase them,” she says.

Street trading not going anywhere

According to Metro Trading Company (MTC) programme officer for street trading and linear markets, Loyiso Ngaloshe, “street trading is as old as the city itself”.

Ngaloshe has just returned from an inspection of one of the legal trading areas in the city. His department is the branch of the city’s administration that takes care of the day-to-day management of informal traders.

The department of economic development (DED), which Ngaloshe says is the “guardian of informal trading”, is responsible for demarcating areas to be used as spaces for informal trade within the inner city. Upon such demarcation, the DED informs the JMPD, the “guardians of the inner city by-laws”, after which management of the area is handed over to the MTC to oversee.

According to Ngaloshe, regulation of the industry began in 2004 after the City, together with various stakeholders including surrounding communities, formulated and adopted the informal trader policy.

In terms of this document, traders with no MTC permit and who, like Tyson and Mathabela, trade on pavements less than 3m wide, among other criteria, are illegal.

“We’ve been trying to get them off the streets. We have to get rid of them,” says Ngaloshe. “We are helped by the JMPD to warn them; if they persist, the JMPD has to impound,” he says.

Regarding the grim conditions many illegal traders face, and the limited avenues for recourse, Ngaloshe says that “the public and private sectors have failed them”, before sighing and looking down at his desk.

No one seems to have a definite number of the illegal traders in Johannesburg but Ngaloshe’s colleague, programme officer Nombuso Radebe, estimates the MTC manages between 1 900 and 2 000 legitimate traders in the inner city. It is likely there are just as many illegal traders.

“Street trading is there forever, you can’t get rid of it. It must just be well managed, that’s all,” says Ngaloshe. “The JMPD is a way of managing the sector.”

 

The sale must go on: A trader sells to a customer outside Joubert Park while a JMPD officer gives him a fine for contravening the City's informal trade by-laws.

 

In his office in Braamfontein Xolani Nxumalo, the DED’s director of small-, medium- and micro-sized enterprises [SMME], also affirmed the City’s commitment to sustaining informal trade.

“The City was never, and never will be, against traders. If there is such a perception, it is wrong. [It is only that] trading should happen in organised manner,” he says.

Jozi, the City of Gold, and dreams

The City has plans to empower traders. Ngaloshe mentions they have partnered with the University of the Witwatersrand to enable traders to benefit from Adult Basic Education and Training [ABET] and a “Grow Your Business” business literacy programme. Traders are also encouraged to form co-operatives so they can take advantage of business opportunities that arise from the government.

“[We would like] to upgrade them; move them from one level to another,” Ngaloshe says. This includes the hope that they will be able to manage the linear markets (whole streets dedicated to trading) themselves.

“It is their constitutional right to be able to trade. We try to help the people to survive, but we have no spaces and no capacity,” he says, shrugging.

That is cold comfort to traders like Tyson and John whose lives hang in the balance in the yawning chasm between reality and the envisioned Utopia of GDS2040.

Maybe one day Tyson will achieve his dream of becoming a professional boxer and getting off the streets. His eyes shine as he talks about it. “I want to be successful. I would be happiest if the job in which I succeed could be boxing.”

Who knows, this is Jozi, the place where dreams are made. Anything is possible.

 

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About Anelisa Ngewu

A love of writing and reading drew Anelisa Ngewu to journalism. The former BSc student completed her Honours in Biochemistry at the University of Stellenbosch in 2008, but decided to follow her lifelong obsession with words. In 2011, she registered for an Honours degree in Journalism and also discovered a love for photography and television. She will use the skills she has learnt as the basis for the media empire she will one day own, and will merge her two fields of knowledge by using the media as a platform for science.

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