Street life in Maboneng: Appearance and Disappearance in Constant Interplay

By Avril Joffe and Dimakatso Motholo

Credit: Dimakatso Motholo, Maboneng Map on entrance to Arts on Main

A project within the broader Informality in the cultural economy of the Global South project. This project is undertaken by the PEC International Council and supported by the British Council. The PEC International Council is a network of leading policy and creative economy practitioners from across the world. The group is convened by The British Council and is an international advisory body to the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC), which is led by Nesta.

Section One: Description of the case

Geographic area
The research area is Maboneng, a Sesotho word meaning ‘Place of Light’, an inner-city area falling within City and Suburban, Jeppestown and New Doornfontein in the City of Johannesburg, South Africa. It was established as a private urban development in the south east of the central city of Johannesburg which attracted cultural organisations and creative enterprises. This previously industrial area known as City and Suburban was renamed Maboneng by the private developer, Jonathan Liebmann, founder of Propertuity, who initiated this property led creative cluster in 2009. The deindustrialisation process of the 1980s led to empty warehouses and factories which Propertuity acquired with a vision for ‘nurturing a creative community in inner-city Johannesburg’ (Gregory, 2016: 163).

Credit: Avril Joffe, David Krut Projects in Arts on Main

The first property developed was the Arts on Main complex occupied by one of South Africa’s leading artists, William Kentridge (the largest studio space) and the David Krut bookshop together with a range of artists and creatives in studios, galleries and office spaces ( Propertuity went on to acquire 25 (which rose to 42 by 2014) buildings in the area with other developments including Main Street Life building, the Main Change Building and Revolution house. The Main Street clustering many of the commercial businesses and residential components in the precinct remains in Fox Street, although other developments have occurred alongside the streets. The residential components were purposely developed to attract a range of income brackets from units in Artisan Lofts, The Urban Fox, the Rocket Factory, Craftsmanship and Hallmark House to penthouse apartments and single bachelor units.

Credit: Dana Gampel, The Rooftop at Arts on Main was home to Salsa

Under the management of Propertuity the area became a vibrant cultural and entertainment hub attracting people from all over Johannesburg with weekly events (craft and food market at Market on Main, Fashion week, Cinema attractions, Salsa dance parties) hosted to attract people from all over Johannesburg to the precinct. With Propertuity no longer in existence having auctioned off buildings to individual owners and other property developers, the area is no longer managed centrally, although some activities continue. One area of visible creativity is that of the photographers and the street traders who are the focus of this study. Traders report that “things have gone down” since Propertuity left and that “tourists are not coming like before” although the latter is clearly due more to the Pandemic.

Despite the changes to, and actual absence now of precinct management, Maboneng remains a preferred site for many of these entrepreneurs who had worked previously in other malls or markets and reported difficulties, such as being chased away from Waterfall Mall in Pretoria (Mpho).

Maboneng is much written about particularly from the perspective of urban cultural development and the role of public policy to support cultural precinct development. There is much less attention given to the people who occupy the spaces, the nature of their engagements, their relationship to authority, to formal structures or the way in which they self-organise and the choices they make within the cultural precinct. The study highlights the constant interplay between what is “visible” and what is “invisible” between appearance and disappearance (Nuttal and Mbembe, 2008:6) as represented in research by Jane Guyer (2004), AbdouMaliq Simone (2004, 2010), Filip de Boeck and Marie-Francoise Plissart (2004), and Rem Koolhaas (2002). This case can be likened to Simone’s work on black urbanism and his effort to tie “together the various situations and tactics that have been at work in the long history of African people moving out, into and around a larger urban world” (2010: 268).

Credit: @eye_media_sa, The three photographers — owning the street and always hustling

The photography group consists of three friends who met in university residence while studying towards their engineering degrees at the University of Johannesburg. Sbu and Mpho were res mates and X was in the same class. Sbu and X were studying mechanical engineering while Mpho was doing electrical engineering. Between the three of them, Sbu already had an uncle’s camera and Mpho used bursary money to purchase a camera. They started working as photographers in late 2013, early 2014, however they only started working the Maboneng intersection (under the Maboneng sign) in 2016. Their knowledge of business was, in their opinion, very limited but they were driven by the need for fast, accessible cash.

They were attracted to photography both as an art form and as a potential income source as they developed various business propositions both before and after graduation. They were and remain friends and colleagues. However, each has chosen to manage and run his business slightly differently although given the informality and proximity of their working space (an intersection) as well as the trust between each other, their businesses have been able to coexist in a competitive but collaborative manner. They each need to attract their own customer base. This coopetition is possible given the strong relations of trust they have with one another and respect for each other’s business model. As Bengtsson and Kock (2003) explain, coopetition is “a situation where competitors simultaneously cooperate and compete with each other.”

Credit: @eye_media_sa, Street trader, working his magic making crafted jewellery

The street traders in Maboneng are mostly migrants who found that Maboneng had a faster trade than other typical tourist areas in Johannesburg (such as Newtown or Rosebank). They sell handmade crafts, jewellery and clothing as well as imported goods, mostly from the African continent and specifically from Kenya. They too are driven by the need to earn cash amounts that would not be possible in a typical 9–5 job. Some have been there for as long as 7 years while others are more recent (3 years) traders in the area. All of them worked in other markets and tourist areas before coming to Maboneng. Some of them (June, Joe) used to work on the street in Maboneng but now rent shop stores in the area while others (Milka) have worked in shop stores in Maboneng but returned to the streets where she found trade was faster and more agile. Joe works both on the street and from a shared shop space with business partner, Gianni and brother Peter.

Methodology for the investigation: people as infrastructure

Credit: eye_media_sa, Milka at her table displaying beads and other wares

This study was conducted by two researchers as a qualitative exploratory study. The researchers spent time in the streets of Maboneng observing the photographers, visiting the retail stalls and rented spaces, having conversations with people visiting and working in the area, conducting formal interviews (photographers and traders) , focus group (with the photographic team) and photographs of work in process in the streets of Maboneng. The study zooms in on the photographers that occupy the key intersection of Fox and Kruger streets as well as the street traders (craft, fashion, textiles, jewellery) on either side of Fox Street, both sides of the intersection.

This study, following Simone, sees people as infrastructure which underscores the “economic collaborations among residents seemingly marginalised from and immiserated by urban life” (Simone, 2004: 407) and focuses on their fluid movement in and out of the formal and informal spaces and the informal and formal economy (Valodia and Devey, 2011). In this account, people themselves are, what Simone calls the “stuff of the shifting circuitries of connections” and provides a way to revalue their humanity. Importantly, the study is not about that which is ordered, formal or documented but allows us to redefine the “right to the city” as the “right to be messy and inconsistent, or to look disordered” (2010: 331). By observing, conversing with and interviewing these participants we were able to recognise the innovations which these two groups brought to their way of organising and way of working and, what Nuttal and Mbembe call “the role of calculation and rationality in the everyday tactics of those who inhabit them, and in the way they are made to work” (2008:6). This multidimensional understanding of infrastructure suggests, as Steele and Legacy do, that we need to “extend the lens through which we see infrastructure: as relational: ecological; as everyday practice: as inherently political; as embedded in questions of human and non-human justice and equity, fiscal transparency, institutional accountability” (2017:2).

Credit: Avril Joffe, A view of Fox street’s restaurant/ club scene, east side of the intersection

Treating people as infrastructure in this way, allows for a deeper dive into the constant interplay between the formal and the informal, and recognises the temporal nature of both (Rubin et al, 2020: 172). As this study shows, the working style of the photographers and street traders allows for agile decision-making dependent on both personal and external circumstance and carefully based on a perceptive assessment of need, desire, security, and income potential. Despite the obvious challenges of street life, the benefits of informality become clear when listening to the stories of these remarkably resilient men and women.

Section two: Improvisation and constant change — the key to thriving in the informal economy?

Credit: @eye_media_sa

Reconfigured intersections and innovative economic transactions
The intersection of Fox and Kruger “belongs’’ to the photographers. Each of the 4 core photography team leaders ply their trade in this intersection. They each have different strategies and different business models as illustrated by the diagramme below.

There are two groups in this study. They work side by side harmoniously with one group, the traders, relying on the other group, the photographers bring life to the streets which support their businesses. The photographers are predominantly South African, working informally on the streets helping to realise the social media addiction of South Africans to be seen, to be cool, to be spotted in interesting parts of Jozi (the name for Johannesburg) and to show off their latest styles (clothes, hair, shoes, bags, accessories and partners).

The core photographers see themselves as business people, as entrepreneurs, doing what it takes to support their dreams (which are not confined to the street). Working ‘with’ them, ‘for’ them or renting their equipment is another group of photographers (mostly friends and family) who earn well as photographers as well. The whole group is about 30 photographers. There is only one woman in the entire group. She is employed by one of the photographers. The group is self-organised although one of the photographers, X, plays the role of leader (specifically in terms of discipline, protocol, customer care, security and organiser).

Figure 1: Photographer’s business models outlined

None of the photographers are registered for UIF, pay PAYE or registered their photographic businesses. They base their work on strong relations of trust (friendship and family ties). They form a close social circle which allow forms of finance and non-written contracts distinct from the formal economy. This tight network of photographers and the trust they have in one another highlights the reliance on informal supporting networks based on hidden economy circuits. Their income and earnings remain uncaptured in economic statistics.

The informality of their business does not mean that they do not invest in their trade. They all use only the best Canon cameras, insist that they and their team are well reimbursed and pay attention to safety and visibility (the jackets with Maboneng official photographer). Mpho for instance invests in cameras which he rents to family members and friends and over time, after paying rent on it, they are able to buy the camera from him. Mpho records that he was able to earn ten times the amount of the camera through this rental structure.

Credit: @eye_media_sa, Street trader and his T-Shirts on the fence on Fox Street

The Street traders rely hugely on the photographers as “they brought life to Maboneng” in Joe’s words. June, who now works inside in a rented space agreed that if it wasn’t for the photographers business would be extremely bad. However street traders have bemoaned the fact that the real foot traffic remains on the east side of the intersection (the club and restaurant area) while the west side of Fox Street is not at all busy (only one restaurant). It is interesting that the street parking for the restaurant and club scene on the west side is targeted for clientele such that traders like Joe keep his stall running “until all the cars are parked — often 9pm” to catch those attending the club scene or patronising the restaurants. When asked about permits to trade on the street, Milkha clarified that while she registered with the municipality and was given tags to trade in the street, no one has ever asked her for these.

Credit Avril Joffe, The Fence Display on the north side of Fox Street (west of the intersection) with current display visible on the south side outside the current shop.

The current craft and arts street traders are all Kenyan although their numbers are down since the Pandemic. One side of Fox Street used to be filled with traders (approximately 70 according to Milka) and is currently relatively empty (not more than 8). Milkha works next to the entrance of Arts on Main and used to be able to rely on the substantial foot traffic in and out of this property especially during Sunday market day. Joe used to display his goods on the fencing on the other side of the road but now opens his street stall right outside the store he rents with Gianni (through his business Plum Trading). Both these traders as well as June’s shop, Numa Africa are on the west side of the busy Fox/Kruger street intersection.

Maboneng is a relatively new area for this kind of trade. Both June and Milkha used to trade in Malls — June in the Rosebank Mall and Milkha in Dobsonville Mall. Some of these malls are over-traded with many traders selling similar goods. Milkha explained how she read about Maboneng in magazines and newspapers and in 2015 decided to come through to this new area. The caretaker of Arts on Main at the time, Given, directed her to a website to register as a trader. Some traders (Joe, Peter) still work at other weekend markets such as Victoria Yards in Bez Valley.

Credit: @eye_media_sa, Joe displaying his wares at his street stall outside his shop and opposite the fence area where he used to work

Security is a huge concern for the traders, not only for them but their customers as well. As Milka explains “I feel real bad to sell to a customer whose phone is stolen. I feel so bad and embarrassed”. In terms of their own goods, security is a concern as storage is both expensive and not easily available. Milkha used to use the storeroom at Arts on Main but was apparently stopped from using it even though she was willing to pay. The absence and expense of storage, “the constant packing and unpacking and transporting all the goods away” is the key reason that Joe moved from the street into the shop.

Credit: @eye_media_sa, Street trading on the fence side of Fox Street

Even if some of these traders have been in South Africa for up to 20 years, they do not necessarily have the right documentation (some have refugee papers) to work formally. Informal work or informal trading is often the only option open to a foreign national without official papers. It is less of a choice; it is rather a necessity. Obtaining finance is particularly difficult without these papers. As Joe explained, after he lost money on an African indigenous food restaurant in Turfontein, he came to Maboneng to sell Kenyan clothes; as he said, “no one will give you money”.

Nevertheless, these traders are all earning sufficient cash on the streets to not only survive in Johannesburg, but also to send cash home to Kenya. Joe, for instance, has two children in Kenya and regularly sends funds home and is saving for his dream of owning land in Kenya. When asked about this desire to own land, he responded eloquently, “when you own land, you are liberated”. He explained that in pursuit of this dream he was satisfied with a small dwelling for now (just two blocks to the south of the Maboneng area) so that he could save money to buy land. The reason for trading in South Africa rather than Kenya was simple: “the Rand is stronger!”.

Whether foreign nationals have papers or not, informal trading is characteristic of African economies. June (sister to Joe and Peter) explains that her understanding of informal business was learnt from her grandmother who ran an informal fruit market in Kenya when she was still in primary school. Her family is originally from Sudan, her grandmother is from the Luo tribe (found in Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania). June watched her grandmother doing business selling fruit to people from the airline (KLM) and sewing baskets with semi-ripe mangoes, bananas and flowers. With crew no longer coming in as much, the market fell and her sales dropped hugely. With her mom’s support they changed their business to sell natural black and white stone chess sets and opened a shop. June learned the need for agility and flexibility from her grandmother.

Credit: @eye_media_sa Numa Africa shop with displays of baskets, shoes, cloth and fashion items

June decided to register her business as a company in 2006 (with her daughter) when she realised that she could earn good money from curating east African cuisine at big events in Mary Fitzgerald square (Newtown) for which registration was required. When she got her shop she wasn’t yet registered but realised that she needed to be registered. Her company is registered as arts and crafts and she uses the same registration for all aspects of her work. She used to also be the only service provider for ‘Back to the City’, a Hip Hop Music Festival that took place in Newtown in Mary Fitzgerald Square, where she curated hot food and beverages. When lockdown started, she started making clothes (on the advice of her brother Joe) and was able to purchase a portable sewing machine. From the proceeds from sewing masks for locals during lockdown, (she stopped as others were also making masks) she invested in her own machine. From her mom she learnt how to make jewellery with amber and Ethiopian silver. Her mom had worked for a Norwegian NGO and received training in jewellery design in Tanzania and Uganda.

Credit: Avril Joffe

Street trading and shop trading
The street traders move somewhat seamlessly from the street to shops and back again depending on their assessment of the trade and the risks and challenges of street trading. Joe used to trade on the other side of the street, using the fencing to hang up his wares but he decided that the problems of storage and transport were too severe, so he relented and now shares a store front with his business partner Gianni. He shows his handmade and bought items on one side of a small 3 by 6 space while Gianni shows his mainly bought items on the other side. Others, like Milkha, continue to dodge rain and struggle with regular storage facilities after having shared June’s shop for a short while.

June opened her store, Numa Africa in June 2019. Before that she was on the street outside the Market Theatre (Newtown) selling a similar range of products, mainly fabrics from other African countries such as Kente cloth as well as blankets, jewellery and other craft items such as chess sets in natural stone (black and white), mainly from Kenya. June’s mom grew up next to Kissi where the natural stone originates in Kenya. June also had a small shop in a small flat in Newtown but had too many incidents from the nearby taxi rank. Once they built the Newtown Mall, she knew she needed to move (she didn’t feel it was conducive to street trading any longer). From her shop in Maboneng she is also able to use her sewing machine to make items from the cloth as well as outsource to other tailors and seamstresses. Her younger son apparently still feels that the street offers more opportunities. She feels it’s not true but acknowledges that her earning possibilities depend on tourism to the area. June now employs an assistant, Alex (a family relation).

Credit: @eye_media_sa Numa Africa’s interior showing shoes, cloth , fashion items

When Propertuity was still managing the area, June felt that working on the street was bearable. Their security, she felt was “fantastic. They would throw people out of the streets, didn’t tolerate ganga (marijuana), cell snatches and allowed artists to be on the street with allocated spaces”. Initially June shared her brother, Joe’s store. She was in during the week and he came in on weekends (when he was still working the food cuisine business in Turfontein). As her income increased, she realised she could afford her own shop and now manages to pay between R9000 and R12000 a month and still make a profit. At some point June was finding the rent steep and partnered with Milka (June 2019) to share the rent but after two months Milka wanted to go back to her stall on the street. June is now satisfied on her own, works with tailors and seamstresses for some of her clothes designs but feels she has “become self reliant” having purchased her own equipment.

Photography on the street
Eddie was seen as the first photographer in the area shooting for his own page on Instagram. Photography was, for him, a creative hobby which would also allow his Instagram followers to book him for gigs. However, when the 3 friends came in and he saw that they were making money, Eddie realized that in fact his creative hobby could be lucrative as a business. Eddie now also works the business in the same way but works in other locations as well. While he adopted the other three’s business model, his is not generating equivalent revenue.

As other people see the possibilities of income generation from the photography group, more want to work the area. The team of 4 realized they needed to both “keep it simple and manage themselves” and also limit the number of photographers working the area. Within the team, X took the responsibility of managing the space, and ensuring the safety of the photographers and telling people who are just hanging around, to move away.

Credit: @eye_media_sa, Offical Maboneng Photographer with his Canon camera

All 4 (and some of their ‘crew’) are now using “Official Maboneng photographer” blue and khaki vests to provide a degree of comfort and security given the escalation of petty crime on the Maboneng streets (smartphones, backpacks, etc). This was agreed to with the official Maboneng security personnel so that the photographers can be more easily identified and previous allegations of photographers doing crime could abate. This level of formality was accepted by the group as it enables them to work with ease on the street and creates a sense of community and solidarity among all 30 photographers.

Within these business models, the core innovation (as illustrated below) stems from moving away from shooting pictures and printing on the camera itself, or shooting pictures and then going somewhere to download to a PC, Print and emailing the product to the client, to shooting pictures and sending these directly to the smartphone in real time to the client.

The motivation for being in the informal sector

Alternative financing
There are seemingly many diverse and at times contradictory reasons for the decision to work informally. The photographers articulated a reason not often found in the literature; that as black people “we don’t have lot of knowledge about business” so this way of working resonated with them as a way to amass funds in an “accessible, fast” manner and we “realized [we] can quickly make cash here and then can expand and grow as a business”. They had more experience with how informal businesses work having grown up in townships around Gauteng watching family members in informal businesses. They also acknowledged that they had a “lack of understanding [of how] to get credit or funds” and were initially unaware of the importance of recording their business turnover to show a formal financial institution that their business had stability and the potential for growth.

This agile, flexible, simple and fast way to access cash (whether for the informal business or to amass capital for another business), combined with the paucity of formal sector jobs or a thriving economy for entrepreneurial activities is a core reason for educated, professional and hard-working individuals to remain in the informal economy. Working informally also means hiring of people is simpler (not necessarily more exploitative), training on the job is quick and efficient, and overheads can be kept very low.

Credit: @eye_media_sa Three friends working competitively in cooperation: X, Sbu and Mpho

The photographers (unlike the street traders) have an expedient relationship to their informal business: it is precisely to amass sufficient capital to start and grow their media and communication companies as quickly as possible. The inability to raise this capital or approach the banks for loans has much to do with the large concentrations and assumption of formality of business in South Africa. Many young black entrepreneurs however have no networks, role models or indeed capital to kick start their entry into formal professional work. They also do not necessarily have connections to larger formal enterprises in the economy.

The photographers spoke with passion about their long term vision which required them “getting as much money as we can to fund other businesses; photography is our cash cow”. The photographers report being able to earn upwards of R40 000 a month (whether raining or shining). This is way beyond the national minimum wage (R3633) or even an entry level position as a young qualified engineer. Each photograph is sold for R20 to the customers.

Despite the photography business being a “means to an end” the photographers periodically invest (some every year, others wait longer) in their business by buying better cameras — “they change but not as quickly as a cell phone” — to stay competitive. Their strategy of keeping the profits flowing is both a mindset and an action. For instance, if there is little business on the streets, they will take pictures wherever people are “hiding”: in clubs, in restaurants, at live events.

This need for cash appears to be the key motivation for the informality of the business. As X elaborated: “when [you] come from a background that is disadvantaged — once making money — I need to get money to pay rent , to get transport and eat; so the main focus is basic survival. This is why we ended up focusing on the informal as it was a quick way”.

Their own experience of witnessing how informal businesses worked meant that “tapping into that it was comfortable, it was informal, day to day things to make cash — so much easier than pitching and waiting for a response”. They had discussed pitching for contracts and tenders but concluded that the time it would take to get actual cash into their pockets would take too long. As they say, this is the “gap between formal — to pitch and the informal [that] gives the bread today”. Plus, they added, the money made was indeed substantial.

Credit: @eye_media_sa Photographers use only the best equipment

In fact, seeing the potential growth of their informal business, they wanted to consider ways to grow and expand without necessarily entering into the formality of company registration or freelance nor salary contracts. As Mpho explains:

“We focused on how to manage the demand … and didn’t make it formal. We wanted to bring in more photographers under me [and] give them a platform. They give me R300 every week [rental for the cameras]”.

The three friends feel that everyone has brought in something (skills, expertise, experience) enabling them to meet the demand. They are now beginning to employ people such as Sbu, who has only recently decided to rent a studio space, just off the main intersection of Fox and Kruger Streets, where he now employs a cashier, a studio manager as well as a photographer. This studio will work in much the same way as the street, same flexibility, same innovation of shoot to What’s App or flash drive, but with the added convenience of dress up, different backgrounds and without the elements (rain or hot weather) keeping customers away.

Credit: @eye_media_sa, The Maboneng sign just off the intersection of Kruger and Fox Streets

The benefits of informality: collaboration, flexibility and agility
The photographers’ experience demonstrates the ease of access to cash flow in this informal way of working. They all feel that they are in charge of their own destinies as their ability to raise this much needed working capital means they are not beholden to formal contracts, tenders or loans from the banks. Maboneng’s vibrant street life and the attraction of the Maboneng Sign for social media enthusiasts has also shown them that the “harder you work the more you earn” and that “working with friends you trust” gives you the agility in responding to need or in moving to alternative spaces. It is also, apart from the purchase of the camera, extremely low cost.

The more than 30 young people employed or working with the photographers are all able to earn in a day more than an average salary of a qualified professional.

The photographers recognise the problem of working in the business rather than on the business. They acknowledge that while Mpho can take a holiday and still earn (from rentals), Sbu is more stuck “as people on a salary get lazy”. Sbu agrees, “yes, its true”. He adds that ‘every side has a disadvantage”.

They ponder the problem of scale. How to scale up the business without being hooked into the day to day running of it. They wander aloud whether the desire by informal sector businesses for sustainability is not a contradiction in terms. Many cultural professionals acknowledge having multiple forms of income generation and the need to constantly hustle and move as opportunities arise. It is no wonder that the impetus to formalise is simply not there as it is not known whether this particular way of earning income will last for long. This is evidenced in that many of the photographers have other work that earns them income both within and outside the cultural economy.

Entrepreneurial innovations among photographers and traders

Credit: @eye_media_sa, Payment transaction using ikhokha device, staying safe during Covid-19.

The street traders, perhaps since some of them also rent stores, seemingly had a better system of record keeping and financial management. However, access to capital is not an option given their lack of residency status in the country. However two of the traders were able to use technology to stimulate trade without major compliance issues. The Ikhokha and Noko devices enable debit and credit card payments which is so important in South Africa given the strong possibility of cash theft for both consumers and traders. It is also useful, as June says in supporting the growth of her business. It serves also as a record of sales and turnover with repayments for the device taken off the purchases.

Digital technology has been the key innovation for the photographers who immediately recognised that they did not want to take pictures and then download them to computer to print out; that they also didn’t want to print them out directly for the customer but rather to deliver the photographers directly onto their smartphones for them to use on their social media. This is a complete change in how street photographers typically work in South Africa.

Inclusion and exclusion: the gender dimensions

Photo: @eye_media_sa One of the only female photographers working the streets in Maboneng

The 3 friends are all male and most of the 30 photographers are also male. Sbu has recently employed a woman to work in the Studio. This reality of the exclusion of women speaks both to the industry of photography and how these ‘teams’ have developed (friendship circles starting with the 3 men) but also to the lived experience of women in the streets of South Africa — if you don’t feel safe on the streets why would you occupy it as a place of work? This can be contrasted to the very many women working as traders but mostly in ‘safer’ locations such as indoor markets, containing weekly markets or the malls.

Credit: @eye_media_sa, Milka stays strong and resilient in the face of many challenges facing women street traders

Women traders such as Milka are seen as particularly strong, resilient and “not to be messed with” by the other men traders who recognise that it is that much more complicated for women to be trading on the streets. It raises the question of whether the collective ownership of street security and safety by the previous precinct management (Propertuity) enabled more women to feel safe to trade on the streets and what other measures are needed to ensure the inclusion of women cultural entrepreneurs. In respect of both the gendered dimensions of our participants as well as the refugee status of many of the traders, it is clear that the impact of informality is felt most keenly where agency and representation is absent. In a study of women informal workers in Durban, for instance, the organisation representing women’s rights in the informal economy (SEWA) was credited as critical to ensuring that the voice of women informal workers was heard and that the resulting local government’s policy outcome was gender neutral (Skinner and Valodia, 2020: 442).

The SDGs and informality

Credit: @eye_media_sa The second Maboneng street sign facing affordable container housing

The thematic indicators for culture in the 2030 agenda for sustainable development include

  • prosperity and livelihoods (cultural employment and businesses, trade in cultural goods and services, public finance for culture and the governance of culture);
  • knowledge and skills (cultural knowledge, multilingual education, cultural training and education);
  • inclusion and participation (artistic freedom, access to culture, cultural participation, participatory processes);
  • environment and resilience (sustainable management and expenditure on heritage, climate adaptation and resilience, cultural facilities and open spaces for culture).

The SDGs speak to a world of decent employment, entrepreneurship and innovation, gender inclusion, access to education, participation and inclusive public spaces amongst others. What this study on informality reveals is the distance between these indicators, or intentions, and the lived reality of people working on the streets. These informal cultural professionals and workers demonstrate the absence of not only public finance for culture, but open spaces for culture and indeed the difficulties in building up cultural businesses or ability to participate in decision making. The transversal contribution of women participation and leadership or policies on gender equality are difficult to achieve when women struggle to earn an income unless mediated by physical infrastructure (buildings, transport) and the presence of security and safety measures governing how trade occurs.

What Maboneng offers as a cultural precinct, despite its private sector nature, are partnerships between public, private and civil society, open spaces for culture, social inclusion and inclusive public spaces with some attempt to mitigate the risks of street trading. The participants in this study indicate their contribution to keeping public spaces open, to ensuring an open space for culture, and for collaboration and partnerships. There is so much more that needs to be done to provide quality infrastructure and equitable access to ensure genuine participation let alone to facilitate and catalyse the entrepreneurial and innovative skills demonstrated by this group of cultural workers.

The challenges experienced from this informality
The major challenges of informality relate to financial issues, in particular a record of stability of the business. The photographers, unlike the traders, were not diligent about their documentation and preferred mobile loans and debt financing for their personal goals.

A key negative for each of the group of 4 is that, as they said, while they have a very good income, they have no record of that, so that they are not deemed to be creditworthy. They are not able to get a lease agreement to purchase a car, purchase assets on credit — credit makes you grow faster — that’s the disadvantage. This too goes back to the lack of knowledge they had about growing a business and the lack of role models to advise them.

As Sbu said, learning in an informal way of working is “easy” as the “formal sector is structured to be so complicated”. He added that while they do use bank accounts, this is not sufficiently consistent to show a monthly income. With some regret he referred to a question posed to him “didn’t you put money in one bank so there could be a record” and his explanation to us is “that is knowledge!”. He added, “It’s not as easy as it can side — took a long time to understand”.

For the three engineers, photography was their way of accessing quick urgent capital both to live on, but also to invest in their respective companies. In the absence of the formal banking sector or other financial institutions providing seed capital for their embryonic companies, they were clear that applying for tenders, waiting for results and waiting to be paid was a poor option when photography provided the immediacy of cash flow. Nevertheless, they also didn’t use this regular income source to prove their viability and credit worthiness for larger loans. In fact, they feel certain that, what they call the “stereotype that informal is a bad thing” has made them “lose out”, in terms of being taken seriously by financial institutions. When asked about applying for government contracts in their professional fields, the four engineers did not view this with any enthusiasm. They explained that they would need to have a longer record of trading, contracts, tax compliance, healthy bank statements and formal structures to secure such contracts.

Fluidity of movement between informal and formal parts of the economy
The photographers of Maboneng, are, on the back of the cash flow realized through photography, pursuing their other interest in having a media company. This would be “mainly focused on everything to do with media — production, advertising, shoot it, design layout, production and media”. They registered their company Eye Media SA with the intention of making it a professional company, with an office and began initially with Sbu and X as Mpho was working for Prasa (a transport company) at the time. The media company was initially called Fruitboom media. They parted ways with Sbu retaining ownership of this company. X started a new company called Oomchenge Solutions (Oomchenge is his clan name referencing a belief in his ancestors and everything that derives from heritage and culture). Mpho has also started a new company called ‘Cactus and Tomatie’ which references something that is between a fruit and vegetable (Skwandele reference).

The informality they have chosen for their photography business allows these cultural entrepreneurs to play multiple roles in their media businesses. They work on creation (content production), the production process itself (video, pictures), marketing (discussing vision and visibility with clients). Most of their work is in business to business rather directly with clients. They work as retainers for other companies. They combine their respective skills in various assignments depending on where the emphasis is.

When asked about the coexistence and duality of this formal way of working with their street photography business they highlighted that this was a fluid movement with both co-existing within a similar cultural value chain of media and communication.

Credit: @eye_media_sa, Milka and her table of beads

Milkha decided in 2016 to work from inside a shop (she shared with June). They kept the tables on the pavement. Although she did this for two years, she realised that her trade was brisker and more profitable on the street. She found the rent a burden and felt like “this wasn’t me”. One day she decided to give June her key back. She returned to her spot just outside the entrance to the Arts on Main property. She hasn’t looked back.

Impact of Covid-19 on the work

Credit: @eye_media_sa, Maboneng official photographer, police van behind pedestrian wearing his mask under his chin

COVID-19 highlighted both the significance and vulnerability of the informal sector, and its close integration with social structures at community level, making this an appropriate moment to think about how it might be integrated into wider economic, social and cultural policy making — especially in developing economies with young populations, high rates of unemployment and fragile welfare structures.

Even during Covid-19 when many people were hiding in their homes, the photographers’ work attracted traffic. In fact, street traders were quick to point out that their ability to earn during the Pandemic was largely thanks to the photographers who kept foot traffic relatively high. The streets “don’t have seasons” according to the photographers and traders — but there is no doubt that Covid-19 hit the traders very hard since they rely more on international tourists than the photographers do. Malka was particularly insistent about the need for international tourists. She said “I hate just sitting there”.

Credit: @eye_media_sa, Fox Street west of the intersection with cars and not many people

Before COVID-19 there was a thriving Sunday market held in the parking garage of Arts on Main which was seen as critical to the profitability of the street traders. While there were attempts to relaunch this market over the past two years but it has been slow to take off. Traders also bemoan the absence of events such as the Rooftop Salsa at Arts on Main as it brought a different group of customers to their stalls and shops. It has now returned, not to the rooftop on Arts on Main but to the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Albrecht Street in the Maboneng precinct.

Market on Sunday in the Arts on Main parking area was very important — now started up again but a skeleton version of what it was. The attempt by June to host a Sunday Artisan market in the Museum of African Design unfortunately didn’t last more than a month. However Salsa has returned to Maboneng, now at the Cosmopolitan Hotel on Sundays.

COVID-19 was experienced differently by the two key groups in this study. The audience for the photographers is predominantly local (stemming from the need to be seen and recognised by your peers to be living your best life as evidenced by Instagram, Facebook posts) and they kept coming to the area to be photographed. The street traders rely heavily on both domestic and international tourism which resulted in a downturn in their trade during the pandemic.

Credit: Dana Gampel of 3 of her Salsa dancing friends in celebration of the Rio Carnival at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in early March 2021.

The street traders are struggling with the absence of international tourists to the area. Milkha added that she now does not have stock and is selling at wholesale prices to keep the product moving. She simply does not have “scarce money to buy stock”. Milkha now feels that she has perhaps been on the street too long. She is not sure what to do moving forward.

June, on the other hand did not suffer hugely during lockdown as she is always doing different cultural things with most of her customers are local or domestic tourists. She admits that tourists “bring a boost” to the area. She participates in a Gauteng tourism group formed by local traders who are mostly unregistered. The idea was to take the issues to the government which has not yet happened. She recalls that during the Xenophobic attacks, Maboneng became a ghost area with no cars for almost 2 months. The pandemic period never went quite that bad.

Section 3: Implications for public policy

Credit: @eye_media_sa, A close-up of a beaded rhinoceros

A trend or pattern?
The concentration of cultural economy activity in urban areas and the urban informal economy is growing especially rapidly where formal economic growth has not been commensurate with urban population growth. Cultural practitioners, professionals and artists find working in urban spaces the best opportunity to earn income, despite the difficulties experienced by all in the urban economy. As George Cachara has explained:

This increasing visibility of the cultural economy in cities across Africa is ‘emblematic of the African renaissance — characterised by the growth of per capita and household incomes, aggressive transformation of urban spaces, rapid adoption of digital communication, growing diaspora remittances and increased foreign direct investment’ (Cachara, 2020).

As the title of this study suggests, there is a constant interplay between what is “visible” and what is “invisible” between appearance and disappearance as evidenced by trading stalls disappearing into store fronts and back again; between clarity of working relationships and the lack of registration, tax compliance or pay slips; between cash and the absence of cash; between formality and informality, between foot traffic and empty streets, and between thriving and surviving.

The complexity of the informal and our need to study it to understand how this complexity works in different contexts for different types of people is vital asit can be very misleading to assume that urban informality can be reduced to a question of registration, taxation and labour relations”. As Brown, McGranahan and Dodman argue “The roots and dynamics of the urban informal economy are typically far more complicated than this’ ( 2014: 10–11).

Credit: @eye_media_sa, Street trader with sunglasses in the intersection catching the passing foot traffic

The stories from the photographers and street traders stories are indeed reflective of how the cultural economy operates in our country and that it is often quite distinct from the survivalist characteristics of the broader informal sector. Both the photographers and the street traders showed that they can earn an income far greater than qualified professionals working 9–5 jobs. What is needed is for public authorities to acknowledge the contribution that this informal cultural economy makes to the city’s and to the country’s economy. As a SACO study reveals, forty-three percent (43%) of cultural jobs are informal and more people work on a freelance or contract basis compared to non-cultural jobs — 32.5% compared to 8.3% respectively. However these figures hide and potentially obscure the textured nature of how informality differs according to the various cultural domains and from urban to town to village. Hopefully this type of investigation into a particular group of cultural workers and professionals will help mainstream the concerns of informal economy cultural workers and professionals and also ensure that practical policy solutions can be developed.

Implications for public sector support

The importance of documentation
It is often stated by economists and policy makers that if cultural activities are undocumented, they will be misunderstood. This gives rise to two different problems.

First, the lack of documentation about the informality prevalent in the cultural economy continues the perception that this part of the cultural economy is predominantly low-tech, unprofessional, unscalable, unchanging and non investible. The research study suggests that at least as far as the photographers and traders in Maboneng are concerned, this is not entirely correct. This research also concurs with that by the South African Cultural Observatory (2020) that there is considerable fluidity in the types of employment, with cultural workers moving seamlessly from the formal to informal sector and back again based on the prevailing economic conditions.

Second, when much of the output of our cultural economy undocumented and not recorded, governments (such as our own) are unaware of the scale, scope and reach of cultural work in the country. This understanding is necessary so that governments cam fully appreciate how the sector is organised or who its key participants are and construct public policy solutions tailor made to these participants. In addition, public policy needs to support organisations across the Global South such as SACO which is increasingly able to record, in a differentiated manner, both formal and informal work.

Knowing who works in the informal cultural economy and what their conditions of labour or trade are will facilitate better service provision and support. This requires the maintenance of a database of who is in the cultural economy, occupying which occupations across the value chains of the different cultural domains.

Informality is not transitory or marginal
A key implication then for public policy is to recognise that the informality of the cultural economy is not transitory or marginal, but rather has its own logic as an indigenous authentic economy and one that supports the growth of formality in the cultural economy. It is a multifaceted, complex local indigenous economy that is as diverse as the people who inhabit it. It is clear that cultural workers (as with many other informal workers) relate to the state and capital not through the wage but through a variety of forms of self-employment, own account work, and work as contributing family members. How can these cultural workers be protected in labour law, access unemployment insurance and generally be protected from inequity in contracts, poor and unsafe working conditions or the ubiquitous gender-based violence prevalent among women cultural workers?

Credit: @eye_media_sa, Madiba T-Shirts still sell well with tourists — not the locals, says Joe

New definitions needed for ‘employee’ and better health and safety standards
Perhaps new innovations such as the new status category in labour statistics of ‘dependent contractor’, which captures more accurately the situation of the majority of outworkers, home-based workers, and ‘gig’ workers (Wiego, 2020) would be a useful addition to the definition of an employee in South African labour law. In fact, in South Africa, there have been calls for an amendment to the definition of an employee (the Revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage (DSAC, 2020) repeated this call, to include self-employment, own account work and freelance work as these are not only typical of those excluded from the forms of social protection offered by employees, but are substantially present in the cultural economy. In the cultural economy, many people occupying occupations throughout the value chain would fit into these categories of precarious employment or whose enterprises lack legal recognition. The labour departments need to policies about health and safety standards for informal economy activities.

Public space and hard infrastructure
Informal cultural workers, traders and professionals require access to public space. It would be important to ensure public space is open to all and that there is appropriate provision of relevant physical infrastructure for enterprises, events, markets and trade whether these operate in informal spaces such as backyards in townships, informal settlements or street pavements (Brown, McGranahan and Dodman 2014).

Contracts and social security
Informal cultural workers, freelancers, crew as well as cultural professionals would benefit from legal support and standardised contracts as well as the provision of social security contributions from people not in formal employment (Chant, 2014).

Participation in local government decision making about trading
Local authorities need to include informal cultural sector workers, professionals and entrepreneurs in their consultative processes. Inexpensive and simple solutions to street trading, such as the provision of mobile covers so that informal traders themselves can decide where and when to work, rather than the typical bricks and mortar solutions. Clearly these traders bring life to the streets in the form of domestic and international tourists, so that in contained geographic areas, such as Maboneng, some degree of inexpensive public support can be provided.

Credit: @eye_media_sa, Photographer taking a photo of a man deep in contemplation

Securing social justice for informal workers
There are many broader questions that need to be debated and confronted about whether the larger public policy thrust is to formalise the informal sector or to create policies that recognise its independent (indigenous, authentic) and unique space in and contribution to the cultural economy. Much of the public policy discussion appears to favour the former so that even within the broader cultural economy there are calls to register companies, have certified documentation, enter into long term relationships with the formal financial institutions, insist on written contracts, become tax compliant and make use of lawyers to establish oneself or one’s company as a formally registered entity. This is not only needed to receive any grant funds from the government or its agencies such as the National Arts Council, it was also required to secure basic Covid-19 relief funds. This completely denies the reality of the choice that so many cultural workers and cultural professionals have made.

It is necessary to consider that informality may have been chosen because the prevailing formal arrangements and regulations that are being applied are poorly designed or discriminate against certain segments of society (such as women, freelancers, migrants, foreigners, the unbanked, crew, young entrepreneurs, risky businesses). So the challenge as Brown, McGranahan and Dodman conclude is “to improve upon the existing informal economy, not to formalize it or to protect it from formalization” (2014:11). A robust debate with evidence by many more such studies would help researchers, policy makers and government officials understand the trade-offs in supporting this informality against the argument that all those occupying positions across the cultural chains formalize, register and become tax compliant.

Public policy in most countries is based on the premise that all workers need to be drawn into the formal economy so that they can be subject to tax and regulation and are less likely to be victims of illegal and exploitative working conditions. However, in acknowledging the affordances and also challenges facing the informal sector, policy makers can design social protection and labour standards in ways appropriate for securing justice for informal workers. This could be achieved by cultural workers and creative professionals registering on a single database for authentication, or in hyper local areas, such as Maboneng, cultural intermediaries or precinct managers, could provide contract support and ensure unemployment or other social protection payments to cultural workers. These types of laws, regulation and policies for informal cultural workers and cultural professionals will ensure restorative justice to this vibrant, agile, flexible part of the cultural economy.


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Estimated to account for 60% of all economic activity globally, the informal economy is fundamental, yet poorly understood and under-researched. For the first time we are taking a snapshot across to open up a fuller discussion about its impact and future.

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