With few supermarkets serving large populations in lower income areas, particularly in townships, the informal sector plays a critical role in serving these customers. Previous studies estimate that 65% of households in low-income neighbourhoods in Cape Town frequently purchase goods from local informal food vendors. Many informal food vendors provide access to fresh, healthy food for low-income households with precarious incomes, allowing for frequent, low-cost food purchases without additional transport expenditure. In the township context where some households do not have refrigerators and cannot necessarily afford to buy in bulk, this is critical. They are also vital for creating employment and reducing poverty, fuelling South Africa’s vibrant township economy. In many cases, informal food vendors are the primary breadwinners for their large households. A 2017 study of over 1000 informal food vendors in Cape Town found that 78% of surveyed vendors reported that their business earnings was their only source of household income. It is therefore not surprising that the effects of the lockdown on both low-income households and informal business owners have been devastating.
To quote from interviews recently conducted by 71point4 with informal food traders in Khayelitsha and Phillipi:
“The issue of not having something to put on the table when I have kids as a single parent… it’s very hard. Now that we have to quarantine in our homes, nobody buys chickens anymore and the business is going down.” – Ntombekhaya, chicken seller, Khayelitsha
“I have a braai stand but I can’t do business because my permit states that I must sell raw meat. It is difficult because it’s my only income. I can’t even support myself and we are nine in a household.” – Nosibusiso, braai stand owner, Khayelitsha
Although the government’s proposal to top up the Child Support Grant will provide some support, it is unlikely to replace lost income. A better outcome would see informal food vendors operating without the barriers of bureaucracy and the fear of arrest. Instead of harassing business owners, the government and law enforcement should actively support informal food vendors to maintain food security in low-income areas throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
Naturally, this would require flexibility regarding how informal vendors are allowed to operate, requiring a very different model of interaction between vendors and authorities, principally in municipal government. There may be opportunities for some vendors to expand their operational space or be relocated to vacant premises with access to water and sanitation services (such as taxi ranks, parkings lots or school grounds) where social distancing in queues is possible. This would reduce overcrowding outside supermarkets and simultaneously reduce the need for households to use public transport to access food. Cooperation with law enforcement would not only ensure that social distancing rules are followed, but would also provide protection from theft and potentially violent conflict — a material benefit, particularly for women-owned businesses.