Clean-sweep tidies up

2013-11-24 14:00

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There’s a battle royal being fought on the streets of Johannesburg’s CBD as city authorities move to ‘sweep clean’ crowded downtown pavements. Sipho Masondo takes a walk. Lucky Nxumalo takes the pictures

There is something different on the streets surrounding the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Joubert Park, the crammed Noord Street taxi rank and De Villiers and King George streets.

It’s about 10.15am on a Friday ?–?and the streets are almost squeaky-clean.

There is no congestion on the pavements of Klein Street, which is used almost exclusively by taxis en route to the Noord Street rank.

There isn’t a hawker in sight: no one shoving fong kong jewellery, DVDs, sneakers, jeans or half-rotten fruit in your face, urging you to buy.

Abel Nkosi, for one, is proud. “All these changes are the ­result of ‘Project Clean Sweep’,” Nkosi says.

He is one of the deputy directors at the Johannesburg Metro Police Department and today he and Nthatisi Modingoane, spokesperson for the City of Joburg, and a few other officials are taking City Press on a tour of the city centre.

This part of the city has been in steady decline since the early 1990s after buildings like the ANC’s former headquarters, Shell House, the Action Cinema and several residential blocks of flats were illegally occupied and vandalised.

This is where many criminals, pickpockets and petty thieves operate.

It’s where, a few years ago, I saw a woman sobbing loudly, throwing her hands into the air in despair after a pickpocket had nicked her R10?000 December salary she had just withdrawn from an ATM.

While other parts of downtown Joburg have undergone a major face-lift in the past decade, the section we’re visiting ­today has remained dirty, dangerous and chaotic.

On the flip side, it’s been home to a vibrant informal economy: before Clean Sweep swooped in last month, more than 8?000 hawkers and informal traders were operating here.

Modingoane says that despite the headlines, there’s more to this process than removing ­informal traders.

“We are also removing illegal taxi ranks. We will also tackle ­hijacked, vandalised and illegal buildings. We will deal with illegal electricity connections, shebeens, taverns and shops.

“We will move into all areas of the city, including Hillbrow, ­Berea, Randburg, Bara and the Jabulani CBD in Soweto.”

We set off from the Joburg Art Gallery and I immediately notice that the illegal taxi rank in King George’s Street has been shut down.

Our tour takes us down Klein Street towards Noord Street. I quickly realise that Nkosi is a ­familiar face on these streets.

At the corner of De Villiers and Klein streets, a group of loitering teenagers flee when they see him.

A group of hawkers who have just offloaded a consignment of juice from a light delivery vehicle assure Nkosi that they will not sell their products on the streets.

We turn into De Villiers Street, also known as Little Lagos because most of the shop owners here are Nigerians.

The one-way street is filthy and smelly, but the large pavements are open.

“You see this area, it was a no- go zone. You couldn’t walk here. There was no space for pedestrians,” says Nkosi, adding that the wide pavements had been hijacked by informal traders.

Stands that were occupied by informal traders now stand empty. Picture: Lucky Nxumalo/City Press

Women sitting alongside buildings touting for customers who may need a quick haircut slip away quietly, one by one, when they see Nkosi coming.

The pedestrian alleyway stretching from the end of King George’s Street to Plein Street, where the famous Small Street begins, is empty.

This is remarkable – the alleyway had become home to no less than 2?000 hawkers on any given day.

Huge spaces here were occupied by women who had set up stalls where they cooked meals and braaied meat for patrons.

A single plate of pap and a huge chunk of chicken or steak sold for R30.

Now all that remains of this ­informal business district is ­residual oil on the concrete, soot and puddles of smelly water.

In the hawkers’ place are ­municipal workers in overalls ­installing water pipes.

“You see, these guys only moved here after we had removed the hawkers. They couldn’t work here as the hawkers refused to move,” says Modingoane.

In Wanderers Street, a stone’s throw from Park Station, a hawker selling tomatoes takes one look at Nkosi, packs his bags and flees.

“The business here was probably lucrative. This rank is used by long-distance taxis. Here you find taxis to anywhere in the country. There are even cross-border taxis.

“So people would come here to eat before they set out on their journeys,” says Nkosi.

As far as he’s concerned, removing the hawkers has had a positive knock-on effect.

“The pavements were so packed that we couldn’t even see crime through our cameras. People committed petty crimes such as common robbery and got away with it.

Nkosi says: “Others had stalls which fronted for [the selling of] drugs.

“These people urinate on pavements when they want to relieve themselves. They drink in public and do all sort of things.”

Nkosi’s presence is an unpleasant surprise for several more people on our journey.

As we reach the Noord Street taxi rank, he ambushes a group of hawkers selling fresh fruit.

Fruit and vegetable hawkers at the Noord Street taxi rank packed up when they were told to do so by the Johannesburg Metro Police Department. Picture: Lucky Nxumalo/City Press

They plead for mercy as he tells them to pack up and go – their children are hungry at home, they say.

Nkosi remains unmoved.

Geoff Nemakonde, a hawker who has been operating in the city centre since 1988, is one of the thousands who are furious about the city’s latest moves.

Through his business – he sells vegetables?–?Nemakonde says, he has been able to build himself, his wife and two children a four-roomed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg.

Nemakonde feeds his family, sends his children to school and sends money back home to his mother and two sisters in ­Thohoyandou.

“Every week I make up to R7?000 of which R5?000 is reserved for stock. The rest is ­profit. I used to work for a company that manufactured catering equipment, but I was ­retrenched in 1988.”

Since being booted out of the city, he has had to dig deep into his meagre savings. He’s worried about what comes next.

“Once the money is finished, we will be out in the cold. They tell us we will be able to get back to our stalls in January, but how do they expect us to survive in the meantime? They tell us it’s not their problem.”

He may not be popular with the hawkers, but Nkosi and his team are thanked several times during our walk.

“We are so grateful,” Geoffrey Shabalala stops to tell us.

“I grew up on these streets, but what they have become is a sorry sight. We are so thankful for what you have done,” he tells Nkosi.

Another businessman, who doesn’t give his name, says: “Thank you. People can now come into our shops and buy. Before, people ended at the pavements where all the hawkers were. Many of us went out of business.”

» Talk to us: Do you think the city should be evicting hawkers from the CBD?

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