Guest Column

Herman Mashaba and the DA's politics of racialised gentrification

2018-11-26 15:45
Herman Mashaba. (Gallo)

Herman Mashaba. (Gallo)

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Herman Mashaba and his party's paradigm on economic governance will exacerbate socio-economic inequality and exclusion in the City of Johannesburg, writes Khwezilomso Mabasa.

Herman Mashaba's recent comments on informal traders have incited lively public debates on urban development and the second or informal economy. This term is derived from research lexicon, which makes a distinction between formal and informal economic activity. 

Proponents of this economic dualism describe the former as productive and modernised whilst the latter is viewed as purely survivalist and underdeveloped. Their logical conclusion is to integrate the informal into formal economic structures or transform the informal political economy so it operates like the first modernised developmental economy. This economic dualism seems value-neutral and objective on the surface. 

However, it is underpinned by paternalistic notions of development, which ignore historical and contemporary racialised patterns of uneven spatial development in South Africa. Furthermore, it fortifies the false notion that informal entrepreneurial and economic activity does not contribute to the nation's macro-socio-economic objectives. The end goal is to replace this perceived informality with formalised corporatised production. 

Politicians and spatial development planners normally use market or state driven gentrification to either destroy or assimilate informal economic activity into corporate value chains. Criminalisation and accompanying notions of building modern, clean world class cities are essential elements in this economic dispossession. A clear example is the experience of small retailers presented as evidence in the recent Competition Commission Grocery Retail Sector Inquiry.

Mashaba's tweets on disease-ridden meat trading in the city of Johannesburg exemplify this erroneous logic. It is not the first time that the mayor expresses baseless comments on small traders in the city. He previously instructed the police to shut down small enterprises in Johannesburg using the same irrational jargon of criminality, backwardness and alarming health risks. His views and subsequent actions are problematic for a number of reasons. 

First, they are not based on empirical research or facts. The sentiments are driven by an inherent ideological bias towards large concentrated food production and retail. A number of domestic and international food security studies illustrate how highly processed and genetically modified food items produced in formal value chains cause various health risks. 

As academic Ryan Isakson explains: "Food manufacturers have become increasingly beholden to shareholders demanding returns of 20 – 30 per cent. Rather than offering healthier food, for example, food processors have opted to produce products laden with salt, sugar, and fat that stimulate overeating and thereby maximise dividends for stockowners".

Second, Mashaba and his party's paradigm on economic governance will exacerbate socio-economic inequality and exclusion in the city. The underlying message of his commentary is: only formal large retail business can operate legitimately in Johannesburg. This excludes the plethora of small traders and street vendors who rely on retail for social and livelihood reproduction. 

Both documented and anecdotal evidence proves that the city and its law enforcement agencies deny these citizens their rights to engage in economic activity. This trend of micro-gentrification reproduces economic inequality and limits the minimal entrepreneurial opportunities for the most marginalised sections of our society. 

The Indlulamithi South Africa Scenarios 2030 report highlights the negative societal impacts of economic exclusion and inequality. It is associated with weak social cohesion, political instability, violence and many other social challenges. 

Thirdly, most informal traders in South Africa and the City of Johannesburg are African. The baseless criticism by Mashaba supports racialised stereotypical views on small African entrepreneurs and black business in general. This pervasive narrative argues that black business is characterised by inherent inefficiencies and non-compliance with basic legislative prescripts. 

Proponents question the legitimacy of these entities continuously using paternalistic language and criteria. Furthermore, the mayor's comments are embedded in discriminatory cultural beliefs about the food sold by these traders. Scholarship on food justice illustrates how the cultural hegemony of structural racism permeates food systems. Rachel Slocum, author of Race in the study of food, explains this in the following words: "Non-white groups are exoticized or demonized, and the food histories of marginalised people are ignored, appropriated or maligned". 

This quote highlights how people like Mashaba perpetuate cultural biases in food production and consumption.

Last, and most importantly, is the mayor's inability to address the systemic challenges encountered by small African informal traders. He has securitised a genuine socio-economic challenge that requires structural intervention. This illustrates Mashaba's failure to partner with small traders and provide them with the necessary support. 

An alternative approach is presented in MISTRA's research on the local state and development. It advises government to "review policies towards informal traders" and "prioritise economic upliftment and self-sufficiency of its citizenry". 

The deeper message for policy-makers is the necessity of recognising informal trading as a legitimate economic activity. This cannot be achieved without over-hauling what the MISTRA report describes as "aesthetic notions of towns/ cities". 

The language and politics of local development must change. It must be centred on the discourse of building a just city characterised by inclusive development. Notions of modernity that lead to racialised gentrification and dispossession are not sustainable.

- Khwezilomso Mabasa is a researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections (MISTRA).

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Read more on:    da  |  herman mashaba  |  johannesburg


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