From clothing to household supplies and food, the streets of Johannesburg’s CBD are still awash with informal traders trying to make ends meet.
Equally busy in the global landscape is the Covid-19 coronavirus, which has claimed more than 9 000 lives since its outbreak in China in December.
At the time of writing this article, 554 people in South Africa had tested positive since the country’s first case was reported on March 5.
On Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country will go into a 21-day lockdown to slow down the spread of the virus, and advised South Africans not to panic, to frequently wash their hands with soap and water or use hand sanitisers, and to minimise physical contact.
However, Sibusiso Ngcobo’s business relies on daily physical contact with strangers, and putting Ramaphosa’s advice into practice has been challenging.
The 30-year-old sells sweets, snacks and beverages inside the Bree Street Taxi Rank. He admits to practising the most basic form of hygiene – washing his hands – but, like other traders in the area, he said he had not put any protective measures in place for his customers.
“I haven’t made any measures for my customers. I see people wearing masks, but it’s probably 1% of the people passing by,” he told City Press.
Ngcobo, a young entrepreneur who also has a hand in two other businesses in the CBD, supports eight people from the profits he makes at his stall.
He said that, while he was aware of the implications should he contract the virus, he was not panicking yet.
“I’m not in panic mode because, to a certain extent, I think the situation is under control. If I was panicking, I’d put on a mask and everything. It’s not expensive, but there’s no need yet.
“However, if the situation escalates, I might have to shut up shop because I don’t want to contract the virus and if I do have it, I don’t want to infect other people,” Ngcobo said.
Kearabetswe Makoti used to buy fruit and snacks from street traders to support their businesses, but is reticent to do so now.
“If I want something to eat on the go, for example vetkoek, I either spend more and buy them from the canteen at my office, or I simply carry an extra lunch tin that contains breakfast, lunch and snacks from home,” she said.
Is enough being done to protect the vulnerable?
Brian Phaaloh is the secretary-general of the SA Informal Traders Forum, which works with organisations representing informal traders on how to become financially independent, while educating them on their rights.
He said the safety of informal traders should be prioritised.
“We have plans to go around on the streets to make sure that traders are practicing safe precautions. We are having difficulties working with municipalities, so we have approached the private sector. Through this, we plan to distribute hand sanitisers to traders so that they are safe,” he said.
The symptoms of Covid-19 are similar to flu, and Ngcobo said government should encourage people to get flu injections and vaccinations.
“This should avoid the conflict between flu and coronavirus so that we know which is which,” he said.
Is coronavirus to blame?
On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, the only protection that most of the traders along Lilian Ngoyi Street in the centre of Johannesburg have is an umbrella to keep themselves and their stock dry.
However, the amount of rain they’re exposed to may be the least of their problems, as most of them said their sales had dropped over the past few weeks.
To them, the decline is attributed to customers being more cautious during this “coronavirus season”.
“I just started my business this year. I don’t make lot of money, but people don’t come to buy any more,” said Gift, a young man who sells vegetables from a trolley on the corner of Lilian Ngoyi and Ntemi Piliso streets.
Ngcobo agreed with Gift about the decline in sales, but believes the reason for this decline runs deeper than the virus.
“Coronavirus is the last straw. Before corona, there was unemployment, recession and a downgrade by Moody’s Investors Service. And there were the Guptas. Business has been more affected by the recession than coronavirus,” said Ngcobo.
“Also, all the state-owned enterprises are failing, so coronavirus came into a state whose affairs are not in order. Therefore, it could automatically be regarded as the main cause, but there are underlying issues that have not yet been dealt with.
“Maybe they’re not buying because they’re saving just in case this thing becomes more serious – saving so they can afford to stay at home and feed their families,” he told City Press.