BLOG: An apple a day… The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the livelihoods of informal food traders – a case of Mangaung

Written by ACMS MA student Sinoyolo Godongwana. Image caption: Informal traders in Botshabelo (source: Mohapi Raboroko, Facebook)

An apple a day or two with a bit of tomatoes and potatoes being sold meant that there would be food to eat for Tumelo[1] and his family. The 21-day Covid-19 national lockdown is in full swing, and the struggle of securing the next meal couldn’t be more real for street vendors such as him.

“Even on a bad working day, I at least took home R100 to ensure that my family eats. Now, with me not being able to sell, has put so much strain on us.”

Said Tumelo when asked on how he’s coming with having to pause his business during this time. To add to his grievance, is the fact that they had to start eating the stock he had purchased, which was intended to bring in an income. He asks himself where he will source funds to restock. While the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, instructed that only essential services remain operational, Tumelo believes that his line of work is essential – essential for his survival.

The South African Department of Small Business Development recently set-up a Small, Medium and Micro-sized Enterprises (SMMEs) relief fund, which aims to curb the burden of the national Covid-19 lockdown on such businesses. To this effect, the Department of Free State Economic, Small Business Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (DESTEA) sent out a press release calling on (only South African owned) SMMEs who want to be considered for this fund to apply by the 26th of March 2020. When asked about this fund, Tumelo stated that he was unaware of such an initiative by the government and further continues to state that limited or lack of awareness stood in the way of him putting through his submission. Having looked through the funding criteria myself, Tumelo confirmed that his business not being registered with the Companies Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC) could also be a setback for him getting the funding. Tumelo stands as the voice of many small-scale entrepreneurs like him who have been adversely impacted by this pandemic because they either do not meet the criteria for funding, or awareness is limited on how to go about getting assistance.

What remains clear though – as I observe as Tumelo’s wife pour their last scoop of mealie-meal in a pot to eat with fried onions for lunch – is how the next meal is still a wonder. While chatting with the family, they also pointed out to me that before the Covid-19 outbreak, there was a free system of ‘borrowing’ food items amongst community members, but now that system has intensified. My concern with this is that very few, if any, community members have neither masks nor sanitisers to help control the spread of the virus amid this system of ‘borrowing’. If you ask me, the Covid-19 has the potential to spread like a wild fire in this area of Mangaung.

SMME Covid-19 regulations relaxed
As an attempt to provide relief to individuals such as Tumelo, on the 2nd of April the South African government amended the regulations around the services that should continue with its operations. Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, of the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) – delivered an address stating that,

“As we have said that as the situation evolves, regulations will be changed – with some being relaxed and some becoming more stringent. We have had a few lessons from the past week of the shutdown. One of the things that we have realised is that spaza shops were supposed to be open but for some reason, some were asked to close. So, I would like to clarify that all spaza shops should be opened including informal food traders. However, they need to obtain a permit from either their councillors or municipalities so that they can be permitted to trade freely.”

First, I was quite thrilled at these news as it meant that Tumelo – and others just like him – would now be back in business and income can now start flowing again. My excitement dissipated as I suddenly realised Tumelo’s customers are actually at home. The rapid movement of people to and from work meant that there were enough feet for Tumelo to get customers, but now the movement is limited. Then how is it of use? That informal traders are permitted to operate yet the source of sales is still a mystery – an unending cycle of frustration if you ask me. In addition to not having food at home, now they will have to counter the burden of taking taxis to and fro their places of work only to get one customer – if any.

On the morning of the 6th April – exactly 4 days after the minister had declared a relief for informal trading, a fleet of informal traders flooded the streets of Botshabelo (see image above) in an attempt to push sales. My issue with this, is that this draws a large number of people into close proximity of each other – increasing the likelihood of the spreading of the virus.

My aim with this post is not to critic government efforts, but to rather make a call to all relevant stakeholders to relook the relief model – particularly for the most vulnerable. If we, as a country, are to combat this virus we first have to effectively empower marginalised communities. This is not just a fight for government, but rather one that all South Africans need to fight. I call on all individuals, entities, corporates and any relevant stakeholders to help fight the spread the coronavirus.

Click here to find out more about the SMMEs government relief fund.

[1] For the purpose of anonymity, the respondent opted to be referred to as Tumelo.  He further stated that should there be any officials wanting to verify any information with the aim of providing aid, he will avail himself.

Sinoyolo Godongwana is a Masters student at the Wits University, African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS). Her passion in entrepreneurship was recognised back in 2013 when she received the Best Young Entrepreneur Award from the Free State government in partnership with the International Labor Organization. Subsequently, entering motherhood has inspired an interest in children’s health and wellbeing, thus her research looks at the impact of parental migration on the health and wellbeing of children.