informal vendors Durban, South AfricaIn a small office building, tucked away behind a teaming transit hub in Durban, South Africa, lies a participatory action and advocacy NGO doing some really cool work. The NGO, Asiye eTafuleni (AeT), is celebrating ten years of successfully supporting the informal workers of Warwick Junction in their campaign for municipal investment into their public workplaces. These public spaces, which were carved out of the segregated apartheid city by the transit system, represent some of the few places where blacks, coloreds and Indians were allowed within the city proper. Confined to the light rail transit station and surrounding bus hubs, commuters were not allowed to wander to the nearby shops to buy a bag of ‘crisps’ or a hot meal for the long ride home.

The station, therefore, became a natural breeding ground for the informal economy, where the economically marginalized could carve out a living hawking packaged food, fresh produce and daily essentials on train platforms or through bus windows. The street vendors met a need that the apartheid state refused to acknowledge and, in doing so, laid the literal foundation for the eight bustling informal markets that now make up Warwick Junction.

As the apartheid government fell in 1994, the new national, provincial and municipal governments focused on reintegrating both the economy and the built environment. Black Economic Empowerment policies were developed to help oppressed groups regain a foothold in the economy. Durban began to explore policies that would help establish precedent for supporting informal workers, both through decriminalization and business support. These policies were important in changing both economic narratives and governing logic, in the hopes of remedying past discrimination. But policies, alone, could not be enough.

The City of Durban would need to put its money where its mouth was if it wanted to truly carve out urban opportunities for the thousands of workers looking for employment. So, in 1996 it began a series of investments into informal marketplaces, particularly in Warwick Junction. Richard Dobson was hired as an architectural consultant to help design these investments. Patrick Ndlovu served as the enforcement office for the Business Support Unit responsible for overseeing and regulating the markets. The City built vending stalls, secured storage facilities, improved public lavatories and provided shelters for the roughly 8,000 traders in the area.

These investments improved working conditions, formalized workspaces, allowed traders to increase their inventory and brought dignity to critical jobs. Vendors in Warwick Junction sell packaged foods, cooked foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, second hand and tailored clothes, CDs and DVDs, traditional medicines, beaded jewelry and other crafts. They meet the needs of the 460,000 daily commuters, which change hourly, daily and seasonally. These marketplaces are a breathing organism of regeneration and ingenuity.

pinafore sellersIt is in the bustle of these marketplaces that I spent my summer, researching the social implications of acknowledging public space as work place. As a Master of Public Policy student focused on social justice, I was intensely curious about how both cultural practice and economic redistribution could thrive within informality, particularly in the post-apartheid context. I was also excited to see how a small NGO could create direct impact by building relationships between informal workers and City staff. AeT relies on the participatory action research model in which they train participants to perform original research, present findings to relevant stakeholders, and advocate for their own needs.

When done right, this model can be self-reinforcing, can help bridge gaps in communication, can bring a more representative population to the table and can avoid the hegemonic relationship of advocating for a silenced group. With ten years of progressive experience in this space, AeT was the perfect organization to learn from.

As a policy fellow with AeT, I supported a broad range of their projects, including a research project that will design a street crib for working mothers who bring their children to work, a public lavatories analysis and user engagement strategy, and a dialogue between academics and city officials around the appropriate level of regulation in the informal economy. I secured ethics approval for original research, evaluated the findings for a grant and wrote a close-out report, drafted and administered user surveys, and participated in information gathering and report-back sessions.

But most importantly, I got to grapple with the emerging and challenging questions that global cities are increasingly contending with in regard to the informal economy. As New York City struggles to regulate ridesharing apps and San Francisco develops a registration system for AirBnBs; as Portland delegates underutilized space to food trucks and Vancouver puts out a call for street vendors, the City of the Future begins to change shape. There are opportunities now, more than ever before, to embrace innovative, resilient and reflexive urban spaces.

During my time at AeT, a group of MIT researchers hosted a dialogue between officials from various City departments, local research organizations and academics to discuss the role of city planning and design in creating new urban economies. It was an opportunity for the City to evaluate its existing urban frameworks and discuss opportunities for growth, resilience and adaptability. This cross-collaboration began to challenge traditional understandings of urban space and place, providing fresh perspectives and critical frameworks that I’m excited to apply to urban policy analysis this coming year.

As always, travel gave me the opportunity to reflect, this time it just made me realize that modern cities around the world are actually not so far apart.

On my last day in Durban, a large fire broke out in the traditional medicine market. The fire burned roughly one third of the market, destroying the annual inventory of seventy-seven medicine vendors and traditional healers. If you would like to learn more about the market and contribute to our fundraising campaign to provide some immediate relief to these informal workers, please go to our GoFundMe page. 

street art

Photo Credit: Haily Tran and Asiye eTafuleni