Building Street Vendor Power in the Face of Repression in African Cities

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Street vendors in Accra, Ghana.
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For more than 20 years, the WIEGO network has been tracking trends affecting street vendors in public space. We have seen street vendors across the Global South exposed to repeated cycles of evictions, often followed by periods of tolerance, running parallel with election cycles. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this repression was exacerbated: while in some places street vendors were recognized as essential service providers, most vendors were shut out of their public work space, often by force, leaving them without an income. In the African cities of Accra, Dakar and Durban, vendors have faced a crisis on top of a crisis, as evictions have extended far beyond the period of COVID-related restrictions, complicating their efforts at recovery.

Current challenges 

In February 2022, the Accra Metropolitan Authority, with backing from Ghana's President, initiated the “Clean your Frontage” campaign, which resulted in a large-scale effort to displace vendors and confiscate their goods. The campaign was denounced by Amnesty International for its associated human rights abuses and they called for its immediate suspension until the workers had been properly relocated. From the outset, worker organizations have called for dialogue and negotiated solutions to evictions, but so far the government has not responded.

In Dakar, Senegal, punitive measures against street vendors have long been justified as advancing a “modernization and sanitation” agenda – dating back to the colonial period. Echoing language used in Accra, past evictions were part of the city’s ‘zero waste’ policy that aimed to ‘clean’ the streets. Now, increased harassment, violence and arrests of vendors are being driven by the construction of the city’s bus rapid transit system, as urban planning authorities have failed to include street vendors in these plans. 

In Durban, South Africa, there has also been an increase in punitive enforcement and unlawful confiscations. Enforcement officers have escalated tactics through weekly raids where they are involved in destroying traders’ goods through the use of a compactor on site. Legally this is questionable – as an act of destroying private property without due process that leaves traders no chance to appeal the action and have their goods returned.

Building worker power 

Across these cities, street vendors are working to strengthen their organizational power through a variety of strategies. Asiye eTafuleni (AeT) – a non-profit focused on the inclusion of informal workers’ needs in urban planning and design in Durban – trains traders to become ‘champions’ who in turn educate their fellow traders on their rights, health and waste minimization.

Given the current hostile environment, street vendors in Dakar understand that it is critical that they speak with one voice. As a result, 17 separate trader organizations in the city have come together in the Platform of Actors in the Informal Sector (PASI). In Accra, WIEGO is working with trader organizations to increase their understanding of the legal framework governing their work, their rights, and their options for recourse against punitive enforcement.

Navigating the state

In parallel, organizations in all three cities are working to engage the state in dialogue around solutions to end futile, costly and unjust evictions and maximize vendors’ contributions. In Accra, WIEGO supports vendors’ organizations in building relationships with middle-level bureaucrats and technocrats to increase their understanding of workers’ lived experiences at work, so that they can help shift punitive discourses and policies. 

In Dakar, WIEGO has focused on creating spaces where the PASI is able to engage with national and local authorities. In May 2022, for example, WIEGO and PASI convened a dialogue with government officials to discuss the challenges for street traders as a result of Dakar´s modernization plans. National urban planning agency staff recognized that street vendors had not been included in the consultations, and pledged to share the newer version of the plan.

In Durban, the city has established an informal economy forum where traders and city officials meet. Unfortunately, while its primary objective is to improve management of informal trade, the council has used it to co-opt key trader leaders to help enforce permit checks and evictions. This has led to significant divisions among traders and has made systemic engagement with the city government near impossible.

Finding new allies – civil society and the media 

In both Accra and Dakar, WIEGO has worked towards strengthening collaborations and partnerships with the trade union movement to secure greater leverage in negotiations with the state. In Dakar, the team has cultivated a strategic alliance with the Confédération Nationale des Travailleurs du Sénégal (CNTS), for example. 

In Durban and Accra, the teams have developed partnerships with environmental organizations. AeT’s joint project with GroundWork has initiated a new important stream of work where traders are part of climate mitigation strategies. In Accra, the team has partnered with the global network of mayors addressing climate change – C40

Conscious of the importance of working with the media as a key to shifting public opinion, WIEGO teams in Accra and Dakar have been building relationships with journalists and the Dakar team has done an initial training with PASI to help them present their demands to journalists.

Leveraging the law to open up spaces for negotiation  

Worker organizations often prefer dialogue with local authorities over litigation – which is time-consuming and costly. As a result, a focus for WIEGO in supporting worker organizations has been supporting workers to use existing laws – especially administrative laws and principles – to strengthen their position in negotiations with the authorities. Memoranda of understanding (MOUs) between local authorities and street traders, resulting from this collective bargaining, can be an effective mechanism to manage public spaces and to institutionalize collective bargaining.

Ways forward

Given the forces street vendors are up against, it is important to build power from below and strengthen organizations. Collective bargaining is key to building counter power and traders need to secure meaningful and enforceable MOUs between parties. There is a need for urban planning training – as identified by AeT – to demystify planning and design processes for street vendors. Through demonstration projects traders could show the general public and local authorities that they themselves are part of the solution to urban management issues. 

The increase in stigmatization and punitive enforcement measures against informal workers is a reality across these contexts. Informal workers are also dealing with an ongoing cost of living crisis and concrete effects of climate change that directly impact their livelihoods and health. How cities choose to confront urban crises is the test of our times. Cities may very well intensify the negative rhetoric and repressive actions towards workers in informal employment. Or they can prove their commitment to resilient urban policies and systems and bring workers to a seat at the table.

Top photo: Street vendors at work in Accra, Ghana. Credit: Benjamin Forson
Informal Economy Topic
Occupational group