Across the world, the urban informal sector can be a vital source of goods and services, particularly for the urban poor. In Durban, South Africa, Warwick Junction is home to the city’s major transport hub as well as its greatest concentration of informal traders. Approximately 8,000 traders sustain their livelihoods in the nine markets of Warwick Junction and on the streets which link them, by providing for the over 460,000 people who commute through this area every day. Food is one of the most commonly traded goods; fresh fruits and vegetables, ‘phutu’ (maizemeal) and beans, boiled mealies and bovine head meat (served with steamed bread and hot, fresh chilis) are a few of the many different types of food which are found in abundance in this area.
While a number of supermarkets exist in Warwick Junction—and certainly play an important role in providing staple foods to Durban’s residents—the informal food traders provide affordable, culturally valued food which is very easily accessible and can be eaten on-the-go. A common practice that informal food traders employ is to buy goods in bulk and then divide their purchases into small, affordably priced bundles. Although the selling price per unit may be slightly higher, the convenience of buying food on one’s way to and from work, and the fact that many people do not have access to a refrigerator, makes buying small portions a more feasible option.
Purchasing food on credit is another major benefit that informal food traders offer to their customers. Because South Africans often lack a consistent income, the ability to buy food when needed and pay for it later could mean the difference between having food on the table and skipping a meal. This practice is also a testament to the cohesiveness of the community in Warwick Junction.
Furthermore, the Warwick Junction food traders sell foods which are indigenous to South Africa, which is important in terms of uplifting the cultural heritage of the local people, who have, throughout history, been subjected to discrimination and marginalization.
Informal food traders provide a degree of food security to the residents of the Durban and their entrepreneurship allows them to support themselves and their families. Furthermore, in South Africa’s current economic climate, where formal jobs are hard to come by, food trading, and the larger informal sector, provides a safety net for those looking for work.
But the Durban Municipality, like many other local governments in both developed and developing world cities, treats these traders with contempt. Rubbish collection occurs infrequently, many of the toilet facilities are in very poor condition, and there are countless stories about informal traders being harassed or having their goods confiscated unlawfully. 68 percent of street vendors in South Africa are women and research conducted in a number of Global South countries shows that women are far more likely to sell perishable goods than men. The issue of a lack of support for, and hostility toward informal food traders is therefore a gendered one.
Informal food traders in Warwick Junction, and throughout the world, tend to be undervalued in terms of their ability to provide food security and meaningful employment. Governments have an opportunity to celebrate the existence of informal food trade and afford informal traders the rights and dignity that they deserve.