The management of informality by the state has a long and complicated history
in Johannesburg. This dissertation deals with one recent element of that history: the
relationship between informal street traders and the City of Johannesburg municipal
government (the City).
In a 2013 effort to rid Johannesburg’s inner city of ‘crime and grime’, the City
evicted in the region of 8 000 street traders from their businesses, and kept them off
the street for three months. The mass eviction, dubbed ‘Operation Clean Sweep’,
eventually made its way before the Constitutional Court, where the City was
lambasted for its actions and ordered to allow street traders to resume their trade. In
the years that have followed, the relationship between the City and street traders has
been characterised by impasse.
The aim of this dissertation is to probe how bureaucracy works in people’s lives by
exploring what Operation Clean Sweep and its aftermath reveal about the relationship
between Johannesburg street traders and the local state. As a result, it fits into the
developing literature on what has been called the ‘human economy’ (Hart 2004).
Guided by various theoretical perspectives on both of the conceptual poles of the
relationship – the ‘state’ and the ‘informal sector’ – and drawing on ethnographic
material from my time as an employee at an NGO heavily involved in the developing
relationship between street traders and the City in the wake of Operation Clean
Sweep, the dissertation sheds light on aspects of the relationship until now largely
absent in the literature on Johannesburg street trade. The findings of the dissertation
ultimately suggest that systems in what are often understood as unordered ‘informal’
contexts, and deeply personal and contingent aspects of the City’s formal
bureaucracy, are central to understanding this relationship.
The Johannesburg street economy represents an immediate exposure of the ways in
which impersonal market exchanges are possible only through the continual eruption and control of the social and personal (Hart 2001). The dissertation reveals some of
the informal arrangements that have developed in a general absence of effective
management by the state. These include practices of reciprocity intimately shaped by
the street economy (Sahlins 1972), and the careful management of the visibility of
economic success, which often threatens the survival of reciprocity among street
traders, and therefore the survival of informal businesses themselves.
The state’s management of street trade, which has recently sought to impose
modernist schemes on the inner city, is produced from a complex interplay of, among
others, the state’s relationship with powerful elite property interests (Harvey 2009),
the personal motivations and experiences of bureaucrats, and a push to render street
traders legible (Scott 1998). This legibility is, however, not achieved through the
conventional devices of documentation and enumeration, but instead through the
development of a grammar of aesthetics (Ghertner 2011).