International migrants in Johannesburg's informal economy

The informal economy plays a significant role in the entrepreneurial landscape of the City of Johannesburg and is patronized by the majority of the city’s residents. A 2013 representative survey of Johannesburg residents found that 11% owned businesses of which 65% operated in the informal economy. Despite speculation about the penetration of migrant entrepreneurs in the informal economy, only 20% of informal economy business owners had moved to Gauteng from another country. This means that fully 80% of informal enterprises in Gauteng are South African-owned. Fears about the numbers of international informal economy entrepreneurs and their potential impact on South African businesses are undoubtedly exaggerated but they did escalate in intensity in the 2000s and found expression in violent xenophobic attacks. In Johannesburg, the most recent outbreak of xenophobic violence, including murder and razing of homes and business premises, in January and April 2015.

The rhetoric of politicians during and following the xenophobic attacks of 2015 was generally hostile to migrant entrepreneurs. The policy environment in the city is uneven especially for street traders who operate in the central business district (CBD). In 2013, the City initiated Operation Clean Sweep, which literally swept traders off the street. Although the operation removed all traders regardless of nationality, the municipal re-registration process attempted to limit access to South Africans only. Yet, despite this unwelcoming environment, migrants continue to own and operate businesses in the city. This paper is based on research conducted by the Growing Informal Cities (GIC) project, a partnership between the Southern African Migration Programme (SAMP), the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town, the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) and Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo.


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