‘It is just a hustle’: A migrant vendor speaks


For an immigrant street trader in Durban, life was hard before the lockdown in 2020. But the COVID-19 crisis lowered earnings even further. This is a condensed story of a worker employed at a stall in inner city Durban which highlights the conditions of many migrants in South Africa at the time.

Nokwanda’s (not her real name) trading space stands out amongst the brightly coloured second-hand clothing stalls on an inner-city Durban street.  Her 2×1-metre stall is filled mainly with boxes of cigarettes, and some lighters, matches and sweets. The business is not her own, but she has been running it for the past three years for her employer.

The business is doing very well. There is a constant stream of customers buying loose cigarettes, single boxes, and less often a ten-pack.  Sometimes she gets her neighbour to help when she has more than one customer.  They have a good relationship, and he is willing to offer his assistance.

She earns R550 per week and works from 7:30 in the morning until 5:30 in the evening, Monday to Saturday. It’s a long week, and the pay is well below the minimum wage of R21.69 an hour she would receive if she were able to access labour rights.

Nokwanda, as an immigrant, is particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

A street vendor in Durban central Credit:Jonathan Torgovnik

Leaving home to survive

Nokwanda arrived in South Africa from Malawi in 2016, when she was 26 years old. She joined the 100,000 Malawian migrants who have come to South Africa in search of work. Malawi is the fourth poorest country in the world and there are few economic opportunities. Unable to find work at home, Nokwanda made the difficult decision to leave her family so that she could support herself and her young children.

She imagined a better life in South Africa, but her hopes were dashed. “It is just a hustle,” she said.

It took Nokwanda almost a year to find this job at the trading stand. Fortunately, she was able to rely on her two sisters in Cape Town who work as domestic workers.

Nokwanda’s three children, aged 11, 8 and 6,  live in Malawi with her sister in Balaka a town in the south.  She tries to send R800 back to her family in Malawi every month. This was hard before the COVID 19 pandemic but after it has been a bigger struggle.

Loss of income

From March 27, 2020 when South Africa went into strict lock down, until the beginning of July, Nokwanda received no salary.  She asked her employer for a loan, but he said he was struggling himself and could not help her. It was the only time they communicated during the lockdown period. Her neighbour occasionally gave her food, donated by the mosque he attends, and her landlord allowed her to postpone her rent. But she got no other relief.

She had saved R3 000 to go home to see her children but COVID-19 but she was forced to use up her savings to survive. She borrowed R 1 000 from a friend which she still has to pay back with interest.

Like most women informal workers, Nokwanda’s household and care duties increased during the lockdown. Her sister has a 4-year-old child who lives with them and the day-care centre was closed. Her sisters were also not working during the lockdown, so they were at home together and able to share responsibilities for the child, cooking and cleaning the house.

No official support

Nokwanda was afraid to apply for government relief funds because she is a migrant without a work permit.  

For the first two and a half months of lockdown, only South Africans, permanent residents, and refugees could get the R350 COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) Grant. In June, the Scalabrini Centre went to the Gauteng High Court to get government to open the SRD Grant to asylum-seekers and special permit holders.  It won the court order and people from certain countries were allowed to apply for the grant.   However, this still excludes many migrants living in South Africa, including Nokwanda. She is not from one of the designated countries and does not have a refugee permit. Due to border closures, however, she was not able to go home.

With no income, she was unable to send money to her family back home. Even when the lockdown eased and she returned to work in July, Nokwanda could not sell her most popular item – cigarettes. For almost two months she only earned R250 a month.

The cigarette industry was hit hard due to a tobacco ban from the first day of lockdown and it was only lifted in late August 2020.  National government imposed the ban to reduce the number of  people suffering from respiratory problems in serious cases of COVID-19. However, the ban only boosted the illegal cigarette industry, which already made up 35% of cigarette sales pre-lockdown.

Cigarettes are heavily taxed, so government lost a huge amount in tax.  Prices of cigarettes also massively increased. Before the lockdown, Nokwanda sold a box of cigarettes for about  R16. Post-lockdown, the price for a box of cigarettes was R25. Nokwanda’s employer kept his prices high even after government lifted the ban, because his suppliers did the same. But this is hurting sales. Legal tobacco companies fear that the illegal cigarette trade will continue to boom in South Africa.

Nokwanda’s salary returned to its previous level of R550 per week in August, but she is using any extra money to pay back her debts.  She still cannot send money or save for a trip home. This has left her family in a shaky position, as her remittances are vital to their wellbeing. This is heart breaking for Nokwanda.

She fights a constant battle with the police because the permit for her trading space is under her employer’s name. She hopes to get her own permit and set up her own stall once she gets her refugee permit.  But she is worried that her migrant status will still work against her.

Cost of getting to work

Nokwanda, her sisters and niece live in a suburb west of central Durban, about 6 kilometres from her place of work. The distance adds to her expenses. Nokwanda travels in a minibus taxi, as do most South Africans.  Although public transport is a government responsibility, 75% of daily trips are in informal minibuses because they offer an efficient service.

Transport prices rose rapidly during the lockdown because fewer people were travelling and taxis had to operate at 70% capacity. Following major protests near the end of June, the government removed restrictions for short distance travel, but prices are still not back to normal.  Nokwanda’s journey to and from work cost her R20 per day before lockdown but now she pays R24 per day.

But there are benefits to living where she does as a large number of immigrants also live in the area.

When she first arrived,  South Africans helped her to learn the language and she felt welcome. However, since the lockdown, she has felt a change in the attitude of local people and she no longer feels safe.  She is thankful for the strong connections she has with her neighbours at home and at work who are also immigrants, but she fears her situation is going to get worse because of the economic impacts of the pandemic.

Nokwanda wonders whether she has any hope of finding stability or success in South Africa. This leaves her feeling uncertain about what the future holds for her and her family.


Nokwanda does not feel safe and this is the experience of many migrants in South Africa.

Post-apartheid, there have been widespread incidents of xenophobic violence.  Some South Africans wrongly believe that immigrants take jobs away from them and this fuels these attacks. Research, however, repeatedly shows that immigrant-owned businesses bring many benefits to South Africa. They pay rent to South African landlords, often employ South Africans, and contribute to the tax base and to South African suppliers. Low-income South African customers also benefit from migrant’s cheap and accessible goods and services.

The South African Constitution, permits foreign nationals to engage in informal work and earn an income from it. However, there are countless cases of the police denying migrant informal workers this right.

For example, the South African Police Service’s Operation Hardstick in Limpopo shut down more than 600 informal businesses run by refugees, even though many of them had valid trading permits. And those who didn’t have permits claimed that their applications were denied due to their migrant status.

The WIEGO Crisis and Informal Economy Study found that in inner-city Durban out of the 49% of street vendors who did not receive cash assistance from government, 17% received no assistance due to their migration status. The process of government distributing grants has been clumsy and it has rejected millions of applications.

Informal workers are already a vulnerable group but migrant informal workers are even more so.

Sarah Heneck who interviewed the street trader and wrote her story is a city planner and coordinates projects at Asiye eTafuleni in Durban.

For further stories of workers labouring in the informal sector in 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa go to https://www.wiego.org/coping-crisis-south-african-workers-lives-covid-19      

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About the author

Sarah Heneck
City Planner at Asiye eTafuleni | + posts

Sarah Heneck who interviewed the street trader and wrote her story is a city planner and coordinates projects at Asiye eTafuleni in Durban.

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