I was recently in the basement of a police station where confiscated goods were stored. These included boxes of bananas, peaches, pears, snack bars and sweets. It was a pathetic pile, taken from hawkers selling them illegally on pavements. Losing it must have been a giant blow for them. They probably had to pay a fine as well.
I am always in two minds about hawkers who trade in violation of by-laws on the curb or at busy intersections. They are often messy and a nuisance. Yet they are trying to make a living under adverse conditions.
It's a lot of effort for little return, with police often harassing them or asking for bribes even when trading legally.
Tunisia has just experienced a government overthrow sparked off by the treatment of an illegal hawker. An official slapped a young man, Mohamed Bouazizi, and tossed aside the fruits and vegetables he was selling on the street. It was the last straw - he set himself alight with gasoline outside a government building. This act set off protests by unemployed youth that brought down Tunisia's dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Could something similar happen here?
We have seen some hawker protests, but small-scale and not joined by others.
Trade union federation COSATU shows little sympathy. The strange thing is that COSATU calls for economic freedom, but has a bizarre understanding of the "right to work".
In America the "right to work" phrase is used to argue against collective agreements that force workers to join a union. The 22 American states with Right to Work laws are generally less unionized and more prosperous.
Many people in South Africa are denied the right to work because minimum wages and rigid labour laws prevent businesses from hiring them. COSATU denies this and thinks that the state can and must intervene so that everyone has work.
Not just any work, mind you, but "decent work". This is so unrealistic that senior ANC figures concede that jobs must first be created before employment conditions can be upgraded.
ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe points out that "there is nothing as indecent as being unemployed". Yet four new labour bills in parliament would kill many existing jobs and provide even less incentive for companies to hire people.
According to the Department of Labour's own commissioned study, the jobs of 2.13 million workers classified as fixed-term, temporary or seasonal will be placed in jeopardy. It is madness to proceed with these bills which are anti-poor and frankly inhuman in their devastating impact.
There is a place for sensible regulation, but heavy-handed state intervention in the economy is usually counter-productive. Government thinks it can control events and predict the sectors in which new jobs will be created. But new jobs come primarily from innovative start-ups that are largely unpredictable.
Carl Schramm of the Kauffman Foundation in America calls it "messy capitalism". He points out that economic growth is best powered by an environment that assists myriad new firms to emerge, some of which will fail.
As we have seen with computers, call centres and cellphones, the next big industry may be in an entirely unexpected field. This is what arises from real economic freedom, which unleashes entrepreneurial drive and creativity that uplifts everyone.
Jack Bloom is a DA member of the Gauteng Provincial legislature. This article first appeared in The Citizen.
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