Of Africa’s much-maligned women

Many cannot afford air fare, so the bus is the next bet. After a gruelling 48-hour journey through hot country in the southern African savannah, they arrive in the posh cosmopolitan hotpot of Johannesburg, South Africa, and unload their wares on the teeming streets. They are booked in the most basic of accommodation establishments in trying to save a cent here and there, and seven days later, they are headed back to their countries of origin ‘ Zimbabwe, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, even Angola, laden with the bounty of the metropolis they have just left.

These women are the mothers of future doctors, nurses, teachers; in short, they are family providers trying to earn a living in the harsh economies that have characterised the aftermath of structural adjustment programmes in Africa.

However, they are also labelled “smugglers, prostitutes, crooks, liars” ‘ every negative term and phrase in the book except that which is true of them: they are the breadwinners and pillars of many families who would otherwise have been making Africa’s poverty figures worse.

Women cross-border traders have been the subject of many political debates in parliaments across the sub-continent. And, unfortunately, they mostly bear the negative consequences of these discourses.

Many of these women are ignorant about the laws of business management. And so they do not understand when goods are confiscated from them on basis of trade rules set by people who have not bothered to study their unique situation and find a way to accommodate their kind of trade in the general scheme of things. That these women take the initiative at all to venture forth and trade in scarce resources in whatever small amounts they can manage shows that they are willing to be constructive citizens of the globe ‘ all they need is a helping hand.

The cross-border traders’ associations seem not to respond adequately to the plight of many of their members, but then neither are the associations equipped effectively to offer adequate response. The executive members of these associations are usually not conversant with current trade regulations and they seem to concentrate on alleviating punitive measures for traders who fall foul of the law rather than exploring ways in which their members could effectively conduct legitimate business with minimum physical and financial losses.

According to a 2006 study done by the International Organisation for Migration: “Women constitute about 80 percent of the traders. They are called ‘informal’ because they trade with goods, operate on a relatively small scale, do not have access to preferential tariff agreements, often buy and/or sell in informal sector markets, do not pass through formal import or export channels and may be involved in smuggling.”

It adds: “This kind of trade, in the face of mounting poverty, unemployment and deteriorating socio-economic conditions, has become a source of livelihood for poor communities, mainly women.”

An article in The Star newspaper of South Africa on November 28 reported that the government has been actively encouraging cross-border trade. But the contribution made by the women is usually overlooked, says researcher Sally Peberdy, who has studied South Africa’s immigration policy and the cross-border traders.

In the article, she says that the present system of restrictive regulation has negative consequences ‘ not only for the traders but also for the South African government.

Peberdy said duties paid at the border were a significant drain on the profit margin of traders. They also came with costs to the Department of Customs and Excise who had to administer the gathering of relatively small amounts of duties against complex tariff schedules and open opportunities for corrupt Home Affairs, and Customs and Excise officials as well as police. Peberdy has found that, to date, no country in the region has a specific permit or visa for these entrepreneurs.

They do not benefit from preferential tariffs “despite the prominence and seeming importance of these activities to regional trade, economic development, poverty alleviation, the organisation of regional markets and regional integration”. The work focuses on traders in the handicraft and curio sector as they are significant participants in cross-border trade.

Peberdy’s report was based on semi-structured interviews with 107 non-South African and 21 South African traders of handicrafts and curios in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Esther Mweenda, a cross-border trader from Zambia, said she was satisfied with the proceeds of her business but not with the way it was being managed.

“I am usually at the mercy of the customs officers. Sometimes you find one who is understanding and will calculate duty knowing that you need to get a profit on your goods and sometimes you will just find one who practically robs you out of everything that you have,” she said.

She confirmed that women cross-border traders lacked reliable sources of information on customs regulations, and often depend on other women traders for socio-economic support and information.

A statement by South African Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula at the 50th UN Commission on the Status of Women pointed out the need for recognition of the economic contribution of cross-border trade to the region.

“Although there is not yet much data on female migration in the region, a study undertaken by the Southern African Migration Project resulted in some useful findings. These suggest that female migrants are likely to bring positive gains to their new communities. They tend to be older and better educated than male migrants. They are less likely to migrate independently, or to migrate illegally. Traditionally, labour opportunities for migrant workers have been restricted to work on farms and mines, and although this is slowly changing, this has obviously had a discriminatory impact on women. Due to these limited work opportunities, women are more likely to migrate to trade,” she said in a speech.

But few female cross-border traders know about the concessions that have been created for their benefit through regional organisations such as SADC.

Many have not heard about the SADC Trade Protocol and do not understand the protocol’s impact on their businesses.

They also do not understand the effects on their business of the SADC Protocol on the Facilitation of Movement of Persons.

The trade protocol aims to create a level playing field in trade of goods and services as well as ensure that there are better conditions to facilitate the small cross-border trade.

But it seems that it will take a long time for Esther Mweenda to benefit from her cross-border association unless these bodies can take up the challenge to directly address the concerns of their members with border authorities across the region who refuse to acknowledge the existence of instruments such as the SADC Trade Protocol.

December 2006
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