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“That fire ruined our lives, I doubt things will ever be the same again for us. I lost stock that was worth R10,000 in that fire, as I had just came back from buying over that weekend, ” says Ivy Mbatha, one of the traders who lost their stands to the fire that burned down a section of the Rocky Street Market in Yeoville in June this year. 

Most of the market stalls were not affected by the fire. Those whose shops were damaged, have now erected their stands in front of the Shoprite store on the corner of Rocky and Cavendish streets.

The fire gutted 25 stalls in the early hours of 21 June, soon after the area had been swept clean and rubble removed. Some of the shops are now exposed to bad weather and criminals and traders were covering the exposed side with plastic sheets when Elitsha visited.

The market is bustling with fresh vegetables and fruit stands, salons, fast food shops, African medicine shops and others serving mainly Nigerian foods. From tinned foods to mopani worms, dried fish and a whole lot more is on offer. The space provides for a great mix of different cultures from around Africa.

Mbatha is originally from Ladysmith in KwaZulu Natal. The mother of three rents a backroom in Yeoville and has been trading at the market since 1999. She is one of the first traders to open a stall, selling fruit and vegetables, in the space. 

She said she only learned in the morning that their stands had burned, as she was taking her grandchild to a school nearby. “Someone called me to alert me about the fire, but I was asleep. Our lives have been turned upside down by this, now I am forced to pack up all my stock when the day is over and come very early in the morning again to set up. It is a lot of work and inconvenient. This was not the case inside the market; business is hell now,” said Mbatha.

She is frustrated because she was an independent person but now depends on handouts from relatives, even her eldest daughter. When talking about the incident, she gets anxious and says it deeply affected her. “It has been very bad, business now is very slow. I used to make around R10,000 a month and that  covered rent and groceries and also sent some home to my mother. Now I can barely make even R3,000. I owe my landlord rent for the last three months and he is getting impatient, it’s seriously bad,” says Mbatha.

“Things have seriously changed for the worst for us. After the fire I was even struggling to sleep for a couple of days because of the stress,” Mbatha adds. The City of Johannesburg, she says, has promised traders affected by the fire that, by December, their stalls in the market will be refurbished.

Ivy Mbatha, originally from Ladysmith in KZN, says that she lost all her stock worth R10,000 in the June fire.

Just next door to where Mbatha sells vegetables, 59-year-old George Khoza, from Ghana says he lost roughly R20,000 worth of his belongings and stock in the fire. “I could not savage anything; it has been rough since that day. The fire started at my shop, right at the corner in the street. There is no business at all in this new place. I lost customers who knew me personally as they can’t find me in the market anymore. I am struggling really now, I am making enough just to buy food for myself. I have a family back home that depends on me and I can’t provide for them anymore. I have a child still at school and it’s been tough, and it will be a miracle to recover from this,” said Khoza.

Khoza said there has never been any bad blood between them as traders.

Operation Dudula allegations

Even though tight lipped and wary of commenting on the cause of the fire, some of the traders admit that they believe Operation Dudula members could be behind the fire which has cost them their livelihoods. Members of the vigilante group marched on the market on 13 June to intimidate migrant business owners, who mostly occupy the market, demanding that their shops be handed over to South Africans.

Khoza said, “They came here a week earlier, threatening us and shouting that they want to take over the market and we must leave. Not a single trader opened a shop that day. They even were trying to force entry into the market, but police officials stopped that from happening. It cannot be a coincidence that shortly after that the place burned.”

The City of Johannesburg says that it is in the process of refurbishing the market.

In June, New Frame reported that Operation Dudula Yeoville branch secretary, Yoliswa Magwebu denied that the group was behind the fire at the market.

“We are not comfortable at all, it’s very bad for us to be creating enemies among each other as Africans, it is painful,” said Khoza. “We get along very well, as brothers and sisters. However, the violence that was displayed by the Dudula people was very scary.”

One of the traders, who did not want to be named, said an Operation Dudula member was spotted near the market shortly before the fire started. “He was seen moving around the corner where the fire started, and threw something inside. Apparently he was asked to move away from the market and soon after they left, a fire started. We don’t want to point fingers but we believe there was foul play in this,” the trader said.

Mthokozisi Mbano runs his stall with his wife. He said they were surely going to suffer the effects of the fire for a long time. “Things are not the same anymore. Having no shelter is a big inconvenience on its own. I have four kids, that I cannot feed anymore. Business is poor. These days for the whole month I make just over R2,000. I hope we can move back to our stalls soon so things can change.”

Police have no case

Gauteng police spokesperson Captain Mavela Masondo told Elitsha that the police were no longer pursuing the case. “A report was received from the fire department after their investigation. They could not detect any foul play and as a result, a case docket was closed from the police side as undetected,” said Masondo.

In a statement that it released last week, the City of Johannesburg said plans to refurbish the market were underway. “The Yeoville Market which suffered extensive damage after a fire on 21 June 2022, is in the process of being restored as the City of Johannesburg’s Joburg Property Company (JPC) ramps up efforts for it’s refurbishment,” said MMC for Economic Development, Nkululeko Mbundu.

Mbundu said the JPC had initiated the process to secure qualified service providers for the repairs and maintenance of the entire market. “These processes are expected to be completed soon to ensure we get the informal traders to return to their trading stalls and have the market fully operational,” said Mbundu.

George Khoza originally from Ghana believes that vigilante group, Operation Dudula, could be behind the fire that robbed him of his livelihood as the group came and made threats a week before. 

In August, Elitsha reported that Mbundu who is a councillor for Action SA, a political party which has come out in support of Operation Dudula, tweeted and incited violence against staff of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute after the organisation successfully reversed the eviction of informal traders.