Public markets can be the pulse and saviours of SA’s sm…


Known as an agricultural center for apples and pears, Grabouw has an ideally located central market that attracts numerous people from the surrounding fields, but its potential remains untapped. Located next to the city’s main transportation hub, the market has been popular with informal traders for decades, especially on Saturdays. The market’s potential is such that some vendors travel all the way from Cape Town to sell their wares, including fresh fruit and vegetables, clothing and shoes.

Maryam, who lives in Bellville, has been trading in the market for 40 years except during the Covid-19 lockdown when she was unable to trade. At the stand next to Maryam, Florence, a Cameroonian who has lived in South Africa since 2007, explains that she starts setting up at 6am on Fridays and Saturdays. For both, their sales are determined by the farming seasons and when farmhands are paid, usually biweekly.

The market also sits next to a river, which, as Cornelis Van der Waal CEO of Grabouw Development Agency (GDA) points out, has potential as a tourist attraction. It’s not very attractive at the moment, he says, also because of the unsatisfactory market situation. With some basic improvements it could become a better place for both existing market goers and tourists.

The clientele, the offer and the excellent location are there, what is missing to make it an attractive market for everyone?

Improved basic infrastructure

The location of the market is prime, but the space where Florence, Maryam and others trade is far from ideal. The commercial structures, many with makeshift walls and flimsy corrugated iron roofs, they point out, are unmaintained, which discourages people from using them for fear of roof collapse. Other challenges inherent in public spaces include punishment from law enforcement, petty crime, and lack of cleanliness, particularly of public restrooms.

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Lynette works with the Grabouw Informal Business Association.  markets
Lynette works with the Grabouw Informal Business Association. Her dream for all sellers is to “have a solid place to trade electricity, a roof and storage”. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

In contrast, the upscale, tourist-focused Elgin Railway Market is at the old Elgin train station on the other side of town. Although it is a private company presenting offers for wealthier customers, the Elgin Railway Market is also a place where people trade goods and meet. This market is an example of how proper infrastructure can enable trading. From reliable basic services to an attractive physical space, this may be easier for private actors to provide, but still underscores that what works in marketplaces has proven itself in South African cities.

The Teawaterskloof The community has dedicated resources to improve the Grabouw Central Market, and organizations such as the Grabouw Informal Business Association are actively involved in supporting vendors. The challenge is to use these limited resources in innovative ways to respond to local needs.

Elgin Railway Market - Markets
Waldo Julies, manager of the Elgin Railway Market and a Grabouw resident himself, says there are no points of comparison with the central Grabouw market but acknowledges they are taking steps to create more affordable trading venues for more local suppliers. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Property, an intangible but essential input

Outside Grabouw, in Knoflokskraal, where a group of three thousand people have occupied government land create a new community, a small flea market is buzzing on Saturday. There is no fixed infrastructure other than a vacant piece of land with beautiful views and what each trader brings to set up their stall. What this makeshift market lacks in infrastructure, however, it makes up for in energy and pride, with a little of everything on offer, from bric-a-brac to homemade fare like fresh rooster brood.

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Knoflokskraal flea market - markets
Vendors at the Knoflokskraal flea market rely on strong networks and personal relationships. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Ashley Wynand, the market organizer, welcomes us with excitement and offers us warm snacks and drinks. He introduces us to his father Andy, who is involved in land reclamation.

What sets this small market apart is that a bigger cause brought them together. Wynand says they are also planning other markets where people can showcase their products, come together, but also, and more importantly, raise funds for the future of the community. It’s a complicated political situation in terms of an embattled country, yet – and perhaps because of this – there is a sense of togetherness between everyone there.

Knoflokskraal flea market - markets
The flea market Knoflokskraal has little infrastructure and is located on the outskirts of Grabouw, but enjoys a beautiful setting and the support of the people who live on the farm. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

The Grabouw central market could indeed benefit from a greater sense of ownership; it already has the history and network of people who grew up with it; but better coordination and meaningful participation are essential. Ivan Gill, a trader who has been trading in the market for 30 years, says there was no advice on upgrades: “We were simply told where new infrastructure would be placed and that we must adapt to what we were given .”

New offers for a richer experience

There is no shortage of ideas. In addition to general improvements, there is a desire to diversify the offer of the Grabouw market. Warreldia, Ivan’s daughter, is 38 and continues to work alongside her father, says: “We need a coffee stand, a place to sell Koeksisters and hot food options. That would make it a more attractive market.”

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A Grabouw market stall - markets
At the Grabouw central market, the existing infrastructure needs to be repaired so that vendors can feel safe using it instead of relying on their own tents which do not protect them from the elements. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Similarly, the Elgin Railway Market shows how a market could be connected to the rest of the city. Not only does it offer people who are mostly outsiders the opportunity to travel to the market by train, but it also offers the opportunity to follow a wine route that connects to the market. With strategic investment and planning, Grabouw’s central market could be connected to a nearby river with the kind of infrastructure that would enable walking and cycling, encouraging visitors and market-goers to spend more time exploring the city.

Creating the ideal market is no easy task. Nevertheless, the basics have stood the test: a good location and infrastructure, personal responsibility and solidarity with other parts and offers of the city can give market visitors more reasons to come back. The trick is to think of the market as an essential asset of the city that serves more than just a specific clientele, but rather becomes a stage on which the city comes alive. Resources need to be well coordinated and a strong partnership between government and the private sector will be essential to keep all these elements together.DM/MC

Marcela Guerrero Casas is a co-founder of Local South and is writing this story on behalf of the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership. This work was supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation Southern Africa.

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