First visit to Johannesburg

Street vendor and entrepreneur in Soweto, South Africa
Street vendor and entrepreneur in Soweto, South Africa

Just arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa where I am staying the night as a tourist before I head on to Lilongwe. As I walked off the plane, I struck up a conversation with a fellow beside me, hoping to find a companion to share a taxi with into the city. Not going that way he instead suggested I consider taking the new light rail – launched as part of the preparations for the 2010 World Cup. Since I haven’t been here before, I am curious to know how much of Jo’burg (and South Africa’s) modern look is due to sustained economic growth, and how much of it is due to enormous investment to prepare the city for the influx of football fans two years ago? Does it matter?

City infrastructure is still quite shiny and new-looking – the airport here is as modern or better than any I’ve seen anywhere in the world – the highways are free of cracks. Maybe this is due to a beauty make-over or maybe not. Factories and skyscrapers dot the skyline, shopping malls are on every corner, international consumer goods and luxury product brand names are everywhere. A huge and growing (and aspiring) middle class is supporting all of this.

The neighbourhood where I am staying tonight, Soweto – actually a city in its own right – was the site of the world-famous 1976 “Soweto Uprising” against reform of the education system in a way that discriminated against blacks. Historically Soweto was the site of black labourers who were imported from other countries to help build the railroads and work in the mines and were placed in “townships”. These were labour camps – perhaps similar to the ones in the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf countries that have received international media attention and focus in international academic journals. So, on the recommendation of a German traveller I met while bussing from Zambia to Malawi, I decided to stay in a guesthouse in Soweto during my one night in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Arriving at the airport with only 20 hours to explore before flying out again, I decided I would rather take public transport to the guesthouse on the other side of the city. This would give me a chance to have an informal tour of Jo’burg, meet some local people, and save money! The tourism authorities in the airport thought I was crazy but at my request they sketched out the route for me – explaining I would need to take three different buses, where I should transfer and how much it would cost. The journey would run me about 29 rand (less than 4 dollars) in comparison to over 300 for a taxi (a bit less than 40 dollars).

So nearly two hours later, I found myself in the bustling bus station in Soweto. To get to my guest house I would need to find a public phone. A street vendor nearby had a wireless phone sitting on a table next to other assorted goods. She charged me 2 rand (25 cents USD) to call the guesthouse to come and pick me up. As I waited, I introduced myself and struck up a conversation. I asked “Polite” about how she had come by the avocadoes she was selling. Every couple of days she makes a long trip to the produce market (similar to the one I just made) to purchase fruits and vegetables to sell at her stall. Business had been slow that day, as it was a Sunday and it had been colder than usual. At that point I noticed she was selling delicious-looking salted peanuts so I purchased a bag for 2 rand. :) Curious to learn more about her business, I asked her other questions. I learned that she did not pay to rent the spot on the sidewalk where she was sitting (in my experience, they usually do) but that she did pay 60 rand a month for a storage space across the street. Polite’s voice lowered then, and she said she was working towards moving everything to a new location – a storage space and stall in one – but that this would cost her 100 rand a month, and that she didn’t have the means at that time. She said things are hard and she struggles to make ends meet. I suggested that she could be proud of having the courage and the strength to work for herself. She nodded, saying that she much preferred self-employment than answering to a boss. In the photo (see inset), you can see the limited inventory she works with and the single-serving-size model used by many street vendors in developing countries serving low-income consumers who live from day to day. She is laughing – because she is shy that I wanted to take a photo of her business. Isn’t that beautiful? :)

I thought to myself that Polite could really benefit from micro-credit to expand her business and wondered if there were NGOs in the community that served such needs… Entrepreneurs such as this one, who may be constrained to their neighbourhoods or income status because of lack of mobility, insufficient working capital, or just plain fear of the unknown, often don’t see the trickle down effects of economic expansion, however rapid and sustained it may be. Here is one person who is not part of the growth story and the rub of it is that these people are among those who would benefit the most from it – in relative terms of improved health, welfare, quality of life.

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