With or without government, the hustle never stops

PHAKAMISA MAYABA / Debonair in gleaming Brentwood trousers and a designer golfer, Sipho Sandi is the archetypal township tavern baron. A sharp dresser with an expansive demeanour, even at times when things aren’t always as good as they seem. For starters, there’s heavy competition from foreign nationals who have infiltrated the liquor trade, driving many local operators out of business. As things stand, Sandi is one of a handful who are holding out against the onslaught.

‘Sis Monza’ –prone to uttering obscene slurs, but known to have a big heart — operates in the Old Location, and Mr Ngxazana is digging in his heels in Drayini. In the main, however, the local liquor trade has been reduced to shebeens, mostly operating out of people’s homes. There are so many that a comprehensive inventory would be impossible — many operate furtively, not wanting to attract the attention of the authorities // law enforcing agencies.

Though many would like to legitimize their ‘spots,’ licensing is expensive, and the paperwork is difficult for simple folk. Small, Medium and Micro enterprises (SMMEs) are meant to play a major role in post-apartheid economic development, but sadly, many budding entrepreneurs have been unable to access government loans and assistance.

Moreover, these processes are often so riddled with red tape that they leave would-be beneficiaries discouraged. In last year’s State of the Nation Address – ironically entitled ‘leave no one behind’ – we were told that there were between 2.4 and 3.5 SMMEs in the country, and that loans worth some R900 million had been made available to them.

During the past year, the Department of Small Business Development was meant to introduce new policies designed to help SMMEs. However, judging by what is happening in Kuyasa Township, they don’t appear to have borne any fruit.

Sipho’s Tavern … Bra Mzambiya hopes to restore it to its former glory. Image: eParkeni.

For Bra Mzambiya – as Sandi is known by his clientele – it’s been a solitary hustle for almost as long as he’s been alive. After peddling goods as a school-goer, he became a truck driver, but decided that, given the poor pay, the time away from his family wasn’t worth while. In the early 2000s, he used his meagre savings to open Sipho’s Tavern, a racous, happening spot in Masiphakame township.

Then he fell ill – according to him, due to matrimonial issues — and the business hit the rocks. Older, wiser, and more determined than ever, he’s now giving his dream another chance. But, he says, the foreign nationals are good at what they do. ‘They have way more capital. Just look at the amount of stock they buy off the bat. It runs in the hundreds of thousands. We are seriously up against it.’ So things are looking bleak. But this is township life; hard times have often proven to ignite the entrepreneurial or survivalist spirit of people in these communities.

A stroll around Kuyasa will soon get you up close and personal with people who know that nothing in this world is free. There are the omnipresent shovel sergeants’ — teams of men, young and old wandering around, shovels in hand, ready to weed somebody’s garden or do some planting. They are often so affordable that the kinder folk in the community add a little extra.

Then there are the scrap pickers and wood gatherers, often a father and his young children, rising early and making for the veld. A few hours later they return with barked shins and calloused hands, heaving bundles of wood which they sell at rock-bottom prices.

And then there’s an ex-chef who lost his job in a coastal city and returned home, uncertain what his next move would be. It turned out to be Eyethu Tshisanyama, a small eatery on the edge of an informal settlement that has gradually been pimped and revamped into a more pleasant place.

Chef Anele Mphemba in Eyethu Tshisanyama. Image: Facebook.

Whereas most shisanyamas are indistinguishable, except for minimal differences such as the basting or the music, Anele Mphemba’s trained hand at Eyethu offers so much more. He also offers sticky hot wings and lamb chops with a secret basting, but he also does something really unusual in these spaces: he bakes, and also assembles big platters with samoosas and other finger food.

Eyethu Tshisanyama from the outside. Image: Facebook.

These individuals could be moping around and complaining bitterly about a government that isn’t attending to their needs, but somebody must put food on the table and send the kids to school. With enormous odds stacked against them, they simply don’t have the luxury of messing around with social media, or engaging in bickering. Every second counts. Every gig is an opportunity, however small, to live to see another day.

Though Bra Mzambiya, like most of the locals, is well aware that he faces heavy competition from foreign nationals, he also takes stock of the hurdles he’s had to get over on the journey thus far. As a Xhosa working in Mpumalanga, he often found himself subject to tribal epithets. Yet daily he’d turn up for work and pretend none of it was happening.

Chef Mphemba once used to hang around with the wrong crowd, which landed him in serious trouble. Today, however, both these men arebent on making something meaningful of the second chances they’ve given themselves. In all the dispiriting realities of poverty and unemployment; the waste pickers, shovel sergeants – in their small acts of self-determination – are an example of the unyielding human spirit.

Kuyasa Township is full of these people. There’s the sangoma who burns incense and hurls bones onto a bamboo mat. The grave diggers who sweat and groan in the night so that the dead may find their last resting place. The shoe repairmen working on their stoeps. The seamstress who stitches on a vintage Singer machine with the cluck of ‘hardbody’ chickens running around her neighbour’s yard serving as a reminder that everybody is on the hustle. And then there are the now massive farming co-ops that started out as a ridiculous idea among a group of friends – some female – but have now got some members out of shacks and into houses with countertops and a cistern.

These are today’s hustlers — noble, and dignified in their dealings. We look forward to introducing you to them. We just hope the sangoma won’t cast a spell on us, as she vowed to do if she didn’t like what we wrote about her.

FEATURED IMAGE: The resilient Sipho ‘Bra Mzambiya’ Sandi on his porch. Image: eParkeni.

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