There are many hair salons in Fordsburg that are all competing for customers, but with the increase in foreign-owned businesses and the changes seen in Fordsburg all the old barbershops have closed, except for one.
Every day Chhagan Cgopal takes the familiar 30-minute journey from his bus stop at the heart of Johannesburg’s city centre to his barbershop in Fordsburg, a trip he has taken for over 40 years. He unlocks the security gate and swaps his beige raincoat and faded black fez hat for his still pristine, white cutting coat on the hook in the corner of his tiny shop. Then, like every other day, he reads the daily paper on the unsteady plastic chairs at the door, waiting for customers. On most days no customers will come, no one will visit except for the local car guards who ask to use his taps.
Cgopal, who is now in his late 70s, is the last traditional men’s barbershop left in a Fordsburg that was once bustling with people going to the Majestic bioscope or children playing marbles in the dirt road. But now, time and competition from newer foreign hair salons have closed the doors on others like him.
The old Fordsburg hangout
Fordsburg has undergone many changes from the time when it was home to notorious gangsters, and classic, slicked-back hair was the style. Many of its old residents have moved away and hopeful foreigners have moved in to establish themselves in an area whose locals share a similar culture.
The over 40-year-old Majestic barbershop, named after the old bioscope, is now lost between worn brick buildings. The faint sound of the radio playing in the background and the squeaking of the corner fan break the silence in the cluttered shop.
Despite it being discarded, the Majestic barbershop has become an icon in the area that many people have never forgotten through stories from their fathers and grandfathers.
Zunaid Varachia, a long-time South African resident and business owner, recalled the streets in front of the hairdressers in town being lined with children and their anxious mothers a few days before Eid celebrations. “People used to go [to the barber] at three o’clock in the afternoon and wait in the queue and sometimes finish at 6 o’clock,” said Varachia.
Varachia explained how the barbershops were always a part of the community atmosphere in Fordsburg. “The barbershop was the hangout spot … In my time you would always see people you know at the hairdresser waiting for a haircut,” said Varachia.
These barbershop hangout spots were home to many of the local men who came not only for a cut and shave but also to catch up on the news in the area. The Majestic barbershop even cut the hair of some of Fordsburg’s notorious gangsters who would charge people in the area a fee for their protection.
“All these gangsters they know us very well … they don’t trouble us … they were good gangsters, you had to pay protection fee like American style,” said Cgopal. But now in an area rife with crime, security gates and burglar bars are all that protect the old barbershop.
With a burst of laugher, the barber speaks fondly of the time when he himself still had hair.
“You know, Elvis style,” said a balding Cgopal, gesturing to the height of his once-full hair. Even in the 1990s, Fordsburg’s hair salons were crammed with young men eager to maintain their image and get the very popular bleached highlights.
“Those hairdressers used to stay open till eight o’clock at night … that time, eight o’clock was late,” said Varachia. Now in Fordsburg you might even be able to find a hair salon open at 11 o’clock at night just to make the most out of the last few hours of the day.
‘Retiring his cutting scissors’
For Cgopal, who needs to close his shop with enough time for him to walk into town and catch the last bus home, this is just another way his old barbershop no longer makes the cut.
“I can’t compete with those guys there, I close five o’clock, they close late evening,” said Cgopal. Despite the impact that the barbershops had on the sense of community in the area, they are still dwindling and taking a piece of the era’s history with them.
Like many businesses that have witnessed the evolution of Fordsburg, the Majestic Barber is a family business that goes back three generations. It had its first beginnings in the Oriental Plaza which was built to relocate the shops that were demolished after the apartheid government tore down the market in the nearby suburb of Fietas. The shabby, black waiting bench and the yellowing, old photographs of Elvis hairstyles and newspaper clippings stand the risk of being lost as the next generation loses interest in the relics of the past.
“I tried to teach [my children] but they want to do something else, you know computers, accounting, things like that,” explained Cgopal.
This last gentlemen’s barbershop with its empty green leather chairs stands in stark contrast to the many modern Indian, Pakistani and Somali hair salons that continue to spring up in the area.
This hasn’t been an isolated case, with old restaurants, cafes and theatres running dry without customers and the influx of new foreign business. “It was full, you could never get any bookings at any restaurant and now it is just completely dead,” said Varachia.
Hair salon turf wars
“There is too much competition … old clients come around and support me, that’s why I’m surviving; new guys came here and spoil my business,” said Cgopal. With only a few older customers left who still support him, after many have died or moved away, it has become a struggle to pay for rising rental costs. This has left Cgopal thinking about retiring his cutting scissors and straight blade.
With salons on almost every street, their territories have begun to overlap and competition is no longer just having an impact on the old shops but it is also causing the newer salons to make changes to differentiate themselves and survive.
“In Fordsburg there is too much competition,” said Javd Khalifa, a hairdresser with a modern salon who has experienced rivalry with the stores located on the same street as him.
Once the shop doors have been rolled up at the busy Five Star Hair Salon, the customers are greeted at a reception area before they are seated in any one of the four chrome and black leather chairs in front of the glass and granite cutting stations.
Shilpa Vala, a beautician and ladies’ hairdresser at the salon, said that there are three to four salons on every street. “It’s difficult, in 2009 it wasn’t the same as now, it was OK … now there’s more salons, maybe a hundred,” said Vala sitting on one of the large, leather waiting couches.
Five Star, like many other salons, had to adapt and find ways to “out-cut” their competitors by incorporating beauty treatments and henna tattooing into their stores.
Vala explained that in order to prevent her customers from going next door, she needs to charge different prices in the Fordsburg salon than she does 1in her other salon.
“In Norwood you can charge full price and they pay, but here you can’t, else they go next door.”
Samir Khelife, a salon owner in a particularly busy street, went as far as opening up his own salon across from the one where he used to be employed as a hairdresser. He hit upon an innovation, which Cgopal never would have tried; dressing women’s hair for R70 more than he would charge a man. “For ladies I can get R120,” said Khelife.
The increased competition has not gone unnoticed by customers. “The only thing which is cheaper now than what it was 10 years ago is … a haircut,” said Varachia with a grin.
With the decrease in price more people are now able to go to the hairdresser more often. “I’ve got some friends who don’t shave themselves at all, every week they go to one of these shops and get a haircut and a shave,” said Varachia.
But even if the Majestic barbershop could implement strategies like lower prices, Cgopal still could not compete with its older customer base, because of the changing styles and the growth of a younger clientele who go to more modern salons that are known for shaving designs into the customer’s hair.
“All the foreigners they do stylish things, but I’m old school, so all the youngsters don’t support me anymore, they go to the foreigners,” said Cgopal.
A home away from home
However, there are often many employment problems faced by foreigners who are in search of a better life. Many South African employers favour local workers and immigration legislation is often burdensome for migrant workers.
This results in many migrants starting their own businesses. According to a study by the Migrating for Work Research Consortium (MiWORC), 21% of foreigners are classified as self-employed. The study used results from data collected by Statistics South Africa in 2012 to analyse the effect migrants have on business.
The study also found that foreign-born workers are more likely to work in the service and sales industry, such as hair salons and shops. “It’s better here than in India … because here you can find job or work easily,” explained one hairdresser who has been in South Africa for six years.
With so many foreigners starting businesses, many migrants chose Fordsburg for its cultural familiarity that reminds them of home. “I feel like I’m in my country,” said Vala who has been in Fordsburg since 2009.
Many have described Fordsburg as being unique and having “a certain heartbeat” but despite this many of the original Fordsburg residents are moving away in search of other areas that have that same sense of community.
“Previously it was a very community based area … that has changed in recent years … Fordsburg is now very diverse,” explained Varachia while sipping a pressed juice from an Egyptian café and hookah lounge.
Many of the small businesses are owned by Pakistanis who come here to make money to send back home. He explained that they have little responsibilities and expenses compared to South African shop owners who are established with families and bigger expenses.
“They don’t need as much to make it … whatever little money they make is a profit,” said Varachia.
It’s not just the barbershops that have been affected by the influx of foreigners, many other shops are increasingly being owned by non-South Africans. “If you look at Mint Road, it used to be all restaurants, now it’s a huge group of Egyptians that sell Muslim dress cloths,” said Varachia, who grew up in the area.
Many of these stores however are very successful with foreign nationals now taking the place of South African consumers who have moved out of Fordsburg. In these communities the shop owners have come to know each other and generally sell their goods at a similar price to allow everyone the chance to survive.
“They don’t cut each other out … It’s quite common with the foreign communities, they try to support each other,” said Varachia. This also often benefits locals who travel to Fordsburg from other parts of Johannesburg because of their lower prices and wide selection of goods.
But for the Majestic barber this doesn’t bring any more customers but rather signals the end of an era. The once popular barber, whose face brightened when he told stories of the past from old photographs, has found himself alone and irrelevant in a modern and changed Fordsburg.
“Today it was slow,there was no one … one of these days I have to close,” said Cgopal as his usual smile faded as he returned to paging through his newspaper inside the empty shop.
FEATURED IMAGE: WAITING FOR CUSTOMERS: Chhagan Cgopal spends most of his time paging through the local newspapers that he piles up on the chair next to him, while waiting for customers to come to his now quiet barbershop in Fordsburg. Photo: Tanisha Heiberg
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