The economic effects of covid-19 on South Africa’s NGO landscape have resulted in community collaborations across Gauteng to overcome the challenges of the national lockdown.
Mothers and childrenwalking kilometres,come rainor shine, to collect a meal was a sight pastor Xana Mccauley agonised over for years while she watchedthe happenings of theWednesday soup kitchen.As theco-founder of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that hasseen 42 years, Mccauley has witnessed her fair share of suffering, and women waking before sunrise to trudge long distances out of desperation for a meal had become a common sight for her.
Situated in the rolling hills of Lanseria, the NGO, a Christian community called Hands of Compassion (HOC), is aptly perched like thehaven it is to many.The surrounding area is a mix of lush wedding venues, squatter camps and wide-open pastures. Although thepovertymay be isolated inclusters,the need remains glaringly obvious to HOC staff.Theyservice theDiepsloot, Cosmo City, Lanseria, MalachiandLion Park communitieswith a Wednesday soup kitchen that draws 70 to100 people.
Then comes the lockdown
Feeding the hungry has, in recent months, not been HOC’s only burden. Slowing the spread of coronavirus became a priority for South Africans after the implementation of level–fivelockdown on March 27.The nation’s unexpected exposure to a highly infectious respiratory virus was going to result in many economic challenges for various sectors of the economy. Restaurants, schools and businessesprepared to close, and by the beginning of October, Statistics South Africa reported that 648 000 formal sector jobs had been lost during the covid-19 lockdown.
According to theNational Income DynamicsStudy – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM), conductedbetween May 7 and June 27,two out of five adults reported that their household had lost its main source of income. Of 7025 interviewees, 42% said they had run out of money to buy food by April.The survey made it clear food security in South Africawas threatened by shocking changes to household–incomes.
Food insecuritywas already having an impact on six million South Africans,according to health journalism publicationBhekisisa. With a further loss of income came a greater dependence on government and NGOsfor food security and grants, to stand in the gap and address people’s needs.
Withwidespreadeconomichardshipfollowing in thewakeofthecovidlockdown, HOC experienced a drop in its monthly debit order donations after its onset.Not only were the Wednesday soup kitchens at stake, but more than 60 others across Gauteng too. TheHOC children’s home, young mothers’ home and rehabilitation programme, which are all situated at the main HOC complex, had to be maintained somehow.
Pantry stock and human touch at risk — generosity and technology save the day
PastorMcCauley toldWits Vuvuzelathey lost many faithful givers whose donations had been the backbone of the organisation’s budget.Congregants from the home church, Rhema Bible Church, who had committed to monthly increments, were unable tofulfilthose obligations.Although the church may be perceived by many of the public to be for the middle to upper class, witha well-offcongregation, the financial effects of lockdown wereneverthelessevident, although itis difficult to pinpoint what exactly disrupted the flow of monthly donations.
Thankfully, the initial panic of not meeting budget was eased by an unexpected spike in once-off donations. Thissupplemented HOC’s pantry stock lossesthat were substantial due totwo local Woolworths stores not being able to donate as much of their sell-by goods as they had prior to lockdown. Thisresultedin a drop of up to 50%of stock in HOC’s pantry.Mccauley describes their survival despite such lockdown blows by saying,‘‘Again, I see God’s hand helping us through this period”.
The side of the Hands of Compassion hall where their children’s village residents are able to read, relax and access computers. 4 November 2020. PHOTO: Leah Wilson.
Financial woes aside, the human connection aspect of NGO work was also jeopardised. As thesoup kitchen model had to be revolutionised to adapt to social distancing measures, people could not be given prepared meals. HOC decided tosend e-vouchers to the 70-100 people whowould ordinarily collect Wednesday meals. This meant they would be able to purchase whatever they needed, on their own.
Two weeks before national lockdown,McCauley instructed her staff towrite downthe details of all those who regularly attended: “When I heard that this thing [covid-19]was coming, I said to my staff, ‘You take their ID or passport numbers.You take theircellphonenumbers and explain that we want to continue giving, but we must do it viatheircellphone’,” the pastor said.
“HOC decided tosend e-vouchers to the 70-100 people whowould ordinarily collect Wednesday meals“
The effectiveness of the e-voucher scheme is yet to be evaluated by HOC staff. They plan to visit beneficiariessoon,to assess whether their circumstances have improved in terms of health, financial independenceand overall lifestyle. As the plan is to reassign funds,should a family no longer need them, challenges remain for this new way of resource distribution. Buying airtimeandensuringnew beneficiaries have cellular devices that are charged, as well as access to a participating e-voucher supermarket, are hurdles yet to be overcome.
There seems to be a trend towards making use of digital technologies to help people.According to anextensive report published bySouth Africa’sParliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG)on May29, the Department of Social Development(DSD) partnered with NGOs to assist anyone who needed to apply forthe R350disasterreliefgrant. Thiscollaboration was intended to help anyone without access to a phone or technologicalmeans of applying.
As reported in a Daily Maverickarticle onSeptember30,theNIDS-CRAMsurvey, states thatthis grant has reached4.4 million South Africans, or 12% of the country’s adult population.The article further reports that 62% of grant applicants were still unemployed by June.These funds arethereforean important form of assistance to broadswathes of South African society.
Couches in the Hands of Compassion common area are marked with social distancing signs. 4 November 2020. PHOTO: Leah Wilson.
Another organisation that seeks to support food security and future independence for beneficiaries isJoint AidManagement (JAM).Established in1984,as a Christian-based organisationthat heads up child–feeding programmes for 120000 people innineof South Africa’s11provinces, JAMoperates in Gauteng in Orange Farm, Soweto, theJohannesburg CBD,Hammanskraaland Pretoria.
During this year, JAM also had to adjust its food distribution model as a result of South Africa’s lockdown regulations. During the beginning of lockdown,lines for food parcels would last for hours,sparking the idea to send SMS notifications to families to collect their packages. These collections would happen atlocal preschools, spaza shops and churches during a specific time window, with social–distancing measures in place.
“We said,‘how do we build back into those communities, and how can we use the small spaza shop and the preschool as a distribution point?’ We would get the food to them and they wouldgetpaid for the distribution on our behalf, which put something back into the community bodies,’’ David Brown, JAM’s managing director, told Wits Vuvuzela.‘’That improved things, so there was still some funding in that local economy rather than all going out of it and into the big wholesalers.”
Brown notes that because of South Africa’s strong GDP per capita, emergency funding had been sourced within the country, as opposed to the disaster relief which JAM has seenoccur in other African countries such asRwandaor Mozambique, which required internationalfunders.
Hands of Compassion employee mops the dining hall floor in the background while signs imploring social distance can be seen on the front door. 4 November 2020. PHOTO: Leah Wilson.
A change JAM anticipates going forward will be the branding of spaza shops under larger retailers, so that purchasing power and supply chains are brought into lower–income communities. Brown says this process waspreviouslyunder way, but it has been accelerated by covid-19.Transparency with donors became a priority during this time.
Managing the trust of the donors was of paramount importance,because they wanted to be assured their money was being used in the most effective ways. Brown said some donors allowed JAM to use donations at its own discretion, while others were particular about their donation being for a specific resource.
“We must respect that we have to be transparent, because we must maintain trust with people,’’ said Brown. ‘The minute that breaks down , the chances are that the funding will be withdrawn and it’s going to be placed somewhere else where there is trust.” JAM had torepurposeits funding to accommodate the disaster relief circumstances imposed on them during lockdown. This meant partnering with other organisationsthat were transporting food, rather than using the infrastructures theynormally would.
“This meant our vehicles were not running and we were not recovering the capital with fixed coststhat we would normally recoverfromdonor funding,” said Brown.Brown emphasised that although emergency funding hadcompensated for any part of donations that did not come in, the possibility that this type of funding could dig into donor funds, and not match the needs of normal programmingcosts,remained.
Tithes and offerings for public benefit
Public benefitorganisations such as churches were not left out of the loop, as far as e-giving was concerned. Rhema Faith Life Church, based in Bosmont, alsomade the move to e-wallets. Lead pastor Lester Holland toldWits Vuvuzelathat because some congregants suffered retrenchment, salary cuts and other personal financial challenges,25% of tithes and offerings fell away.Families attending the church also needed sudden financial assistance andthe churchwasable to support congregants with electronic payments.
The Citizen published an articleat the end of May reporting that the South African Council of Churches, which unites 36-memberorganisations countrywide,had requested financial assistance from government. As church income had been negatively affected, salaries and other church expenses could not be met.
Unfortunately, Rhema Faith Life church’s annual blanket drive was disrupted because of restricted mobility during lockdown and a smaller amount of funding.Pastor Holland said, however, that Northcliff Spar donated food items to the church.Volunteers collected the items individually and distributed them from their homes. This was a saving grace for those in need at the church and an unexpected solution to a lockdown curveball that hit them.
“For us personally,weknow we do not have any emergency fund. You know one thing about a church is that it is a public benefit organisation,’’ said Holland. ‘‘Whatever comes in always goes out to help people. There is more expenditure than what iscoming in. Us having an account where we are setting aside finances that we would use for future, is definitely my thinking.”
Holland toldWits Vuvuzelathe staff of the church had to take a salary cut,and he was not necessarily aware of any government assistance for employees involved in religious ministry.
Crowdfunding and community-collaboration means light at the end of the tunnel
This highlights a point brought up in the text,Adapting to Covid-19: Experiences of a Philanthropy Infrastructure Organisation,by Gill Bates and LouiseDenysschen,which states, “Moving funds during the pandemic also highlighted the gaps in currentcompliance criteria, which excluded community-basedorganisations (CBOs) and small volunteer organisations and movements, which were clearly doing critical work on the ground, yet lacked the expertise, time, and resources to do the compliance work.”.
As the push towards digital technologiesplays a role in the NGO economy,crowdfunding facilitatorBackaBuddytoldWits Vuvuzelathat people were surprisingly generous during lockdownand continued giving,as more causes were registered on their website and more funds were paid into them.
“NGOs have turned to crowdfunding as another form of funding. A lot of the charities used to rely on events for fundraising purposes, for example, theComrades/Argus etcetera, but withlockdowntheeventswerecancelled or postponed,” saidBackaBuddy’s social mediamanager, Wanda Zwane.
Hands of Compassion chef, Thoko Mdluli, wearing her cloth mask while working in their kitchen. Photo: Leah Wilson
Navigating lockdown became a matter of survival at every level of life. Individuals, families, organisations and the country at large were moved by these adaptations. The concept of gathering funds together incrementally, to disperse for the benefit of others, is how the NGO economy has managed to survive.It is much less about the survival oforganisations and more about those they serve.
The social contact challenges presented by lockdown were fertile soil for NGOs to approach food security from an entirely new perspective. The e-voucher is a solution born out of theinteresting collaboration between thespirit of ubuntu,the idea that “I am, because you are”, and the saturation ofcellphonetechnology, within even the poorest communities.
As buying power, technological advancement and financial autonomy have thepotentialtobecomethe new norm, it seems the NGOeconomyhas found a way to create sustainable solutions. As seen in the examples cited here,this depends on preparedness, access to funding and an established relationship with communities as prerequisites for an effective covid-19 response.
FEATURED IMAGE: Hands of Compassion chef, Thoko Mdluli, wearing her cloth mask while working in their kitchen. Photo: Leah Wilson.
Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown have had a devastating impact on many business owners and employees. Included in this scenario are foreign nationals and undocumented people who have had to try to pick themselves up in usually packed commercial trade areas such as Fordsburg and China Mall, experiencing low recovery .
The ability to easily find parking on the usually packed and busy streets of Fordsburg on a Saturday where road rage, traffic and double parking were a staple no more, was already a tell-tale sign of the devastatingeffect the covid-19 pandemic has had on businesses and their employees.
Many were forced to shut their doors for over three months, with no source of income,after the hard lockdown was implemented in South Africa on March 27. This resulted in more than three million jobs being lost between February and April, and over 1.5 million people who had jobs but no pay, according to a Nids-Cram surveyof 7000 people. Some were able to keep their businesses and jobs, but are still far from full recovery.
Fordsburg, a hub for foreign-owned businesses and migrant workers, started off as a place where locals and foreigners would sell goods in the open Fordsburg Square flea market. This created an affordable marketplace for selling a variety of items such as fruits and vegetables, Indian and Pakistani spices, replica clothing items and pirated DVDs.
The opportunities for foreigners grew with the influx of shoppers looking for affordable haircuts, groceries, food stalls and established restaurants. The conflicting aromas of the different restaurants were soon overtaken by the scent of curries and chicken tikka, the sweet smell of hubbly bubbly flavours, and incense as Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Egyptian nationals saw the growth of the commercial trade in the area. This allowed foreigners to generate sufficient revenue to open shops, and created a sense of community and a piece of their home countries as they drew on their common nationalities.
South Africa in general has been an economic magnet for many migrants searching for better job opportunities, but a true indication of the numbers is hard to quantify. It is estimated by the African Centre for Migration and Societythat there were two million international migrants of working age (15-64) in South Africa in 2017, representing 5.3% of the country’s labour force. The International Organisation for Immigration’s (IOM’s) 2020 World Migration report estimates that this number is as high as 4.2 million as of 2019, accounting for 7.2% of the population.
A couple scorned by lockdown woes
With the lockdown, however, Fordsburg has struggled to regain its allure. On the now desolate Park Drivestands a beauty parlour that was forced to close its doors for three months due to its “non-essential” status. Only those that provided food, medicine, banking services, healthcare, fuel, internet and municipal services could remain open.
The parlour owner, Samim Patel, does threading, waxing, facials and cuts hair. But upon entering her shop, now overflowing with her one-year-old’s toys, she was found sitting in anticipation, for just one customer to walk in. Looking out at the empty streets, a slow reminiscent smile spread over her face as she said, “Before the lockdown, we never even had the time to eat. I even remember those days when I used to have a biscuit and water and carry on working, because there was no time to eat.”
“I don’t really get customers anymore. Sometimes I get R20 and sometimes nothing at all“
Her shop of seven years, which used to open from 8am to 8pm, now with the lack of foot traffic sometimes opens at 10am and closes at 3pm.
Regardless of many businesses opening their doors again, the fear of contracting covid-19 has overpowered the desire to seek grooming. Samim’s smile quickly vanished as she brought herself back to the present, “I don’t really get customers anymore. Sometimes I get R20 and sometimes nothing at all. I had regular customers for 10, 12 years. They’ll phone or message and ask how am I, how’s the baby, but they don’t want to come because they’re scared of covid.”
Sameer Patel, her husband, felt the full brunt of the lockdown as his one-year-old business venture went up in smoke. He had to completely close down his newly established curtain shops in Ormonde and Boksburg. The word “tension” was uttered frequently, and his face crumpled when asked about his shops. Both he and his wife struggled with sleeping and eating because of the stress over the future of their businesses.
“It’s a terrible feeling. I can’t sleep,” he said as his face turned red, sweat streamed down his forehead and hisfists clenched.
Terrified that her shop could close too, and with the burden of owing thousands in accumulating rent,Samim said, “Some of the nights I couldn’t even sleep. I didn’t know what was going to happen. There’s food on the table, but you can’t eat because you’re stressing. Until today, days are like that.”
Sameer was reluctant to speak about the loss, but the little he did say caused water to well up in the bottom of his eyes. Fighting to hold back his tears as they threatened to fall, he said, “I don’t want to talk about it because it’s really stressing me. I was opening a big business and bought a truck for it, but it didn’t work just because of the lockdown. I sold all the things under cost, so it’s actually costing me more than R500 000.” His employees were paid with whatever he had left, and went back to previous work.
The lockdown affected the economy immensely as South Africa’s GDP contracted by 51% in quarter two.The government, to minimise the impact of covid-19, offered relief to businesses in the form of the Debt Relief Fund and the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). A special covid-19 social relief of distress grant of R350 a month was also set up for those that lost employment.
The Debt Relief Fund was aimed at small businesses that experienced financial difficulties during the lockdown. The requirements, however, automatically excluded this group as businesses had to be 100% owned by South African citizens, at least 70% of the employees had to be South African nationals and they had to be tax-compliant and registered with SARS. Sameer and Samim, armed with only work permits, were not eligible for this fund.
The many hoops to jump through
Many shopslocated in one of Fordsburg’s main attractions, the Oriental Plaza, saw the same fate as the lockdown took the familiar overcrowding of shoppers away. Built in the 1970s as a shopping centre for Indian traders,because of its low prices itbecame a haven for bargain hunters where finding space to even walk, was difficult.Bursting with a multitude of shops, the Plaza sells curtains, kitchenware, colourful fabrics and traditional Indian clothes.
Opposite the now strangely deserted parking lot of the Plaza stands a small barbershop, which can house only three customers at a time. Outside the barbershop sits 46-year-old Indian national Imtiyaz Shaik, with his single employee standing in the doorway with the same look of anticipation and desperation as Samim.
Malawian national, Etoo Kuiuwangu, learnt how to make all types of Indian cuisine when he came to South Africa in 2014 in the hopes that he could build his repertoire of skills and always be employable. He prepares the different curries, biryanis, butter chicken and mixes and rolls out the roti dough at Sheth’s Chinal Mall restaurant. Photo: Zainab Patel.
The lockdown led to a 26% increase in food insecurity and hunger, due to income shocks and job losses. The Nids-Cram survey found that 47% of respondents reported that their households ran out of money to buy food in April 2020.
Shaik has three children, and worry occupied his days as he experienced difficulty buying groceries, paying school fees and the uncertainty that still surrounds his barbershop. But with the help of his friends and clients bringing him groceries during that time, he was able to get by.
The UIF provided funds to registered companies unable to pay their employees. This meant that foreign nationals who were not legally documented or legally employed were not eligible to receive this. As of October 27, R1.6 billion has been paid to declared foreign nationals, but there are still delays, with them receiving their payments much later than their South African counterparts. The reasoning provided by the UIF was that its system uses ID numbers and does not recognise passport numbers, as well as extra verification processes required for foreign nationals.
Instructions on how to apply for government relief, and the rules pertaining to who could receive it, caused confusion among some foreign nationals. Shaik explained, “The government announced that they want to help, but actually we don’t know the process and rules of going to government for help. They said they were going to give you a link to go through. But I try, I try, how many times I try to get through the link, but I can’t get it right.”
No work no pay
The China Mall in Crown Mines, like the Plaza, is perfectlydesigned for foreigners as it allows shop owners to conduct business under the radar with many who do not pay tax. Bordered by large containers of goods, China Mall is famous for its cheap products ranging from clothes and bridal wear to toys, homeware and electronics. It is also where traders come to buy in bulk, with the cheap wholesale prices.
China Mall has been largely affected by the pandemic due to the stigma surrounding the mall and Chinese nationals. Finding parking was abnormally easy when visiting this bargain-filled mall,which has now seen an influx of PPE and infrared thermometers occupying several shops. Many shops that it previously housed are non-existent due to the loss of customers and the high rentals, ranging from R20 000 to R90 000, depending on size. This is due to the intense competition in the mall and the high volumes of passing trade, where whoever offers to pay more rent gets the space.
Located west of the mall is a food court owned mainly by foreign nationals and which shut down in February, before the lockdown, because of that stigma. One of the businesses was Anish Sheth’sfast food restaurant, which left him and his employees without a salary for four months. This is because he pays his employees on a per day basis,as most of his employees are undocumented and therefore do not want to be on the employees register. This automatically excludes them from the UIF, Debt Relief Fund and R350 grant.
UNDESA estimates there are 100 000 Malawian and 376 668 Mozambican migrant workers in South Africa, driven by the prospect of better jobsand escaping the poverty of their home countries. EtooKuiuwangu, an undocumented Malawian national, and MalemuBaleaa, an undocumented Mozambican national, work for Sheth making all types of Indian food in an aroma-filled, tiny corner next to the main kitchen of the restaurant.
“It’s very difficult, because when you don’t have any money it’s fucked up“
Mozambican national, Malemu Baleaa, starts the fire to make the naan (flatbread) for the day. He works non-stop for nine hours from Monday to Sunday making rotis, chicken tikka, parathas and naan in this tiny green corner where him and Kuiuwangu prepare the food at the restaurant. Photo: Zainab Patel
Kuiuwanga spoke of receiving no money during this time. “It’s very difficult, because when you don’t have any money it’s fucked up. There’s not even supper, sometimes.” He had to lend from people to try and look after his wife and two-year-old son.
Baleaa, who has been working there for 13 years, expressed the same, with having to look after three children. “During the lockdown I took credit from someone. Now I’m working so I can pay them. It’s a little bit better now, but it’s not yet 100%.”
“I just came to work because I don’t have any choice. I’m going to do what? Nothing“
The financial impact of those months of complete shutdown, according to Sheth, resulted in a loss of approximately R800 000. “Now, as a business, it’s not like before because people are still scared to come to the restaurant, especially China Mall.” He explained that they are not making their turnover, which was previously about R300 000 a month. With an average loss of R100 000, their turnover now ranges from R180 000 to R190 000.
Given their undocumented status, Kuiuwanga was stoic about his non-payment during that time, but displayed a tinge of anger when speaking about it. “I’m working here for five years, but I never get anything. So when he [Sheth] opened in May, I just came to work because I don’t have any choice. I’m going to do what? Nothing.” He is using the money that he is making now to slowly pay back the loan he took out.
Some business owners, like Samim and Shaik, await the new year in hopes that it will return to normal, using what little income they make now. Sheth extended his restaurant hours from nine hours to 12. “Recovery is nothing. Still we are struggling and battling with reversing all of that [the financial impact of the lockdown].”
Others, like Sameer, have sought employment elsewhere. He went from owning his own curtain shops to working in someone else’s curtain shop: “You have to do anything, anyhow, because if you have a family you can’t just sit with your hands, you have to do something to get food for your family and everything else.”
University students, who are expected to have low disposable incomes, are also self-proclaimed big spenders in the world of fashion. However, their love of trending fashion has also encouraged them to be entrepreneurs by contributing to thrifting culture.
A group of fashion loving third-year students wearing thrifted items clothing for a friendly lunch at Mall of Africa. They held their masks in their hands as to keep covid-19 from ruining their style. Photo: Thobekile Moyo.
On March 23, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national lockdown which was intended to last 21–days butwas extended into an indefinite phased lockdown. The national lockdown called for atemporary closure ofthe economy, as the South African public was under strict orders to remain home–bound, only exiting to purchase essential items.
Clothingsales during level 5 lockdown were rare due to the closure of retail stores –; until the government made provisions for South Africans to buy winter attire. In order to lower the risk of the spread of covid-19, a switch toonline shopping was recommended and, the retail fashion industry rose to the occasion.
According to a survey conducted by UNCTAD, 52% of participants agreed they have found themselves shopping online more often than they did before the covid-19 pandemic. The participants were canvassedfrom nine countries,including South Africa.Among the participants currentlyinuniversity, 58% admittedshoppingonline more frequently, compared to before the outbreak of covid-19. Since the outbreak, online fashion salesincreased by 2%.
Dr. Marike Venter de Villiers is a senior lecturer and head of the marketing department at Wits University, specialising in fashion marketing. Venter de Villierssaidthat despite an increase in online sales, she has observed a decline in the sales of fashion items in South Africa, due to three mainfactors.
“Firstly, because retail stores were closed for several months during lockdown. Secondly, because students have been cash-strapped with less disposable income. And thirdly, with the ban on social gathering, students were not going out and socialising so they did not have a need to buy and wear the latest fashion items,” said Venter de Villiers.
Despite the retail fashion industry experiencing a decline in sales, according to Statista (a business data platform), revenue in the fashion industry in South Africa is projected to reach US$1258 millionin 2020withan annual growth rate of 12% between 2020 and 2024, which would result in a market volume of UD$2035 million by 2024. If retail fashion has been struggling, then where will the supposed market growth come from?
Alongside online shops, the emergence of student–run thrift businesses selling pre-owned clothingto fashion-forward consumers may end up being one of the main causes of the projected growth. The new wave of environmentally consciousMillennials and Gen Z has also contributed heavily towards the growing popularity of pre-owned clothing,thus creating a large market for ambitious university students.
A boom in online thrifting
“Before lockdown came into play, there has been a sharp increase in secondhand clothing sales, clothes swapping, fashion bartering and customising old clothes. This is largely due to the rising awareness of the sustainable movement and policy makers encouraging brands to comply to the circular fashion economy,” said Venter de Villiers.
Online thrift seems to be experiencing a boom during the national lockdown, and university students are a significant factor in that achievement.
“During lockdown, with specific reference to customising old clothes, there has been a rise among Millennial consumers, mainly due to the following reasons: They did not have access to retail stores to buy fast fashion items; they were cash strapped and could not afford to buy new clothes on a regular basis.And studentshad more free time at home (with universities being closed, and not doing their usual part-time jobs),” said Venter de Villiers.
Robyn Evans (22) and Juliet Markantonatos (22) are two final–year BA theatre and performance students who started a thrift store on Instagram during lockdown called WhatWhatThrift, sellingsecondhandclothes. These,they haveacquired by rounding up the old clothesno longer worn in their households and carefully selecting pieces fromthe clothing bins at the secondhand market in theJohannesburg CBD.
Their target market are fashion connoisseurs who appreciate the charm of a faded t-shirt and the nostalgia of a pair of brown bell–bottoms once worn by a disco queen in the 70s. Thrift culture has revealed the timelessness of good–quality fashion, catering to people with different and unique styles, ultimately keeping the trendsetter alive.
As they sat side by side during ourinterview, Evans and Markantonatos proved themselves to be quite well in sync with each other, as they seamlessly alternated in answering each of the questions during the interview. Much like two parts of a whole, they were able to finish each other’s sentences and complement each other’s statements, which is a good quality to have as co-partners in a business.
“We started this business based on what we saw as a public demand among students like us, which isaffordable fashion. Thrifting is an affordable business to get into because of the low start–up costs. Juliet and I contributed R200 each in the beginning, which we managed to double through our first round ofsales to make R400 profit,” Evans said.
Thiscombination of a brunette with an80s pin–up look, and an edgy blonde is a perfect formula to create a carefully curated Instagram store, in hopes of making enough money to support a final–year university student’s aspirationsfor their first year of complete independence.
“Our main inspiration for starting this business came from wanting financialindependence as final–year students with concerns for our future.We felt as though we needed to start making an income, because the pandemic has proved itself destructive to the economy. We are hoping that the money we make here could fund the projects that start our careers,” Markantonatos said.
Social media’s contribution to keeping the fashion industry alive
AnthoveneBurricks (23) is a computer science student, fashion designer and LisofFashion School graduate, who not only studied the trends in the fashion industry but also admits to being one of the people whoputs a lot of her money into buying fashion items, ever since Instagram awakened her consumerist spirit within.
“As students we are always looking for ways to get new clothes in order to change our aesthetic, and our biggest barrier is always a financial one. Instagram is one of the reasons why I started spending so much money on clothing in the first place. Instagram has also made the re-wearing of clothing seem abnormal. I think it’s why young people are always seeking to buy new clothing,” said Burricks.
Married couple Twiggy Matiwana and Sindiswa Magidla-Matiwana wearing unique and earthy thrifted dresses for an event. Photo: Thobekile Moyo.
An article by Metro UK titled ‘One in six young people won’t wear an outfit again if it’s been on social media’, underlinedthe claim by Burricks.
According to a survey orchestrated by Hubbub, 41% out of 1000 people between the ages of 18-25 feel there is pressure to wear a different outfit each time they go out. In this same survey, 79% of the people between the ages 18-25 admitted to having been influenced by social media platforms when it comes to their taste in fashion. Instagram came in first, with 55% of participants using it as their primary source of inspiration, while Facebook came in at a close second.
Furthermore,30% of the participants surveyed admitted having watched clothing hauls on YouTube, where influencers unpack and try on all the clothing, they have purchased on a shopping spree.So, could we say that social media is now the main source of temptation when it comes to shopping?
“Across all generational cohorts, as well as market segments, the industry experienced financial losses. However, online sales have increased, especially among Millennial consumers, as they are the most tech-savvy generation and spend hours a day on their smartphones,” said Venter de Villiers.
The cost of an online thrifting business
Shipping costs with courier companies have proved to be a turn–off for both the buyer and the seller.According to Shopify’s ‘Beginner’s Guide to Ecommerce Shipping and Fulfillment’, shipping may generally make up around 37% of the cost of each unit sold. However, when dealing with thrift fashion, shipping could constitute up to 90% of the total cost.
“Some couriers will charge over R100 as the starting price for shipping, which can increase depending on the travel distance and size. So, in the beginning we would select a meeting point and specificy for all our customers to pick up their packages. This would work quite well for us, since the majority of our customers were from Johannesburg North and are Wits students, much like us, who understand the financial inconvenience of using courier companies,” Markantonatos said.
While the fashion–mongers satisfytheirneed to shop by scrolling through online shops, they may stumble upon a website called Yaga, which turns out to be ‘thrifter’s heaven’.
Yaga is an online marketplace where people can sell their used clothing, and thrifters can purchaseone–of–a–kind fashionitemsthat are ready to part with their owners. It also makes theseller’s job easier because of its readily available, accessible and affordable shipping options.
Anette Apri, the head of Yaga’s marketing team, said, “Yaga’s mission was to make online selling and shopping as seamless and as safe as possible and provide everyone an easy way to keep their items in circulation, while also earning some extra money by doing so.”
The shipping options on Yaga include PAXI and Aramex. PAXI, being the cheapest shipping option, makes use of Pep’s stores as drop-off and pick-up points for the user, and costs only R59 for the sender. Alternatively, Aramex is a courier that delivers directly to the receiver’s door, and costs R100.
“Yaga intended to alleviate the shipping dilemmas that small online business owners experience on Instagram and Facebook. We found that business–minded people would often get held back by the daunting idea of having to negotiate with couriers, and the excessive shipping costs, so Yaga has put forward the best two shipping options for users to choose from,” said Apri.
While browsing through Yaga, one will find several stores owned by university students who are marketing to their own age groups.
“We have captured the audience we were aiming for, which in the majority is between 20-35 years old. However, I have found that during the lockdown period, people between the ages of 19-26 have been particularly active in both buying and selling on our platform, which greatly contributed to the boost in activity on our site,” Apri said.
Even though lockdown has seen a sharp increase in the sales of pre-owned clothing, it has also been held back by the valid fears that society has aboutcovid-19.
“When covid-19 hit the world, consumers became paranoid about hygiene matters around the idea ofsecondhand clothes. There is still a risk associated with this practice as the virus stays on fabric for several hours, and consumers are paranoid that they might contract the virus,”said Venter de Villiers.
The future of fashion
Despite the hindrance that covid-19 has placed on the pre-owned clothing market, Venter de Villiers believes in its ability to eventually overtake the retail fashion industry.
“However, when viewing this from a sustainability point of view, it is an imperative stepping stone towards creating a more sustainable fashion industry. Should we see the secondhand clothing market grow, it will most likelyhavea negative effect on fast–fashion retailers,” said Venter de Villiers.
By contributing to the popularity of pre-owned clothing, university students are also promoting more sustainable fashion, which seeks to counterbalance the 10% of carbon emissions produced by the fashion industry annually (according to UNEP). The question of whether retail fashion will become obsolete because of the rise in popularity of thrift fashion mightnot be necessary, after considering the struggles retail had already beenfacing before the covid-19 outbreak.
According to News 24, retail fashion stores such as J Crew, Neiman Marcus and Forever 21 are facing bankruptcy, which has encouraged other stores such as H&M to switch to online sales exclusively, much like Zara.
Instead of interpreting the struggle of the retail fashion industry negatively, it could also be the consumers discarding their old habits, in orderto repurpose their finances and realise their priorities.
“Even though retail clothing sales have been struggling,since lockdown restrictions started lifting and consumers started to go back to normal life, there has been a shift in the demand for different clothing categories. For instance, active–wear sales reflected a steeper increase in comparison to fast–fashion items. Likewise, there has been an increased demand for durable, quality clothing as opposed to fast fashion,” said Venter de Villiers.
A group of fashion loving third-year students wearing thrifted items clothing for a friendly lunch at Mall of Africa. They held their masks in their hands as to keep covid-19 from ruining their style. Photo: Thobekile Moyo.
The Joburg Ballet has been on a journey of highs and lows through the covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, which have hobbled its ability to perform for live audiences while threatening a ripple effect on the arts economy of South Africa as the shadow of covid-19 looms over the future.
A ballet dancer’s attire, which now includes masks. Photo: Anna Moross.
Joburg Ballet was rewarded with a standing ovation at the end of its firstperformance of the year, Don Quixote, which kicked off its season with a bangon March 13, 2020. Just two days later,President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national state of disaster,heraldingthe company’s final call.
This sounded a death knell for ballet productions, and the consequential financial implications have beenfar-reaching.
Therehave been five different lockdown levels, each prohibiting movement within sectors of the country. Althoughthe nationwide lockdown in South Africa aimed to curb the spread of covid-19,it alsoresulted in a 51% drop inGross Domestic Product (GDP) in the second quarter of the financial year.
While theatres were approved to open under lockdown level three, the restrictions made it almost impossible, from the 1.5-metersocial distancingaudience and dancers must abide by, to the capacity restrictions ontheatres. Currentlyunder level one,Joburg Ballet has yet to performfor a live audience, meaningno revenue this year.
Ballet companies around the world havefelt the heat. New York City Ballet, one of the foremost ballet companies in the world, has had to cancel all performances for the rest of 2020, losing about $45 million in sales.
Joburg Ballet now finds itself at the centreof South Africa’s cultural and economic heartbeat, with no room to perform. It isa small professional ballet company,established in 2001 and comprised of 30 dancers.Located in the bustling city centreat the Joburg Theatre, its aim is to produce classic full–length productions and innovative original works.
Esther Nasser, CEO of Joburg Ballet since 2016,has been working in the ‘dance world’ of South Africa for many years. She explained to Wits Vuvuzela that they have lost between R4.5 and R6million in revenue, which would have been used to generate the budget for the next season of shows, leaving little to work with.
Joburg Ballet’s survival kit
So how is Joburg Ballet surviving this harsh lockdown? Nasser said, with a sigh of relief,“The one thing that saved us this year is the fact that our grant was renewed by the City of Johannesburg.”
The grant began in 2013 and is given on a three-year basis,providing Joburg Ballet with R12million, including VAT. This lifeline exists because of their community development programmes and satellite schools, which offer children from previously disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to dance.
Chris Vondo, a member of the mayoral committee of community developmentfor the City of Johannesburg Municipality, said during the first announcement of the grant that, “We recognise the large steps the ballet company has taken in recent years towards transformation as a performing arts company in South Africa, and also its successful outreach programmes for the youngsters of our city.”
The three satellite schools are located in Soweto, Alexandra and the surrounding areas of Braamfontein, consisting of about 120 dancers.
MohlatseSchane (24), is one of the dancers whose potential wasrealised. Walking into his interview, Mohlatse had the true presence of a dancer, from his turned–out feet to his perfect posture.
Growing up in a disadvantaged family, ballet was something that not only brought him joybut gave him hope for his future financial prospects. After learning ballet in Alexandra and joining one of Joburg Ballet’s satellite schools, his dream came true.
Mohlatsetold Wits Vuvuzela, “It is a different feeling doing ballet in a place where it is only students, and then getting involved with the company. By doing this, you actually see the type of person you want to be by looking at people who are older than you in a professional company, who are where you want to be.”
Ballet is an art form that teaches emotional and physical discipline. Joburg Ballet has built a relationship with the departments of education and health to not only expose the youth to ballet, but also to shed light on the importance of taking care of one’s body.
Keke Chele,a former dancer and head of public relations and publicity at Joburg Ballet,emphasised with great passion that this relationship has continuedas, “They saw the number of children we are reaching, and the number of kids being exposed to this [ballet], as well as the box office regeneration of money through growing audiences.”
Due to the covid-19 pandemic, Joburg Ballet’s satellite schools are running remotely over Zoom, an online conferencing service.While provisions have been made to supply students with necessary devices and equipment,dancing remotely iscompletely different.
Chele said that trying to find innovative ways to teach ballet in students’ unique environmentsis challenging.
“Every day we were met with challenges and we still are,” Chele said.
Without the development of these students, the future growth of the company is something of a pipe dream.Nasser, an advocate for social cohesion and the inclusivity of ballet in South Africa,is concerned that there are other hidden challenges.
“In the imperfect world, we are sitting in a position where we can’t grow our school because we do not have the space or resources, which is why this is proving to be a challenge for the future of these children’s careers as professional ballet dancers,” said Nasser.
Broadly speaking, this is the type of growth the arts economy needs. FinanceMinister Tito Mboweni stated in his 2019 budget speech that arts area tool of soft power which needs the opportunity to grow, shedding light on the importance of financial support needed.
The dancers’ struggles
With no revenue stream from productions, the City of Johannesburg grant has also enabled the safeguarding of Joburg Ballet’s salaries, while the only other ballet company in South Africa, Cape Town City Ballet, has not been as lucky, having to retrench dancers.
Nasser said, “Even though the salaries are not great in this country for artists, and especially a ballet company, it puts Joburg Ballet in the forefront as being one of the very few ballet companies in the world that managed to keep their company going on full salaries.”
Chele explained, however,that due to the covid-19 pandemicdancers have been unable to undertake freelance jobsthey rely on.
At Joburg Ballet,a dancer’s earnings range from R4 000 to R25 000 a month, depending on their level in the company. The hierarchy of dancers is standard throughout the competitive world of ballet. They start at the bottom, asaspirants,and work their way up to principal status.
From the satellite school, MohlatseSchaneis making his way up the ladder and is currently a member of the senior corps. Dancing is his main source of income, andwhile he was reluctant to state the specifics of his salary, he likely earns between R5 000and R10 000a month.
His passion for dance has been impaired by the covid-19 pandemic, leaving him feeling slightly hopeless.
“At the moment, in the arts in this country it is not a feasible lifestyle.For arts to survive, people need to be watching, admiring and pouring money into it. The arts in this country have never been the primary source of attraction, and during covid-19 it is even harder to keep art relevant,” Mohlatse said bitterly.
Joburg Ballet also attractsdancers from all over the world. Bruno Miranda (29), a Brazilian ballet dancer who joined the company three years ago, is a true performer who lives and breathes ballet. A member of the senior corps,he was fuelled by the lack of cultural support in Brazil to move to South Africa.
Bruno Miranda, a ballet dancer at Joburg Ballet is leaping into a jete ala second as rehearsals continue for the dancers at their studios in Braamfontein despite no productions. Bruno Miranda. Photo: Anna Moross
Sitting in the deserted cafeteria at Joburg Ballet, with the beautiful sound of classical music in the background, Miranda explained to Wits Vuvuzelathat the financial struggles caused by the covid-19 pandemicweighheavy on his mind.
“We can’t do any external gigs, and I also try to save money to go back to Brazil. So every job and thing (freelance event) I can do, I try, but this year was very difficult,” saidBruno.
“We are almost in December and we do not know what is going to happen next year,” he said,concern etched on his face.
The arts economy
The South African cultural and creative industries identified by theSouth African Cultural Observatory (SACO)contributed 1.7% to the country’s GDP in 2018, creating revenue of R63 billion a year and one million jobs.
While the arts spearhead freedom of expression in South Africa,their financial position has plummeted during covid-19. SACO has measured how the South African cultural and creative economy has shrunk. According to the research, 95% of the sector experienced the cancellation or indefinite postponement of events, with only 21% of companies able to pay employees full salaries.
The SACO review highlights the chain of cause and effect the impact of the cessation has caused, explaining the issue of inter-industry spending, an indirect impact of the covid-19 pandemic.
Joburg Ballet outsources companiestoprovide itwith the necessary equipment required for productions.
Splitbeam, which providesthe technical equipment,is currently in business rescue and has been since the end of April. Allister Kilbee,Splitbeam’smanaging director, explained that thesituation is dire.He told Wits Vuvuzela that confirmed jobs worth more thanR6.5million were lost during lockdown. “We are currently doing 5% of our normal turnover,” hesaid.
As a result,Splitbeamhas released all its freelance staff and the 13 other staff members are receiving 20% of their salaries.
“The theatre industry and live event industry have not opened, and our people are still living very much in the same state that many people found themselves in at level 5. But we are currently on level 1 and we do not see the end of it, so I think we get the feeling it could go on for many months to come,” said Kilbee.
The technical equipment required to produce a ballet production in theatres. MGG Productions, based in Sandton, Johannesburg. Photo: Anna Moross
Joburg Ballet also utilisesVanessa Nicolau Theatre and Events. This company is involved in the décor and stage set–up of performances.
Vanessa Nicolautold Wits Vuvuzela that, going into the year, she was optimistic based on bookings. The announcement made by the president, however, set a different path in motion. Nicolau explained that theirexpected turnover of about R2.5 million became revenue of R100 000 for the year.
With no money to pay her employees, they had to claimfrom the Unemployment Insurance Fund, meaning that the 22 employees now receive between R3 400 and R6 500 a month. Nicolau said, “It has been our saving grace.”
Both Splitbeam and Nicolau Theatre and Events are concerned about what the future holds. If productions do not kick off anytime soon, they are both looking at closure.
Joburg Ballet’s prospects
While Joburg Ballet forages through its mysterious life during covid-19, they do plan to leap back onto stage as soon as possible.This, however, depends onthe level of lockdown and the safety protocols involved.
In December Joburg Ballet should be preparing for its final production. Chele explained that the 50% capacity restriction placed ontheatres will reapa huge financial loss. The question of ticket prices has also emerged: should Joburg Ballet increase ticket prices to cover losses?
“It just seems like a bit too much of a risk right now because there are no guarantees,” said Chele, who is in two minds about the decision.
The empty Joburg Theatre amidst the covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Anna Moross
Whether a ballet company existing without being able to perform is sustainable into the future is uncertain. According to Joburg Ballet’s CEO, in the long run, if the company is unable to perform, there may be implications for its City of Johannesburgfunding.
Nasser concluded by saying, “There is that one little matter that could scuff us if the second wave comes.”
This is concerning for many companies in the arts sector. “If the pandemic carries on for much longer, we could lose the entire theatre and arts sector of the economy and companies like mine will no longer exist,”Kilbeesaid.
With the South African economy going into its fourth quarter of negative economic growth, things are not looking up.
What this means for the future ofJoburg Ballet and the other production companies involved in the artsis unclear. This unpredictability has left many companies in the dark, andwhat the financial future holds for the arts economy only time will tell.
FEATURED IMAGE: A ballet dancers attire, which now includes masks. Photo: Anna Moross