SA’s NGO economy takes strain under covid-19

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 children  walking kilometres,  come rain  or shine,  to collect a meal was a sight pastor Xana Mccauley agonised over for years while she watched  the happenings of the Wednesday soup kitchen. As the co-founder of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that has  seen 42 yearsMccauley 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 the  haven  it is to many.The surrounding area is a mix of lush wedding venues, squatter camps and wide-open pastures. Although the  poverty  may be isolated inclusters,  the need remains glaringly obvious to HOC staff.  They  service the  Diepsloot, Cosmo City, LanseriaMalachi and Lion Park communities  with 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 burdenSlowing the spread of coronavirus became a priority for South Africans after the implementation of levelfive  lockdown 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 businesses  prepared 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 the  National Income Dynamics  Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM), conducted  between May 7 and June 27,  two out of five adults reported that their household had lost its main source of income. Of 7 025 interviewees, 42% said they had run out of money to buy food by April.  The survey made it clear food security in South Africa  was threatened by shocking changes to householdincomes. 

Food insecurity  was already having an impact on six million South Africans,  according to health journalism publication Bhekisisa. With a further loss of income came a greater dependence on government and NGOs for food security and grants, to stand in the gap and address people’s needs.   

With widespread economic hardship following in the wake of the covid lockdownHOC 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. The HOC childrens 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

Pastor  McCauley told  Wits Vuvuzela  they lost many faithful givers whose donations had been the backbone of the organisations budget.  Congregants from the home church, Rhema Bible Church, who had committed to monthly increments, were unable to  fulfil  those obligations.  Although the church may be perceived by many of the public to be for the middle to upper class, with  well-off  congregation, the financial effects of lockdown were  nevertheless  evident, although it  is 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. This  supplemented HOC’s pantry stock losses  that were substantial due to  two local Woolworths stores not being able to donate as much of their sell-by goods as they had prior to lockdown. This  resulted  in 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 the  soup kitchen model had to be revolutionised to adapt to social distancing measures, people could not be given prepared meals. HOC decided to  send 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 to  write down  the 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 their  cellphone  numbers and explain that we want to continue giving, but we must do it via  their  cellphone,” the pastor said. 

HOC decided to  send e-vouchers to the 70-100 people who  would ordinarily collect Wednesday meals

The effectiveness of the e-voucher scheme is yet to be evaluated by HOC staff. They plan to visit beneficiaries  soon,  to assess whether their circumstances have improved in terms of health, financial independence  and 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 airtime and ensuring  new 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 an  extensive report published by  South Africa’s Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG)  on May  29, the Department of Social Development  (DSD) partnered with NGOs to assist anyone who needed to apply for  the R350  disaster relief grant. This  collaboration was intended to help anyone without access to a phone or technological  means of applying.   

As reported in a Daily Maverick article on  September  30,  the  NIDS-CRAM  survey, states that  this grant has reached  4.4 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 are  therefore  an important form of assistance to broad  swathes 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 is  Joint Aid Management (JAM).   Established in  1984,  as a Christian-based organisation that heads up childfeeding programmes for 120000 people in  nine  of South Africas  11  provinces, JAM  operates in Gauteng in Orange Farm, Soweto, the Johannesburg CBD,  Hammanskraal  and Pretoria.

During this year, JAM also had to adjust its food distribution model as a result of South Africas lockdown regulationsDuring 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 at  local preschools, spaza shops and churches during a specific time window, with socialdistancing 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 Africas strong GDP per capita, emergency funding had been sourced within the country, as opposed to the disaster relief which JAM has seen  occur in other African countries such as  Rwanda  or Mozambique, which required international  funders.   

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 lowerincome communities. Brown says this process was  previously  under way, but it has been accelerated by covid-19.   Transparency with donors became 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 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 to  repurpose  its funding to accommodate the disaster relief circumstances imposed on them during lockdown. This meant partnering with other organisations that were transporting food, rather than using the infrastructures they normally would. 

This meant our vehicles were not running and we were not recovering the capital with fixed costs  that we would normally recover  from donor funding,” said Brown. Brown emphasised that although emergency funding had compensated 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 programming  costs,  remained. 

Tithes and offerings for public benefit 

Public benefit organisations such as churches were not left out of the loop, as far as e-giving was concerned. Rhema Faith Life Church, based in Bosmont, also  made the move to e-walletsLead pastor Lester Holland told  Wits Vuvuzela  that 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 church  was  able to support congregants with electronic payments.   

The Citizen published an article  at the end of May reporting that the South African Council of Churches, which unites 36-member organisations 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 churchs 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,  we  know we do not have any emergency fund. You know one thing about a church is that it is a public benefit organisation,’’ said HollandWhatever comes in always goes out to help people. There is more expenditure than what is  coming in. Us having an account where we are setting aside finances that we would use for future, is definitely my thinking. 

Holland told  Wits Vuvuzela  the 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 Louise  Denysschen,  which states, “Moving funds during the pandemic also highlighted the gaps in current  compliance criteria, which excluded community-based organisations (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 technologies  plays a role in the NGO economy,  crowdfunding facilitator  BackaBuddy  told  Wits Vuvuzela  that  people were surprisingly generous during lockdown  and 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, the  Comrades/Argus etcetera, but with lockdown the events were cancelled or postponed,”  said  BackaBuddy’s social media manager, 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 of organisations 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 perspectiveThe e-voucher is a solution born out of theinteresting collaboration between the  spirit of ubuntu,  the idea that  I ambecause you are, and the saturation of  cellphone  technology, within even the poorest communities.   

As buying power, technological advancement and financial autonomy have the  potential  to  become  the new norm, it seems the NGO  economy  has 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.

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Foreigners in Johannesburg struggle under pandemic regulations

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 devastating effect 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 survey of 7 000 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 tikkathe 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 Society that 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’s2020 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 Drive stands 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 his fists 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 eyesFighting 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 shops located in one of Fordsburg’s main attractionsthe 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 it became 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 barber shop, which can house only three customers at a time. Outside the barber shop 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 barber shop. 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 perfectly designed 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’s fast 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.   

UN DESA estimates there are 100 000 Malawian and 376 668 Mozambican migrant workers in South Africa, driven by the prospect of better jobs and escaping the poverty of their home countriesEtoo Kuiuwangu, an undocumented Malawian national, and Malemu Baleaa, 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 nowSheth 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 isomeone 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.” 

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Online shopping keeps students en vogue and in the money

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 but was extended into an indefinite phased lockdown. The national lockdown called for a temporary closure of the economy, as the South African public was under strict orders to remain homebound, only exiting to purchase essential items.  

Clothing sales during level 5 lockdown were rare due to the closure of retail stores –; until the government made provisions for South Africans to buy winter attireIn order to lower the risk of the spread of covid-19, a switch to online shopping was recommended and, the retail fashion industry rose to the occasion.  

According to a survey conducted by UNCTAD52% of participants agreed they have found themselves shopping online more often than they did before the covid-19 pandemic. The participants were canvassed from nine countries, including South Africa. Among the participants currently in university, 58% admitted shopping online more frequently, compared to before the outbreak of covid-19. Since the outbreak, online fashion sales increased by 2%. 

DrMarike Venter de Villiers is a senior lecturer and head of the marketing department at Wits University, specialising in fashion marketingVenter de Villiers said that despite an increase in online sales, she has observed a decline in the sales of fashion items in South Africa, due to three main factors.  

“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 million in 2020 with an 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 wherwill the supposed market growth come from?   

Alongside online shops, the emergence of studentrun thrift businesses selling pre-owned clothing to fashion-forward consumers may end up being one of the main causes of the projected growth. The new wave of environmentally conscious Millennials 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 students had 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 finalyear BA theatre and performance students who started a thrift store on Instagram during lockdown called What What Thriftselling secondhand clothes. These, they have acquired by rounding up the old clothes no longer worn in their households and carefully selecting pieces from the clothing bins at the secondhand market in the Johannesburg CBD.

Their target market are fashion connoisseurs who appreciate the charm of a faded t-shirt and the nostalgia of a pair of brown bellbottoms once worn by a disco queen in the 70s. Thrift culture has revealed the timelessness of goodquality fashion, catering to people with different and unique styles, ultimately keeping the trendsetter alive.  

As they sat side by side during our interview, 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 is affordable fashion. Thrifting is an affordable business to get into because of the low startup costs. Juliet and contributed R200 each in the beginning, which we managed to double through our first round of sales to make R400 profit,” Evans said.  

This combination of a brunette with an 80s pinup 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 finalyear university student’s aspirations for their first year of complete independence.  

 “Our main inspiration for starting this business came from wanting financial independence as finalyear students with concerns for our future. We felt as though we needed to start making an incomebecause the pandemic has proved itself destructive to the economyWe 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

Anthovene Burricks (23) is a computer science student, fashion designer and Lisof Fashion School graduate, who not only studied the trends in the fashion industry but also admits to being one of the people who puts 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 mediaunderlined the claim by Burricks. 

According to a survey orchestrated by Hubbub, 41% out of 1 000 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 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 turnoff 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 sizeSo, 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 fashionmongers satisfy their need to shop by scrolling through online shopsthey 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 purchase oneofakind fashion items that are ready to part with their owners. It also makes the seller’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 AramexPAXI, 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 businessminded 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 about covid-19.  

“When covid-19 hit the world, consumers became paranoid about hygiene matters around the idea of secondhand 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 likely have a negative effect on fastfashion 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 might not be necessary, after considering the struggles retail had already been facing 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 order to 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, activewear sales reflected a steeper increase in comparison to fastfashion items. Likewise, there has been an increased demand for durable, quality clothing as opposed to fast fashion,” said Venter de Villiers.  

FEATURED IMAGE:

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. 

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Curtains close on ballet company as covid-19 takes centre stage

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 first performance of the year, Don Quixotewhich kicked off its season with a bang on March 13, 2020. Just two days later, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national state of disaster, heralding the company’s final call. 

This sounded a death knell for ballet productions, and the consequential financial implications have been far-reaching. 

There have been five different lockdown levels, each prohibiting movement within sectors of the country. Although the nationwide lockdown in South Africa aimed to curb the spread of covid-19, it also resulted in a 51% drop in Gross 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-meter social distancing audience and dancers must abide by, to the capacity restrictions on theatres. Currently under level one, Joburg Ballet has yet to perform for a live audience, meaning no revenue this year.  

Ballet companies around the world have felt the heatNew 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 centre of South Africa’s cultural and economic heartbeat, with no room to perform. It is small professional ballet company, established in 2001 and comprised of 30 dancers. Located in the bustling city centre at the Joburg Theatreits aim is to produce classic fulllength 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 yearsShe explained to Wits Vuvuzela that they have lost between R4.5 and R6 million 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 R12 million, including VATThis lifeline exists because of their community development programmes and satellite schools, which offer children from previously disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to dance.  

Chris Vondomember of the mayoral committee of community development for 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 Africaand 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 Braamfonteinconsisting of about 120 dancers.  

Mohlatse Schane (24), is one of the dancers whose potential was realisedWalking into his interview, Mohlatse had the true presence of a dancer, from his turnedout feet to his perfect posture.  

Growing up in a disadvantaged family, ballet was something that not only brought him joy but 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.  

Mohlatse told 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 continued as“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 Zooman online conferencing service. While provisions have been made to supply students with necessary devices and equipment, dancing remotely is completely different.  

Chele said that trying to find innovative ways to teach ballet in students unique environments is 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, aadvocate 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 needsFinance Minister Tito Mboweni stated in his 2019 budget speech that arts are 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 Ballets salaries, while the only other ballet company in South AfricaCape Town City Ballethas 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 pandemic dancers have been unable to undertake freelance jobs they 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 balletThey start at the bottom, as aspirants, and work their way up to principal status 

From the satellite schoolMohlatse Schane is making his way up the ladder and is currently member of the senior corps. Dancing is his main source of income, and while he was reluctant to state the specifics of his salary, he likely earns between R5 000 and R10 000 a 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 attracts dancers 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, hwas 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 Vuvuzela that the financial struggles caused by the covid-19 pandemic weigh heavy on his mind. 

“We can’t do any external gigs, and I also try to save money to go back to BrazilSo every job and thing (freelance event) I can do, I try, but this year was very difficult, said Bruno. 

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 the South 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 companies to provide it with the necessary equipment required for productions 

Splitbeam, which provides the technical equipment, is currently in business rescue and has been since the end of April. Allister Kilbee, Splitbeams managing director, explained that the situation is dire. He told Wits Vuvuzela that confirmed jobs worth more than R6.5 million were lost during lockdown.  “We are currently doing 5% of our normal turnover,” he said.  

As a result, Splitbeam has 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 utilises Vanessa Nicolau Theatre and Events. This company is involved in the décor and stage setup of performances.  

Vanessa Nicolau told Wits Vuvuzela that, going into the year, she was optimistic based on bookingsThe announcement made by the president, however, set a different path in motion. Nicolau explained that their expected turnover of about R2.5 million became revenue of R100 000 for the year.  

With no money to pay her employees, they had to claim from 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 any time 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 on the level of lockdown and the safety protocols involved.  

In December Joburg Ballet should be preparing for its final productionChele explained that the 50% capacity restriction placed on theatres will reap 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 performthere may be implications for its City of Johannesburg funding.  

Nasser concluded by saying, “There is that one little matter that could scuff us if the second wave comes.”

Blurred lines

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, Kilbee said.    

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 of Joburg Ballet and the other production companies involved in the arts is unclear. This unpredictability has left many companies in the dark, and what 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

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