My barber shop is my culture

Hustlers Corner Shop is a barber’s where relationships are formed, advice is given and a brotherhood has developed. It represents the community and the many cultures that thrive on Louis Botha Avenue. 

The mannequin heads Professor Nkomo uses to practise cutting white people’s hair as a way to broaden the barber’s target market. Photo: Lwandile Shange

For the past three years Professor Nkomo has left his home in Orange Grove at 8am, placed a batch of energy drinks he sells in his barber’s shop into the boot of his rusty old white Toyota Corolla, and then made his way to work on Louis Botha avenue.
On arrival, like every other day, Nkomo lights a cigarette and unfolds the garage door that secures his barber’s shop, where he then cleans his tools for the day and prepares for what he calls a busy day of the week, Friday.

It is 9am and no customers have arrived yet. Nkomo leaves the shop open and gets into his car, which he has parked just outside, and awaits the arrival of his brother, with whom he runs the barber’s.
On many days there will be no customers and he will only be visited during their lunch breaks by people who work around Louis Botha Avenue.

Brother Eric arrives and starts shifting furniture around to sweep up the piles of hair on the floor.
Nkomo keeps himself busy and starts scratching in a compartment outside his shop, where he stores unique-looking mannequin heads.
“Eita mf’ethu, what are you doing?” a passer-by asks him.
“I am practicing a different style of cutting hair, my brother,” says Nkomo.

A barber’s shop that bridges the gap between black and white 

Space inside the barber’s shop is tight, but there is enough for Professor Nkomo to cut customers’ hair and enjoy his Zimbabwean music on the PC. Photo: Lwandile Shange

He takes up one of three mannequin that resemble white men and have hair and beard textures similar to those of white people. The three heads have a fair skin tone, like most mannequins, but they stick out not just because of that, but because of the condition they are in. The heads have suffered quite a few bruises and dents.
Strands of hair fall from the mannequin heads as you handle them, because Nkomo utilizes them quite a lot.

“I bought these mannequins so that I can teach myself how to cut white people’s hair. A lot of white people come here and struggle to find a salon that caters for them. I am trying to bridge that gap and make this place more accommodating for everyone who lives here,” explains the owner of the Hustlers Corner Shop.

Nkomo named his barber’s shop “Hustlers Corner” because he regards himself as a hustler. A hustler has many definitions, but for him it is someone who is hard-working and able to make something out of nothing.

The 37-year-old came to South Africa in 2004 to escape poverty.“I had to leave Zimbabwe so that I could better my life and provide for my family, and that is why I chose to come to Orange Groove to try and make something of myself,” he said.
Louis Botha Avenue has, over the years, become a place of refuge for many of the African migrants who are now residents of the area.

The influx of migrants caused a shift as the first residents of Louis Botha Avenue, mostly white, moved out, leaving the area to cater more for the African newcomers.
Louis Botha became the perfect place to establish his shop. Nkomo says it was difficult to start elsewhere because here “I know a lot of people that come from Zimbabwe, which made me feel like Louis Botha is a home away from home”.

Louis Botha Avenue: ‘a home away from home’

Hustlers Corner Shop stands tall on Louis Botha Avenue. The barber’s shop opened it’s doors in 2011. Photo: Lwandile Shange

From the Zimbabwean mechanic, hairdresser and tailor to store owners, Louis Botha Avenue has provided a number of people like Nkomo the opportunity to build a life supported and protected by fellow countrymen in another country.
These Zimbabwean-built businesses survive thanks to the people of Louis Botha Avenue and the sense of community they provide, making life easier for Zimbabweans in the area.

“I am very comfortable here because the area and people are very accommodating.”
The barber explains that everyone supports each other, despite the competition for customers, and everyone is willing to help you. Nkomo feels part of the many barber’s shops that occupy Louis Botha, but time and competition from many other foreign hair salons have forced him to come up with new ideas so that his doors remain open.

Louis Botha has undergone many changes since the time it was home to notorious gangsters, Jews and Italians. Many of the businesses on Louis Botha were owned and run by Italians or Jews, such as Nussbaum’s Kosher Butchery, Ital Machinery and Super Sconto, an Italian diner that still exists in the area. Many of Louis Botha’s old residents moved away from the area and foreign nationals have since moved in to establish themselves in an area whose locals share a similar culture.

Above: Professor Nkomo is the owner of the Hustlers Corner Shop which is a barber’s shop on Louis Botha Avenue. He incorporates he’s Zimbabwean culture by the way he cuts the customers hair and the music he plays.

Hustlers Corner Shop, embodies the art of hustling

The avenue is largely a business street, with Nkomo’s shop being surrounded by a number of hair salons, tailors, internet cafes, convenience shops and places of worship, to name a few. After the many changes that Louis Botha Avenue has undergone, there are more than 15 salons, restaurants and churches in the area.

Stepping into the barber’s, there is a constant stream of noise, taxis honk their horns every minute, and cars speed by only to get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic due to the development of Rea Vaya, a form of public transport, and roadworks.
The barber’s shop is painted yellow and blue, and the inside is so tiny it can accommodate only one customer at a time. When you enter, the first thing you hear is loud music blasting from a dusty old PC used as a music player.

In a corner of the shop you will find a bar fridge stocked with Dragon energy drinks and alcohol; but this is no ordinary alcohol. It comes in sachets and is mixed with whiskey. Nkomo sells it as a “side hustle”, he said.When he opened his barbershop he also used to sell vintage clothing and plates of food. “When I first started cutting hair I would sell bales of clothing at cheap prices so I could make extra money and support my family,” he said.

Clipper combs are placed ontop of the mirror inside the barber’s shop as an artictic gesture. Photo: Lwandile Shange 
Below: The hair clippers Professor Nkomo uses to cut customers’ hair. Photo: Lwandile Shange
This is the space where barber Proffessor Nkomo plays his music, places his hair clippers, razors and cleaning equipment. Photo: Lwandile Shange

Music has become a recollection of culture 

As the music plays in the background, Nkomo describes his love of music and how some of the songs he plays remind him of his home in Zimbabwe.
There is a large collection of CDs on his desk and he said he used to be “in that industry”. Not only did he sell clothes on the side, but also pirated CDs and DVDs to anyone who was willing to buy them. He later stopped when he realised it could get him into trouble.

Nkomo’s brother, Eric, is also passionate about barbering, but communicating is a struggle for him since he was hit by a truck in childhood, which caused mental damage that later affected his speech.
Eric managed, however, to express that he enjoyed the work, picking up hair clippers and muttering “nice” as he smiled at them. Hustlers Corner Shop opened its doors in 2016, but the 37-year-old had already started barbering in 2011.

It is 1pm and a red vehicle parks in front of the store. A middle-aged man wearing a brightly coloured t-shirt steps out and shouts “Professor!”
Nkomo rushes out of the store and I ask him who this man is. He says, “this is Innocent Skhosana, a regular customer at Hustlers Corner Shop and a friend of mine.”’ “Sawubona sisi,” Skhosana greets. His energy fills up the room as everyone gravitates to him.  “Would you like a beer?” asks Skhosana. I decline his offer politely and ask him about his visit to the barber’s and if he lives on Louis Botha Avenue.
Skhosana explains how the barber’s shops form part of the Louis Botha community.
“The Hustlers Corner Shop is one of the few places I feel comfortable at, not only to get my hair cut but to chill with friends and catch up on what has been happening in their lives,” he said.

Left: Innocent Skhosana parks his red vehicle in front of the shop to get a haircut from Nkomo. Photo: Lwandile Shange

A brotherhood within the barber’s shop

Over the five years that Skhosana has been Nkomo’s customer, they have developed a brotherhood. There was a time when Skhosana was so broke, he went to Nkomo and was offered a place to sleep by the barber. “Hustlers Corner Shop is where I found my family, even though I left my family in Zim,” he said. Barber’s shops on Louis Botha Avenue are home to many foreign nationals who come not only for a cut and shave but also for advice, support and overall to be a brotherhood.

Since the turn of the 19th century, beauty salons and barber shops have served as special places for Africans. According to an article in New Republic, the barber’s shop has become a place where men gather and spend time with other men, form close relationships, seek out advice and as a place to escape their problems. They have been places where black people could be vulnerable and talk about issues of importance to the community. Customers discuss local gossip, politics and community affairs.
Original residents moved away from Louis Botha due to increased crime, house invasions, illegal businesses and never-ending road works in the path of urban decay. African migrants did not care about the socio-political pressures. They just wanted a place where they could live without fear of being attacked as foreigners.

Above: Barber Professor Nkomo sits in his shop and mulls his future plans. Photo: Lwandile Shange  

As the day progressed and Hustlers Corner Shop got busier, Nkomo was on his fifth customer of the day. He gushed with excitement when a middle-aged man who looked like a regular greeted him and asked if he could go next, for an “English cut”.
Nkomo explained that the English cut was part of his Zimbabwean culture and there is a specific way it is done, hence he is happy when people ask for it as it gives him an opportunity to let his culture shine through.
The customer’s name is David Ncube and he is a regular customer. He explained that the first time he saw the English cut was at Nkomo’s shop. He liked it and wanted the exact same style.
“I have seen that cut many times before, but there is something in the way Prof does it that makes me like it even more,” he said.

The future is bright for Nkomo

According to a journal article titled Fading, Twisting and Weaving: An interpretive ethnography of the black barbershop as a cultural space, the barber’s shop is an institution of social exchange where culture and community play an influential role. It is a cultural space that allows the exchange of ideas and discussion among barbers and customers.
Hustlers Corner Shop operates from 9am to 9pm and makes on average between R400 and R600 a day. Louis Botha has provided Nkomo with the opportunity to support his wife, Forget Nkomo, and their three kids.

Nkomo met his wife in Zimbabwe and came with her to South Africa, where they could build a better life and future for their South African-born children. Nkomo says South Africa is a place of opportunity, and if he had stayed in Zimbabwe he would still be struggling to provide for himself, let alone his family. “This place gave me security. When xenophobia took place we looked out for each other and that just proved to me that when I am here I have a family,” he said.
Nkomo sat down on one of the shaky chairs in his salon as he cleaned his barbershop tools for the last time for the day. He then stepped out of the salon to pack away the mannequin heads that were to bring him white customers, although none came. Looking into the distance, he said one day he hopes to own a number of barber’s shops around the African continent as a means “to celebrate the many different cultures and expand the business”.

FEATURED IMAGE: An image of a barbershop. Photo: Supplied


The barbershop where generations have come to let their hair down

Melville’s 4th Avenue has had its share of the hustle and bustle of shops opening and closing, but the barbershop and the man who owns it tell a different story. The barbershop is a marvel that has seen the changes of the Melville landscape but has remained as it is, where it is, for 48 years.

WALKING ALONG 4th Avenue in Melville, a car races past me, whizzing into the oblivion that thrives in the city life. On the side of the road, a car washer smothers a red Fiat in soap bubbles as the sun dries the soapy water away before he can wipe it down. Across the road I notice a small shop in between a framer and a Lebanese restaurant.

TIMELESS: Fred Moss is Melville’s friendly face
and owner of the Scala hair salon. 

Scissors are cut into the shop’s gate and the old rustic feel of the windows and signage tell me that the shop has been in existence for a while. Peering through the words written on the window, I spot an older man in a white coat. His hands working precisely to get that perfect cut for the grey-haired man sitting in his chair.

The Melville barbershop, Scala, has been in existence for 48 years and is one of the oldest existing shops in the Melville area. The hair salon was originally part of the Scala corner, an establishment at the corner of 4th Avenue and 7th Street Melville, which included a bakery, supermarket and bioscope. The barbershop was passed down from father to son. Little did the young 17-year-old know that the shop would exist for a lifetime and that he would become part of the tapestry of the Melville suburb.

Entering the small shop, I am met with a welcoming smile. The man in the white coat introduces himself as Fred Moss. His wrinkled, red-faced facial features tell tales of a long-winded road; a journey of where he is now. His calloused fingers seem rough with years of experience and his piercing blue eyes peer into the soul of every person who walks through the salon’s doors.

“I hated working here,” Fred tells me one afternoon. For Fred, becoming a barber was not his first dream, he had wanted to become a sign writer as he loved drawing. Unfortunately, Fred doesn’t have much time to draw today as he did back in the day.

The 65-year-old didn’t have it easy when he was younger. At 17, he was forced by his father to leave school and work in the barbershop. At the time, the shop was owned by Fred’s father, George Moss, and Fred’s brother-in-law, Piet Wessels. He spent his days cleaning up the shop.

In 1970, Fred joined the army for three months. That was when he realised that “In for a penny, in for a pound” (meaning, if you’re going to do something you should see it through till the end and put your all into it) and reconciled himself with being in the business.

During the time, he had no choice as the army was an obligation for every white man, once they had turned 18 in South Africa. At the time, under apartheid, Melville was a white suburb. Fred’s brother-in-law had left the business and Fred’s father had told him that he had to either take over the business or the barbershop would close. In 1971, Fred took out a loan and bought the business for R900, an investment that he is reaping the rewards of today. 

After Fred took over the business, he became a master at cutting hair and completed his apprenticeship, in a year. He also found it hard to fulfil his obligations in relation to the 10-year contract with the army. In 1974, he managed to amend his contract with the army so that he was commissioned to cut hair and became known as the army barber.

VINTAGE: These red chairs line one side of Fred’s shop. He bought them at a bargain price from the army and believes that they give his shop an authentic barber feel. 

The carved chairs that line the left side of his store are a relic from his army days. Fred grins as he tells me, “I stole them legally.” When the army was getting rid of the chairs, Fred asked whether he could buy them for R150 each. The general at the time refused his request at first, believing that the chairs were worth way more than that, but Fred didn’t back down and eventually got the chairs for what he believes was a ‘steal’. “Even if someone came today and offered me R20 000 for each chair, I would not sell them, they are part of me and the barbershop,” Fred says.

Asked about what made him fall in love with the job eventually, Fred says that the people with whom he interacted made him realise his passion. “I haven’t actually got customers, I have friends. They all share very personal things with me. Sometimes I feel like I am a psychologist rather than a barber,” Fred chuckles.

George and Piet had to take out surety for Fred in case he encountered any debt while running the business.

“There have been ups and downs in the business and some months are more difficult than others,” Fred says.

When times get tough, customers cut down on luxuries, says Fred. A haircut is one of those luxuries, but Fred says that his customers tell him that things are a bit tight for the month, so they will return the following month.

Surprisingly, Fred has never spent a cent on an advertisement. All his clients have come from word of mouth because of how well-known he has become in the Melville community. He says that over the past few years, he has been privileged to gain traction from being featured on the popular South African television show, 7de Laan. Scala is also often hired out for companies and brands to shoot their advertisements in, and from there people want to come and see the famous Scala barber.

In the 1970s monthly rental for the barbershop was R45. Today Fred pays R10 000, which Fred says has come under the economic pressures of the times. But he says that it is fair considering that the price for a haircut has also gone up. Fred used to charge 35c for an adult’s haircut in the 1970s. Today he charges R100.

FAMILIAR: Fred sits on the steps leading into his shop as he observes the bustle of 4th Avenue.
Despite his age, he has no plans to retire anytime soon, saying that he has put his whole life into the business.

The 65-year-old talks about how he has adapted to what goes on around him, but has never changed the salon. For Fred, he wanted to keep the authenticity of the barbershop and never felt the need to change the decor in or outside the shop.

“Never mind, I’ll find someone like you…”, singer Adele whispers in the background as I look around the barbershop. Where the ceiling meets the walls, are hanging caps – blue, red, green, South African. Three old-fashioned barber chairs are lined up on one side of the shop, while on the right-hand side are the old, magical, red chairs.

They look as if when you sit on them, they would transform into time machines, shooting you back to a time when hippies were a whole generation. Nothing has changed inside the salon. But looking out on 7th Street, a Chevy Camaro bounces down the street with Michael Jackson’s “The way you make me feel, you really turn me on…” blasting from its speakers.

STREETWISE: If you visit Melville, you are sure to spot James, who is the only car guard on 4th Avenue. He and Fred have a family-like relationship and James is grateful for Fred’s presence in the neighbourhood. 

I approached the car washer after I had seen him enter Fred’s shop multiple times. James Mokhalinyane seems a lot younger than his 33 years. The red bucket-cap that has swallowed his face hides his big eyes and eerie smile. His hands tell tales of a hard worker, finding whatever jobs he can to survive, on a tar that has adopted him as part of the road signs.

James has been hustling on 7th Street for more than 20 years and has a bond with Fred that one can only describe as being part of the family. “To me, [Fred] is like my father. When he has some jobs at his shop, when I need some money or even when the police come and try to chase me away, he negotiates my stay with them,” a grateful James says.

James says that since he started working in the area there has been a lot of shift and change. “Before it used to be good, now it’s too much clubs and crime,” he says.

Even while the suburb is over-run by students roaming the street, if one stops and listens closely enough, one can hear the hum of the wind or the buzz of sunshine on a hot summer’s day. It is hard to believe that crime has grimly seeped its way into the suburb, destroying the atmosphere that once was.

James invites me to sit on the side of the hot pavement as he tells me about how the businesses that have opened in Melville now don’t know what the people want, and that is why some of them are failing miserably.

“Fred is different,” he says as he allows me the privilege of a grin, “He has his regular customers and he knows what people want. He hasn’t changed a lot over the years and he isn’t like other barbers where you must make an appointment. You can just walk into Fred’s shop at any time and the man is happy to help.”

VIDEO: Fred has been cutting hair for most of his life and says that one has to be an artist in order to cut someone’s hair. Fred has cut hair for four generations of men and will continue to do so until he cannot anymore. He shares some of his tips and techniques he has learnt over the years.

A tall, grey man enters the salon, and greets Fred like an old friend. Taking a seat on one of the shop’s barber chairs, he begins to engage with Fred over the troubles that have recently taken over his life. Fred’s hands work precisely, cutting stray strands and neatening up the fellow’s hair as he listens with intent and offers sound advice.

Brahm Spies, a 70-year-old lawyer, needs no invitation for introductions. “Fred is part of the furniture. He has been cutting my hair for 40 years, back when it was all black,” the gentleman throws his head back as he lets out a roar of laughter.

Brahm is moving to Cape Town in December and is distraught that he might have to change barbers. “I might just fly back to get my hair cut once a month,” Spies says. 

A bare-footed older man, Japie Le Roux, pads his way into the shop when he decides to take a seat next to me. He yaps on about how he has known Fred for 48-years and has only ever cut his hair in the comfort of the Scala hair salon.

“I have never had any complaints about Fred, but I would suggest that you don’t believe a word that comes out of his mouth,” he and Fred chuckle as they share an inside joke.

For Natasha Hunter, another customer, until five years ago, Melville had been her whole life. St Swithins Avenue is the street that Natasha used to live with her family.

Natasha says that she loved growing up in Melville. “When I was 12 or so, I remember one year for Mardi Gras, that we camped out in Fred’s shop watching the festivities,” she says.

Now 33 years old, Natasha says she was little when her father started taking her to Scala to get her hair cut. As a little girl Natasha was not keen on cutting her hair but with Fred being the barber everything was always a little bit more humorous. “I was so upset, that he then took the hair and put it on my head and said, ‘See, it will stick and grow back,” Natasha recounts the fiasco that took place that first day at Scala.

SNIP, SNIP: Fred attends to a regular customer, Mauritz Cloete. Although Mauritz has only been coming to Scala for two years, he says that Fred has the best expertise of the barbers in the area. He adds that Fred’s prices are good, which keeps him coming back. 

Although she has not visited the area for five years, Natasha says it would be disappointing to come to Melville and not see Fred or the barbershop. Hers is a testimony to Fred’s friendliness that has kept Scala going for the 48-years that he has run the business.

According to Natasha, Fred has managed to stay in the area for so long because, “He gets to know his customers on a personal basis, his friendly way with people, and the fact that through thick and thin, he has stuck it out.”

FEATURED IMAGE: Fred Moss is Melville’s friendly face and owner of the Scala hair salon. Photo: Naeemah Dudan.


The last barber of Fordsburg

There are many hair salons in Fordsburg that are all competing for customers, but with the increase in foreign-owned businesses and the changes seen in Fordsburg all the old barbershops have closed, except for one.

Every day Chhagan Cgopal takes the familiar 30-minute journey from his bus stop at the heart of Johannesburg’s city centre to his barbershop in Fordsburg, a trip he has taken for over 40 years. He unlocks the security gate and swaps his beige raincoat and faded black fez hat for his still pristine, white cutting coat on the hook in the corner of his tiny shop. Then, like every other day, he reads the daily paper on the unsteady plastic chairs at the door, waiting for customers. On most days no customers will come, no one will visit except for the local car guards who ask to use his taps.

Cgopal, who is now in his late 70s, is the last traditional men’s barbershop left in a Fordsburg that was once bustling with people going to the Majestic bioscope or children playing marbles in the dirt road. But now, time and competition from newer foreign hair salons have closed the doors on others like him.

WAITING FOR CUSTOMERS: Chhagan Cgopal spends most of his time paging through the local newspapers that he piles up on the chair next to him, while waiting for customers to come to his now quiet barbershop in Fordsburg. Photo: Tanisha Heiberg

The old Fordsburg hangout

Fordsburg has undergone many changes from the time when it was home to notorious gangsters, and classic, slicked-back hair was the style. Many of its old residents have moved away and hopeful foreigners have moved in to establish themselves in an area whose locals share a similar culture.

The over 40-year-old Majestic barbershop, named after the old bioscope, is now lost between worn brick buildings. The faint sound of the radio playing in the background and the squeaking of the corner fan break the silence in the cluttered shop.

Despite it being discarded, the Majestic barbershop has become an icon in the area that many people have never forgotten through stories from their fathers and grandfathers.

Zunaid Varachia, a long-time South African resident and business owner, recalled the streets in front of the hairdressers in town being lined with children and their anxious mothers a few days before Eid celebrations. “People used to go [to the barber] at three o’clock in the afternoon and wait in the queue and sometimes finish at 6 o’clock,” said Varachia.

MAJESTIC MEMENTOS: The small yellowing cupboards in his shop hold not only his scissors and straight blades, but also act as display cases for old photographs and newspaper clippings. Cgopal speaks fondly of pictures showing the gangsters whose hair he used to cut or the other barbers who worked in the shop with him. ‘More than 20 years they worked for me, now they all late,’ said Cgopal. Photo: Tanisha Heiberg

Varachia explained how the barbershops were always a part of the community atmosphere in Fordsburg. “The barbershop was the hangout spot … In my time you would always see people you know at the hairdresser waiting for a haircut,” said Varachia.

These barbershop hangout spots were home to many of the local men who came not only for a cut and shave but also to catch up on the news in the area. The Majestic barbershop even cut the hair of some of Fordsburg’s notorious gangsters who would charge people in the area a fee for their protection.

“All these gangsters they know us very well … they don’t trouble us … they were good gangsters, you had to pay protection fee like American style,” said Cgopal. But now in an area rife with crime, security gates and burglar bars are all that protect the old barbershop.

With a burst of laugher, the barber speaks fondly of the time when he himself still had hair.

“You know, Elvis style,” said a balding Cgopal, gesturing to the height of his once-full hair. Even in the 1990s, Fordsburg’s hair salons were crammed with young men eager to maintain their image and get the very popular bleached highlights.

“Those hairdressers used to stay open till eight o’clock at night … that time, eight o’clock was late,” said Varachia. Now in Fordsburg you might even be able to find a hair salon open at 11 o’clock at night just to make the most out of the last few hours of the day.

‘Retiring his cutting scissors’

GREEN BACKS: The Majestic Barber in Fordsburg is home to many photographs and antiques such as the worn leather green cutting chairs. The tiny shop once held five barbers chairs, but now only two remain after they were sold to antique collectors. Photo: Tanisha Heiberg

For Cgopal, who needs to close his shop with enough time for him to walk into town and catch the last bus home, this is just another way his old barbershop no longer makes the cut.

“I can’t compete with those guys there, I close five o’clock, they close late evening,” said Cgopal. Despite the impact that the barbershops had on the sense of community in the area, they are still dwindling and taking a piece of the era’s history with them.

Like many businesses that have witnessed the evolution of Fordsburg, the Majestic Barber is a family business that goes back three generations. It had its first beginnings in the Oriental Plaza which was built to relocate the shops that were demolished after the apartheid government tore down the market in the nearby suburb of Fietas. The shabby, black waiting bench and the yellowing, old photographs of Elvis hairstyles and newspaper clippings stand the risk of being lost as the next generation loses interest in the relics of the past.

“I tried to teach [my children] but they want to do something else, you know computers, accounting, things like that,” explained Cgopal.

This last gentlemen’s barbershop with its empty green leather chairs stands in stark contrast to the many modern Indian, Pakistani and Somali hair salons that continue to spring up in the area.

This hasn’t been an isolated case, with old restaurants, cafes and theatres running dry without customers and the influx of new foreign business. “It was full, you could never get any bookings at any restaurant and now it is just completely dead,” said Varachia.

Hair salon turf wars

“There is too much competition … old clients come around and support me, that’s why I’m surviving; new guys came here and spoil my business,” said Cgopal. With only a few older customers left who still support him, after many have died or moved away, it has become a struggle to pay for rising rental costs. This has left Cgopal thinking about retiring his cutting scissors and straight blade.

BUSTLE: Mint Street in Fordsburg in lined with hair salons and clothing stores mostly owned by foreign immigrants, as well as informal traders. Photo: Tanisha Heiberg.

With salons on almost every street, their territories have begun to overlap and competition is no longer just having an impact on the old shops but it is also causing the newer salons to make changes to differentiate themselves and survive.

“In Fordsburg there is too much competition,” said Javd Khalifa, a hairdresser with a modern salon who has experienced rivalry with the stores located on the same street as him.

Once the shop doors have been rolled up at the busy Five Star Hair Salon, the customers are greeted at a reception area before they are seated in any one of the four chrome and black leather chairs in front of the glass and granite cutting stations.

Shilpa Vala, a beautician and ladies’ hairdresser at the salon, said that there are three to four salons on every street. “It’s difficult, in 2009 it wasn’t the same as now, it was OK … now there’s more salons, maybe a hundred,” said Vala sitting on one of the large, leather waiting couches.

Five Star, like many other salons, had to adapt and find ways to “out-cut” their competitors by incorporating beauty treatments and henna tattooing into their stores.

Vala explained that in order to prevent her customers from going next door, she needs to charge different prices in the Fordsburg salon than she does 1in her other salon.

“In Norwood you can charge full price and they pay, but here you can’t, else they go next door.”

SMOOTH: Thishen Pillay receiving a close shave by the owner Mahesh Maisuriyu in the busy Five Star unisex hair salon on Mint Street. Five Star is one of the many foreign-owned hair salons in the area Photo: Tanisha Heiberg.

Samir Khelife, a salon owner in a particularly busy street, went as far as opening up his own salon across from the one where he used to be employed as a hairdresser.  He hit upon an innovation, which Cgopal never would have tried; dressing women’s hair for R70 more than he would charge a man. “For ladies I can get R120,” said Khelife.

The increased competition has not gone unnoticed by customers. “The only thing which is cheaper now than what it was 10 years ago is … a haircut,” said Varachia with a grin.

With the decrease in price more people are now able to go to the hairdresser more often. “I’ve got some friends who don’t shave themselves at all, every week they go to one of these shops and get a haircut and a shave,” said Varachia.

But even if the Majestic barbershop could implement strategies like lower prices, Cgopal still could not compete with its older customer base, because of the changing styles and the growth of a younger clientele who go to more modern salons that are known for shaving designs into the customer’s hair.

“All the foreigners they do stylish things, but I’m old school, so all the youngsters don’t support me anymore, they go to the foreigners,” said Cgopal.

A home away from home

However, there are often many employment problems faced by foreigners who are in search of a better life. Many South African employers favour local workers and immigration legislation is often burdensome for migrant workers.

This results in many migrants starting their own businesses. According to a study by the Migrating for Work Research Consortium (MiWORC), 21% of foreigners are classified as self-employed. The study used results from data collected by Statistics South Africa in 2012 to analyse the effect migrants have on business.

The study also found that foreign-born workers are more likely to work in the service and sales industry, such as hair salons and shops. “It’s better here than in India … because here you can find job or work easily,” explained one hairdresser who has been in South Africa for six years.

With so many foreigners starting businesses, many migrants chose Fordsburg for its cultural familiarity that reminds them of home.  “I feel like I’m in my country,” said Vala who has been in Fordsburg since 2009.

Many have described Fordsburg as being unique and having “a certain heartbeat” but despite this many of the original Fordsburg residents are moving away in search of other areas that have that same sense of community.

“Previously it was a very community based area … that has changed in recent years … Fordsburg is now very diverse,” explained Varachia while sipping a pressed juice from an Egyptian café and hookah lounge.

Many of the small businesses are owned by Pakistanis who come here to make money to send back home. He explained that they have little responsibilities and expenses compared to South African shop owners who are established with families and bigger expenses.

“They don’t need as much to make it … whatever little money they make is a profit,” said Varachia.

CLOSE SHAVE: Thishen Pillay receiving a shave and hair cut by the owner Mahesh Maisuriyu (from left) in the busy Five Star unisex hairsalon on Mint Street. Customers sit on the green leather couches waiting to have their hair cut by Maisuriyu who has been a hairdresser for 15 years. Photo: Tanisha Heiberg.

It’s not just the barbershops that have been affected by the influx of foreigners, many other shops are increasingly being owned by non-South Africans. “If you look at Mint Road, it used to be all restaurants, now it’s a huge group of Egyptians that sell Muslim dress cloths,” said Varachia, who grew up in the area.

Many of these stores however are very successful with foreign nationals now taking the place of South African consumers who have moved out of Fordsburg. In these communities the shop owners have come to know each other and generally sell their goods at a similar price to allow everyone the chance to survive.

“They don’t cut each other out … It’s quite common with the foreign communities, they try to support each other,” said Varachia. This also often benefits locals who travel to Fordsburg from other parts of Johannesburg because of their lower prices and wide selection of goods.

But for the Majestic barber this doesn’t bring any more customers but rather signals the end of an era. The once popular barber, whose face brightened when he told stories of the past from old photographs, has found himself alone and irrelevant in a modern and changed Fordsburg.

“Today it was slow,there was no one … one of these days I have to close,” said Cgopal as his usual smile faded as he returned to paging through his newspaper inside the empty shop.

FEATURED IMAGE: WAITING FOR CUSTOMERS: Chhagan Cgopal spends most of his time paging through the local newspapers that he piles up on the chair next to him, while waiting for customers to come to his now quiet barbershop in Fordsburg. Photo: Tanisha Heiberg