R10 billion spent on entrepreneurs since 2017, but little to show for it

The City of Johannesburg invested billions in business incubators, policy changes and partnerships with the private sector to boost entrepreneurship as a solution to unemployment, but these efforts have been considered “inadequate” on a global scale.

The Roodepoort Civic Centre has a hidden entrance behind the glitz and glamour of the Roodepoort Theatre. It is here, just inside a small, gated door, where hopeful entrepreneurs can find the unassuming sign that reads, “Isiqalo Opportunity Centre.” 

A short trip to the fourth floor of the building and down a long corridor reveals a medium sized room, clean and tidy but especially quiet. The only sound the tapping of keys as two women work at administrative desks and one client, a man, uses one of the dozen available computers which neatly line the bottom left corner of the space to browse Facebook. According to the freely available brochure, this is the City of Johannesburg’s “concrete solution” to unemployment, stunted economic growth and informal trading.

Johannesburg has a rising unemployment rate of 26,5% according to the Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs profile on Johannesburg and a provincial youth unemployment rate of 63,9% according to a 2023 media release from the Gauteng office of the premier. The latest Global Entrepreneurial Monitoring Report (GEM), a 25 yearlong project which maps entrepreneurial ecosystems globally through direct interviews with entrepreneurs in over 50 countries, states that it is a lack of employment which drives 90% of entrepreneurs in South Africa to start their own business. 

Johannesburg is home to around a third of South Africa’s small, medium and micro enterprises (SMME’s) according to a 2022 study on Investigating SMMEs strategic planning techniques in Johannesburg central business district post-COVID-19 lockdown, and this number is growing. The City of Joburg’s definition of an SMME includes not only formal entrepreneurs but also informal traders, this is according to the Small Enterprise Development Agency’s research note on the South African SMME sector.

A market for women entrepreneurs was held in Johannesburg on May 7, 2023 at
Constitution Hill. Photo: File

The Department of Economic Development (DED) is responsible for entrepreneurship in formal and informal sectors, which they refer to “the backbone of any economy” on their website. The department’s mandate promises to, “Support the city towards achieving a 5% economic growth rate and to bringing down unemployment by 2021.” This includes promoting SMMEs, informal traders and streamlining regulation.

However, the department is yet to achieve the economic growth target in the City of Johannesburg, only seeing 0,79% growth in 2018, while the unemployment rate continues to grow, as jobs cannot be created fast enough for a growing population. In addition, the support laid out by the city for entrepreneurs and informal traders is regarded as inadequate by the GEM, who lists South Africa as the worst of over 50 participating countries in entrepreneurial framework conditions. 

This means that South Africa, and Johannesburg in particular, has no adequate framework conditions. These conditions include financing, policy, taxes and bureaucracy, city programmes, school-level entrepreneurship education and training. In addition, despite the department spending R10 billion in the last seven years towards these aims, they have consistently underspent their budget allocated by the city treasury, according to their annual and quarterly reports.

In the “Young Entrepreneurship Policy and Strategy Framework,” the vision is to make Johannesburg “the leading city in entrepreneurial development in the developing world by 2025” through removing barriers of poverty and unemployment. The policy was drawn up in 2009.

According to Leah Knott, Johannesburg Ward councillor and MMC for Economic Development between 2016- and 019, the Johannesburg policy on entrepreneurship has not been amended since. Knott said that this document is outdated, “we should be renewing policy every five years. But it takes 18 months to two years to be approved by council and this can’t happen when the Johannesburg government changes every five minutes.” Referring to the frequent changing of hands in the city’s coalition government, Knott added that, “when government changes, policies in the process go back to the beginning.”

In an effort to support entrepreneurs in Johannesburg, the DED launched ten opportunity centres throughout the city. Knott, who held the role of MMC during the rollout of the centres, said: “The majority of small businesses fail in their first three years, and so the centres give a leg up to entrepreneurs and give them the necessary tools to succeed, like how not to eat profits before seeing a return.”  The opportunity centres serve as entry points to local communities to access guidance and cut the red tape of bureaucracy when starting a business or growing an informal business into a sustainable, formal business.

This project began with the transformation and expansion of what used to be “business centres” according to Knott, who managed small advisory desks in regions E and A, Diepsloot and Alaxendra. The opportunity centres were created in collaboration with various Johannesburg-based communities, who said they did not visit the centres previously because they could not access them due to their placement. The department has since opened 10 opportunity centres in Diepsloot, Montclare, Florida Park, Soweto, the Johannesburg CBD, Alexandra, Braamfontein, the Joburg Market, Elderado Park and a mobile centre which travels to remote areas. The latest annual report from the department said that the rollout is only partly complete, with a goal to open 14 centres.

The DED’s website states that “the purpose of the opportunity centres is to create an environment where entrepreneurs and small businesses can thrive”. Knott said that the centres provide help and advice on finances as well as tax returns, accounting and registration with the CIPC. Workers at these centres are not required to have any entrepreneurial experience themselves, according to the department’s job description.

They do not provide funding to clients, but they do assist with access to funding, mostly through the Gauteng Enterprise Propeller. According to assistant key accounts manager, Nomonde Zulu, access to funding can be secured by applying on the propellers website or by visiting one of their offices.

Including training, events and workshops, the centres have supported 14,294 entrepreneurs in the last financial year. This means that less than five entrepreneurs visit a centre per day. The department acknowledged this low number in their latest report and said it would be able to make more of an impact and reach more clients if they were granted a locomotive allowance. This request has been put forward in the past two financial years and denied due to no budget being available. The department is set to resubmit the request in the next financial year. 

Contrary to the statement provided, the financial performance of the department, which is listed in the same quarterly report, states that the department was granted an advertising budget of R1,084,000 for the last financial year but spent only R257,000 of it.

The complicated issue of informal trading 

Twenty one percent of the Johannesburg workforce is in what the DED refers to as a “thriving, vibrant informal sector”. MMC of the department in 2021 Lawrence Khoza said in his speech for the opening of the Joburg Market Opportunity Centre that the centres provide informal traders with, “non-financial assistance on how to formalise their businesses.” The policy on informal trading in Johannesburg boasts that the city supports informal traders in a way that is more progressive than others, “it looks good on paper,” said Doctor Mamokete Modiba, a senior researcher at the Gauteng City Region Observatory. 

“But there is a translation issue when it comes to practice,” she continued. The city has goals such as the “sharing of public space” and “the regulation of competition” as well as “enabling access to entrepreneurial activities.” In this regard, the opportunity centres exist to take members of the informal economy into the formal economy and provide advice on business growth so they might expand to create jobs and benefit the macro-economy. “On one hand this is effective because it gives resources and training to people with a specific focus on disadvantaged groups and disadvantaged areas,” said Modiba. 

“On the other hand, informal trade is not regarded as a real business by the City of Joburg, it is regarded as something they want to make into something else.” Modiba continued to say that not all informal traders have the ambition to become successful businesses. Some are simply survivalists who want to make enough money to keep bread on the table, and they need a different kind of support from the city. 

Sakhile Pehana is an informal fruit trader, who sells his fruit to passing cars at this
Linden intersection

Modiba suggested adequate services and infrastructure as an intervention strategy for the informal sector, “some traders have no shelter and then when it rains, they lose money because they can’t do their job. Others waste time looking for ablution facilities.” Louis Botha, a Parkview based entrepreneur, said that his main problem with running a business in Johannesburg is electricity. In running his mobile coffee business, Perfect Cup, he said, “I think our main challenge is power. With the loadshedding, at markets in particular, we constantly have to keep an eye on the Eskom schedules.”

The DED had budgeted R3,9 million towards the goal of allocating appropriate areas for informal traders in Joburg, but by the end of the 2022/2023 financial year, no areas were allocated and only R212,000 was spent towards informal trading.

In addition, the city emphasizes training for informal traders to improve their skillset through opportunity centres, however, Modiba states, this training can be inappropriate, “some people in the informal sector do not have an education, others are engineers, for example, who cannot find employment elsewhere. You cannot train someone on writing skills if they already have a degree in engineering.” 

The question of why the DED did not utilize the advertising budget allocated to them and the reasons behind the underspending as well as the failure of the informal trading project were brought to the department, but Wits Vuvuzela received no reply by the time of publishing. 

Entrepreneurs in Gauteng Race, sex and education

Other Johannesburg initiatives: Public-private partnerships

The Johannesburg opportunity centres perform an advisory role, however, a 2022 study by Bantu Majaja and Jabulile Msimango-Galawe on mapping the needs and challenges of SME’s in Johannesburg found through interviews with 1,099 entrepreneurs that the main challenges facing entrepreneurs in Johannesburg is the city’s spatial divide, access to suppliers and access to equipment. These are beyond the resources and capabilities of the opportunity centres, however, national and provincial government attempt to bridge these gaps by partnering with private sector companies and NGO’s in Joburg. 

Moses Mogotlane, manager of the Transnet Matlafatšo centre told Wits Vuvuzela that this centre, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, was started with access to equipment in mind.

This centre consists of two halves, the ideation space and the innovation space. The ideation space follows the same model as the opportunity centres of non-financial support. The innovation space, on the other hand, gives entrepreneurs access to equipment such as 3D printers, computers, software and woodwork machines. “All of this equipment has been made as simple as possible,” according to Mogotlane, who said that, “if you can use a computer, you can use the technology here.” 

The centre was built in partnership with the South African government owned enterprise, Transnet, who sponsored the operations until 2020. It became a popular innovative space for local entrepreneurs, “anytime you visited the centre, there were always people in the space, creating or thinking of ideas”, Said Mogotlane. 

In 2020, however, the contract between Transnet and the University of the Witwatersrand expired and was not renewed by Transnet. Since then, the centre has become absorbed into the Wits Innovation Centre and serves only the Wits community. The number of visitors to the centre has since been on the decline and in the month of September 2023, only 72 people visited the centre at all. 

In addition to this gap in support with regards to equipment, research by the Gauteng City Region Observatory found that historical inequalities continue to persist in the world of entrepreneurship in Johannesburg. In 2021, the percentage of entrepreneurs who are white increased from 10% in 2015 to 20% while the percentage of entrepreneurs who are African increased only from 7% to 15%. This is a trend which applies to gender and education as well.

In response to this, youth employment accelerator Harambee has turned their focus specifically onto young, African women in Johannesburg with lower levels of education in the hopes of bridging this historical divide. “We refer to it as make your own money” says Xolile Sepuru, programme manager at Harambee. 

According to Seperu, this programme consists of social media interaction to stimulate entrepreneurship, looking at a platform-based approach for young entrepreneurs as well as policy, incentives and licensing, “the goal is to remove the barriers to young people starting businesses,” said Seperu. The organization is supported through the Gauteng government. “I think the City of Joburg is doing a lot. They’re doing well in trying to bridge the gap and help entrepreneurs. What we need is for more private organizations to step in” he continued. 

FEATURED IMAGE: The Khoebo Opportunity Centre, based in Braamfontein, is temporarily located at the department of economic development’s building due to disrepair at their previous location. Photo: Kimberley Kersten

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Thrilling entrepreneurial battle gets underway at Wits  

A sum of R100 000 awaits the overall winner of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) competition. 

The internal round of EDHE Entrepreneurial Intervarsity 2023 competition was held at Wits University on May 27, in the Senate Room at Solomon Mahlangu House. One lucky student will walk away with R5 000.  

The annual competition is held in the first quarter of each year to identify and showcase the best student entrepreneurs at South African public universities.  

Investors are brought on board to mentor the student entrepreneurs and provide the R5 000 prize money to help bring their ideas to life. The winner of the Wits internal competition will be announced on June 02, 2023. Those who remain in the race will compete in the regional and national rounds.  

Participants present mock pitches, which must include detailed information such as their business’s significance, uniqueness, and plans for the next five years. These pitches must be convincing enough to both the judging panel and investors.  If successful they will proceed to the regional round, and if successful there onto nationals.  

The internal round saw participants present ideas for businesses in beauty and cosmetics, skills training within waste management and recycling, media and visual arts start-ups, events management and more.  

There are four categories in the competition: innovative business ideas, existing business – technology, existing business – social impact, and existing business – general. This year, the competition added a fifth category, research-based business, to encourage the commercialization of research. 

According to the event organiser, Qawekazi Luke, over 200 students applied for the competition, and 114 were chosen to compete in the internal rounds. Further, 74 student entrepreneurs will compete in the regional round. 

“The competition’s positive reception and excitement among students demonstrates the University’s growing interest in entrepreneurship,” Luke said. 

“As the coordinators, part of the planning included masterclasses facilitated by the Wits Student Entrepreneurship Education and Development (SEED) program. These masterclasses focused on market research and marketing principles, business model canvas, and how to develop a pitch deck,” Luke said. 

This is where judges who are experienced in entrepreneurship and innovation step in to adjudicate the process and provide the students with valuable feedback to further develop their business ideas. 

YouTuber and second-year BA student, Lulah Mapiye said the experience was a huge confidence boost. “I have made it this far, to say I am excited is an understatement. When my turn came, I took over the stage. It was as if I transformed into another person and came back after the pitch,” Mapiye said.  

One judge Faith Mokgalaka who is a multi-award winning businesswoman, published author, product manager, and a speaker said, “Being a judge gave me a different perspective of the competition because it was not an easy and obvious process as there will only be one winner at the end,” 

The next phase of the competition will see participants compete against peers from other South African universities, to secure a spot in the finals, and one step closer to the R100 000 prize, a financial boost many of them need.

FEATURED IMAGE: Risuna Maluleke, coordinator of Student Entrepreneurship and Education Development (SEED). Photo: Supplied.

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PROFILE: Maphopha’s dream to grow rural spaza shops

This Witsie wants to challenge the likes of Checkers Sixty60, Woolies Dash and Pick n Pay ASAP.

Born and raised in Tafelkop, Limpopo Lethabo Maphopha, a fourth-year Wits University medical student is the founder of BroughtCargo, an online e-commerce website. 

BroughtCargowas was established in 2022 to help spaza shops in rural areas expand and provide them with easy access to bulk suppliers. 

The 23-year-old businessman believes that for local spaza shops to thrive unity is needed. “If Spaza shops can buy bulk products, they can afford to make a certain profit, because like they come at a certain lower cost but street vendors and other Spaza shops they can’t afford to buy them alone,” he said. 

Tokelo Matsepe, an actuarial specialist and Maphopha’s business mentor, told Wits Vuvuzela that he decided to take Maphopha on as a mentee after seeing his passion and love for business. He believes that BroughtCargo is a great initiative for underserved communities. “When people design products, they never think about the Spaza shops and small businesses,” said Matsepe. 

Maphopha’s late father was his initial inspiration, he was a spaza shop owner who was struggling to expand his business, all while supporting a family of eight. Maphopa attributes this to the bulk buying tactic used by foreign-owned spaza’s, who are then able to sell goods much cheaper than most.

BroughCargo, was placed fourth in the 2022 Nedbank Green Superheroes competition for helping to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The competition recognises the efforts of small businesses which incorporate ‘green’ practices in several aspects of their operations.

Lethabo Maphopha stand in front of a bookshelf, he says much of his success comes from his love for books. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

When asked about how a medical student learned about business, Maphopha said he reads a lot of business books and from the experience of others. Maphopha’s role model is Anna Mokgokong, a former Wits medical student and businesswoman. 

Friend and Wits Bsc Chemistry graduate, Khutso Fenyane, is helping him with business mentorship and applying for funding and incubation opportunities. 

“I first met [Lethabo] through his uncle and he told me about his interests I discovered that we share common interests,” Fenyane said.

He said his greatest challenge is not having enough money which has prevented him from performing neuromarketing, a marketing technique that measures brain signals to help understand customers better and said juggling work with studies limits his time making it very difficult to compete with other businesses. 

Maphopha’s expansion plans for BroughtCargo, include turning the business into a Takealot for Spaza shops, so convenience can be more than a luxury for those with means.

FEATURED IMAGE:  Lethabo Maphopha poses for a portrait. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

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A job for the toughest sole

Informal work is the foundation of any developing area, it provides an avenue for its populace to push back against poverty and deprivation. Melville is no different.

When you arrive on 7th Street in Melville, the veneer of restaurants and bars stand out to all in sight. Boasting roadside cafes and thrift shops, the infamous strip is crowded with hairy hipsters and travelling thrifters, all complementing the niche aesthetic of the area.

Two men stand atop the street, surveying the area predatorily. The first – a tall, inconspicuous man – makes a move towards the adjacent street, into a garage behind a convenience store – disappearing for a couple of minutes. He reappears with wooden beams and begins setting up a makeshift stall outside the Pakistani-owned convenience store.

The second – short and staunch – after greeting a couple of bystanders heads towards the construction site, adding the finishing touches to the makeshift stand.  Their work site is set for the day.

Sam Muzumbi, 35, and Shepard Murwisi, 30, are these two men and they are landmarks of 7th, having been there for nearly 10 years. Unbothered and bold, the two have been repairing and making shoes and other items throughout the past decade on Melville’s signature strip.

THE MAKESHIFT STAND: Akin to a spaza shop, the stall displays a number of different leather items – shoes, belts, wallets and bags

Like Yeoville of the late 70s, Melville is a multi-cultural space, where blacks and whites pose for picturesque ‘post-Apartheid South African’ moments – an enigmatically bohemian place, indeed. In recent years it has taken the role of a tourist destination, like Long Street in Cape Town, because of its artsy aesthetic – appealing to travellers pursuing the taste of an authentic Johannesburg outing.

The brother’s store, oddly named Big Fish Art, has profited from this expansion. Their stall is slotted in opposite a vintage thrift shop, that such, makes the brothers a marquee for tourists looking for genuine South African souvenirs.  These self-employed Zimbabwean brothers will provide this “genuine” merchandise.

ARTISANS: Sam and Shepard see themselves as artists, with each item having a unique style symbolic of
their distinct craftsmanship.

Their story reads as awfully analogous to those of many immigrants who have made the trip to South Africa in search of job opportunities and an overall better standard of living. Sam, the one lesser in length, was the first to make the transition from Harare to Johannesburg, packing his bags and catching a bus south in 2009 seeking greener pastures.

When he arrived in South Africa, unemployed and penniless, he resorted to the same trade he implored in Zimbabwe – fixing shoes. Sam, a cobbler, first learned to repair shoes from his uncles back home.

In Melville this skill would prove helpful as the patrons of the area were thrift-driven hipsters from the surrounding residences, home to mostly University of Johannesburg students, who rather than buying new shoes would prefer to fix their old ones and save the change for more important things.

“They come here to drink, this place for them is about drinking and partying. So they don’t want to waste money on other things like buying new shoes. So they just come to me and I do it for cheap,” Sam says before letting out a cheeky smirk.

These early days were the foundations for the brand’s growth. As his reputation and pocket grew, Sam, also known as Rasta, began pulling in more customers – specifically other workers in the area.

Bartenders, waiters, domestic workers and security guards from the surrounding bars and residences were the sort of customers who would regularly need their shoes repaired because of the nature of their work and the expense of having to buy new ones.

SET-UPBelts on the left, wallets ordered all in the middle and shoes scattered miscellaneously
around the desk-size stand. Their bags hang over a rack facing the road, dangling with a slight silliness. 

In need of an extra hand, Sam invited Shepard, his wife’s brother, to South Africa to work with him. Shepard, a cobbler by blood, was the ideal partner for this venture, he was family and his father had been a cobbler too.

The two brothers have since come to represent an indiscernible aspect of Melville’s artsy aesthetic, an army of informal workers looking to capitalize on the demographic of its curb-side coffeehouses and bookshops with handmade products and hands-on services.

The informal sector is often considered as existing outside the economy; its impact viewed in a vacuum compared to the rest of the economy because it escapes the realm of regulation, statistics and taxation, according to Caroline Skinner, senior researcher at the African Research for Cities at the University of Cape Town.

Skinner considers this a “missed opportunity to regularly highlight the quality of work in SA.” Many of the jobs in the informal sector are unrecorded and, therefore, deprived of analysis and study. 

BREAK: Sam takes a break during the day, he usually works from 9am to 5pm. 

The work of a shoemaker, for example, is a particularly precarious one. Sam and Shepard leave their two-bedroom Auckland Park apartment at 8am on a warm spring Saturday, saddled on a small motorbike with all their tools and material needed for the day.

Most of their shoes are produced in the comfort of their own home; with their own machinery they stich up the products from the leather they purchase from a second-hand warehouse on Plein street in the CBD.

Their arrival in Melville is not met with awaiting customers and eager clients, their spot is bare, unoccupied and expressionless – no employer for them to check in with.

Their task for the first hour is to set out their stall in the same orderly fashion they do every day.

Their days are slow, spent mostly repairing the few shoes available on the day. Sam casually patches up the hole on an old loafer while Shepard sits there observing.

Parked on Coca-Cola crates outside the convenient store, escaping the scorching sun, the two speak about football while evaluating onlookers on the merit of their likelihood to purchase an item. No focus group or market research for them to identify and reach their ideal target market.

They simply assess their clothes, walk and proximity to the stall, working on their gut, before pouncing, “good day ma’am, you see anything you like?”  

She walks away, ignoring their pitch, and they return to their seats. This goes on for well over an hour before the first onlooker commits. “These are nice,” a 30-something year old white man says while showing his girlfriend a brown pair of leather farm-style shoes.

Sam switches into salesman mode and starts smothering the couple, “Yes, these will look nice on you, sir. Try them on”. Carefully caressing the man’s ego, Sam works his magic – the kind of sales pitch he’s worked on for years.

A LONG DAY’S WORK: Patrick sits outside a convenient store repairing shoes for
Melville residents from 9am to 6pm every day. 

The moment has come for Sam to make his move as the Ray-Ban-draped man lowers the size 9, “the shoe is R700, boss. But for you I can give it for R600,” he says with the kind of ‘bargain struck’ demeanour of a true salesman.

It fails, and the man walks away with his girlfriend hand-in-hand to the opposing thrift shop. Sam returns to his seat and Shepard takes the chance to explain the maths behind their pitch.

“I can make these shoes for R250 or R300, then we sell them for a lot of money and we can always make more profit. It’s b-b-b-business, my friend,” he says with a slight stutter airing out the awkwardness which brands him the more reserved of the two.

The course of the day mostly plays out like this, Sam and Shepard share some business tips with me before putting them into practise on unsuspecting passers. Their day comes to an end and besides the few wallets and odd pair of shoes they sell; this Saturday has been a quiet one.

Operational every day besides Sunday, Saturday is usually their most rewarding day. The pair usually make around R2000 on a busy Saturday, when families gather for lunches in Melville’s niche cafes and tourists inspect the hoardings of different thrift and charity stores.

A WORK OF THE HANDS: Patrick reaches through his tools,
his coarse hands have been doing this for the past eight years.

Today, the brothers leave with slightly under R1000, the kind of money that makes their 9-5 shifts seem a little shameful. It makes little difference, however, they are neither renting the space they occupy or pay taxes for their income, they simply walk away with it – likely to support their livelihoods and send the rest home to their families in Zimbabwe.

The sunset on Melville’s 7th is especially beautiful, setting just above the steep slopes of this lively street – it is ironically romantic considering all the labour that takes place here. The brothers pack up their store and return its structure to the garage behind the convenience store – disappearing unnoticed, like the sun.

The two hop back on their motorbike and return home, hoping to get a good night’s rest and an early start tomorrow.

Even in the heart of the handsome suburbs of Melville, Sam and Shepard’s livelihood is subject to the realities of a harsh economy and an unreliable demographic. Informal work anywhere in the country is largely unpredictable.

Patrick Nyame, a shrewd and hopeful Ghanaian man, sets up his site a few streets down from the brothers in Melville. He, too, is a cobbler and his work includes stitching, etching and mending shoes.

He has recently expanded his business into producing sandals and other footwear.

He came to South Africa, like Sam and Shepard, seeking a better life. His brother had been the first of his kin to embark on the journey, arriving in 2011 only to discover the sad truth that poverty and depravation were no different here.

Patrick Nyame, a shrewd and hopeful Ghanaian man, sets up his site a few streets down from the brothers in Melville. He, too, is a cobbler and his work includes stitching, etching and mending shoes.

He has recently expanded his business into producing sandals and other footwear.

He came to South Africa, like Sam and Shepard, seeking a better life. His brother had been the first of his kin to embark on the journey, arriving in 2011 only to discover the sad truth that poverty and depravation were no different here.

When Patrick, a cocoa farmer, arrived two years later, pushed by the same optimism, his brother had worked as a cobbler and was now a barber in the dilapidated Brixton centre. He was in an unyielding position to lower Patrick’s expectations, quickly helping his younger brother to set up as a cobbler in the area.

“There’s too many jobs here, that’s what everyone says. But when you get here you have to make a plan. You spend all your money coming here, so when I arrived I had no money, no job,” Patrick says while astutely focusing on removing the grip of a struggling sandal.

With a short hand knife, he picks the stitching off the sandal one by one before continuing, “And you can’t be the guy with nothing or else everyone will laugh at you, so I made a plan.”

Patrick’s livelihood wholeheartedly depends on his clientele and if they are not in need of his work he can go home with less than R100 a day compared to his usual R300 income. His dependency on his customers is a point of despair for the 53-year-old.

“If I find something else, I’ll leave this”. He drops the sandal and reaches out for a brown stiletto, rubbing its 10-centimetre sole before considering his next thought. “At the end of the day, if people don’t bring shoes then there’s nothing for me. It’s like that, one day can be good then tomorrow there’s nothing.”

The work of an informal worker like a shoemaker, thus, is irregular. The issue with informal work remains its vulnerability, with a number of informal start-ups closing within six months of their establishment, according to Skinner.

Sam and Shepard, like Patrick, have passed the test of time and are considering ways to expand their business in the Melville area. The introduction of their own merchandise into their work was an especially inspiring move for their business.

Rather than simply repairing shoes, the two brothers are creating their own signature merchandise with a production line they are in full control over, ensuring their stay in Melville is extended.

The journey to making their own products has been a long one but now it has brought some reward. Luka Epstein, 18, has observed the store’s growth in recent years and has purchased a few items in the past.

The web developer, who has lived in Melville for the past 10 years, says, “I always check on their stuff. They are putting in effort to make a life for themselves. It brings this bourgeois area to the level of the people.”

The thrift shop, the Moral Kiosk, opposite their stall has helped them reach a new and younger clientele. The two stores share an appreciation for one another, working to develop a deeper connection within Melville’s thrift community.

“They have a very unique approach, it’s craftsmanship and fashion. I think it’s very dope. A lot of people come to Melville looking for a vintage aesthetic rather than going to a store I mean. So this is more authentic,” says Lwando Gwili, an employee at the Moral Kiosk.

The thrift store sells secondhand clothing and footwear as well offering vinyl and other antique items. The nappy-haired twenty-five-year-old described the bond between their store and the brother’s one while scratching his patchy beard, “We complement each other. We have vintage clothing and they have vintage accessories. It just works well.”

Dwellers of Melville have, too, taken an appreciation for the work of Sam and Shepard. Ezekiel Mofokwane, 45, has been jogging through the Melville area for over 10 years and has developed an admiration for the informal work in the area.

“This place is fine and safe. These guys make quality stuff and it’s affordable, so they give people options. Plus, its original and authentic stuff that you don’t find in other places,” Mofokwane says while sneaking a break in on his weekly jog.

Melville in all its allure and antiquity is made up of individuals like Sam, Shepard and Patrick. Their labour is the heartbeat behind the vibrant suburb – they are the worker bees of this buzzing hive. 

They go unnoticed and are only around when there’s work to be done. Modest and humble, they are the indiscernible army of Melville.

FEATURED IMAGE: A variety of belts on display at a trader’s site. Photo: Tshegofatso Mokgabudi.

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