The survivalists of Louis Botha Avenue

In contrast to the avenue’s larger businesses, its informal economy represents a different kind of entrepreneur who works on the pavement, looking desperately at the fast-moving traffic as a means to glean a livelihood.

Among the three hair-cutting stations in the shade of large trees in front of the Balfour Alexandra Football Club, a barber wearing a Highlands Park football jersey and yellow MTN cap wields a buzzing razor with skill as he shaves a customer’s head.

A few minutes later, Chucks Odigbo lifts a shard of mirror from a table stocked with a bottle of methylated spirits, combs, oil and razors that run on a large rechargeable battery.

Regular customer Sipho Mhlangu looks into the mirror to appraise his bald head and neatly clipped moustache. He blows a kiss in the air and exclaims: “This guy is cutting like mwah!”

Odigbo, who used to play for the nearby Balfour Park Football Club, has spent the past 16 years surviving as a barber on the pavement of Louis Botha Avenue in Johannesburg.

The barber, who is from Nigeria, grooms men and women and charges customers between R20 and R40, depending on the style of the cut and the labour involved.

“Because of the difficulty in this modern time, we make it so that the price will not push you away from looking the way you want to look,” says Odigbo.

Although it might seem strange that Odigbo positions his business so close to other barbers, he explains that they gather together to create competition.

“When we are three or four, it makes me take my business seriously,” he says.

Odigbo is one of many informal traders who rely on the pedestrian traffic of Louis Botha for their means of survival.

LEFT: Chucks Odigbo is a barber who makes his living on the pavement of Louis Botha Avenue. He shares insight on his craft and his customers explain why they choose to come to him over a formal salon. Video: Ortal Hadad

Scraping for money as an underdog of the economy

According to a Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) 2017 survey of employers and the self-employed, such informal traders are classified as workers not registered for tax, who generally work in small enterprises. They include street traders who are individuals that sell goods or services on a public road, as stated in City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality street-trading bylaws.

Dave Fisher, city councillor for Ward 74, which covers Orchards, Highlands North and Bramley, says that with the change of political dispensation he has noticed more informal traders on Louis Botha Avenue.

“In apartheid days it was a white street,” says Fisher. “If you did not have a [permit in your] passbook, you were not allowed to be there.”

He emphasises that the sector is still relevant, in contrast to the wealthier suburbs that surround the 9,2km-long street.

“They might not make a contribution to the fiscus of the country, but those people are putting food on tables, they are educating children, they are clothing children,” he says.

Outside a storage unit, Cash 4 Scrap, a 40-year-old man sits on the pavement. He is wearing a crumpled grey and white striped shirt and cream trousers smeared with grease marks from the morning’s work. Amid the smells of metal and oil, mobile mechanic Justice Motaung has his ears tuned to the blasting hooters of the cars and combis speeding past on the busy street.

“If people are driving their own cars and they won’t start, then sometimes I can help them and get something in return from them,” says Motaung.

LEFT: Mobile mechanic Justice Motaung tries to save money by searching for tools and parts at Cash 4 Scrap.
Photo: Ortal Hadad

He relies on Louis Botha’s notorious motor traffic to provide his client base, although many of his customers, from areas including Orange Grove, Norwood and Houghton, hail from his 12 years of employment at an alarm-fitting car company, Car Fanatics.

Since the company closed down four years ago, Motaung has been working on the street, practising the trade he learned at home in the Free State from his grandfather and father, both of whom were mechanics.

Motaung says he found himself attracted to Louis Botha Avenue in 2004 by its bustle, after he had failed to find work in the Free State.

Considering that he has no car, customers or friends often have to fetch him from the scrapyard for his services.

Depending on the amount of labour and what car parts he must buy, Motaung’s fees vary, but his base charge is R350 or more. 

“I do not have the money to buy myself the tools,” says the mechanic. “If I am short of some tools, I have to borrow from the 24/7 pawn shop.”

While Motaung makes about R3 500 to R4 000 a month, he is not able to save because his money goes to the running costs of his business, rent for his cottage room and his 13-year-old daughter, who stays with his ex-wife in the Free State.

Nonetheless, Motaung earns more than Stats SA’s 2019 lower-boundary poverty line of R810, which measures the income needed for minimum daily food and some household items.

Small incomes lead to savvy saving

Back at Balfour Park, Odigbo earns roughly the same as Motaung at about R4 000 a month. Almost two thirds of this goes towards renting a room in Kew as well as business costs that include charging his battery daily and buying methylated spirits every two to three days and oil for his equipment once a month. Since he also supports a 15-year-old daughter, Odigbo is lucky if he can save R500 a month. He has learned to strategise his spending based on his daily profit.

“If I need to buy bread today and I know it will last me three days, then I will buy the bread today and tomorrow I will buy sugar,” says the barber.

In Orange Grove a shoe repairman, Etward Lenkwale, is no different in being savvy with his money.

Lenkwale works on the parking lot of a closed-down art gallery, The Purple Dragonfly, where his only advertisement is a white sign reading “Shoe repairs done here”, and his name and contact number. Those who require his services will find him, from Monday to Saturday, sitting beside lilac walls that are bedecked with wild ivy.  A mound of footwear including broken sandals, takkies and a pair of golf shoes is piled up at his feet while he works on fixing a grey and orange boot.

Besides the R500 that Lenkwale gives to his family, the rest of his R4 000-R5 000 monthly income goes on expenses such as 250MB of data for R10 and food throughout the week, including half a loaf of bread for R7.

RIGHT: Etward Lenkwale repairs a boot at his post on the parking lot of The Purple Dragonfly, a shut-down art gallery.
Photo: Ortal Hadad

Lenkwale saves on rent because he shares a one-room shack in Protea South, Soweto, with his Aunt Dibuseng Senthebane and his sister, Lineo. He spends R68 on transport and often stays inside the closed art gallery throughout the week to save time.

He charges for repairs according to what needs to be fixed. A foot sole costs R170, whereas a helium sole costs R140. His prices fluctuate because to fix the shoes he has to buy material and tools, including cotton, needles and soles, in town.

ABOVE: The advertising sign that is placed on the wall beside Lenkwale’s working post. 
Photo: Ortal Hadad

While he was previously employed in Norwood and Soweto, in 2017 Lenkwale chose to come to Louis Botha Avenue and start repairing shoes on his own, with the motivation to earn more money.

“Here I am happy because this work is too much money. In Lesotho there is no money, no nothing,” says the shoe repairer, who was persuaded by his aunt to move to South Africa in 2007.

Like Lenkwale, many migrants have tried to find better means of survival on the swarming street.

Migrant traders: Is the grass greener on the other side?

Odigbo came to South Africa in 2002 “to look for a greener pasture”, but he faced reality. “Then it was like survival of the fittest when you did not have an ID,” says the barber, who resorted to cutting hair when he could not find a job.

In Bramley another Nigerian migrant, Felix Okeke, found himself in burned pastures when his clothing merchandise was looted during the xenophobic attacks in Alexandra in August.  Although Okeke still resides in Alexandra, he is now afraid to run his business in the shop that belongs to his brother, Uche.

Instead he sits on a broken, red-upholstered chair alongside what is left of his business: a single overflowing rack and a bag of clothes in front of his brother’s tyre shop on Louis Botha. The over-packed rack and overflowing bag make it difficult to discern each clothing item, however, although a light blue pair of shorts and a grey suit with an H&M label stand out.

Although Okeke has set prices for his clothing, he will give a discount if a customer cannot afford the full price.

“I will tell the customer, those jeans or trousers are R60. They will say they have only R40, and I will sell just to make a living,” he says.

Okeke orders stock twice a month from his cousin, Abuchi, who lives in London. The cost equates to Okeke’s monthly income of R8 000, so he pays his cousin only half so that he has enough money for his own expenses.

Okeke’s rent is R2 500 and he sends R500 to his six-year-old daughter who lives with her mother in Witbank, Mpumalanga. The rest of his money goes to groceries and his account in Nigeria.

He hopes to return to Nigeria in the near future. “I am not happy here; it is not my home,” he says.

On the street’s corner with Short Road, a 46-year-old man has called Louis Botha home since 2013. Amadeus Ncube, who is impossible to miss in his royal blue construction jacket, sits beside a large sheet of wood held up by empty crates. One of the black crates conceals the brown heel lift Ncube wears on his right foot as a result of being born with one leg shorter than the other. Plastic-wrapped potatoes and tomatoes and bunches of bananas, which Ncube buys from the Johannesburg City Deep market for R1 500 on a weekly basis, lie atop the wooden sheet.

Ncube wants to earn enough to feed his family in Zimbabwe and his wife, Fortunate, who is a domestic worker. Considering he makes a profit of only about R1 000 a month by selling vegetables, however, the former construction worker also relies on carpentry jobs and his wife’s income to get by.

ABOVE: Felix Okeke’s crammed clothing rack on Louis Botha Avenue replaces his shopfront in Alexandra which was looted during xenophobic attacks earlier this year. Photo: Ortal Hadad
Amadeus Ncube unpacks his boxes of tomatoes in order to put them into plastic bags to sell for the day.
Photo: Ortal Hadad

Keeping faith while facing challenges 

Aside from struggling to survive on small profits, informal traders risk police raids if they do not adhere to the Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality’s street trading bylaws. Prohibitions include trading on government property, next to ATMs or in spaces that could block traffic.

Motaung has had tools confiscated and customers’ cars towed away by the Metro Police, because he often works directly on the street, potentially obstructing oncoming vehicles.

Ward councillor Fisher raises environmental concerns. “Oil gets spilled on the road and goes into the water drains, and it clogs up with dust in the sand,” he says. “Part of the challenge is how to preserve the entrepreneurial side, yet provide the right facilities.”

Fisher says the City of Johannesburg has tried to address this by developing centres such as the Alexandra Automotive Hub, where facilities are provided for mechanics.

Odigbo, Okeke and Ncube have all suffered fines and impoundment by Metro Police who allege they are trading in prohibited areas.

Johannesburg Metro Police Department spokesperson Wayne Minnaar says informal traders will not be arrested. Instead, traders’ goods will be confiscated and they will receive receipts indicating what has been taken. To get their goods back, traders have to go to the Metro Police Department and pay a fine of R3 130 for non-perishables or about R1 000 for perishable goods.

“Sometimes we find street traders cross the line by selling illegal goods such as drugs,” says Minnaar. “They will be arrested for possession of the drugs.”

Despite these challenges, the informal workers of Louis Botha Avenue still dream of better days ahead.

“I will leave once I can get together enough money to open a shop,” says Motaung, who has not lost hope of returning to the Free State.

Similarly, Lenkwale gives his sister money to save so that one day he can open his own shoe repair shop.

Odigbo, though, has higher aspirations: “You never know! If one of my clients becomes a president, he will employ me and then I will be working under the presidency,” he says. He grins in the shade of his work station, razor ready, waiting for his next customer.

ABOVE: Sipho Mhlangu peers into a shard of mirror to appraise the work of Chucks Odigbo, a street barber who works on the pavement of Louis Botha Avenue. Photo: Ortal Hadad

FEATURED IMAGE: Mobile mechanic checking a vehicle. Photo: Supplied