The cosmetic medical economy of the inner city

Take a walk downtown Joburg and you’re sure to find someone who will remind you that you need a bit of aesthetic assistance. It could be the lady that approaches you with her hair extensions to remind you of your bad hair day, the brother selling slim-fit tights to point out that your potbelly is visible to all, the mama selling potions to help you recover that lost lover or the creams to help you get that extra “va-voom”. Regardless of your insecurity, the message from Joburg’s medical economy is clear: everyone falls short of something; they’re here to help you find it, then fix it.

Poster poster on the Joburg street pole, who is the fairest of them all? Well, of course it is she with the fair skin who flaunts her enlarged breasts, bums and thighs or he whose ‘package’ has done well with some extra help.

“If you’re going to ask me all of these questions, you’re going to have to sit here and ask me while I work, I’m busy,” says Lilly as she signals forward to her next customer. She is standing behind the counter table of her cosmetic stand, situated in a shop owned by other traders where she rents a small corner.

The view from her stand is busy; she sits across from the Noord market in Joburg where thousands of people pass through on their way to the taxi rank. Lilly is a stern woman. She’s always busy but she enjoys chatting.  The traders across from her sit under the scorching sun. Many of them are seated on the floor or along the pavement, trying desperately to escape the blistering heat.

Lilly doesn’t have these problems. She sits on a stool with her containers laid out in front of her and a roof over her head. It hasn’t always been this way for her.  She used to sit along the pavement outside of her shop and sell her facial creams for years before she could afford to be here.

Lilly doesn’t have these problems. She sits on a stool with her containers laid out in front of her and a roof over her head. It hasn’t always been this way for her.  She used to sit along the pavement outside of her shop and sell her facial creams for years before she could afford to be here.

“The metros used to chase us away and then I found a place on another side of town but business fell there so I came back here,” she says. Lilly says she fought for her trading corner in this shop owned by Pakistanis; she describes herself as a fighter.

The metro police regularly come into this side of town to raid the stalls of the informal traders all around Lilly’s store.

She recalls how she quickly she used to pack up her stock when she heard that they would be coming. Sometimes, she managed to make it in time but at the times that she didn’t, they would take her stock. Now she enjoys the benefits of having a stall.

No more panic and running, business is uninterrupted.

A woman, dressed in orange crop pants and a floral shirt, stops in front of her counter, picks up Carolight facial whitening cream and smells it. “How much?” the woman asks.

“Sikesty rand,” says Lilly as she stands, stopping the woman from dipping her finger into the cream. The customer sighs in discouragement.

“How much you have sisi?” Lilly asks in an attempt to negotiate. The lady reveals that she only has fifteen rand. “Will you give me for fifteen?” she asks. Lilly retreats back into her stool. “No, next time sisi”.

Lilly sees characters like orange-pants-mama daily.

People are always trying to bargain with her. She’s open to bargaining but refuses to be exploited because she has leverage; her creams can’t be found on retail shelves.

What’s in the cream?

”The government here doesn’t want them because they have hydroquinone,” says Lilly of her products, looking morose but sounding unbothered.

The creams are not sold in South African retail stores because they have been banned from trade by the government. Lilly imports them from other African countries including Mozambique, Congo and Ghana. The creams arrive by bus, train and ship. Lilly has many suppliers across the African continent, she cannot limit her supply chain to one distributor because the products come at different times and from different places.

The other prevailing ingredient in Lilly’s creams is mercury.  A study conducted by the World Health Organisation in 2011 found that 35% of women in South Africa use skin lightening products, on a regular basis, that contain mercury.

Hydroquinone is a skin lightning agent that hampers the production of melanin for one’s skin. It is used to remove dark spots and reduce skin pigmentation.

Medical experts warn against the use of these chemicals for daily usage creams. “Those chemicals are damaging and can cause scarring, leading to stretch marks, low resistance to infections and irreversible damage to pigmentation,” scolds head of dermatology department at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal and President of the African Women’s Dermatology Society Professor Ncoza Dlova.

Regulation and legislation

A woman comes to the counter to buy cream. She tells Lilly that her cream is almost finished and she has seen the dark marks under eyes go away. They exchange pleasantries, then the lady points to Carolight and nods. Lilly stands from her chair and disappears into the back of the shop for a few minutes before re-appearing with a sealed box of the cream. The woman pays and sets off.

The containers displayed on Lilly’s counter are all empty.

“They can’t take what they can’t see,” she says of the Metro police who occasionally raid the shops when they have permits. Although Lilly has immunity from her stock being impounded under the bylaws that prohibit trading in undesignated areas on the streets like she used to, she still faces trouble when the authorities are allowed to enter shops because her products are banned.

So she keeps her trading stock away from the eyes of authorities and goes to fetch them as she makes her sales. This way, she loses nothing by her containers being confiscated.

Lilly is pleased with this. She explains it with a sparkle of cunning genius in her eyes, flaunting the satisfaction of outsmarting the regulation systems. This method is not unique to Lilly, Martha around the corner, “Aunty” on Wanderers street and Annie outside Park Station all admit to using the same system.

Officials from the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) say they cannot do much about this since it is not in their authority to search warehouses. A JMPD official explains that they are instructed to confiscate goods which are in plain sight. They do not have the authority to search warehouses or store rooms, furthermore, they are not trained to identify the legality of the goods but the legality of the trader.

Therefore, their business is to only confiscate goods from the trader if he/she has no license to sell, not to focus on whether the goods are banned or not.

The creams are popular among young black women, especially those familiar with them from their home countries. “This thing is like a peanut in my home country, it’s easy to find,” Lilly says of the facial creams.

The instruction is to apply to the face and neck twice daily and results will be visible in a month.

The best results are achieved if the user sticks to one product, “don’t mix,” she says sternly as she holds the containers up to illustrate. At the price of R60, Lilly makes a profit of R10 for each unit of cream that she sells.

Her highest sales period is “at the end of the month,” but says her gains are negligible after paying school tuition for her three children aged ten, eight and four years old and then buying food.

Lilly knows her products very well. She was fifteen years old when she started using the cream herself.

At 36 years’ old now, she still swears by the cream she started using sixteen years ago to even and lighten her skin.

She’s proud of how she’s always been able to sell the product by example “they just look at my face and buy,” she says of how she convinces customers to purchase.  She has been making her livelihood from her beauty products since she arrived in South Africa from DRC in 2000.

Lilly recalls being one of few traders selling facial lightening creams when she arrived in South Africa 16 years ago.

The market has changed and Joburg’s cosmetic economy has since attracted many more sellers who aim to make a living off people’s desire for beauty and social acceptance.

A young boy hands out flyers in the middle of Wanderers street in Joburg’s CBD. “*Chief Luke, fresh from the mountains,” it reads.

After four rings, a man picks up the phone. It’s Chief Luke. He speaks in a friendly and gentle tone. Luke is both a manufacturer and retailer for his product. He has been making and selling cosmetic products for “a long time”.

“There are no side effects to my products,” he says proudly. His offerings vary from penis, hips and bum enlargement creams to potions for retrieving your lost lover.

Chief Luke mixes his products to conform to the standard size. “12 Centimeters is the standard size for a penis,” he says as he describes the specifications around which he makes his mixtures. His penis enlargement cream is sold in a tub weighing five grams and guarantees results within 17 days. The instruction is to apply the cream twice a day for the 17-day-period and see results. “The cream is permanent,” he says.

Confidence oozes out of the Tanzanian craftsman over the telephone as he speaks about the successes of his products. He has never received negative feedback from any of his clients. He mixes his creams using loco medicine- a mixture of trees, leaves and grassroots. The herbs are sourced from all around Africa and he says his creams are applicable to men of all ages.

The bum and hip enlargement creams, much like the penis enlargement cream, have permanent effects. The 17-day results period applies equally and the R700-R750 cream can also be used for breast enlargements.

“You cannot get a large penis from rubbing cream, any qualified doctor knows that there is no such thing. They are playing at the ignorance of the people,” says an irritated Dlova.

But, Luke’s certainty in the success of his product tells a different tale. He must be an industry leader in his field. Although there are hundreds of posters shouting “PENIS ENLARGEMENT. HIPS AND BUMS ENLARGEMENT” all around town, many of the numbers lead to one of two people: Luke or the man who seems to be his greatest competitor, Frank.

Frank is much less friendly. Much like Luke, his magic lies too in his creams. The Congolese man offers his creams at a standard rate of R450 and guarantees results within seven days with identical instructions to Luke’s.

Although widely advertised, endless follow up calls to the cellphone numbers attached to the posters pasted on street lamps and “danger boxes” all around the city show that the medical economy for cosmetic procedures in Joburg is tiny. Perhaps run by no more than five practitioners. Most of them charge a standard R100 consultation fee before purchasing the product and few will give you the correct name.

It’s difficult for them to talk about their businesses. They don’t trust anyone and the value of their trade is in its secrecy.

ALWAYS READYThe Johannesburg metro police department is an active part of Joburg’s market life. The officials are mandated to ensure that all vendors and traders comply with by-laws and take action against offenders. 
COMPETITION: Skin lightening creams have become popular in Joburg’s market places. Shown here are some of Lilly’s competitors.

The art of the trade

It’s 4.30pm and Lilly is almost headed home to her husband and children  in Ridge Park towards the south of Johannesburg. Although exhausted, she must hurry home to prepare food for her husband and children. He doesn’t like to arrive home before her.

“God willing, tomorrow is another day.”

Although different in their contexts, Lilly, Luke and Frank have come in pursuit of success in Joburg’s concrete jungle and tomorrow is indeed another day to make it happen – this is Joburg, you will always find someone with a profitable insecurity.

*Names have been changed.

FEATURED IMAGE: Creams for aesthetic assistance. Photo: Nozipho Mpanza


The “Yellow bone Factory” hits Wits

By Pheladi Sethusa and Nomatter Ndebele

Skin lightening treatments, reviled as part of an apartheid mindset pre-1994, have come back into fashion on campus .

YELLOW FEVER: Wits Vuvuzela journalist, Nomatter Ndebele, took one for the team to explore new frontiers of yellow-boneness in this photo illustration.      Image: Luca Kotton

YELLOW FEVER: Wits Vuvuzela journalist, Nomatter Ndebele, took one for the team to explore new frontiers of yellow-boneness in this photo illustration. Image: Luca Kotton

“Yellow-bone”, the hip-hop term for light-skinned black people, has become the latest unattainable beauty standard to meet – along with size 32 hips, a DD cup size and a bulbous bum.

Posters for a company, “The Yellow-bone Factory”, have recently appeared on campus offering skin-lightening treatments to students.

Wits Vuvuzela called the number on the poster. Company founder Neo Mobita said the reason for the demand was simple: “Students want to be yellow-bones.”

How does it work?

Mobita said three treatment options were available: “Skin renew” body and face creams, pills and injections.

These treatments range in cost but even the cheapest and mildest of the pills – vitamin C prep – comes in at between R150 for the smallest bottle, and R1300.

Kojic acid was “more responsive”, said Mobita, because it “stops melanin from making skin darker”. These pills range from R1000 to R2000, depending on the size of the bottle.

Be warned

General practitioner at the Execumed clinic in Killarney, Dr Safeera Kholvadia, warned against making use of any injectibles for “skin brightening” as they were “not regulated in South Africa”. People should be wary of products sold on posters and even online. Using unregulated dosages of any skin brightening treatment “could be deadly”.

“There is no cure for pigmentation, no matter what you use,” said Kholvadia. She explained that pigment cells dictated people’s colour. As soon as they stopped using the treatment, those pigment cells would override its effects. “Everyone is trying to tap into the market at the moment. Consumers should be very wary.”

Aside from being extremely expensive, skin lightening products – through making unnatural adjustments – were harmful not just to the skin but also to the mind and emotional states of users, Kholvadia said: “Usually there are deeper underlying issues for people who do this.”

What do Witsies say?

Although “The Yellow-bone Factory” targets students, the general sentiment among Witsies approached by Wits Vuvuzela was that skin lightening is unnecessary.  Students were bold in their criticisms. David Manabile, 2nd year Education, said skin lightening was a ridiculous concept.

“When women do it, it means that they aren’t proud of their skin colour and their roots. I would never do it, because I’m proud of who I am and where I come from. I was born this way, I don’t feel the need to change who I am, to be something or someone else.”

Liveni Ndlovu, 1st year BA, said because “yellow-bones are seen as hot”, darker people are left being very self-conscious and not very confident about their looks.

Engineering PhD student Ntando James said: “I understand why women want to do it, because of the misconception they have that light skin is what all men are attracted to… If someone I was dating, or knew, wanted to do it, I would discourage them. There are serious repercussions and side-effects.

“You can get skin cancer and have bad reactions to all those chemical treatments and lightening cream(s). People just don’t think about it, but they do it because of an identity crisis, to fit into a ‘fake’ society.”

[pullquote]“All women are or have the potential to be yellow-bones.”[/pullquote]

Amanda Dyandyi, 1st year Fine Arts, said skin lightening “puts people in a box. It’s like racism all over again but between black people.”

The official website of Mobita’s company contains a post that says: “All women are or have the potential to be yellow-bones.”

But the demand goes beyond gender and race, apparently. She said there were people who wanted to get darker too.  “The Yellow-bone Factory” was currently experimenting with “crossing racial lines,” she said. “We can make you whatever you want to be, white, coloured, whatever.”

SLICE OF LIFE: Still in the dark about beauty

Nomatter Ndebele

Nomatter Ndebele. Photo: TJ Lemon

WHO is this Lupita Nyong’o? Telling the world that it’s okay to be a dark-skinned girl?

How dare she stand there courageously, in her bold colours, night shade, firm in her conviction that dark-skinned girls are, in fact, beautiful?

Seriously Lupita, this is not the time for a colour revolution. The world has not accepted me yet. Until you came along, with your “revolution” glowing brightly from your dark skin, my life was going on as it should have. I’ve finally finished my degree, soon I will have a job and I will be able to afford all my planned bleaching treatments.

The dream was within reach, but no. Thanks to you and your bold blackness the world has supposedly decided that I belong here, at every turn people are holding mirrors up to me and saying “we see you, you are something to look at now”.

Now I’ll never be able to bleach myself because the whole world is watching and my simple explanation of “I just want to be lighter” will never be an acceptable reason for ridding myself of my burdensome, melanin-induced shade.You meant well, I know you did. None of this is your fault but look what you’ve done. What your personal victory has inadvertently done to me.

[pullquote] at every turn people are holding mirrors up to me and saying “we see you, you are something to look at now”.[/pullquote]

I wanted to be noticed. I wanted my beauty to be acknowledged, not fetishised. I didn’t want to be put on a global pedestal that I will never actually be on.  Now  the world not only sees me, it has me under a microscope and God forbid I find myself even half a shade lighter before that bleaching appointment.

While I admire your bold blackness, I don’t appreciate it.Because you have unwittingly drawn me into “the struggle”. You’ve made me one with all the other dark-skinned girls. Now I will never be able to represent myself without representing a whole.When I mention skin lightening the world will look at me and ask “Have you seen Lupita Nyong’o?”

Yes, I have but let’s face facts, I am NOT Lupita Nyong’o.

Where was Lupita Nyong’o when the makeup artist religiously caked my face with a foundation three shades lighter than I was because she “didn’t have make up for dark people”? Where was Lupita when the production assistant at work would whisk me away into the bathroom before we went live to try and “fix me” since the makeup artist was too busy perfecting the lighter skinned presenters’ makeup.

Lupita Nyong’o’s win is not a win for all of us. We haven’t won, we are not simply beautiful yet. We are exoticised, we are sold to the world as “black beauties”, we are fetishised. We are the boxes that need to be ticked, our compliments are an over compensation for the years of disregard.

[pullquote align=”right”]Yes, I have but let’s face facts, I am NOT Lupita Nyong’o.[/pullquote]

I went from hearing “I have no makeup for dark people” to “I love doing make up on your flawless skin, your almond eyes are great to work on”.When will dark girls be more than “pretty for a dark skinned girl”?

What happens if I never make it to the big Hollywood lights, cameras flashing and ebony skin reflecting the afterglow of success. I may never make it. Lupita did, I haven’t.

We “made it” and, until then, I’m not ready to liquidate my “bleaching fund” just yet.

SCIENCE INSIDE: Inside Joburg’s tremors

Johannesburg’s mild earth tremors and women who eat toxic clay to lighten their skin tone are two of the stories in this week’s The Science Inside.  The weekly science show on campus radio station VoWFM also looks at a community learning about the scientific impact of their lives on the their surroundings.

Listen to the podcast of the show presented and produced by Paul McNally and former #teamvuvu journalist Anina Mumm, here: