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.
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.
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 PurpleDragonfly, 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.
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.
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.
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.
FEATURED IMAGE: Mobile mechanic checking a vehicle. Photo: Supplied
Amid Louis Botha Avenue’s shift in demographics, a few businesses stand out as relics of the former Italian migrant community that made the area home.
When you hear “Buongiorno!” from Samson Muvhali, you know you have arrived in Johannesburg’s slice of what was once dubbed “Little Italy”.
For many years, Italian immigrants made Louis Botha Avenue the hub to meet, shop, dine and reminisce about their motherland. Now a Tshivenḓa-speaking security guard’s workplace, Super Sconto, is among the few reminders of the area’s “Little Italy” accolade.
Super Sconto, which translates as “super discount”, sits on the bustling thoroughfare that extends from Hillbrow to the edge of Sandton. Instead of functioning as another food store it acts as a time capsule of a bygone era, filled with an importer’s paradise of goods.
A boom in migration sparks a community
Like many Italians in the area, the store’s general manager, Roberto Casti (66), has an immigration story of his own. The man, wearing a red Lacoste shirt and watch with a strap to match, explains that he was born from Neapolitan and Sicilian parents into an Italian colony in Eritrea, northeast Africa, after which he ventured down to South Africa in 1980 to look for greener pastures.
“The only place that could give us an opportunity was South Africa; that is why I came here,” Casti says, carrying an Italian accent untouched by his life in Africa.
Louis Botha was flooded with Italian immigrants when a dynamite factory in Avigliana, a town north of Italy, hit dire straits in 1894 and subsequently closed down. Dr Anita Virga, an Italian lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, says the closure, coupled with the later effects of World War II and severe unemployment, led to many skilled workers being transferred to the Modderfontein Dynamite Factory on the Pretoria Main Road.
“The first person usually arrives and calls the others, saying ‘Come here, there is an opportunity’,” she says.
Virga, who moved to Johannesburg from Turin, Italy, six years ago, explains that after the war Italy remained physically and psychologically destroyed, forcing Italian citizens to venture out and find work.
A four-minute walk southeast of Super Sconto takes you to Marco Pecci (MP) Mirror & Glass. The owner and namesake ended up in the area due to similar circumstances.
Pecci tells the story of his parents who were forced to leave Marche, Italy, in the Sixties when employment in their home country hit a dismal low. Following the numerous success stories of fellow Italians they migrated to Johannesburg, eventually establishing their glass workshop on Louis Botha in 1991.
This being said, the same influx of Italian influence in the form of delicatessens, shoe shops and jewellery stores which lined the avenue has since vanished. Now Super Sconto and MP Mirror & Glass are among the only Italian-owned work spaces left on Louis Botha.
Bringing ‘Little Italy’ back to Louis Botha
A mechanical engineer by trade, general manager Casti did not realise his heritage would play such a major role in his future until he met Franco Pisapia, who established Super Sconto in 1996.
Over the past 23 years Super Sconto has changed almost as much as the avenue it calls home. The store had humble beginnings, operated by only four staff members including Casti himself. The food centre functioned humbly on a single floor, juggling a deli, coffee bar and kitchen all within an arm’s length of each other.
“We were also renting part of our premises to Standard Bank. When their lease expired, we took over and 12 years ago we revamped,” Casti says.
It is Monday morning at Super Sconto and for the general manager breakfast consists of cappuccino and small talk before the real bustle begins. He does his rounds in what still looks like a newly renovated store, passing between aisles of imported products and racks of liquor on the ground floor.
A tiled staircase separates the two storeys and leads him into the spacious restaurant, complete with a designated smoking area and a deli stacked with fresh meats.
“It’s nothing fancy. It’s all very simple, like old Italian tradition. We start with the sauces early in the morning and whatever is on the blackboard is the menu of the day,” says Casti.
Come lunchtime the restaurant is packed, but a hush settles over customers who delve into their meals, engrossed in Italian goodness.
The only thing breaking the silence is muffled conversation from downstairs, starting with questions such as “Quanto costa?” meaning “How much is it?” rising from the ground floor. Upon further inspection these questions are directed not only at the staff of Italian descent, but also at the African workers like Muvhali (49) who have picked up on Italian lingo since working at Super Sconto.
“I have worked there since 2010 … so I learn new words from customers every day,” the security guard says.
A traditional component of the store that remains unchanged is its family element. Pisapia’s daughter, Chiara (20), who has left Johannesburg to pursue her studies in financial sciences, finds herself being drawn back to Super Sconto on a weekly basis. The vibrant yellow pasta and strong smell of espresso in the air do wonders to jog her memory of a place that has become more of a home than a business.
Fetching one of these recollections, a dark-haired and jovial Chiara says, “I would always sit on Roberto’s lap while he would offload the container, and once all the products were offloaded we would all play hide-and-seek in the basement between the high boxes and tins of products.”
Back at Pecci’s house of glass the space is not ideal for child’s play. At first glance the store seems empty of human presence, until the lean and grey-haired 47-year-old pops up from behind a desk crowded with tools and newspapers.
The self-proclaimed “one man show” explains that many Italian businesses on Louis Botha closed down because they were dependent on the same community that left “Little Italy”.
Peering into his workshop, it is difficult to avoid your reflection. Mirrors lean against almost every inch of the inner store walls, making space for a giant glass-cutting table that dominates the space.
Pecci disregards the idea of following fellow Italians out of the area.
“There were also many banks here, and when they closed due to crime many people moved, but I am pretty happy where I am. I am really not worried about the crime because I do not have anything people want to steal,” he says.
Looking at his store from the outside, it is clear that he means what he says. While others choose to plaster their transparent walls with newspapers, barricading their contents from passers-by, Pecci’s glass store acts as a glorified window into his work space and life.
While the entrances of neighbouring stores like Pecci’s sit tightly on the pavement bordering the avenue, Super Sconto is fenced off, with an adequate amount of parking to accommodate customers who no longer reside in and around Louis Botha.
Today the Italian food centre acts as a drawcard, bringing customers back into an area they have since forgotten about, but the attraction is not limited to the Italian community. The current members of Louis Botha often indulge in what the last of “Little Italy” has to offer.
Felix Mpofu, a Louis Botha worker and resident, towers above his colleagues at Skyblue Security Systems, situated conveniently next door to Super Sconto. They all huddle to share their experience of the store.
“It’s fantastic and the service is good. Everyone is always friendly, and they have so many different items. I really cannot complain because I am more than welcome when I am there,” Mpofu says.
According to its website, by 2019 and 27 staff members later, Super Sconto has grown to be the biggest Italian retail store in South Africa.
“We’ve got customers in Cape Town and Durban. Some of the retailers shop here. We’ve got restaurants that we are supplying too,” Casti says.
This being said, there is a wealth of Italian stores that failed to adapt to the avenue’s shift in economy and demographics.
A mark that remains
On 226 Louis Botha Avenue, what is now a vacant building was once Ponte Vecchio Jewellers, owned by Annarita Ravenna (75). A keen Ravenna explains that in 1951 her family moved from Florence, Italy, to South Africa when her father was offered a job at what was then Iscor, a steel company now known as Mittal Steel South Africa.
The Ravenna family used the only trade they knew to start a business on Louis Botha and make a living.
“My father’s brothers were jewellers from Florence, but he was a fitter and turner and the wish of having a jewellery shop was always within him.
“We chose Orange Grove because of its Italian community. Even the Italian Consulate moved to Houghton to be closer to the community,” says Ravenna, who helped to establish Ponte Vecchio Jewellers in 1968.
The jewellery store prided itself on manufacturing, remodelling, repairing and importing jewellery from Italy, employing many locals to add their charm to the store before it closed its doors in 1996.
“Some Italians moved away, but I think it was because their offspring married and moved away, mainly to Bedfordview because of the Italian Club being there. I don’t think that there is another ‘Little Italy’ anywhere else in Johannesburg,” says Ravenna, who has since moved back to Italy.
Wilson Mapheto (68) worked at the Italian jewellery store and now runs a jewellery workshop of his own on the south-east end of Louis Botha, hidden from view by a chipped white wall and two drooping trees.
“Believe it or not, Ponte Vecchio Jewellers brought me to where I am today. Even now I am still part of the Ponte Vecchio family,” says Mapheto.
Today the once glamorous home for gold, silver and pearls looks more like the garage of an abandoned house where the flashy window decorations have been traded in for random strokes of graffiti.
Thomas Mpfuni (64), another Louis Botha resident, now uses the pavement in front of the defaced building to make a living in his own way, selling an assortment of chips and popcorn.
The mute man, referred to as “uncle” by customers and passers-by, greets you with a smile as warm as the sultry Monday afternoon sun. He sits modestly, with nothing but one chair and several boxes as a makeshift table. Mpfuni packs his goods out neatly, grouping the same products together and laying them out in solitaire fashion.
The man who proudly dons his Zion Christian Church hat and badge has been sitting at his unofficial spot every day since 2010. Mpfuni provides for his family, who live next door in the equally dilapidated Margaret Court apartment block.
He is a popular stop for many on their way to work. Those who buy from Mpfuni know how to communicate with him, often using hand gestures to make small talk and establish a price for a desired product.
The same history of determination to make a living runs rampant along the avenue through the likes of Casti, Pecci and Mpfuni too. It is this determination that brings a strange attraction to the area.
When a store becomes a personal landmark
Now, instead of functioning as a makeshift country or vessel to an Italian motherland, Louis Botha and its surrounding areas operate more as a point of reference for those who are hungry for days gone by.
“Many Italians still go to places like [Super Sconto] to have lunch … When I really need something that reminds me of Italy, then I go there, so it is more a sentimental attachment than really a need,” Virga says.
As the sliding doors open for the last customer to exit, you are sent off with a final shout of “Arrivederci!” from Muvhali, as the deafening commotion of Louis Botha consumes the solace and air-conditioning that came with entering Super Sconto.
By leaving the store, the area’s “Little Italy” is reduced once more, only now instead of four walls it is confined to a plastic bag, ready to be taken with you to the place you call home.
FEATURED IMAGE: A women rolling dough for baking. Photo: Supplied