Fusion finds Fordsburg

Hamid Umar sits at a tiny desk in a shop not much bigger, working with scattered heaps of pastes, spices and tobacco and a pile of betal leaves. He is the proud owner of a shop that would make any South Asian wonder what such a characteristic slice of the subcontinent is doing at the southern tip of Africa. 

The Taj Palace Paan Shop and Video Centre on the corner of Mint and Bree streets, Johannesburg, has already tickled the curiosity of locals: it opened seven years ago, and appears to be doing very well. However, the job of trying to sell a paan — a mouth-freshener made of a betal leaf wrapped around a wad of betel nut, spices and often tobacco — is not an easy one.

“It took about five years for this place to gain popularity. Business has only picked up in the last two years,” says Umar.

Somewhat appropriately, given the hodgepodge of cultures that characterises this neighbourhood, it is the non-Asians who are among his shop’s most enthusiastic patrons.

“Most of my customers are locals and many come in from Zimbabwe, Botswana, Angola and Mozambique too.”

He also sells chewing tobacco and bidis (cheap Indian cigarettes). Delighted to be able to speak to a reporter in Hindi, Umar graciously handed me one on my way out.

“She’s one of us,” I heard him telling his friends. 

As South Africa celebrates 10 years of democracy, signs of its increasingly vibrant diversity are to be found everywhere. But the changes meant a complete makeover for Fordsburg — one of the oldest suburbs of Johannesburg, long the stamping-ground of Indian South Africans and now a home for thousands of new immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.

The newcomers are streaming in from heavily populated countries with high rates of unemployment, in search of greener pastures.

Most of the immigrants worked previously as cooks or cleaners in the homes of their South Asian employers, and have been brought in by them to help out with the running of new establishments in Fordsburg. Some were unemployed, making them ready candidates for cheap labour.

Their employers start from scratch, and the workers wait patiently until business picks up and end up working for a wage that would seem inadequate to anyone else. An employee at a fruit store run by a Bangladeshi earns about R700 a month.

“Lots of rupees!” he says, smiling from ear to ear.

Fordsburg is an ideal spot for South Asian business because the area has been primarily Indian for years, making the locals their target group.

Everything from bindis (a decorative mark worn on the middle of the forehead by Indian women) to hand-embroidered rugs can be found at the Oriental Plaza, a popular shopping mall true to its name. Built in the early 1970s, it was initially resented by traders, who were made to set up there after being forcibly removed under apartheid from cosier premises a few kilometres away. It soon became famous for its low, negotiable prices.

Spools of colourful fabric decorate the walls of Moosa Patel’s factory shop Curtains for Africa, owned by a local. Newer textile stores do things the South Asian way, throwing rolls of cloth that do not sell from one side of the store to the other to make space for the ones that do and chit-chatting with customers. Prices go down depending on how good a bargainer you are.

Recent immigrants, says Patel, “have a different way of doing business. But competition is always healthy.”

He sells his goods at a fixed price and runs a comparatively organised business.

As women entered the job market, homes lost cooks, and now going out at meal times has become a trend.

The crowd has moved beyond Pop’s CafÃ

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