/ 8 April 2020

‘Afraid, but my spaza’s open’

Spaza shop owner
The report shows that the coronavirus has exacerbated poverty and inequality in the country, with women and informal workers bearing the brunt of the economic downturn. (Paul Botes/M&G)

Downtown Johannesburg is not the hive of activity that it usually is. Only a few people are on the streets and not many cars are parked on the roads. This has been a common state throughout South Africa since March 26 as both people and the government work to flatten the Covid-19 curve.

Although this is for the good of all, it has brought a new set of problems for 24-year-old Bertha Banda*, who is running her uncle’s spaza shop during the lockdown.

“I am scared, but not too much. I am scared of the police. In fact, I do not like the police myself. I am scared of people robbing me. Sometimes I want to open the entire door, but I am afraid,” said Banda, who is from Zambia.

The spaza shop sells a range of items from airtime and eggs to home cooked food.

Its glass doors were usually wide open and music played out loud, or there was a movie on television. But not now. Banda now sells through a small window and the sound from the TV is subdued.

She said she is keeping things in this manner because the police cannot see if the shop is open when they drive by or are standing from afar. She is happy with this arrangement because most of her customers live near the shop and they know her.

Keeping the business open is not the only security concern Banda has. Walking to the bank has also presented safety concerns.

“The other day there were no taxis, so I walked to deposit money at a complex near here. I saw some guys in the street coming and I was scared. And there were not a lot of people passing by and I was just alone.” She said she immediately took a R5 coin out of her pocket and gave it to one of the men and the group left her alone.

Her problems do not end there. Stocking items for the spaza shop is proving to be difficult because most shops where she usually goes to buy stock are closed.

Banda said she usually closes late because that’s when business picks up and during this lockdown, this is how things have remained.

But business is slow. She only makes R700 a day as opposed to R2000 she made before the lockdown.

“It’s not been easy, especially now with the coronavirus issue. It’s just too much, it’s been slow. But anyway, I am opening. Sometimes people come,” she said.

Last week, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma announced that spaza shops and informal traders are allowed to operate, with informal traders having to get written permission from a municipal authority.

Banda came to South Africa in 2013, after finishing secondary school, to take a break from her daily life and ended up staying because she “loves” living in Johannesburg. She is studying towards a degree in media and will go back home next year, after finishing the degree.

She got involved in the business because her uncle asked for her assistance. She now oversees everything. “Brian* is my uncle. It’s good working with him. I just work like it’s my own thing because he’s not here,” she said. 

“I just feel so bad. It’s not a good [virus],” she said. “Some people are already sick and we do not know. The only thing is just to find the cure fast because it’s already here.

“Even if we stay indoors, it’s not going to work, and our businesses will just be going down,” she added.

*Not their real names

Tshegofatso Mathe is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian