An Honest Living

by | Oct 16, 2010 | Arts and Culture, Johannesburg, Melville and Surrounds | 3 comments

This post was originally going to be about rain. It rained this week, for the first time in six months, and everything is crisp and green and beautiful. Here are a couple of photos I took with that topic in mind.

Jacaranda petals litter the street after a rain storm.

A wild iris in the Lucky 5 Star garden. Flowers like this bloom for one day and then disappear.

The most beautiful rose in Melville.

But as Joe and I were running errands yesterday, I decided to write about some of the ways people make a living in Johannesburg.

Our first stop was the Impala fruit and vegetable market in Northcliff.  The parking lot was filled with people selling handmade brooms and feather dusters. (No one buys brooms or feather dusters from a store; if you want one you just pull into the nearest parking lot and wait for someone to walk up and sell you one. Or wait for the local broom salesman in your neighborhood to knock on the door.)

The broom and feather duster people are always there, but yesterday there was also a woman behind a card table – set haphazardly in the middle of the parking lot — selling fabric and lace. I walked by a couple of times and couldn’t stop looking at a large piece of cotton cloth with families of black guinea fowl printed on it. I felt oddly drawn to the saleslady, Irene, who is from Zimbabwe. I haggled with her and finally bought the cloth for about $35. I have no idea what to use it for but I love it, and I was happy to support Irene.

My guinea fowl cloth is on the bottom left. You can also see some brooms and feather dusters at the edge of the frame.

Later in the day we drove past a busy street corner on the outskirts of Melville where a guy sells makarapas. Makarapas are plastic mining helmets that are carved and decorated to support various South African soccer and rugby teams. Makarapas were originally created by migrant workers who began wearing their work helmets to soccer matches to avoid injury by flying bottle missiles. Now they are a South African art form.

Lebo’s office. He also sells small brooms.

Lebo sells his makarapas, which take a full day to create, for $30 apiece; he’s lucky to sell one a day. His goal is to sell eight per week, which he hopes will allow him to expand his business beyond the street corner.

I purchased one, but I’m not going to say for whom as I don’t want to ruin the surprise. Hopefully Joe can disassemble it for me so I can get it back to the U.S. without breaking it.

I had a long chat with Lebo, who I’m guessing is in his early 20s. His mother is living with HIV and Lebo is her sole provider. I promised to tell his story to my friends so that when they visit Joburg they will buy their makarapas from him and not from the makarapa store downtown. You’ll find him at the corner of Carlow Rd. and Emmerantia Ave. in Parkview, every day except Sunday from 10 a.m. until dark.

Our last stop was the post office. I waited in the car while Joe went to mail a letter. An elderly man approached the window.

The man, Simon, is a car guard – I could tell from the fluorescent yellow vest he was wearing. Car guards are guys who stand on the street and in parking lots, watching people’s cars. Car guards aren’t paid – they work solely for tips. It’s actually a bit problematic: If you pay every car guard who watches your car you will quickly go broke, and some car guards actually participate in car theft and mugging schemes.  But crime and unemployment allow the phenomenon to persist.

Anyway, Simon didn’t want money. He showed me a piece of paper with the handwritten words, “Maths Made Easy, Grade 10, R190.”

“Hello, will you please buy this book?” asked Simon politely.

“Sorry?” I was confused.

“I need this book. It’s at Campus Square.” (Campus Square is the mall in Melville.)

“You’re learning math?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Simon proudly. “And I’m teaching my daughter. I’m here every day. Please bring it the next time you come. I will work for you – anything, for free!”

I copied down the name of the book, the store where it’s sold, and Simon’s phone number. I promised to buy the book the next time I’m at Campus Square.

As we drove home, I thought about how unfair life is.

As we pulled into our street, I saw this horse and cart parked in front of a nearby house.

The owners must have been inside.

The cart-owners ride around Melville and surrounding neighborhoods, collecting garden refuse and taking it to the garbage dump. They charge about R200 ($30 – seems to be the going rate for lots of goods and services around here) per load. Gardening season is in full swing and I’ve been seeing these carts all over the place. I hear them clip-clopping past when we sit on the deck. There are usually two guys driving the horse and sometimes there is a child sitting in the back on the cart. I need to do more research on them for a future post.

This town is filled with resourcefulness.


  1. Lilly Loompa

    Hi there

    I am a native South African, born in CPT, now living in JHB south. Your post really captures the essence of the struggles of ordinary south africans. It is a daily struggle. I like the perspective you bring as an “incomer”. My opinion would probably be the same, except I bring a whole lot of baggage with. (the effects of apartheid on our people, corrupt politicians, etc).

    I am classified a “coloured” and grew up in Cape Town. JHB has opened my eyes in so many ways. In a lot of ways the CPT people have very narrow views. That is just my opinion. I am glad I came across your blog. We share a lot of the same views on life. Great blog!

    • 2summers

      Hi Lizl, thanks so much for reading and commenting. I love hearing that my posts resonate with South Africans. I’m interested in your observation about Cape Town — it’s something I’ve heard from many people since moving to SA. I’ve only been to CT for one weekend, but it seems like such an interesting contrast to Jozi. Are you in Joburg permanently now?

      I just glanced at your blog and it looks very interesting, too.

      • Lilly Loompa

        Hey 2summers

        Me, hubby and the 2 girls moved to Jozi in April 2010. We are involved in a great charity called 1in1out ( and live on the grounds as the Site Managers. We are trying to grow it into skills development centre. Thus far we have a fully fitted bakery, a creche, a computer school, etc. Some of the above are already operating but we are awaiting funds to start. It is a great project to be involved in.
        Otherwise I am an interior decorator and hubby is a project manager in construction. Don’t get me wrong, I love my CPT and I miss it tremendously. However, after have lived in Jozi for over a year, I have to agree that the general Capetonian hasn’t matured after 1994 as the Joburger has. Once again…just my view.
        Would be nice to meet you. If you are interested, we have volunteer days where the general public joins us on site to fix up things. We have another one tomorrow.



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