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By Marc Wegerif

Gloria*  is standing under a rough shelter made from poles with an old tarpaulin over them. This gives her and the fruit and vegetables set out on a rough wooden table in front of her some protection from the sun and rain. The stall is on the corner of the street where Gloria lives with her four children in Ivory Park, a township outside Johannesburg. The area includes the small government provided RDP houses, many now with extensions and other structures added by the owners, and informal settlement areas of shacks made out of old corrugated iron and other materials the residents have managed to collect.

Gloria sells mostly fresh produce such as tomatoes, onions, cabbage, carrots, green peppers, potatoes, butternut, beetroot, bananas and apples. As well as selling the produce separately she puts together mixed packs convenient for preparing common dishes, such as an onion and tomato combination to make a basic relish eaten with pap (maize porridge). Another is the half cabbage with carrots packet ready for making coleslaw.

When I first met Gloria, she was reluctant to talk with me, but when I visited again she relaxed and told me more about her life and business. She is from Mozambique and has been in South Africa and living in Ivory Park since 2000. She started selling fruit and vegetables in 2004 and has supported herself and her family from the business since then. She has four children and one grandchild who all stay with her. Gloria started with a R500 loan from her mother, who earned the money cooking and selling magwinya (similar to a doughnut). Gloria first bought and sold cabbages and tomatoes and built up the business from there.

Under Gloria’s table is a wheelbarrow that she uses when she walks every morning to buy stock from Swazi Inn which is just over a kilometre away. Swazi Inn is a busy shopping area, named after a tavern that used to be there, which has emerged as a wholesale as well as retail food market in the area.

Gloria works long days, she goes early to Swazi Inn and normally starts selling at about 10:30am, only closing up at around 8pm. But it is not all hard work, she chats to friends who stop at her stall and are often customers as well. She walks to Swazi Inn together with other street traders in the area. Being self-employed gives her some flexibility. On one visit I found her setting up the stall at 1pm as she had been washing clothes at home. She also sometimes brings her children with her to the stall and she can easily go home to check on them when they are not with her.

For residents of the area Gloria makes fruit and vegetables accessible. She is close by and sells at low prices. Mihle, one of her customers, said he buys from Gloria as her produce is fresh and the prices are good; less than the supermarkets he says. On two occasions, two months apart, I bought onions, tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes and a green pepper from Gloria. I compared the prices for the same produce of the same weight from a major supermarket group. Mihle was right, I had paid half the price for these items from Gloria as they cost me in the supermarket.

Another reason to buy from Gloria is that she gives on credit (with no interest) to people she knows from the area. As Mihle explained it “I survive here, yah, she has got a book, I take credit”. Gloria says her customers take food during the month and pay her when they get their wages or receive state grants.

Things changed for Gloria in March 2020 when a lockdown started as a measure to contain the spread of Covid-19. Despite the supermarkets and other formal food sellers being allowed to operate, as food was classified as an essential service, Gloria and all other street traders had to stop their businesses. “They didn’t want us to sell. I stopped selling” Gloria said. When I ask how she fed her children, she said “zabalaza” (struggle). She explained, “I put out a little [stock] to sell, I would run when I saw the police”. But this could not go on for long as the traders she bought from at Swazi Inn were also shut down. They were closed for three weeks and Gloria said lots of police and army were there and used rubber bullets.

When the government changed the disaster regulations to allow street traders selling food to operate, Gloria heard from her local street committee that she could work again if she got a permit. She went to the Johannesburg Municipality office, some 35kms away, and was issued with the permit. With the permit in hand, she went back to business, but others were less fortunate. Another woman who had been selling fresh produce a few blocks away from Gloria’s stall since 2008, told me she had not able to start again since the lockdown. When stopped from trading she lost stock and had weeks with no income. She couldn’t get money to start again and also saw how slow business was.

For Gloria business is also not the same as it used to be. She tells me the prices of the stock she buys have gone up and people don’t have money to buy. The food price increase (well above core inflation) and loss of income (largely due to job losses) that Gloria sees on her street are confirmed by reports from Stats SA and other organisations. Gloria says “it has changed truly, they don’t buy well, people don’t have money, People don’t buy, they don’t have money”.

Mihle is an example of what has happened. He worked for a well-known courier company, but when I met him in February 2021 he had been on unpaid leave for some months and not yet managed to get Unemployment Insurance Fund money. He hopes he will go back to work, but does not know when. The problem, he explained, is that he worked under a labour broker. Like many in Ivory Park and others similar areas, those who are working are at the bottom of the labour hierarchy and have limited job security.

Gloria continues her business, but at a lower level. She does not have as much stock on her table as she used to have before Covid-19 and her turn-over and income are lower. The impact of Covid-19 and related regulations that Gloria is experiencing have left her and her family struggling to survive. They also indicate the number of people in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, like Ivory Park, who are simply not able to buy the same amount of food they used to.

*Gloria, not her real name. 

Dr. Marc Wegerif is a lecturer in Development Studies, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Pretoria.

The research that informed this article is part of the African food systems and Covid-19 project supported by the IDRC. To learn more about this project, visit its page here:

Cover Photo: Pexels