A long time ago, if you ran out of sugar, children where sent next door to borrow some sugar from the neighbours “*Ko-Ko* Umam’ uthe ngizocela ushugela”. Then came a time, when children were sent around the corner to the spaza to go buy onions/tomatoes, if umama/ugogo was in a good mood she’d let you keep the change so you could buy amaswidi/Ice or play a game of Street Fighter.
Sigh, how I miss those days… A lot has changed since then. In Soweto, shopping centers and malls are being built left, right and center. Where there was once a spaza shop, there’s probably a shopping centre/complex instead- Diepkloof Square, Jabulani Mall, Maponya Mall. Gone are the days of having to travel all the way to town to get your full shopping experience (not that people don’t fork out the R11 taxi fare to go to Sandton…) Now all you need to do is get outta bed, grab your gown and slippers and cross the main road to buy your bread and milk at Pick ’n’ Pay (you don’t even have to remove your doek or brush your teeth).
In a way shopping malls have replaced spaza shops because somehow they’ve become more convenient, especially in the economic sense. It makes so much more sense to go straight to Pick ‘n’ Pay and buy your low-fat or soy milk.
What does this mean for the economy? According to a study by the University of South Africa’s Bureau of Market Research (BMR), in 2002 informal economy that includes spaza shops and street vendors (not Xhosa’s, get it, get it? Haha! Okay, never mind…) brought in around R705-million and employed up to 290 000 people. These numbers have dropped sufficiently over the last few years, the South African Spaza and Tuckshop Association (yes, there is such a thing), estimates that black townships have lost around 30% of their spaza shops since 2005. This could be due to the upsurge of the South African black middle class which grew at annual 6.5% between 2001 and 2007 to the 9.3-million out of a total population of +/- 50 million. While the growth of the black consumer market is a good thing, it has a downside too. Spaza shop owners who used to make quite a decent living off of selling necessities to their communities are feeling the pinch.
Most spaza shops, about 60% or 70%, are survivalists. They exist as a way of passing time instead of sitting around on a street corner doing nothing, and because they are survivalists, they don’t have the necessary business skills and financial literacy needed to run a successful business, which means they are forced to close shop.
Maybe I’m being over sentimental but I find this current predicament quite sad. Spaza shops (and bootleg taverns) used to be part and parcel with life in the township Soweto. I don’t think Soweto will ever really be the same when all spaza have closed down and are replaced with big shopping malls. I loved visiting family because it meant I could finally buy a whole lot of snacks for less than R10. MamaLebo, the old lady who ran a spaza around the corner, always used to tell me I’m her favourite customer, she used to give me extra jub-jub (marshmallows). A fews years after she passed away and her son closed down the spaza, I’m still mourning, I refuse to buy from any other spaza.
I think I take a spaza shop any day over a shopping mall/complex. It’s less crowded. You’re not overwhelmed with choices and prices- which is quite a problem if you’re indecisive like me. Spaza shops are quick and easy, you go in, grab what you need and you’re out the door.
It takes me 10 minutes just to walk down the hill to the nearest convenient store to buy airtime and a loose draw- cigarette, which I will regret smoking because by the time I conquer the 14 minute uphill battle, I’m panting and heaving and wondering how. There’s really nothing convenient about convenient stores in the suburbs. Hell, the suburbs in general just aren’t convenient- the main road to the taxi is far, taxis are scarce. I don’t know how many times, I’ve contemplated opening a spaza and selling random necessities like airtime, bread, milk, cigarettes, toothpaste, cooldrink, and all those other little but important things you realised you’ve just run out of, in that moment when you need them the most- best example toilet paper!
If you have any tips on opening up a spaza follow me on Twitter @CallMeAfriKa