In the hustle and bustle of a metropolis like Johannesburg, it makes sense that there’s way more going on than one might expect. Partly to blame perhaps is the overbearing presence of the monstrously modernist buildings that make up the CBD, or perhaps it’s the city’s disjointedness stemming from Apartheid days which separated and segregated suburbs and communities from each other?Whatever the cause, so often we forget that Johannesburg is an African city above all else, and that Africa often has its own ingenious way of going about things.
In the ninth instalment in the series Wake Up, This is Joburg, a ten-book series of Johannesburg stories published by Fourthwall Books, photographer Mark Lewis and writer Tanya Zack open a window on the bustling and booming world of professional shoppers and traders operating out of Johannesburg’s inner city. The “shopping district” is referred to simply as “Jeppe,” by the shopkeepers and shoppers, with Jeppe Street forming the backbone of the movement route.
The story that unfolds is one of ingenuity and innovation that shouts “Africa” in all its boldness. The shoppers at the centre of the story are mostly women, who brave long distances, threats to their security, and language barriers, to trade and shop for clothing which they then transport back home to sell to their customers. In some instances these women operate as an equivalent to a multi-national corporation in the way that their orders come from far and wide and so do their suppliers. Facebook adverts are placed and Whatsapp orders are taken before a trip, after which the women will make the lengthy bus-trip down from Zambia, Angola, Mozambique, and other countries, and after arriving in Joburg, will spend a day “sourcing”, collecting various prices and then returning once the decision has been made on what to buy. The items are then wrapped and transported back to their hometowns. Face-to-face customer contact is essential for sales, as is face-to-face contact with the products. It is vital for business that the quality of the fashion products is tested in person before making a purchase.
Despite an estimated ten billion rand being spent by cross-border shoppers a year in the inner city (the equivalent to the annual turnover of two Sandton City shopping centres), there is much that is cause for concern. The security threats that these women face are worse than in other African cities, such as Dar es Salaam or Gaborone, and many of these threats come from the “metros,” the Johannesburg Metro Police so nicknamed by the shoppers. The metro’s are also raiding Shopkeepers, who have since responded with roller shutter doors which can rapidly seal off a building should the “hushed” signal ripple through Jeppe when JMPD cars stop. Furthermore, Dubai, China and Tanzania are proving to be viable alternatives for cross-border shoppers, with some items being cheaper and the environment being less threatening.
Johannesburg. Made in China is an enthralling read, one that enters into narratives that have not been as publicised as they deserve, and also one that ends with a warning, an urge to take stock of the moment and make Joburg the city that it could be. With cross-border shopping being an incredible revenue stream into the city, the challenge posed by the book is one that should make city officials sit up and take notice.