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Barber Shears Generations of South African Hair

  • Darren Taylor

With a flick of a switch, Fred Moss’s electric hair clipper is shaving the back of a client’s neck. “I’m shearing this boy, just like a sheep!” the barber jokes.

Unsurprisingly, the burly Moss’s silver-black hair is cropped closely. It’s also slicked back in a shiny wave. The man in the white coat has been working here at Scala Barbershop in the Johannesburg suburb of Melville for 45 years. He’s cut generations of families’ hair.

“The grandfather comes here for many years and then he used to bring his sons here, and then obviously when they got married and they had children, they bring their children here, and so it carries on. It’s amazing and a privilege to know all those families’ histories and ins and outs and all the good things and the bad things that happen to them,” says Moss.

He once ‘hated’ cutting hair

Two classic, candy-striped barber poles line the shop’s entrance.

Moss’s father started the Scala in the 1940s and he laughs when he remembers his dad “forcing” him to become a barber when young Moss left school in 1968.

“And I hated it!” he exclaims. “For the first year I wasn’t interested at all. Then I went off to the army and I came back and that’s when I realized, ‘Look; in for a penny, in for a pound.’”

Moss, an exuberant man with piercing blue eyes, threw all his energy into cutting hair… A job he still loves. “I absolutely enjoy it. I enjoy the people, I enjoy the company. We laugh (together) every day. It’s absolutely fun to cut hair,” Moss maintains.

‘No faffing’

Another patron eases into a barber chair and Moss immediately strikes up a conversation with him. Soon, the two are chattering away and laughing like old buddies.

Moss interrupts the haircut to tell a visitor, “Like I always say: I haven’t got clients. I’ve got friends, because we’re like a big family here, you know. We talk about everything, we tell jokes, we discuss politics; we discuss sport…”

Above him on the wall are rows of faded caps that once belonged to some of his patrons.

Moss quips, “I keep all those caps there for emergencies, like if I cut someone’s hair badly, then I just give the guy a cap to wear on the way out…”

He says his clients are extremely loyal.

“They absolutely love my place, because it’s still the old school barbershop. There’s no airs and graces, no appointments, no washing and no faffing. So I think people really appreciate that.”

Dr. Norbert Spitz certainly does. The prim-and-proper German moved to Johannesburg two years ago to work for a non-profit.

Spitz explains, “When I needed a haircut I looked around and I discovered Fred’s salon. From my first haircut here I was very satisfied, and I liked the ambience, the atmosphere; it’s very authentic; I get good service. Since then, I come here on a regular basis. I don’t go anywhere else.”

Famous clients and ‘weird’ haircuts

The silver blades of Moss’s scissors flash as he cuts Spitz’s hair at a surprising speed.

It’s cheap to get a cut at the Scala in comparison with those on offer at all the chic hair salons around Johannesburg.

But Moss says his patrons aren’t only “financially strapped” people; they include “more than a few” famous, wealthy South Africans who could easily afford expensive haircuts.

“For instance, the 1995 Springbok (Rugby) World Cup champions. I used to cut just about the whole team, all their hair, before and after the World Cup. I still do. Then, also, I’ve got a lot of the local well-known actors that also come to me.”

Over the decades the barber says he’s had to give some haircuts he describes as “plain weird.”

“I once did four bikers. I had to cut the Suzuki sign on the back of their hair… I’ve had strange things like that but I don’t like doing it because it takes forever, you know,” says Moss, shaking his head.

Closing will be ‘heart-sore’

Moss says he adores his three daughters, but still wishes he had a son to take over the Scala Barbershop when he finally hangs up his scissors and clippers.

He appears resigned to it closing for good in a few years’ time.

“I would love to see this place carrying on. I mean after so many years, it would be a pity, because it became such a landmark. It’s been shown on TV and in newspapers and all sorts of things… It will be very heart-sore if it has to go eventually,” says a wistful Moss.

But, for now, the barber’s still doing what he does best: quick, easy and economic haircuts… In a place where there isn’t a metrosexual, or a bottle of mousse, in sight.