News / Africa

In S. Africa, Local Tuck Shops Fight for Survival

John Stheole has owned his spaza shop for more than a decade in Dube Village, Soweto, South Africa. (Photo Gillian Parker for VOA)
John Stheole has owned his spaza shop for more than a decade in Dube Village, Soweto, South Africa. (Photo Gillian Parker for VOA)
Informal sectors make up a significant portion of South Africa's economy and are critical for creating jobs in a country with a chronic unemployment rate of at least 25 percent. But an influx of immigrant merchants and international retailers and their growing dominance in the market has been a headache for local traders in South Africa running informal shops - known as spazas.

John Stheole has owned his spaza shop - the informal stores that dot the corners of townships - for more than a decade. His shop is in a small grey single-story building, tucked away in Dube village, in Soweto - a sprawling urban area in Johannesburg and once a township flashpoint during the apartheid struggle.
 
His store offers a hodgepodge of staple goods, including washing powder (laundry soap), toilet paper, maize-meal, eggs and sweet treats.  
 
Townships were urban areas where non-whites were forced to live under apartheid and informal stores catered to the impoverished residents.  Known as tuck-shops or spazas - a slang word that denotes "just getting by" - they became a feature of the township landscape, as formal shopping places were either too difficult to access or too expensive.
 
There are approximately 100,000 such stores in South Africa - employing around 290,000 people.
 
Little attention has been paid to the role of the informal sector in fostering growth and creating jobs. In fact, the informal sector contributes about 55% percent of Sub-Saharan Africa's GDP and 80 percent of the labor force. Nine in 10 rural and urban workers have informal jobs in Africa and most employees are women and youth, according to the African Development Bank. In South Africa alone, there are around 750,000 informal traders, including spaza owners.
 
But business has been slow for Stheole who is struggling to compete with a rival store across the road run by a family from Pakistan.
 
"I can tell you that as from last year, January, last year, I am struggling… I was fortunate that the Pakistani which is opposite me - he was not there - but as he came last year- I started to start down more," said Stheole.

 
Local Spaza owners distribute products they bought in bulk in Dube Village, Soweto, South Africa (Photo: Gillian Parker for VOA)Local Spaza owners distribute products they bought in bulk in Dube Village, Soweto, South Africa (Photo: Gillian Parker for VOA)
x
Local Spaza owners distribute products they bought in bulk in Dube Village, Soweto, South Africa (Photo: Gillian Parker for VOA)
Local Spaza owners distribute products they bought in bulk in Dube Village, Soweto, South Africa (Photo: Gillian Parker for VOA)
South Africa is the only country in the region where refugees and asylum-seekers have freedom of movement and the right to work. People have been forced to flee their homes in places like Somalia, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.  For them, South Africa is their only hope of living and working in peace.
 
Diminishing profits for indigenous traders and chronic unemployment rates in South Africa have sparked tension with immigrants who are perceived to be taking jobs and putting South African shopkeepers out of business by undercutting their prices. For example, in September, more than 100 Somali-owned spazas were looted during a four-day spree around the coastal city, Port Elizabeth.
 
Some analysts say that the demise of the South African spaza was predictable, as they appear to be uncompetitive. Foreign traders have succeeded in topping their local rivals by buying a better range of stock in bulk from cash-and-carry wholesalers, selling goods at competitive prices and offering discounts to capture customers from their neighboring stores.
 
The South Africa Spaza and Tuckshop Association (SASTA) is trying to build skills among local traders with training and coordinating sellers to buy bulk products.
 
"It is a very important part of the community. It's our neighbor business where you help one neighbor to be able to survive for a day," said Rose Nkosi. "In the afternoon, she knows you are nearer her house."
 
Rose Nkosi, president of the association, says that local spaza shops are still crucial to stimulating the local economy.

 
This Spaza is located acros the street from Shoprite, in Dube Village, Soweto, South Africa. (Photo Gillian Parker for VOA)This Spaza is located acros the street from Shoprite, in Dube Village, Soweto, South Africa. (Photo Gillian Parker for VOA)
x
This Spaza is located acros the street from Shoprite, in Dube Village, Soweto, South Africa. (Photo Gillian Parker for VOA)
This Spaza is located acros the street from Shoprite, in Dube Village, Soweto, South Africa. (Photo Gillian Parker for VOA)
But in her neighborhood, a growing number of brick bungalows and shiny 4x4 vehicles indicate that the wallets of the township are growing fatter (people have more money). Shoprite - Africa's top retailer - has a store perched opposite a line of rickety wooden stalls selling mobile phone covers and socks. Despite the sharp rise in supermarkets in these areas, many argue the spaza is instrumental for people still living in acute poverty and can only afford a single item. A single egg might set you back 12 cents and a single cigarette costs 18 cents.

"The buying pattern or how people buy in the location is very different to how people buy in the suburbs. You buy groceries on a monthly basis; people in this location can't afford the luxury to have 1500 rand [$143] in one go to buy groceries so they buy as they need basically. So that is why the spaza shop market will never go away, because there is demand for how these people trade," said Songi Pama, the managing director of Liph-zarro Consultants. Her company works with local traders to maximize their business potential and develop innovative strategies to help them compete.

Pama says the prominence of the informal sector in most African economies stems from the opportunities it offers to the most vulnerable such as the poorest, women and youth.
 
For Rose Nkosi, local run spazas offer the community something neither supermarkets nor the foreign traders can offer: credit and 24-hour service.
 
"Now the granny will come to the spaza shop and say, 'I don't have milk can I have a sour milk? I don't have bread, sugar', the spaza shop will write and say 'ok, credit facility now'….the granny now gives to the child now the granny is safe," she said.
 
Local spaza traders may have to adjust to a more competitive market but in South Africa, the tuck-shop is far from closing.

You May Like

Video VOA EXCLUSIVE: Iraq President Vows to Fight IS 'Until They Are Killed or We Die'

In wide-ranging interview with VOA Persian service reporter, Fuad Masum describes conflict as new type of fight that will take time to win More

Video Russian Anti-Corruption Campaigner Slams Putin’s Crackdown on Dissent

In interview with VOA Alexei Navalny says he believes new law against 'undesirable NGOs' part of move to keep Russian president in power More

Video On The Scene: In Ethiopia, 'Are You a Journalist?' Is a Loaded Question

VOA's Anita Powell describes the difficulties faced by reporters in fully conveying the story in a country where people are reticent to share their true opinions More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardshipi
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
May 28, 2015 6:48 PM
Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Floodwaters Recede in Houston, but Rain Continues

Many parts of Texas are recovering from one of the worst natural disasters to hit the southwestern state. Heavy rains on Monday and early Tuesday caused rivers to swell in eastern and central Texas, washing away homes and killing at least 13 people. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, floodwaters are receding slowly in the country's fourth-largest city, and there likely is to be more rain in the coming days.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video US Voters Seek Answers From Presidential Candidates on IS Gains

The growth of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria comes as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in the Midwest state of Iowa.   As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, voters want to know how the candidates would handle recent militant gains in the Middle East.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.

VOA Blogs