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The Migrant Mile



 Migrant businesses have become an integral part of the economic ecosystem.


In the bustling heart of Johannesburg’s Central Business District (CBD) lie a stretch of migrant economies. Microcosms of China, India, Egypt, Turkey, Somalia and Ethiopia have popped up with the smell, sound and feel of home.

As you walk down Commissioner Street, under the highway and past columns of graffiti, The Oriental Plaza comes into view. Designed like a souq, the traditional meandering Arabic market, the plaza sells everything from saris and suits to curtains, pots and incense. The aroma of piping hot samosas hits you as you walk through the gates, the sizzle of hot oil permeates the walkways and there are stains of bright red chilli sauce on the al fresco tables. The savouries are the best in town and the perfect start before you bargain your way through the stalls.

Out of the gates and a street away, Mint Road is an informal extension of the plaza. Stalls selling hot chilli bites and fresh juice border the market. Bollywood heartthrob Shah Rukh Khan and his latest swooning heroine play on small television sets. It’s like stepping into a market in Mumbai or Delhi where Hindi, Urdu and Bengali converge.

The last census conducted in 2011 put the number of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, in South Africa, at just over two million. While some acquired citizenship on arrival, over one million were not citizens in 2011. Immigrants made up 4.2% of the entire population, which stood at roughly 51 million at the time. Of the 4.2%, 71% of the immigrants were from other African countries. Immigrants have created economic hubs across the country.

In a study conducted by the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town in 2015, migrants and refugees in Cape Town and Johannesburg have pinpointed the gap in the informal market. By providing cheaper goods and services for the poorer segments of the population and monopolizing niche demands, migrants have made a significant contribution to the population. Most of these migrant businesses also support South African factories, wholesalers and supermarkets and are subject to value added tax. They have become an integral part of the economic ecosystem.

From Shanghai to Mogadishu via Mumbai, it’s an economy built on the search for the African dream in the City of Gold, but it may soon become a nightmare.

Early 2016, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba proposed a host of new policies to clamp down on economic migrants. The proposed policy would see those like the Somali traders in Mayfair or the Pakistani shop owners in Fordsburg lose the right to work, trade and study in the country. If it all goes through, asylum-seekers could be confined to processing centers near the border, where “their basic needs will be catered for” while they are kept from “integrating into communities”.

For the traders along Johannesburg’s migrant mile, the future is somewhat dim and uncertain. In the pages that follow, FORBES WOMAN AFRICA focuses on the migrants who became entrepreneurs despite all the odds they faced.


The Chaudry Women

The once lively market on Mint Road in Johannesburg now houses stalls selling DVDs and sunglasses stacked next to each other like clones. The smell of fried corn in butter wafts through the streets even as competing Bollywood beats drown each other out. In a small corner of the market, the Chaudry family are an unusual sight. Aisha Chaudry and her sisters Asimah and Amina own one of the only stalls run by women.

Kaniz-Fatima and her husband Yawar-Abbas Chaudry came to South Africa in 1991 on their honeymoon and decided to stay for good. The couple from Karachi, Pakistan, started their business in Fordsburg 15 years ago as one of the first stalls in the square.

“My parents would come here at five after work. It was full and crowded, it was just like a playground for us,” recalls Aisha.

With rows of Basmati rice, snacks from India and Pakistan and spicy corn, the Chaudry family set themselves apart from the rest. After starting as an informal market, the City of Johannesburg decided to build a structure around the market in the late 2000s. For a year, business was impossible. The stress of trying to make ends meet took its toll and Yawar-Abbas died before the business could bounce back.

“Before, we didn’t have to work hard, business just came. Now we work twice as hard for half the money. Things changed and all the stall owners weren’t a family anymore,” says Aisha.

For the daughters on Mint Road, things are changing and everyday life has become a struggle.

“We’re here every day and every evening. My sisters are still in school and I want to be a teacher. Who knows how long we’ll be here,” says Aisha.

It’s not uncommon in migrant economies for children to man stalls.

For these families, it’s all about survival and making it to the end of each month.

They maintain a cheery disposition but business has certainly taken a dive in the last decade. What once were great economic hubs are now plagued by crime and urban decay. On either side of the square, people are closing up shop.

“Business is okay,” says Aisha, unconvincingly.


The Last Brothers On Commissioner Street

Commissioner Street is the former China Town. As you walk down the deserted street with locked doors and bright red signs, there are two shops at the end. The Pon family has run a supermarket for 73 years and a firework shop for 20. The brothers, Walter and King, work across the road from each other. For a fleeting moment, until a taxi blasting the latest Cassper Nyovest song zooms by, you’re transported out of Johannesburg.

You’re in Mainland China adorned with Chinese lanterns, families chatting in fast-paced Mandarin, aisles lined with noodles and dried oyster mushrooms, and shelves stacked with fireworks and laughing Buddhas.

Steel bars cover the windows and security guards man the doors.

One ring of the bell gets you past the first gate, another ring gets you past the second. But the business’ longevity is a big question mark.

“I’m the oldest man to live and work here,” says Walter Pon with a cheeky smile. In its peak days, Chinatown was bustling. Births, deaths and everything in between would be discussed over jasmine tea and prawn crackers. Shops would stay open long into the evening before the men would retreat upstairs to play poker into the wee hours.

“We were the biggest gamblers. We would start these gambling joints every night and play until we were called to bed. Everything was here with some Chinese muti [medicine] for luck,” says Walter.

In the throes of apartheid, the Chinese were in no man’s land.

“Not black enough, not white enough, we were in limbo,” says Walter.

The Group Areas Act passed by the apartheid government in 1950 placed different racial groups in certain residential and business areas. With a tiny population of 10,000, the act didn’t account for the Chinese.

“The Chinese were in small numbers so they didn’t know where to send us. Landlords wouldn’t rent to us so we would get white nominees to rent the shops and we would work for them,” says Walter.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the economy opened up for the Chinese and they were allowed to buy property.

“Apartheid did a lot of damage to the country but what it did was hold the Chinese together,” says Walter.

At the helm of the brothers’ stores is their 103-year-old mother, Shue Chee Pon, who rules with an iron fist and keeps a watchful eye on Walter, 76, and King, 66. Her picture lies above their desks and she checks in with her sons every morning.

They’re the last of their family on Commissioner Street but they have an impressive track record. They boast big names like Winnie Mandela and Jessie Duarte as regulars.

“My kids left. Getting degrees, going overseas – that’s how you make your money now. My mother phones me and asks me ‘who’s going to take over’ and the truth is that there is nobody,” says Walter.


The Little Coffee Shop In Little Mogadishu

Further up from Johannesburg’s CBD towards Mayfair, a once predominantly Indian area, a new economy is just beginning to take shape.

The women man the stalls, taking time out to chat amongst themselves or to kneel on mats and recite from the Holy Quran. Questions are met with cold stares unless you’re asking for the price of their goods. Rows of shawls and handicrafts are stacked alongside traditional garments in every color with bejeweled scarves to match.

Just past the Shoprite supermarket is Little Mogadishu, three roads of Somali-owned shops and flats. It’s late on a Saturday afternoon and the azan, the call to mosque, fills the air as people hastily finish the rest of their coffee before rushing to pray.

The men convene daily over coffee at Ebrahim Ali’s Qaxwo Coffee Shop. His shop is named after the Somali word for coffee. Heated discussions about sport are conducted in Arabic and Somali over steaming cups of the dark and bitter qaxwo and sickly-sweet coconut biscuits.

In 1991, the Somali central government collapsed when the capital Mogadishu was captured by the rival militia. A power battle began, plunging the country into a 20-year civil war. More than half a million Somalis were forced to leave their country and live as refugees in others.

The Ali brothers ran a panel-beating business in Kismaayo in Somalia. When the civil war hit, they fled to Tanzania.

“I came through the border 16 years ago. My brother and I left Tanzania for a better life when Somalis were being attacked,” says Ali.

With a large local Muslim population and a human rights-based constitution, South Africa seemed like the best option.

“Somalis came here three times. First there was a small community of 400, then more came in 1992 and the rest of us came in 2000,” says Ali.

There are now around 80,000 Somalis in South Africa. It took the brothers four years to get their panel-beating business off the ground again. Although they had made Johannesburg their home, the spate of xenophobic attacks in 2008 hit hard.

Early on a Monday morning that year, Ali returned to his workshop and found everything still locked up.

Frantically, he banged on his brother’s door. There was no reply. When he eventually broke through, he found his brother’s body. He had been strangled and the business looted. With a loss of $57,500 and a heavy heart, he walked away and laid charges against a homeless community who lived near the building.

“Eight years later, the case is still pending. I’m still waiting,” says Ali.

Ali decided to start over but opening another panel-beating shop proved too expensive on his own. Instead, he started small, selling one flask of coffee every morning on the side of the road.

“People were coming here just for my coffee. One flask turned into a big shop,” says Ali. His shop is an ode to Somalia. The walls are covered in traditional artefacts and Somali shillings. Business is a struggle but Ali keeps reminders of home close.

“You must never forget the path you’ve walked,” he says.

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