Amid the roaring engines of vehicles on the R66 between Eshowe and Melmoth in KwaZulu-Natal are vendors that proclaim: “R20 for banana”, “Wozobona amafruit s’thandwa” or “Nanka amafruit sisi”. This is the Sizuzulu market stall, where women sell fresh produce.
Mama Buselaphi Ngema began working at the market in 1983, shortly after it started. “We sat next to the fence with makeshift tables made of drums and planks,” says the 56-year-old. “During those days, we sold a handful of bananas for R5 and mangoes were R1. Things were reasonably priced and people had money.”
Ngema has four children and five grandchildren. Even though money is always tight, she enjoys her job. “I don’t earn a grant from the government. This is the only job I have ever worked. I love it because it looks after me and my family,” she says. “Sometimes you go home empty-handed. Sometimes the produce rots, but I am here because I need to feed the children. I am also trying to build a home for myself.”
Not a living wage
Dumazile Mhlongo, 54, has been working at the market since 1987. She had dreams of becoming a nurse, but didn’t enjoy school. She usually sells bananas, oranges, grapefruits, avocados, pineapples, amadumbe and mangos. Today, she arrived at 8am hoping to sell a packet of bananas for R20. It is all the produce she has. She had to throw away the rest of her fare because it had begun to spoil. “Maybe I lost R2 000 with all the food I threw away,” she says. “These days, it is bad. On a good day – on the weekend or during the holidays – I can take home R500. Today, I have not made a cent.”
With a knee injury, Mhlongo is at a disadvantage. “When a vehicle stops on the side of the road, the younger ones run faster than me, but we give each other turns to go and present our produce to potential customers.” The women especially compete for trade from taxis.
But there have been fewer customers lately. A drought has forced farmers to increase their prices, which has a knock-on effect. “As you can see, it is almost 3pm, and I have not been able to sell anything. No one is buying today,” says Mhlongo. She is worried the strain on the economy will mean fewer sales.
“Another thing that really hurt the market was the decision to relocate the legislature from Ulundi to Pietermaritzburg. People used to buy a lot, and we were wealthy. White people also left the countryside.” Mhlongo depends solely on the money she makes at the market. “With no income, I will be forced to eat these bananas, and if they are finished, they are finished.”
Struggle for small-scale business
One of the youngest women at the market is 24-year-old Nokulunga Magwaza. She arrived in September 2017, after failing her matric.
“I am working here because I am trying to save money to upgrade my studies at a college, because I want to become a social worker,” says Magwaza. She sells bunches of bananas for R20, avocados for R30 and oranges for R20. “Some days are good and some are bad, but at least we have this market, and we can try and get something.”
Magwaza doesn’t see herself working at the market for too much longer. “I am leaving in January. I know I will have made enough money to contribute to the money that my parents are going to give me, so I can study.”
“There is no money,” says Khosi Mthimkhulu, 57. “I think even the motorists themselves do not have money. A week can pass without making money.” But Mthimkhulu is grateful for the little she is making. “With the money I earn, I am able to buy bread and maize. These days, you cannot even buy clothes,” says the mother of two.
Market manager Zanele Khanyile, 51, began working at Sizuzulu in 1989. Back then, she says, mostly older women worked. She was among the few younger women. “I was about 20 years old. It was fun when we started. The market was beautiful, and people used to buy from us.”
When she joined, there were about 46 women. Today, there are 85. The mother of nine admits that there are too many women at the market. “Sometimes we have to turn away people who want to work because the business is not growing. As small-scale businesswomen, we need assistance. We are struggling to support our families. With the little we get, we buy bread. But you think twice about quitting because there is nowhere to go.”
Maphi Vilakazi, the local economic development officer of the Mthonjaneni municipality, says the municipality received government funding to upgrade the Sizuzulu market and the nearby Zamimpilo market, where 56 women work, in 2014. The funding was used to build basic structures for the stalls and toilets for the vendors.
“There is still more upgrading and support needed for the building, because traders sometimes trade at night. A storage and cooling facility is also needed as both markets deal with highly perishable products,” says Vilakazi, adding that the municipality is concerned about the women’s safety because there have been robberies and petty crime in the past.
She says the women at both markets do not pay rent, but are encouraged to do so to comply with provincial policies for informal traders. The rent is meant to contribute to the creation of a financial viability plan for both markets.