The women eking out a living in Durban’s shadows

For years, they sought decent employment and failed. They are in the streets now selling wares and, in dingy corners and hidden building floors, plaiting hair to make ends meet.

Thobeka Mnikathi, 33, braves the 41°C Durban heat as she stands outside a beauty supply shop calling on passing women to come get their hair done. She has been doing this job for at least 10 years, standing on Anton Lembede Street with a placard in hand advertising hairstyles and inviting people to her obscurely located salon.

When she finally does get a client she leads them to the vast beauty shop with white walls and bright lights. Here she buys hair extensions. They then climb up some steps and go through a tiny doorway that leads to a dimly lit second floor. 

15 October 2021: This salon in Anton Lembede Street in central Durban is a popular destination for customers seeking beauty treatments such as manicures and hairstyling.

The whole second floor, partitioned into hair and nail salons, is a workstation for beauty workers. Each room has a compact makeshift sink to wash hair in. 

Mnikathi says she is not happy with the place and its attendant working conditions. She does, however, appreciate the fact that the rent is affordable.

“These places we work in are not all right at all but jobs are nowhere to be found and starting a hair salon needs a lot of money. We have big challenges here, like the police or the municipality sometimes chasing us from the street when we are canvassing for clients. They don’t care that we are trying to make a living as well,” she says.

15 October 2021: A hairdresser takes the stairs to the floor above to attend to her customers at a salon in Durban’s central business district.

Making ends meet

Informal employment is often precarious and defined by low wages, no social benefits, high risks to ill health and poor working conditions while offering minimal opportunities for training or career progression, among other problems. Many, like Mnikathi, end up taking the entrepreneurship route, which tends to be fraught with problems too. 

Olwethu Mdabu, 41, sells snacks on the second floor’s passage. She says she worries that she and the many others who work around the salon space might get infected with all sorts of diseases. It is dirty and congested and does not have adequate access to water. 

Even though Mdabu obtained a diploma in business management in 2007, she has failed to find a job.

“I used to plait people’s hair for seven years but I changed because I struggled to get clients after a while and wasn’t making money anymore. Meanwhile, I had to rent the chair I used. Now I sell snacks here and I can pay my kids’ school fees and their transport. The difficult thing about being self-employed is if I get sick or have to stay home for any reason I lose money and I have no backup plan as the money I make here is only enough to take care of my family’s basic needs,” says Mdabu. 

15 October 2021: Olwethu Mdabu sells snacks and cold drinks to salon employees and customers as well as other occupants of this building in central Durban.

According to the National Bargaining Council for the Hairdressing, Cosmetology, Beauty and Skincare Industry, the average income for specifically skilled stylists is about R4 200 a month. That would be stylists doing either braiding or plaiting, nails and cutting hair. But the women doing business around Mnikathi were paid significantly less when they worked in salons, they said.

With qualifications in such things as somatology (the science of the human body), or a job in a high-end salon, Mnikathi says one’s earnings can go up to R6 000. 

However, many say they earned between R1 500 and R3 500 when they worked in salons, no matter how experienced they were. So, the alternative for them was to go independent. That is why Durban has a lot of salons hidden in dark alleyways, crumbling buildings and other obscure places. Many can be reached only through small doorways and crinkly staircases.

Independence, though not ideal, serves many of these beauty workers better.

15 October 2021: Nandipha Sokhulu busy plaiting a customer’s hair.

“The money we make only supports hand-to-mouth [living]. I can’t save for a pension or create an inheritance that can look after my kids. I wish the government can help us be registered somehow and supported,” Mnikathi adds.

Despite her position of disadvantage, Mnikathi continues to dream. She says she wishes to own a “proper” hair salon one day and employ young people, especially from Ntuzuma, her township. “I have many dreams. I never sit down [because] I’m always hustling. I also wish to own a fast-food restaurant. The challenge is always money and support, but I’m just grateful to be able to earn a living.”

Phumzile Mzilikazi, 45, from Folweni township in the south of Durban, says it took her 25 years to save enough money so she could obtain a different skill. Her dream is to leave the streets and get a job in the formal sector. Though she is now a qualified home-based care assistant, she continues to run a salon on Broad Street while also selling amagwinya (vetkoek). 

Mzilikazi says she believes that her future will be brighter with a secured income. She will be a registered worker with a regular income and, potentially, all sorts of benefits and insurance. 

15 October 2021: During their spare or lunch time, the stylists stream movies, music videos and series on their cellphones. They say they often don’t have time to watch television at home because they get there late from work.

The current state of affairs in South Africa might, however, punch holes in the fabric of her optimism. Statistic South Africa’s 2021 quarterly labour report showed that conditions of employment are increasingly becoming uncertain. 

“The year-on-year comparisons indicate that the number of employees with permanent employment contracts decreased by 138 000, while the number of employees with contracts of unspecified duration and contracts of limited duration increased by 593 000 and 285 000, respectively,” the report read.

What awaits Mzilikazi, if she is lucky, might be nothing but a contractual job that offers very little in terms of benefits. But, for her, Mnikathi and the many other women in their position, it would be an opportunity worlds better than their current situation.

Naledi Sikhakhane is the 2022 Eugene Saldanha Fellow in social justice journalism.

Correction, 24 May 2022: The Eugene Saldanha Memorial fellowship is supported by the SET. It was incorrectly referred to as a fund.

15 October 2021: Hairdressers weave a customer’s 24-inch braids at a salon in Durban.
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