Migrant neighbours team up to make masks to survive

Migrants are particularly vulnerable to the lockdown’s economic pinch, but two Joburg neighbours have pooled their resources to start a small business and feed themselves and their families.

Robert Mbewe, like many living in South Africa, was caught off guard when the government announced its nationwide Covid-19 lockdown in March. 

Having lived in Johannesburg for the past six years, 32-year-old Mbewe, who qualified as an IT technician in Malawi, has had to “hustle” to survive during the past seven weeks. But hustling is something he’s gotten used to since arriving in the city. 

“Work was always a mixture. I was self-employed, doing handiwork, because I couldn’t find work in IT and my qualifications weren’t recognised here. So I was just making enough to survive,” he said in the dimly lit corridor outside the room he rents in Hillbrow.

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“With the lockdown, we didn’t expect it to come, so we are suffering now … I have been struggling to make money and pay for the things I need. I want to buy food,” he said. “This lockdown really affects us. I don’t know how or where to get money. It’s just by the grace of God that most of us have survived.”

Mbewe shares a tiny room with two other adults and their infant son. He said life was difficult, even before the lockdown forced people to stay home and stretch the little money they had as far as possible.

Having not worked for seven weeks and unable to pay his rent during this time, Mbewe is just one of millions of people in South Africa and globally feeling the pinch of the economic impact lockdowns have had on the working class.

5 May 2020: Robert Mbewe shares a room with another family from Malawi. Only a mattress separates him from Jennifer Rodgers, her husband, Wendy Phiri, and their two-year-old child, Bertha. Rodgers is looking after a neighbour’s baby here, five-month-old Samuel Wyson.

Hungry and on hold

He has had to give up on luxuries such as tea and sugar, and further postpone his plan of replacing his cellphone that was stolen in January. Mbewe had been hoping to save money to buy a computer to start a small graphic design business, but has had to put that on hold as well.

His priority now is earning enough money to buy some food every day. “During the normal days, I would have breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now it’s just once a day, you just have to manage,” he said. “I am just using the little money I get to buy mielie meal. That’s all I’m having.” 

“There is a lot of anxiety at the moment,” he said. “What will happen to us? Will we eat? What is going to happen to us in the future? We are just going day by day and thanking God for every day. But we don’t have hope. We don’t know what is going to happen to us.”

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Despite the anxiety and feelings of hopelessness, Mbewe’s friendship with his Zimbabwean neighbour has brought about a chance to make money and survive. The friends have formed an unlikely partnership, making masks and selling them to vendors and people in the building, and elsewhere in Johannesburg. “Anything to make some money,” said Mbewe. 

Tendai Katsere, 38, who has been living next door to Mbewe for the past two years, bought an industrial sewing machine earlier this year. He worked as a driver for a company that made beds and was hoping to use his knowledge to start his own company making beds and mattresses.

But that plan has also been put on hold.

5 May 2020: Robert Mbewe puts his sewing skills to use on his neighbour’s machine. The two pooled their resources when their usual livelihoods were affected to earn an income during the government’s Covid-19 lockdown.

This virus ‘doesn’t care’

As the duo saw their money dry up with each passing week of the lockdown, they decided to start making masks to sell to people in Johannesburg’s central business district. They made nearly 200 masks in the first four days of their small operation in early May.

“When we started, we thought let’s just do this. But we are seeing the response, so we are just going,” Katsere said. “People are ordering from us and then they are trying to sell in the streets.”

On the day they started their operation, Katsere said they were selling the masks for R25 each. By Thursday, they were selling them for R5 a mask. “We started on Monday and we’ve sold half of them already. But the price has gone down dramatically as more people make masks to survive,” he said. 

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Katsere, whose wife lives in Zimbabwe, said he normally sends about R1 500 (around $100) home every month. “I have to send money back home. But for the past two months, I’ve not been able to do that, and then this exchange rate, it’s just crazy,” he said. 

“When they announced the lockdown, the first time it was just 21 days and we thought it was okay, we’ll make enough money after that. But then they extended it. These guys want their rent money, so we have to pay rent and we have to buy food.

“It’s bad times man, so we are hustling like this. We are not secure, it is difficult,” he said. “With this virus, all our money is finished. It’s funny, you actually plan to do this, this and this, and the next thing the virus hits, it doesn’t care about our plans. Only God knows why.”

7 May 2020: Tendai Katsere works as a driver but bought an industrial sewing machine to start a company making beds and mattresses, a plan he has had to put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic.

‘Anything to survive’

As a migrant to Johannesburg, Katsere said he had to be resilient to keep surviving. He said it was already challenging just living and working in the inner city, but migrants often face xenophobia as well. 

He’s not been a victim to xenophobic violence, he said, but he had to escape using the fire exit and stairs last year when the building was targeted during a xenophobic attack. “As long as I’m alive, I will make a plan to survive,” he said. “You just have to do anything to survive.”

“So that’s what happened here, I need to eat, he needs to eat,” Katsere said, pointing to Mbewe, who was sitting behind the sewing machine in the communal kitchen area. “I’ve seen him do this before [sewing], so we’re just trying to survive.”

“I’m supposed to pay him, but I can’t employ him. We just put the little money we have together and buy the materials. We just split what money we’ve got at the end of the day and we try and buy mielie meal. But I can’t employ him,” Katsere said.

“We’ve known each other for a long time, so we have to try and help each other.”

5 May 2020: Robert Mbewe and Tendai Katsere started off selling their masks for R25, but have had to drop their price as low as R5 as more and more of Joburg’s inner-city residents turn to mask-making to survive.
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