Amongst the excitable moods of the early morning and the exuberant voices of street traders bargaining on the tendencies of impulsive buyers amongst the passers-by — “Bananas: six for five rand!”; “This way sweetheart”; “Newspaper people!” — I met Vukiswa.
It was 7 a.m. on a commercial Tuesday morning and the transport hub of Wynberg was alive. Vukiswa had arrived an hour previously to set up her sweet stall not five metres away from the train station entrance. Peak commuter hour is the reason she is there every day from 6 a.m. until “six-thirty more or less” in the evening to catch the best of business.
The story of how she arrived to that moment in her life is not vastly different to many street traders around the Wynberg station and taxi ranks. Vukiswa moved to Cape Town from the Eastern Cape in 2000 and has been trading “snacks” in that particular spot, against the outside wall of Wynberg station’s ticket kiosks, for the past 14 years. She likes Wynberg, and she likes the people, and in her opinion it’s the best place in Cape Town to run a business.
The suburb of Wynberg is characterised by a busy urban centre with a rich cultural history. Since the establishment of the Wynberg train station in 1864, Wynberg became an attractive site for burgeoning enterprise, resulting in extensive development in the area.
The commercialisation of the suburb has resulted in a steady encroachment of businesses onto the streets of residential areas, evident today. As a satellite centre for the city of Cape Town, a transport and commercial hub in the Southern Suburbs, as well as being home to the Yusufeyah mosque, one of the largest mosques in Cape Town, Wynberg is used as a thoroughfare on a daily basis by residents of the densely-populated suburbs west and south of Wynberg.
The centre’s main road is notorious for its traffic due to many commuters travelling both east-west and north-south, changing between road and rail modes of transport to access the rest of the city. Informal trade activities have thus populated the train station and taxi rank area. It is a business hub that attends to just about any consumerist impulses a regular passer-by may have, and remains so from the early hours of a week day, to the darkening hours of evening.
The customers at Fukiswa’s table did not cease and walked past in waves as the trains passed and offloaded people. She may have had three to six people exchanging coins for peanuts and toffees at a single moment. Her nimble hands and sharp mind gave away the years of experience she has in the trade. She had bought fresh stock just one day before from ‘Save More’ wholesalers on Station Road, a few hundred metres from where she sat, but the piles of sweets were diminishing quickly.
Observing the dynamics of the fast-paced and timely exchanges between customers and sellers in the immediate vicinity, it did not take me long to notice a network of relations that animates the street. The trade area is by no means disorderly and chaotic, but instead exhibits a system of orderly function, developed over time through accumulated memory and sustained by common sense and mutual benefit.
Just in front of Fukiswa’s table and a little to the left, a woman arrived with four boxes of freshly made amagwinya (large round donuts) to sell them. Within seconds she was met by her regular customers, many of whom were fellow traders. Just in front of where she stood a fruit and vegetable stand attracted consistent customer attention. According to one of the sellers, that corner had been in the family fruit and vegetable selling business for three generations.
As time passed and the customers slowed to a steady breathable flow, a friend of Vukiswa’s arrived at her stand with tea. Vukiswa’s laugh sounded her thankfulness as she leaned back against the wall behind her for the first time that morning. She would be there until the end of the workday, to see a swell of people off again to their houses that evening.
Vukiswa manages to support three children off her profit, and enjoys the independence of running her own business. Earnings are reliable and every week, money is put aside to save toward month-end.
“So you find the business supports your home?” I ask.
“So much,” she says, “The business supports so much.”
Based in Cape Town, South Africa, Christy Zinn is a postgraduate researcher and urban thinker striving to interrogate the social and spatial dynamics of cities. Believing that people make a city tick, she focuses on invoking a culture of active citizenship within urban communities.
Headline image: street traders at work outside Wynberg station, Cape Town. Christy Zinn.
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