A brown, desolate stretch of soil and bricks meets one in Mabopane Unit E, less than a kilometre northwest of the Pretoria CBD. Just off Mabopane Street lies the six-bed room house complemented by a colourful jungle gym belonging to a shoe peddler.
Jafta Ngomezulu is a regular at Dada’s Shoe Shop, one of more than 140 small shops in Marabastad Complex in the heart of Marabastad, bordered by the Apies River to the east and the Bell Ombre railway station to the north. A hub of commercial and cultural activity, and enjoying traffic from the PUTCO bus terminal on its left flank and town-bound taxis, Marabastad Complex is a popular shopping destination attracting patronage from as near as Mabopane and Hammanskraal, of which Marabastad is its version of the Pretoria CBD, and places as far-flung as China. Many of the complex’s shops are supplied by factories in Thailand, China, India and Italy.
Had it not been for the complex, Ngomezulu, 44, would have found himself in a spot of bother after being laid off from a can factory in 1994. Work was scarce, especially for someone who went only as far as the eighth grade in school. But selling was always in his blood. “It’s been a passion for years… even when I was working at the firm,” he says. He sets up shop on street corners, displaying his Barters, Rockports, St. Ledgers and Crockett & Jones’s on the bonnet of his Toyota 4×4.
If he is not doing this he is “canvassing” from local filling stations, motor spare parts shops, mortuaries, funeral parlours, upholsteries, police stations and firms. He makes R4 000 a month solely from doing business like this and sustains himself, his wife, daughter and son. He also built a small jungle gym beside the house for his children. The house cost him R100 000 to construct, the materials for which he bought one after the other with his profits.
The Marabastad Complex that built Ngomezulu’s house is not a random cluster of shops spontaneously brought about by a group of enterprising individuals. “Locations” were established in Pretoria in an effort by the Boer government to control the movements of blacks. The first, Schoolplaats, was established for Africans northwest of Pretoria in 1867. Its informal expansion soon encroached upon the kraal of a local Ndebele chief named Maraba, and a new “location” called Marabastad was declared in 1888. A few years later the “Coolie Location” was established south of Marabastad as a residential area for Indian and other Asian groupings. The land between it and Marabastad gradually filled and was named New Marabastad. A new survey identified three townships: “Marabastad” for Blacks, the “Asiatic Bazaar” for Indian and other Asian groupings and the “Cape Boys Location” for a Coloured population. These areas evolved into a single community now referred to simply as Marabastad.
Marabastad was a rich centre of residential, business and cultural activities which were so tightly integrated they gave rise to an urban metropolis. However, this disappeared as Marabastad soon transformed into an almost exclusively commercial district following threats of eviction in the 1910s. They were realized in 1958 when the 1950 Group Areas Act dictated that all residents of Marabastad had to be relocated to newly established townships on the city fringes so that Marabastad could be declared an Indian business district and shopping centre. And so came about Marabastad Complex.
But the relocation was hard on the pockets of the many shopkeepers who had set up business in town. Before Hasmukh Niccha’s father was forcibly moved into the new Indian location, he had a bustling men’s tailor shop on Prinsloo Street in the middle of town where Sammy Marks Square stands today, with a loyal and steady stream of customers. But after the forced removal he was stripped of his customer base, there were barely any passers-by to look at their merchandise at the new location, and no one knew Marabastad Shopping Complex existed. Worse still, the shop owners had no say over the size of their new shops, and Niccha’s father’s was halved.
“It affected trade in a big way… It was a big struggle – we went two weeks without selling a single item… Life was hard but because of our faith in God, he worked hard and had tolerance,” says Niccha, his wiry frame leaning on his counter from where he completes his sales. His shop is a narrow corner store in Block D specializing in shoes. Behind him is a cabinet covered with a doily where he burns incense in stove-plat-like contraptions. Beside it is an old radio and an old steel iron which were called “poo-theys” because of the noise they made when one spit on them to check if they were hot enough after they were heated from the plate of a stove. “The great man Mahatma Gandhi said that as along as you respected and continued to work hard you’ll be successful.”
Niccha, Director of the complex and responsible for its upkeep, saw the district’s development from the very beginning. “The Munitoria was built in front of my eyes. It was a veld where we used to play soccer. Those days we couldn’t use the streets after six [in the evening],” he says, about one of the restrictions the Indian population suffered in the heydays of apartheid because they were also classified as black. “We were insulted: ‘You coolie, walk faster.’”
He was born on 386 Vermuleun Street (Madiba Street). He started trading at the age of 13 and would soon take over his father’s business. Along with other Indians he was moved in August 1974 to the Asiatic Bazaar where the complex would be built, then designed to accommodate 144 shops. Today that figure has increased due to some shops being subdivided to accommodate more traders as the complex cannot be expanded outward onto the streets. “Those days transport (of goods) was difficult but crime was down.”
The complex now sprawls an entire block of central Marabastad defined by Mogul Street running east-west and 7th Street running north-south. Complete with parking lot and an offloading zone, its aisles snake along the interior flanked by “aisle sellers” who do not have physical shops (all of which are owned by Indians, usually a decade or two over middle age) but sell clothes, curtains, umbrellas, perfume, ornaments, electronics, atchaar and even suitcases on stands erected in front of the shops. Open seven days a week, the shops – some of which stretch over three floors – compromise large blocks which are designated letters from A to D. Each shop has its own main switch and water meter, but the water is also used by the aisle sellers and the hawkers dotting the perimeter of the complex.
A recent water bill came up to R 1.2-million. The complex has to fork out between R1.4- and R1.9-million a month for water. “It’s a very big concern,” Niccha says. “We installed meters ever since foreigners have been in the country. It’s because of the informal in-trading. Now you have to guard against that: we have extra men to guard against outside traders. The last forty years we did not have to guard – we did honest, sincere business.” There are 30 registered hawkers but another 100 are doing so illegally. They are Ethiopian, Somali and Pakistani, according to Niccha.
The complex caters to the shopping needs of Mabopane, Hammanskraal, Atteridgeville and Mamelodi residents. They have stockists in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and several shops have international clients, many of which are from countries the shops buy from. The complex is a large network of retailors in shop owners and hawkers buying from each other to sell to thrifty customers looking for quality brand names at cheaper prices than those they would find a kilometre away in the CBD in popular stores Studio88 and Edgars. Marabastad Complex is to Pretoria what China City is to Johannesburg.
A sprawling maze of shops and stands, China City, which lies behind Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, resembles a flea market as do the aisle of Marabastad Complex and sells low-price goods mainly imported from China. Unlike Marabastad Complex, China City was an unplanned phenomenon, driven by the entrepreneurship of Chinese hawkers supplying the needs of local and other African entrepreneurs, creating a regional shopping hub in Johannesburg. Indeed China City is where the aisle sellers in Marabastad Complex mainly get their merchandise. And some shops have even adopted China City’s pricing model, dropping prices of clothing items under R100 and even under R50. It may be below the cost price but bought in bulk the items may work out to a profit for the shopkeeper. And undoubtedly the low price is sometimes indicative of the authenticity of the brand.
Invariably when one thinks of Marabastad, counterfeit goods are next to pop up in one’s mind. Marabastad has gained a reputation for selling fake goods, from pirated DVDs to low-quality imitations of brand names. One shop sells a shoe in the distinctive shape of a Carvela slip-on. On the beige inside, while genuine Carvelas read, “Carvela: Made in Italy,” the fong kong read, “Carnival: Model Italy”.
During the 2010 World Cup many enthusiasts flocked to Marabastad to buy the Bafana Bafana jerseys, which went with a hefty price of around R400 in major retailers. Aisle sellers and hawkers based just outside the complex sold fake versions for R100. Shop owners, like Yusuf Ismael, sold originals at a bargain price of R300. One would presume that this gave the complex a bad name, but Ismael disagrees.
“I wouldn’t say a bad name. It gave this place recognition. Today it has a good name. The World Cup was a good advert for us,” he says, adding that Marabastad was known to be crime-ridden but then people were forced to visit the area because of cheap fake goods and realized the complex had “everything they could find under one roof,” including genuine goods.
“The muti in this shop is very strong – you keep coming back,” he promised a customer during a transaction. “You’ll be back tomorrow.”
“R160?” the customer exclaimed when the shopkeeper handed him a pair of shoes. “You said R150.”
“R150?” said Ismael, a frown creasing his brow. “Give it to me. I’m not going to fight you on [the price].”
Ismael’s story is like that of many of the Indian traders in the complex. He inherited the shop from his father, though his brother was first to run it. Ismael joined him in 1971 while he was still in school before he later took over the shop. The shop specializes in (genuine) men’s clothing, stocking old brands and also ones which are in vogue like Nike, Brentwood and Dickies.
Like Niccha, the Director of the complex, Ismael is deeply religious. And he, too, remembers the tough days of slow business when the complex was in its infancy. But he tolerated, he worked hard and he prayed. And the complex quickly burgeoned before his eyes into the extremely popular shopping destination it is today, defining the Marabastad landscape and supporting a network of resellers like Ngomezulu who can now provide for his family.