Soweto 'Spazas Fuel Economic Revolution' in South Africa's Black Townships, Residents Do a Brisk Business Running Home-Based Stores

By John Battersby, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 1, 1991 | Go to article overview

Soweto 'Spazas Fuel Economic Revolution' in South Africa's Black Townships, Residents Do a Brisk Business Running Home-Based Stores


John Battersby, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


AS the thick smoke from countless coal fires meets the dusk, Thomas Serumula's tiny grocer shop becomes a focus of activity in Soweto's Mofolo neighborhood.

Residents from the surrounding streets don't even glance at the more formal corner store with its cage-like security bars and understocked shelves.

They make directly for Bell's Tuck Shop - as Mr. Serumula's store is known.

"The spaza shops are part of the community so there is no security problem," says Serumula.

His shop is built onto a corner of his house and is run by his sons and daughters and other helpers from the neighborhood. On a good day he takes in up to $400 selling household groceries, fresh fruit and vegetables, milk, and bread.

Bell's Tuck Shop is one of about 1,000 so-called spaza shops in Soweto. There are an estimated 20,000 such stores attached to residents' homes in the townships around Johannesburg and Pretoria.

They have taken over as the main business form in black townships, in which commercial activity was forbidden for decades by apartheid laws bent on ensuring that blacks would continue to regard the impoverished tribal homelands as their true homes.

When black stores were first allowed, they were limited to only a few. In recent years, white capital has built hypermarkets and huge shopping centers on the outskirts of Soweto in hope of attracting black trade.

But most black families prefer to supply their daily needs from the spazas and would rather travel to Johannesburg to buy clothing and luxury goods.

Spaza is township slang for "camouflaged" because most of the stores are run from a garage or backyard and are not immediately visible.

The spaza shops, which have a collective turnover of more than $1 billion nationwide, are one of the most visible manifestations of the "informal sector or black economy - which has sprung up in and around black townships.

It has been a silent economic revolution, which has taken place over the past 15 years or so despite a plethora of regulations - mostly linked with racial restrictions - on small-business activity.

It had its origins in necessity - black unemployment levels of 35 percent and the growing demand for basic goods and services. Today some 900,000 blacks are involved in the informal sector.

Official statistics put the informal sector's contribution to the economy at between 6 and 8 percent.

But economists estimate that its contribution is closer to 25 percent of a gross domestic product of about $60 billion.

The building momentum - aided by lobby groups like the Get Ahead Foundations, the African Council of Hawkers and Informal Business (Achib), and the state-backed Small Business Development Corporation - has chipped away at the array of protections, privileges, and concessions that once prevented such activity. …

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