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06 September 2023

Trust and Profit for Women in Mt. Ayliff: The Social Practice of Ukugciniswa Kwempahla

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

Written by Zikhona Mtwa, as part of the Ukuvula Isango: Women Rise project

Mount Ayliff’s female vendors crowd the pavements with stalls selling fresh produce and cooked food as they compete with established supermarkets and Asian/Pakistani traders in a tough market for small profits. Many women in the town complain that the ‘selling business’ has suffered since the pandemic and that people prefer the supermarket veggie combos, even when their prices are competitive. These female traders have increasingly come to rely on what they call ukugciniswa kwempahla (keeping people’s belongings) to augment their declining profit and keep their stores open on the high street.

Plate 1: Image taken of a street vendor’s stall on the main road of Mount Aliff.

At month-end when grants are paid, and remittances received, rural women flock to towns to use the ATMs and buy household essentials from the large supermarkets. They want to use their grant money wisely and buy sugar, maize meal, beans, samp, and rice in bulk for the month, leaving only incidental items to purchase at the local village shops.

Hopping from one supermarket to the next with large loads to carry like vegetable combos or 10 kg of mealie-meal becomes too much for older women to manage. This is where the street vendors play their part by offering to look after their purchases for a daily fee of R25. Some hawkers offer an even better deal, saying that if the shoppers spend R25 at their stalls, they would be happy to look after their children and bags of shopping all day. On a good day, one woman told me, she can make up to R500 just by keeping 20 people’s belongings safe for the day. This livelihood strategy has increased in prevalence and importance for struggling hawkers in small Eastern Cape towns since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ukugciniswa kwempahla is thus social practice common in many rural towns today, where women who travel into town by taxi, entrust their belongings and small children in the care of street vendors while accessing urban services. This casual transfer of the responsibilities of childcare and minding their purchases is perplexing because the traders are ‘apparent strangers’. However, on closer observation, it was found that the visiting shoppers often used the same women’s services each time they visited the town, creating an enduring and mutually beneficial relationship of trust.

Plate 2: Left Image: Stall with bulk goods stacked around street vendor’s produce. Right Image: The advert on the wall of the vendor’s stall translated to: “When you keep your belongings here you must buy with R25”.

The monthly shop is a big event for older rural women, who often find it difficult to get younger women to accompany them and help them carry the load of the bulk purchases. Older women say that they travel alone because others are reluctant to help them, when in truth they often travel that way to ensure that they can more tightly control household spending. In some cases, these women bring dependent children with them, particularly on school holidays and social grant days.

These children are twinned with the female vendors and sit quietly next to vendors as in the image below, while their mothers or grandmothers go about their daily business. This commercial service rests on a sense of maternal trust as the women who shop would not consider leaving their children with men nor with other foreign African/Asian traders.

Plate 3: A vendor’s stall where she is “keeping”/ looking after a customer’s children

This trust is built on a common cultural understanding of the responsibilities and necessities of the shared labour of motherhood in rural areas. In many parts of rural South Africa womanhood requires selfless labour where the idea of a socially mature woman implies working with others, providing for the family, and caring for children – not activities commonly left to men. Young women in the cities often comment on the heavy load women carry in rural areas, saying that they cherish the freedom and autonomy they enjoy in the city.

In rural areas, women learn to work together to solve their everyday problems, produce food and cater to the needs of their families and community. They take pride and self-respect in their ability to package a livelihood for their families from the ‘bits and pieces’ income and opportunities at their disposal. The cultural construction of womanhood and especially motherhood stresses shared labour and responsibility and the need for women to trust each other. It is precisely these idioms of trust and sharing that underpin the success of women’s savings clubs, stokvels and burial societies in cities. It also underpins ideologies of maternal trust.

Today, when many argue that social cohesion has been eroded by poverty, corruption, crime, and selfish consumerism, it is uplifting and endearing to find a spirit of trust and joint responsibility amongst women on the streets of Mount Ayliff, where mutual support lessens the load for shoppers and sellers in these difficult times.

This piece was written for, and first appeared on the Ukuvula Isango blog.

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

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