Informal Traders

Every Friday and Saturday, you can find 25-year-old Brian Mbokazi marketing his goods in the heart of Soweto. Mbokazi and his friend Victor Kheswa sell goats and sheep for slaughter from a kraal in a dusty clearing just off Potchefstroom Road, commonly known as “Old Potch.” It’s in full view of taxis packed with commuters.

“To be a success, you have to get the right place to sell,” said Mbokazi. “This is a good place right here, next all of these cars going by on a main road.”

942,000 informal traders

Mbokazi and Kheswa’s small business is one of the thousands businesses that make up South Africa’s “second,” or informal, economy. According to the most recent Labour Force Survey by Statistics South Africa (StatsSA)’s, there were an estimated 942,000 informal wholesale and retail traders in South Africa in March, up 15 percent from the year earlier. Wholesale and retail trade is the biggest subsector of the informal economy, which employs between two million to three million South Africans.

The two men run this business on behalf of their parents, who own the dozens of animals. On Fridays and Saturdays, they leave their houses in Zola, Soweto, and head to a farm about 30 minutes away. There, they load about 40 animals onto a flatbed truck, in time to set up shop in their kraal by 8 a.m.

Goats and sheep for celebrations

The men’s livestock is almost always sold for slaughter. Like cattle and other animals, freshly-killed goats and sheep are particularly important in the majority of South Africa’s traditional cultures. The animals are slain for celebrations – such as weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, births, and reunions – as well as funerals.

Mbokazi said his goats and sheep are mostly sold to be slaughtered on behalf of ancestors, called amadlozi isiZulu, izinyanya in isiXhosa, and badimo in Sesotho. These ritual sacrifices to communicate with, remember and revere those family members who’ve passed away are an important part of indigenous South African culture; they illustrate the communion between the living world and those who’ve passed on, and the responsibility of the living to pay homage to the dead.

These ceremonies, sometimes known as umsebenzi wabaphansi in isiZulu or isiko nesithethe sakwaXhosa in isiXhosa, and badimo by Sesotho are common in South Africa’s rural areas, but are frequently conducted in urban areas as well; it’s a duty that’s deeply engrained in most South Africans’ culture.

“In Xhosa culture, ancestors always cry for a goat or a cow,” said Zonke Ntshwanti, a 29-year-old security guard from Johannesburg. “Goats are for ancestors. You might slaughter your own goats for celebration or for your family, but you go and buy a goat for ancestors only.”

Steady stream of customers

That’s why Mbokazi and Kheswa’s business is so popular; because the men know that there will always be a demand for livestock for such ceremonies, they have a steady stream of customers. That’s particularly true from June to December, they said, when most ceremonies occur.

“They’re doing it for the ancestors, so they know they don’t have a choice,” Mbokazi said.

Goats can fetch R950

The animals aren’t cheap; sometimes a person will work for months to earn the money to buy the necessary animal. The men say their smallest goats go for R550, while their most robust goats can fetch R950. Sheep are slightly less expensive, but are less favored than goats, as they tend to be quiet before slaughter – which some say means their sacrifice may not draw the attention of the ancestors. But sheep are often used in church-related celebrations and ceremonies.

Good service, good referrals

Kheswa said they sell about 20 animals each day. Mbokazi said one of the keys to his successful business is generating repeat customers and referrals through customer service. He gives customers a discount if they can show him a previous receipt. He isn’t rude when someone offers him too low of a price. And when they’ve agreed on the deal, he’ll put the goat or sheep into their car.

No jobs

Though each of the men takes home R1,800 a month from their part-time endeavor, they both say they’d prefer full-time jobs. They each have passed matric, and have even taken courses at Soweto’s Funda Community College. But they say they’re discouraged about their prospects.

“There’s no jobs,” said Mbokazi. He recounted a story of how he once went for an interview at a printing company. But he didn’t get the job, because the employer was looking for someone with five years’ experience.

“Where AM I going to get experience?” he said. “Sometimes I’ve said, just hire me for part time, or let me volunteer, to show you I can do the job. They say no. They say it’s a risk to hire someone with no experience, because of you get injured, who will pay?”


Mbokazi participated in the school patrol at his high school, helping people cross Soweto’s busy roads. He’s since remained interested in road safety, and said his dream job is to become a traffic officer. His friend, Kheswa, 26, said he wants to be a police man. But neither have the qualifications, and don’t know how to get them.

For now, the men will continue to show up at the kraal every weekend. In coming months, the nation’s data and statistics body, Statistics South Africa (StatsSA), will try to measure the growth of South Africa’s informal economy by conducting household surveys. Its aim will be to capture those small enterprises that are not reflected on the official register of businesses.

Text: Gretchen L Wilson, November 2005

All reporting by Gretchen L. Wilson, © 2005

agriculture   economy   My Wage   South Africa   Soweto

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