“What’s your top seller?” I ask Fatima Nanabhay of the African Music Store near Diagonal Street in Joburg’s city centre. “The goat bells,” she says. At R14 a piece they fly out the shop. Cow bells are also a big hit, she tells me. As I ask the question the only thing flying past us is the traffic along the city street and the guy wheeling a trolley with blankets piled high past the doorway. For the record there’s not a goat to be seen.
We are on a shopping tour of the inner city with tour company Past Experiences. Our fearless leaders are Jo Buitendach and Tania Olsson and they can spot a bargain at 100 metres. “The best part of shopping in the city, “ says Tania “is that you are not in a mall”. Simple as that. “Plus you get all these smells and sounds in the city,” she says as we walk past a woman selling roasted mielies from the pavement.
This part of town is blanket city. Large fluffy ones from China, mostly with extravagant florals; shades of maroon the style de jour. There are also authentic Basotho blankets but we aren’t buying. Joburg is having a hot flush – a few days of temperatures speeding past 30 degrees – so we are mostly oblivious to the charms of the blanket shops and the sellers who beckon us. Outside the heat has not dampened the hustle and bustle of the city, although to be fair Joburg city can be more about bustle and lots hustlers. A shopkeeper warns us to hold on tightly to our cellphones.
Nanabhay’s store was started by her father. That was in 1974. It used to sell LPs, then CDs and today all that’s left of the music are a few tattered Elias Baloyi and The Mamba Queens record covers – Tsonga hits you can now download as ringtones.
So what’s a businesswoman to do? The shop is filled with merchandise. It lines the shelves, and the tops of cabinets, hangs from the ceiling as is the style of the area. It’s a general goods store selling religious paraphernalia – staffs and candelabras – popular remedies like Zambuk and an assortment of chinese herbs, walking sticks, paraffin lamps, assegais, locks, axes, shopping bags and bull castrators (these in a range of sizes starting at R225).
The African Music Store isn’t the only game in town for these. They are popular items displayed in a number of windows. Customers come from as far away as Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique for them. Ironically we are a block away from what used to be the home of the bulls – the Johannesburg Stock Exchange – long fled from the city to the more rarefied streets of Sandton. Perhaps this answers why.
This part of the city has a distinct pulse, and lots and lots of goods. Looking for a dessicated baboon, some beads or birdseed, a pair of floral espadrilles or high-tops, leopard print vest (it has an equivalent in Zara except this version’s R35) or a six-tier wedding cake complete with a rondawel and elephant? Come right inside.
Or maybe it’s a Chinese tea set or some Shangaan cloths or a flywhisk you’re after? (Who, after watching that BBC footage of Colonel Muammar Gadaffi being interviewed, flywhisk whishing and swishing across his shoulders during question time wouldn’t want one of those. I think it makes the perfect corporate Christmas gift).
Next door, Marak Wholesalers, open since 1964 (it’s gouged into the concrete floor) sells blankets and fabrics, bolts of cheerful Venda cloth with its trademark multi-colour stripes created at least a year before London stripy designer Paul Smith was born.
The fabrics used to be printed in Manchester – now they are mostly from India. Inside the store Martha Maluleke, resplendent in traditional dress, is browsing the Shangaan section. The shy shopkeeper tells me he remembers when there used to be a tram shed across the road, that’s before the Reserve Bank was built.
The fabric prices are low (some R20 or R30 a metre, others less). I often think the city has the last laugh on the suburbs, with its parallel economy. Cross Empire Road and head north to mall city where as one tourist recently told me “There’s nothing worth buying under R1000.” In town, tour guide Buitendach says, paying R15 for a pair of Polaroids (sunglasses) is robbery (“They are worth only R10”). The parallels don’t end there
At Mini Mark Wholesalers huge loudspeakers drown out the city sounds with a reading of the Koran.The clothes are cheap, cheerful and come in “china sizes” Little and littler. I fall for a R45 dress in bold African print. We are beckoned downstairs and find that below the ground floor is a department store and haberdashery that stretches almost a city block. Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, we wander the aisles dazzled. It’s the same at Johannesburg Wholesalers near Commissioner Street – a dizzying selection of toys, fireworks, kitchen goods and party favours. We head for the Sui Hing Hong supermarket on Commissioner Street where owner Walter Pon welcomes us with aloe juice in every conceivable fruity flavour and takes us on a short tour of the street. He tells us his grandfather came to South Africa before the Boer War, and the store has been on the street since 1943. It’s stocked to the ceiling with wares – I fall for a beautiful and elegant tea caddy and make a note to return for some wonton wrappers and green tea-flavoured pumpkin seeds.
On Diagonal Street one block away we enter a parallel universe, the famous Museum of Man and Science, a muti emporium that has fascinated visitors since 1948. Inside an elderly Indian lady, who speaks fluent Zulu, declines to be interviewed. She is busy dispensing herbs to a man dressed in motorcycle leathers who tells me he has just lost his wife. The herbs are for cleansing, part of the death ritual. The last time I was in the store must have been sometime in the late 1980’s. I remember buying an amulet filled with herbs with protective powers – I also remembered the desiccated baboon hanging on the wall. If it’s the same one he’s still in pretty good shape. There’s a strong steamy-earth smell that seeps into your clothing from the hundreds of animal bones hanging from the ceiling. “it must be hell to do stock-taking here,” the photographer mutters.
We walk out, blinking, into the light. A few shops down a battered sign above a clothing shop reads “Non-White Shop: This notice is displayed in accordance with provisions of the shop hours ordinance, 1959”. It’s a startling little piece of history. Another parallel world. Along our route shops sell cloths emblazoned with leader’s faces. There’s the Swazi king next to the Mandela and Zuma cloths.
I ask whether the Mandela cloth is worth more but the shopkeeper says they are all R35 a piece. There is no Julius Malema cloth to be seen. My amulet must still be working.