“You’re not the kind of a person to work here at the ‘stands’. You’re always wearing make-up, with long nails and in high heels. You won’t survive here,” remarked MaKabongeka. The older woman, a vendor at the corner of Koyana and Johnson roads in Zwide, Gqeberha, was talking to Veliswa “Noxy” Goyi. Noxy was pleading with MaKabongeka to allow her to also put up a stand and sell the popular local cuisine, trotters, skop (head) and iqadidi (intestines).
Down on her luck, having just lost her job at the height of Covid-19 in 2020, Noxy was sobbing uncontrollably and wouldn’t relent. She had three children to look after and had been the sole breadwinner. Her husband had given up on ever finding a job.
Noxy couldn’t bear the thought of staying at home, without any source of livelihood. MaKabongeka eventually agreed to persuade the other six women to allow Noxy to join them. Not that they owned that spot. That is just a pavement, municipal land. Noxy was simply complying with the unwritten rule to ask for permission to be a part of a community. Forcing her way would have created hostility and was likely to backfire. Those women watch out for each other. What started off as Noxy’s desperate attempt to fend off hardship has sparked improvements in that informal part of the hospitality industry.
The stands were often unkept. The shelters are shanties, amabobosi, that look like they can fall down at any time. They were not inviting to the customers for whom they were meant.
Selling local delicacies was not Noxy’s initial foray into business. She had previously co-owned a hair-salon. That was not her first choice though. Born in Ngqamakwe in the Eastern Cape, Noxy arrived in Gqeberha in 1999 to enrol for tertiary education, but she couldn’t find a school. Instead of letting that year pass by without doing anything, she did a course in hairdressing. On completion, and together with a friend, she got a bank loan to start the business. The salon went on for three years until it succumbed to intense competition from others, who charged extraordinarily low fees.
With her business shut, Noxy decided to find formal employment. An opportunity opened up in the security industry, where she found a job in the control room. That security company relocated to Cape Town but Noxy was fortunate enough to find employment at another security company. But the way she was treated at this second company left a bitter taste. After closing down, the company never gave employees their severance packages. They never got much help either from the Commission for Conciliation and Arbitration. That bitter experience turned Noxy off formal employment.
The thought of self-employment was not entirely new to Noxy. She had grown up in a family that was self-reliant. Her father sold timber and transported goods. The children worked in the family business. They were involved in all aspects, from cutting trees in the bush to loading up goods on trucks and attending to clients behind the till. Her family business instilled lessons she never forgot. She was never averse to hard work, because she knew that it paid off.
Noxy, with her fancy appearance, initially seemed a misfit at the stands on the corner of Koyana and Johnson roads. Notwithstanding its elementary nature, this food industry turned out to be exactly what Noxy’s upbringing had prepared her for.
For a few months, Noxy had a table made out of bread crates and a piece of wood that rested across them. She had no shelter, leaving her exposed to harsh weather. Her colleagues would invite her into their shelters. Although grateful, she was never impressed with their near-collapsing shanties and was determined to do better.
Noxy was not just looking at simple survival. She considered her stand a business that had to be profitable. That meant not only attracting but also growing a customer base and offering diverse foodstuffs. All that didn’t seem uppermost in the minds of her colleagues. They relied on the fact that their food would be bought because it was a popular delicacy.
Noxy did things differently. She started off selling umleqwa — freshly slaughtered, cooked chickens — which none of the other women sold. The unique choice was partly to soften their resistance to her opening a stand, but it was also a niche for her. She’d buy three chickens at a time, for R52 each. The various pieces she’d sell would add up to a total of R97, a profit of R45. As her mileqwa became popular, Noxy upped the quantity she bought to 10 at a time. Demand was growing, but the supply of chicken was suddenly brought to an abrupt halt by the outbreak of bird-flu in April 2021.
With chickens difficult to find, Noxy switched over to selling chips and amagwinya (fat cakes). She even bought specialised equipment to cook. These new products did not make as much money as umleqwa, or the delicacies the other women were selling. Noxy was now faced with a tough decision: should she go back on her word not to sell the same products as the other women, or continue with the pittance she was earning. She decided on the former. Because they had become friends, Noxy hoped that they wouldn’t turn on her. They never did. That returned Noxy back to profitability.
Noxy’s business model went beyond simple reliance on popularity of the dishes. Unlike her colleagues, she bought a nicely-made shelter and benches. Those two assets cost her roughly R12 000. Part of the money came from her provident fund. Instead of just buying and walking away, customers sat in the shelter to enjoy their meals. “Someone sitting in a car, for instance, finds it difficult to eat iqadidi because it has a lot of gravy. You can easily spill it on yourself,” Noxy explains. Sitting in the shelter avoids such inconveniences.
“Week-ends are particularly good for business,” Noxy adds. “People are going around, enjoying themselves. They come here having had a few drinks, sometime in a group of five. They sit here, drink and even start singing. I just let them do their thing because it’s good for business. Once their initial order finishes, they get more.”
Unique and tidy, Noxy’s stand became a hit. Among those who noticed Noxy was a Vodacom representative, Mninawa Peter. He saw an opportunity for an advertisement. That location is always bustling with people either on foot or in cars. Peter offered to paint Noxy’s shelter red, with a Vodacom logo somewhere, and label it, “Noxy’s Restaurant”. Noxy was ecstatic at the offer, “Yho undibone ngantoni sana [that’s exactly what I need!] . My shelter stands out even more now. People see it from a distance. Iyaqhakazela. [it’s colourful].
As Noxy’s business grew, she found she needed staff.
She had been assisted by her children and husband. The children were always eager to help because they reap the benefits. They get pocket money and enjoy “a plasma TV” that Noxy bought for R8 000. But the husband was not always enthusiastic to help. He complained about the way male customers looked and talked to her, as if they had other intentions. Sometimes he would even be aggressive towards them, wanting them to know that he’s the husband.
“He just did not have good customer service”, Noxy concluded. “In business you have to be friendly and welcoming. So I discouraged him from coming to the stand.”
With her husband fired and increasing numbers of customers, Noxy got two employees, one to help with chopping sheep and cow heads, and the other with making fire and cooking.
“Hey uligqoboka lokwena nyani,” her colleagues quipped when they saw Noxy with her new staff members. I-gqoboka is a term that dates back to initial colonial encounters. Now it is generally used to refer to educated, progressive people, but used to denote betrayal. Educated people were said to have a hole through which settlers penetrated and conquered natives. They were a conduit for conquest. In calling her in i-qgoboka, her colleagues were not only recognising her innovations but also implied that she had a “madam mentality”.
For Noxy, getting help made sense. “Inhaling smoke all day long is not good for one’s health, and more hands means more food to sell’, she reasoned.
The future looks bright for Noxy. Now Vodacom has given her a speed-point machine. She no longer turns away customers who want to swipe cards. “This is part of Vodacom’s new initiative to break into the lending market, VodaLend,” says Bantu Rayi. “The idea,” adds Tshegofatso Malinga, a Vodacom executive, “is to enable people like Noxy to build a credit record. Now we can track all their transactions through the speed-point. If they apply for a loan, anything between R10 000 and R5-million, we can tell if they’d be able to pay it back.”
One can rule out Noxy applying for the loan. She’s just bought another shelter to revive the chips and amagwinya part of her business.
Noxy is now a different woman from the one who was sobbing uncontrollably back in 2020, in the face of a bleak future. She no longer sports waves and fancy nails. When she goes to the bank smelling of smoke, she gets the same patronising looks she used to give women selling on the pavements.
“I don’t mind the looks,” she says proudly. “I know I have more money than most in those queues.”
Most important to Noxy, is that she has become independent and self-sufficient. She’s teaching her children similar values as her parents taught her, “never to be dependent, not to rely on the white man”. Steve Biko would be proud. In this month of August, as we celebrate the womenfolk, Noxy is a shining example of their resilience in the face of tremendous odds.
Mcebisi Ndletyana is professor of political science at the University of Johannesburg.