Right in the heart of one of the older sections of Soweto is Wozobona Cultural House supermarket, owned by Joseph and Lindiwe Dlamini.
The business, based in Orlando East, Soweto, used to be a hive of activity and a beacon of economic pride to the community. At its height, the general dealer housed a butchery, a fish-and-chips outlet and a shop, but only the shop remains. So good was the business at one point that the Dlaminis’ two kids were private-schooled.
Ironically, the dawn of democracy signalled a sunset for the Dlaminis’ flourishing supermarket. When City Press visited the store recently, empty shelves and fridges reflected a business struggling to stay afloat.
“We bought the store in 1983 and things were very good in the 1980s. We invested in our children’s education and took them to good private schools. Things started changing after [former president Nelson] Mandela came out of prison in the early nineties,” Lindiwe said.
She said with the advent of democracy came a relaxation of bylaws and a boom in the informal spaza shop economy.
“We were always a formal business and when people started selling informally there was nothing we could do because these were our neighbours,” she said, adding that the business still managed to survive and operate alongside the spaza shops and informal traders.
However, things took a turn for the worse when malls and shopping centres started making inroads into the township and their customers started shopping at the malls.
“Let’s be honest, who can blame them? I sell an item for R80 and they sell for almost R20 less,” she pointed out.
“Some people even come here to ask for change for a taxi to go to the mall to buy things we sell here,” she lamented.
She pointed out that, as much as the loss of business pains her, there are people who have remained loyal to her business and they are the reason she still stocks up on some items
“There are still some customers who don’t see the need to travel for a single item, so they buy from us. “Unfortunately, in some cases we cannot afford to stock up on items such as 5kg of flour because the sales are so low that we lose out,” she said.
The couple has tried to tweak their business model and has even introduced restaurant-type facilities, but between the odd few customers who walk in and the empty fridges and shelves, it is becoming futile to invest in non-cash-generating assets.
Before buying the business, Joseph was a sales representative for a major cold storage company, while Lindiwe worked at a furniture company as a financial professional.
“We invested in our children’s education; it was as though we knew that one day things would be like this. We gave them a good foundation and they went to university with bursaries. We will die peacefully, if there is such a thing, because we did not leave them with a burden. We still wish we could afford more than petrol, but the way things are right now, we are far from that,” she said.
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Under the current economic conditions, the Dlaminis, who are members of the SA Spaza and Tuckshop Association, have little hope that brighter days are coming for the township economy.