August 21, 2008

foreign merchants in south africa..their stories

This morning i stopped and talked with 2 merchants who sell goods up the street from our flat. One is from the DRC; the other is from Senegal. We have had many conversations about life in South Africa because their experience here reflects most foreigners' experience from other African countries.

The one from the DRC arrived here a year ago as a refugee without a dime in his pocket. He spoke no English. He did have a friend here, but if he was to stay with him, he would need to pay rent. The next day he went with his friend to see how his friend was earning a living. He immediately began earning some money each day by pushing heavy cargo in the markets for merchants. He did this for months until he earned some capital. His back hurt each evening but he knew this was necessary before he could pursue new work for himself. After being in the markets, he learned how trade occurs at the wholesale level, and he began to purchase some goods that he could sell himself. Now, one year later, this man speaks English very, very well and has his own stand where he sells artwork. He knows this is just a means for an end, and has goals of earning enough capital to move on beyond this stage in his life. He looks forward to 2010 when the World Cup is here and many tourists will be here looking for goods to bring back to their countries. He gained his higher education in Europe for 6 years, and plans to utilize his knowledge someday when he is financially stable.

The man from Senegal came to South Africa 9 years ago. He, too, did not speak English but he had enough money in his pocket to survive for 6 months, as well as a return ticket to Senegal should he not be able to make it here. He knew no one. Upon arriving, he stayed in a hotel in downtown Cape Town for a month. He went out each day searching for how goods are sold. He found where the wholesale market is and purchased a few items. He took these items with him on the train and, without knowing where he was going, traveled to the end of a line and landed in a town called Parow, where he walked door to door trying to sell these items. He only knew how to say "Good morning", and "This is nice" and a few other greetings to make contact with people. Some people bought his goods, so he decided to purchase more and stay downtown with his items on the side of the walkway where pedestrians might purchase them. He did this for 3-4 years, but he knew he wanted to earn enough capital to move to an area where he could get a permit and have a stand of his own. This is what he's doing now in Sea Point where we live. He, too, does not plan on doing this his entire life, just long enough to earn enough capital to perhaps then rent a storefront out and sell more goods there. He was the first merchant in Sea Point to acquire a permit in our area a few years ago, so he paved the way for others who have come.

I admire the determination, fortitude and hard work of these two merchants. They are surviving here in a land that doesn't always welcome or appreciate them as their brothers. It seems there is an invisible line which separates the black South African from the black foreigners. To me it's the line of apartheid. This country's most challenging issue is to overcome the remnants of an oppressive system which kept millions prosperous and privileged, many more millions uneducated and underprivileged, and all psychologically affected by the discrimination of race, color and class. I know very little about these things, but it sure is evident that discrimination on a systematic level like that for generations has left a psychological scar unlike that of any other colonized people in Africa.

I want to open-heartedly understand these issues in order to uphold the dignity of and defend the position of the people here who are sometimes viewed as lazy when in fact it's much more complicated and deeper than that.