Styling on the Jozi streets

1 July 2005

“Hallo sweetie; R30 sweetheart,” chimes a woman in her early 30s, holding up a board showing colourful hairstyles to pedestrians on the corner of Rissik and President streets in the inner city of Johannesburg.

By her side another woman is putting the finishing touches to a “straightback” hairstyle. The morning is chilly and the feeble May sunlight filtering through the city’s tall buildings is not strong enough to keep the shivering street braiders warm.

Wrapped in jackets and blankets, Rebeca Tibame and Percina Cuambe have been touting for customers since six in the morning. So far, they’ve managed to get one.

“I’ve spent about 45 minutes on this hairstyle,” says Tibame, her hands pulling and weaving a tangle of artificial hair into a beautiful pattern on the customer’s head. “This style costs only R30 because it takes less time and material.”

Sitting on a crate next to her, Cuambe sorts and hands out pieces of hair, all the while calling out to potential customers.

“Whatever we make in a day we share out equally between us, be it R40 or R100,” says Tibame. “There are normally three of us, but the third didn’t pitch up today. Maybe she is not feeling well.”

‘Our hands are our livelihood’
Originally from Mozambique, the two women have been working this corner of Rissik and President since January, when they arrived in Joburg. They say they didn’t come to South Africa looking for jobs; they came to create their own business. “Our hands are our livelihood,” says Cuambe.

The two are self-taught, learning to braid hair from a young age, growing up in the Mozambican city of Maputo. “Almost every woman in Maputo knows how to braid,” says Tibame. They travel by taxi from Dube in Soweto every day – at R10 each, return – and sometimes don’t have money for a “good lunch”, sharing a loaf of bread instead.

They also have to cough up a security fee of R10 to a “certain man” operating around Commissioner Street. “The money is for the space we occupy and for the possible loss of our crates and boards. We do not exactly know who he is or what position he occupies but were told by other street braiders to approach him first before we started operating here,” says Cuambe.

The street corner is busy. One board is regularly kicked down by pedestrians rushing to cross the intersection. A woman detaches from the stream of people and approaches them for a closer look.

“How much for the ‘twist’ sisi?” she asks, pointing to a dreadlock-like hairstyle. It costs R80 for a twist to the shoulders and R100 for a twist to the waist. But Cuambe says she can drop the price to R70 and R90. After a lengthy negotiation, the prospective customer says she’d rather go to Kerk Street.

Competition is tight
Kerk Street, two blocks away, is the centre of the Joburg street braiding industry. But competition there is tight; a twist reaching to the waist can cost as little as R70. “They take most of the business away from us, those people. But we know we do a better job,” Cuambe says.

Most people prefer going to street braiders rather than hair salons because they are much cheaper and more accessible, says Cuambe. But they buy hairpieces from Kings, a cosmetics shop, or from hair salons.

“When a customer comes to us, she can choose a hairstyle and give us the money to buy the hairpiece. So we make business for the hair salons as well. But there is animosity between us and them.”

The women mostly rely on repeat customers, who return to renew their styles or for new weaves. “We are the best in the business,” says Timbane. “That’s why we’ve been able to establish a customer base in the few months we’ve been in Johannesburg.”

Source: City of Johannesburg