Tackling the Big Issue

10 October 2002

The idea behind it has always been a big one – creating jobs for the jobless and tackling some of the economic and social problems that prevent poor people from participating in society.

The Big Issue, a magazine sold by destitute and homeless people on the streets of Cape Town and Johannesburg, has taken off to such an extent that the magazine is now gearing up to go nationwide.

Glenda Nevill, editor of The Big Issue, says the expansion venture is an attempt to help tackle unemployment throughout the country by providing jobs for people and creating more awareness about the plight of the poor.

The magazine has a circulation of over 60 000 readers a month. Recent ABC figures show that it has grown “12.7 percent in the last six months, following a rise of 12.8 percent in the previous ABC audit’, according to an article on the Johannesburg World Summit web site. The September edition, sold during the Summit, broke records by selling 90 000 copies in just nine days.

The local edition of The Big Issue was founded in January 1997 in Cape Town. In its early days, the magazine was called The Big Issue Cape Town. As it started to find its own feet it expanded to Joburg and was renamed The Big Issue, says Nevill, a seasoned journalist who has worked for the Sunday Times and Cosmopolitan.

Job creation
The Big Issue, a model project for sustainable development, is sold by destitute and homeless people at robots, shopping centres and in central business districts. The magazine gives over 350 vendors in both cities the opportunity to earn a living.

Nevill says vendors buy the magazines at distribution depots for R4,55 each and sell them to the public for R8,95, which gives them a R4,40 commission on each magazine sold. About 7 000 people, who have worked as vendors for the Big Issue, have now found proper employment.

The Big Issue concept, a creative way to alleviate poverty, provide jobs and highlight the plight of the poor, is taking off around the world. Namibia launched its own version – The Big Issue Namibia – two months ago. Both the Namibian and local magazines are sister papers to five Big Issue publications in the United Kingdom and one in Australia. They also belong to the International Network of Street Papers, which has 46 members worldwide.

Despite tight budgetary constraints, the magazine is put together by professional staff. “All our journalists are qualified,’ says Nevill. However, the monthly magazine must rely on freelance writers and volunteer contributors, she adds.

Quality writing
The Big Issue is a colourful, glossy magazine with both light and serious stories and plenty of advertising. It consists of several sections, including: news, features on topical issues, columns by reputable journalists like Ryland Fisher and Heather Dugmore and satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys, letters and a poetry section.

Each edition runs a column on the “Vendor of the Month’ who tells his or her story of poverty and upliftment. Readers are invited to nominate a vendor each month and the winner receives a cash prize and a gift voucher.

The Big Issue, a model project for sustainable development, is receiving accolades for its job creation and skills development programmes and for its mission to restore hope to the needy. The magazine is the visible face of various projects like skills workshops, art and writing classes, further education and training and counselling sessions. It also assists vendors with the most basics of needs, such as accommodation for those who are homeless.

On the windy streets of Joburg, we met up with Wanda Xaba, one of The Big Issue vendors who has been selling the magazine for three years now.

First real job
Xaba, somewhat tired and dejected, because of a slow business day, says he sells on average eight to 10 copies a day. “This is my first real job in my entire life. And with the little money I get from here, I clothe, feed and send my two children to school.’ He loves his job, but would leave it for a better offer somewhere else, he says.

Moses Ngithi, also a vendor, and a father of two, says he has been selling the magazine for years now. He says people from The Big Issue found him begging on the streets and offered him a job on the magazine. He is now able to provide for his two children and says he will never leave The Big Issue.

Grace sells the magazine for a pregnant friend. She like the magazine because it gives people a chance for a better future and does not restrain vendors from selling other wares.

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