The barbershop and hair salon are considered an essential institution in many communities around the world but changing times mean consumers prioritise food over grooming writes Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni
Soweto street barber Sipho Chiruthi continued doing business to earn some cash during the covid-19 lockdown because his landlord kept on demanding money for rent – but his equipment was confiscated by police after someone reported him.
Now he faces a grim future without his tools of trade while his colleagues continue working at the busy spot in Meadowlands where customers drop by for a haircut and a shave.
A United Nations food security update report released in July 2020 estimates that an estimated 130 million people globally may face chronic hunger by the end of this year, due to the Covid 19 pandemic.
The global study tracking progress towards ending hunger and malnutrition, which was produced jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization, International Fund for Agriculture, the UN Children’s Fund, World Food Programme and World Health Organization is a sobering reminder of how real the impact of inequality, and the pandemic are in the lives of people like Chiruthi who earn a living on the margins of the economy.
On an early August afternoon in Meadowlands a sombre and quiet Chiruthi sits alone on a rock, seemingly deeply preoccupied by his own thoughts to notice the buzz of activity around him.
Young men sell colorful jolly basins, old women pack fruit and vegetables neatly into transparent plastics, and two old timers share a smoke and chat away in the distance and his fellow barbers, cutting and trimming the hair from their loyal customers’ heads.
Chiruthi doesn’t look up, except to check that the chair and car battery he left under his green makeshift tent are still undisturbed by the people passing back and forth as they go about their daily lives.
He bites his nails incessantly and scratches his head every so often and as I approach him, first asking if I can get my haircut, he seems a little startled and somewhat confused. “Anginawo umshini suster, bawuthathile.”
And so, begins our conversation.
Chiruthi has been making a living through this small business since the early 2000s. He is originally from Mozambique and is currently renting a room in Meadowlands Zone 3.
Chiruthi, a father of one says he started cutting hair in his home during level three of the lockdown because his landlord demanded her rent money and he has no other sources of income.
He speaks with even more worry and disappointment when I ask about
“Inkinga ukuthi nokudla kuyaphela endlini and ngino mntwana omncane lapha – the
problem is that we are running out of food and I have a small child to take care of” he says
with a solemn voice.”
A friend and fellow barber lends him a few items from time to time but Chiruthi spends most of his days sitting alone, watching as other barbers continue to cut hair and make some money. Chiruthi continues to come to the spot where he works hoping that one or two loyal customers will come and get their haircut by him with one of his friend’s machines.
Chiruthi has not been able to send money to his family in Mozambique since the start of the lockdown. The little he can gather up is only enough for some groceries and rent, which his landlord refuses to compromise on because she is also unemployed.
The barbershop and hair salon are considered an essential institution in many communities around the world. Whether it is housed under a makeshift tent in a dusty township, or a pristine air-conditioned mall in the suburbs, the barbershops is a social space where pertinent conversations about the state of society, sports, politics and even the most sensitive domestic issues, are discussed.
It is here where old men teach young men the tricks of navigating the world and all its perils, more than just taking away the chance for people to curate their looks and get grooming, the current pandemic has impeded humanity’s insatiable need for social engagement and human contact.
The strain of the pandemic along with a financial recession because of the lack of economic activity has meant that people are prioritizing their immediate needs over getting their hair done.
Senzo Zulu, also a barber says the drop in customer numbers has impacted his income severely. Most of Zulu’s customers are working class, township residents looking to get a R20 haircut because that is what they can afford, loss of employment and income as well as growing scepticism about the lack of proper hygiene protocols at informal establishments like his have hurt his pocket badly.
Zulu shows me a small bottle of sanitizer which he uses to disinfect his equipment and clean his hands after each cut.
“Things are bad sisi, I am trying my best to adhere to the law, but I also need to eat, so I don’t know what will happen from here,” Zulu says.
He is considering seeking other forms of employment. He has looked for work before but has been unsuccessful and it is this lack of employment that pushed him to start cutting hair in 2002 so he could make money.
A 2020 McKinsey report on how Covid-19 has changed the beauty industry notes that “the COVID-19 crisis is likely to accelerate trends that were already shaping the market, such as the rise of the global middle class and the use of e-commerce, rather than mark entirely new ground.”
A sentiment that considers the growth of established beauty industry businesses but doesn’t include informal traders like street barbers and small salon owners. The same report predicts although the industry grew by 3.2% after the 2008/2009 recession this recent change in circumstance will be especially difficult to come back from particularly on small businesses like street barbers.
While many businesses in the beauty industry have been able to adapt and adjust to the
changing landscape of the world we know, others like Chiruthi and Zulu have been left on
the periphery, wondering how they will return to the place more familiar, where they had
customers, a little income and a way to support their families back home.
* This work was made possible with a grant from the Google News Initiative Journalism Emergency Relief Fund (JERF)