I was walking near Park Station in Johannesburg the other day when I saw a very strange sight. A long line of taxi drivers and marshalls were standing in a queue! “That’s funny!” I said to myself. “I thought commuters were supposed to queue, not the other way round! I wonder what’s going on… ”
So I went to get a closer look. And there, behind a colourful food trolley was a young woman. She was handing out sandwiches, tea, coffee and even pap and steak. The smell was delicious.
I told my stomach to stop chanting its slogans of hunger. It would not listen. So I went to join the queue. It was still early so I bought a cup of hot, sweet tea and a sandwich. I sat on the pavement in the morning sun and listened to my new friend’s story – free of charge!
A GRADUATE OF “MANTLWANENG”
“My name is Grace Mokgadi Diseko,” she began. “I am a food vendor. You can find me here, on the corner of Noord and King George Streets, every day, serving my customers.”
Grace told me that her love of cooking started when she was just a little thing. “As a child, I used to play a game called “mantlwane” (housy-housy). One little child would be the “parent” and would cook food for the rest of the family. I always wanted to play the “parent”, because then I could do the cooking.”
Grace soon graduated from playing “mantlwane” to being a real cook. Both her parents worked so it was up to Grace to make sure that there was food on the table when they got home. “But I never thought I would make cooking my job,” she says. “I wanted to get matric and be a secretary.”
Grace finally completed matric in 1985. But then she couldn’t find a job. “Times are hard,” she says. “There is no work. That’s when I got the idea of being a hairdresser.”
AN HONEST SMILE
The same year, she did a hairdressing course and opened a saloon in her home in Naledi, Soweto. But she soon realised that she did not have enough training to do the job well. “I could not answer some of the customers’ questions and I didn’t want to be dishonest to them. So I closed my saloon. It was in the best interest of the customers,~~ she says with an honest smile.
Grace then looked around for another way of earning a living – and her thoughts went back to the days when she used to play “mantlwane”. “I started selling lunch packages to school students at Prudence Junior Secondary and Moletsane High School. I sold a quarter loaf of bread, with polony and chips.”
Her business did well for a while, but then came the school boycotts. Grace was operating at a loss. So once again, she tried to find another way of making money.
She went to speak to the taxi drivers at West Gate station and asked them if they thought it would be a good idea for her to sell to them there. They were very happy with her idea and told her to start as soon as possible.
Grace bought a trolley and applied for a hawker’s licence. She set up shop. But business was slow. Then she thought about all the commuters at Park Station – the most famous station in South Africa – and she decided to move there. Grace has been there for a year now and her business is flourishing. So much so that she has employed two other women to help her.
“HEALTH FIRST, PROFIT LATER”
Grace told us about her working day. “We get here at about seven in the morning, six days a week. The first thing we do is clean and make tea and coffee for our early morning customers. Then we start cooking.” All the food that Grace sells is fresh. Grace says that her motto is: “Health first, profit later”.
A cup of tea costs 70 cents and sandwiches cost R1.20. But Grace’s speciality is her pap and steak which costs R3.80. “People always come back to buy from me because of my cheap prices and good quality food,” says Grace.
A PROBLEM OR TWO
Many commuters complain that taxi drivers and marshalls are rude and cause trouble. Does Grace have any problems with them? “No, not at all. I think that’s because I have a very different relationship with them. I am like a mother or sister to them.
“I always try by all means to respect them and to keep my temper. Even if someone is howling at me, I stay cool and calm. And do you know, on Sundays when I’m not working I even miss their company!” ‘
Grace has only two problems and they have nothing to do with people. One is the rain. “We work in the open air and so if it rains, we can’t cook. Now we are happy because it’s winter. The other problem is the price of red meat. This year the price has gone up and I find it difficult to make money.”
It was nearly twelve o’clock now. People were queueing up for lunch. One old taxi driver who travels from Johannesburg to Venda every day, licked his lips. “Makoti! (Daughter-in-law!) Make me a good lunch because I am going to Venda this afternoon.”
“Sure, baba!” said Grace with a big smile.
“And me too!” I asked. My stomach was beginning to talk to me again. The pap and steak looked finger-licking good!
commuters -·people who travel by train or taxi to work graduate – someone who passes a course operating at a loss – losing money