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Johannesburg shoeshiners

I am the kind of person who never looks down … at my shoes. As a result I always forget to polish them in the morning. It never really bothered me, until I realized how much it worried others in the office.

One day last week a comrade from the office invited me to go for a walk with him at lunchtime. We were heading towards the big Johannesburg Sun Hotel. Aha, I thought. I am going to be treated to a great big lunch! But just opposite the entrance of this grand hotel, I was sat down in a chair — out­side! The next thing I realised my feet were raised and my shoes were being inspected.

“Mr Shoes is my name and shining is my game”, said the man with the sunshine smile who began to polish my shoes with lightning fast hands. I soon forgot about my hungry stomach and instead I sat and relaxed in the warm sun.


Mr Shoes, whose real name is Johannes Mhlambi, began to tell us more about his work. “A lot of people have dirty shoes and many of them don’t even notice it. We always notice dirty shoes — it’s part of our work.

“I’ve been shining shoes for just over two years. Before that I worked for a construction company as an assistant welder. We were retrenched because business then was not going very well.

“I was unemployed for nine months and then I saw an advert in the news­paper for shoeshiners. So I phoned the Small Business Development Corporation (SBDC) and spoke to someone there. We talked about this and that. He saw I was an honest, serious and tidy kind of guy. So he gave me the tools to start off with. I set up shop here in front of the hotel, and I’ve been here ever since.”


Johannes, who is 32 years old, told us he lives south of Johannesburg, in Sebokeng. “I travel by train everyday to the city centre. I am here from Mondays to Saturdays until 5.00 pm — everyday except public holidays and stayaways.

“When I started, I was charging 50c per shine. Now we charge R2.50 for men and R2 for women per shine. Women’s shoes are usually much smaller than men’s—that’s why we charge them less.

“My busiest days are Fridays and Saturdays because this is when most people come to town.

Also business flourishes over the last week of the month. For the rest of the month things are quite slow. A busy day usually gets me R75 — R80. And a quiet day about R35 — R40.”


We asked Johannes about the people who come and have their shoes shined: “Many different kinds of people come here. Because we are next to the Supreme Court we get lawyers and judges coming to have their shoes shined.

“But my best customers are tourists from America. They really like this shoeshine business and I think they are used to having this service at hand. They also give good tips and they find my prices much cheaper than they pay back home.

“I also get regular customers from the hotel. Many of the people that come to have their shoes shined are from all different parts of the world — Zaire, Brazil, Zambia. They always ask me what this country is like to live in.”

With a big, proud smile Johannes told us about the famous people who have visited him. “We have met professional boxers like Mike Weaver, Henry Hearns, James Pritchard and James Broad, soccer supremos Jomo Sono and Kaizer Motaung and other big names like Brenda Fassie, Ray Phiri and Mara Louw. They have all had their shoes done here.”


“For a long time I just used to clean shoes — but my job changed one day when an old white lady came to me and wanted her heels repaired. I told her I only shine shoes and she said: “No man, you’re losing out.” So it gave me an idea — a week later I got a hammer, heels and nails. And I started repairing women’s shoes. I taught myself bit by bit.

“Some people choose to take their shoes to shoe shops for repairs. And then some of them come to us afterwards and ask us to re-do their shoes. They say that these shops are too expensive and that they were overcharged or that the job was not well done.

“I usually repair women’s shoes an charge about R2.50. Ladies often like to change the colour of their shoes. They come to me and say: ‘I wanted white shoes and now I want them pink’ or ‘I am going to a wedding and I need the colour changed’.”

Johannes showed us some of the shoes he had repaired. There were stacks of them and they all looked brand new — some with new heels or tips and others with new soles. He also showed us the many shoes he had dyed — there was every colour under the sun.

“But a lot of peo­ple who bring their shoes for repairs don’t always come back to collect them. So I am forced to sell some. I give six weeks allowance. And if they come and report that they do not have enough money, I give them an extra three weeks’ grace.”


While we were chatting a young man walked up to us. Johannes introduced him in a professional manner: “This is Mr Laces, he is my assistant”. Mr Laces’ real name is Richard Motaung. He is from Pimville in Soweto.

“If I am busy dyeing shoes, Richard does the shining,” Johannes explained. “On a busy day there are always lots of people walking around and then I know I will need help. It all depends on how many people are wearing dirty shoes.”

Richard explained how he started work­ing with Mr Shoes: “We met at Orlando Sta­dium. Johannes was sitting next to me and we were cheering for the same team — Orlando Pirates. On the Monday when I came to town I recognised him and we chatted. Johannes said he needed help and I needed a job. This was a year and four months ago.”


We asked Johannes if anyone ever harassed them and he told us:” A woman gave us hassles once — but the security guard told her that our shoeshine service was needed. We get more help than has­sles. For instance, the porters from the hotel help by sending down many customers. They also let us store our things in the back of the hotel so when we come in the morning we know everything will be in order.

“But there are always tsotsis to beware of. I remember early one morning three drunk tsotsis came to me. They wanted to take my brushes. They just grabbed them and instead of having a big fight I managed to sweet-talk them out of it.

“Luckily, problems like these don’t hap­pen everyday. In fact, most of the time the people are friendly… and always interesting. On the streets, we see all sorts of people. We see punks, drunks, handbag snatchers — just like the busy streets of New York. And we also see many prisoners coming to the back of the Supreme Court in police vans, singing and chanting…”


Mr Shoes has a good business, but he knows there is still room for improvement. “Now I want to improve my work so I’m organising a kiosk from the African Council of Hawkers and Informal Business (ACHIB). After I get a kiosk I’ll try to get a sewing machine to stitch shoes. At the moment I don’t do any stitching because I don’t have a machine.”

And he dreams of one day visiting the world capital of shoe shiners — New York.

“This place is good to me — never mind the problems that surround us all in this country. I am happy. But I don’t want to die before I see New York. I want to go there to learn better skills in my trade.”


It was long past our lunch hour so it was time to say our goodbyes. But before we left Mr Shoes and Mr Laces, they said we should visit their friends, Doctor Nugget and Mr Nugget, down the road.

So off we went, in our sparkling shoes, to the Stock Exchange and there, under some colourful umbrellas, were the two experts. They were both very busy and we noticed from all the warm greetings that these men were very well known to all those who work in the area. They took one look at our shining shoes and knew we were not there for business!

Mr Nugget, whose real name is Isiah Hlatshwayo, and Derrik Makhubule, otherwise known as Dr Nugget, have both been in this spot for three years. The story of how they started out is much the same as Mr Shoes’. But their problems are different.


Mr Nugget explained: “When we do repairs we usually give our customers about four weeks to fetch their shoes — I can’t give them much longer because I have a big problem with storage space.”

Dr Nugget explained why storage is such a problem. “I keep my stuff inside a packing room in a building nearby. I used to keep my chairs chained to a cement block right here. But the securi­ty guards cut the chains off my chairs and threw them away. These security guards are inhumane. They do not want blacks to make any money at all.”

Mr Nugget has also had problems with these security guards. “Two security guards once took all my shoes and threw them away. We drew up a petition and got a lot of support from the people who work in the Stock Exchange. In the petition we complained about the security manager. In the end they were the ones who lost their jobs,” says Mr Nugget.

“But afterwards I had to pay out about R600 because the shoes had been thrown away. The managing director of the building, who lives in Durban, gave me R50 to help me out,” he added.


But Dr Nugget was quick to add that despite these problems they were both very happy here. “We look after our­selves and we are able to support our wives and children. We don’t have any boss — we are our own bosses.”

All the shoeshiners we spoke to had the same message for our readers: “People must carry on reading Learn and Teach because there is a lot to learn from it.” And of course, they had a special message for the thousands of people with dirty shoes: “Come have your shoes shined!.”

We walked back to the office smiling and to this day nobody has complained about my shoes — they are now always sparkling clean! And next week think I’ll have my old green shoes dyed bright pink!

NEW WORDS business flourishes — business is doing well, booming dye — change the colour, for example of shoes, clothes or hair inhumane — without feelings for other people


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