top of page

‘Staying alive’


Selling goods in the streets all day is no fun. But many people must do this. For them its the only way of staying alive.

Billy and Amina sell flowers, fruit and vegetables. People call them hawkers. They work on the streets of Johannes­burg.

They are poor, hard working people. All they want in life is to keep their families alive. But life has not been easy. Life on the streets is one long struggle.

This is the story of Billy and Amina ­ and the struggle of the hawkers in Johannesburg.

Billy and Amina are both indians. Their grandfathers came to South Africa nearly 100 years ago.

India is a poor country. Lots of people live in India. Many people do not have jobs. Thousands of people go hungry. India was very poor a hundred years ago. And today India is still like this.

Billy and Amina’s grandparents lived in a small village in India. The people worked on the land. They kept cattle. And they grew rice and vegetables. But the village did not have enough land. They could not feed everybody.


Billy and Amina’s grandparents were worried. They had to pay taxes to the government in India. They had no food to eat. And they could not find a job.

So they decided to come to South Africa. Rich white men owned big sugar cane farms in NataI. These farmers needed many workers. But they paid terribly low wages. Africans in Natal refused to work on the sugar cane farms.

The farmers knew that the people of India were poor. So they sent men to the villages of India. These men were called “Coolie Catchers”. They toId the poor people to come to the sugar cane farms of Natal. They promised to pay them lots of money.

Billy’s grandfather listened to the lies of the “Coolie Catchers”. He was so hungry he believed their words. He agreed to go to Natal.

He signed a contract to work on the sugar cane farms for five years. And thousands of poor Indians did the same.

So Billy and Amina’s family came to South Africa. They were looking for a new life. Instead they found only more hardship and suffering.

The work on the sugar farms was heavy. They worked from sunrise to sunset. They got one bowl of rice a day. They lived in broken down houses. The farms had no toilets. And they got very little wages.

All indian sugar workers hated their jobs. They waited for the five years to end. And then they left. Many went to the Transvaal. They looked for better jobs and higher wages.

Billy and Amina’s grandparents did the same. They thought, “maybe we’ll find our new life in the Transvaal.”


That’s how Billy and Amina’s family came to Johannesburg. Things were a bit better – but not much.

Billy and Amina were born in the city. They lived in Johannesburg all the time. And they say, “we can only remember being poor in this place.”

Many Indians in Johannesburg had a tough time – like most black workers. Jobs were scarce. The ‘colour bar’ said Indians could not work wherever they wanted to. So most indian men became waiters. Or they worked in the shops of rich indians.

But the pay wasn’t so good In these jobs. The hours were long. Many poor indians looked for other ways to work. Many decided to sell flowers­ and fruit and vegetables in the streets.

“We did not need a lot of money to be hawkers,” says Billy. “But we also did not make a lot of money. Hawking is a poor man’s job.”

Black workers did not live in locations or townships in those days. ‘Indian’, ‘coloured’ and ‘african’ workers lived in the same parts of town. These were places Iike Doornfontein, Ferreiras­town, Vrededorp and Sophiatown.

These places were poor. They were crowded. They were dirty. But they were full of life. People lived happiIy. They did not worry so much about names like ‘indian’, ‘coloured’ or ‘african’ in those days.

Billy and Amina sold fruit and flowers in places like Doornfontein and Ferreirastown. Many hawkers sold goods in Diagonal Street, Ferreiras­town. They worked in the rain, in the sun and in the coId. The hot sun made the fruit go bad – and you can’t get much money for rotten fruit.

Work was tough. But things were better in those days. People lived in places full of life. And home was not far from work.


But the government did not let people live in peace. They gave the hawkers a hard time. They said hawkers could not stand stiII in the streets. They had to move all the time. They had to get a licence to sell fruit and vegetables.

“Let me tell you about the police,” says Billy. “They made special squads to arrest us. They chased us like wild animals. They arrested us and put us In pick-up vans – like criminals.”

Then the government made a law called the Group Areas Act. The law said ‘africans’ and ‘indians’ and ‘coloureds’ must not live in the same place. They built a big township called Lenasia in the 1950’s. They told all indians to move to Lenasia.

Billy and Amina moved. Lenasia was 20 miles from town. Lenasia had no market. And it cost money to bring fruit and flowers to town everyday. Many hawkers stopped selling in the streets of Johannesburg.

The hawkers hated the Group Areas Act. They say, “this law moves people around like cattle. It makes one race stay in one place. It makes another race stay in another place. It destroys the life of people. The law is a crime.”

But Billy and Amina carried on. Every day they took their goods to Diagonal Street. “I never ran away from anything,” says Billy. “If they said don’t go there, I went there. But I was clever. I watched for the police. When they come I wasn’t there. Some­times the police were not there. Then I go and sell and get away. We learned many tricks at that time. We had to eat. “


But things got worse. Last year they built a big new building near Diagonal Street. It was called the Stock Exchange. Rich men in big cars came to work in the Stock Exchange.

“This policeman told me straight,” says Amina. “He said the men in suits and with big cars did not want us in Diagonal Street. They said we make the streets untidy.”

The men in the suits joined the police. Together they fought the hawkers.

The police got stricter. “Every week I got two tickets of fifty rand each,” says Amina. “I was working for the municipality not for myself. How could I feed my kids?”

So Amina and Billy gave up hawking. Many other hawkers stopped selling. Today there are only five indian hawkers in Diagonal Street.

Billy and Amina never found their new life. They only found rich men and the law. For them, a better life is still only a dream. This story is from interviews with hawkers, done by the Oral History Project, SAIRR.


If you would like to print or save this article as a PDF, press ctrl + p on your keyboard (cmd + p on mac).

bottom of page