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Working for peanuts

Ma Peggy Moyo says she was born twice in her life. The first time was in 1931. This was when her mother first greeted the new child she was bringing into the world. The second time was in 1939. This was when eight year old Peggy was born into the big world of business. And that’s where she still is today.

Ma Peggy settles her heavy body down under the hot Jo’burg sun at Park Station. She laughs her big laugh and begins to tell us her story. While she talks, she keeps stopping to sing her one word song: “P-e-a-n-u-t-s!”

“There is an old story about monkeys and peanuts,” says Ma Peggy. “Monkeys love to eat peanuts — that is why you often see them stealing peanuts from the fields. The monkeys think they are clever. They pick up a handful of nuts and put them under their arm. But the little animals are greedy too. So, they pick up another handful and try to put it under the same arm. Each time, more and more peanuts fall from under their arm onto the ground.

“The monkeys work hard. But they get very little in return. So people often make jokes like: ‘If you pay peanuts, you will only get monkeys to work for you.’ But not everyone who works for peanuts is a monkey. Do I look like a monkey?”


Ma Peggy is a hawker. Everyday, Monday to Saturday, rain or shine, you will find her selling her peanuts — and apples, peaches and oranges. But peanuts are, and always will be, her main business. Peanuts are Ma Peggy’s bread and butter.

She learned the business of selling peanuts from her parents. Her father was a tailor and dry cleaner in Sophiatown where the family lived. Her mother was a hawker at Jeppe Station. She also sold peanuts.

As a little girl, Ma Peggy used to join her mother at the station every day after school. In the afternoons, she used to travel up and down on the Sophiatown buses, selling peanuts to the passengers.

Selling peanuts was not a joke to the family. Ma Peggy’s father did not do well in his business. The family needed every cent from the peanuts to keep the wolf from the door. Peanuts were a shield against hunger for the family.

Ma Peggy remembers: “I learnt a lot about selling and about my customers. But I am sad that I did not know a proper childhood. I could not play in the afternoons with my friends, like other children.”


When the government forced people out of Sophiatown, Ma Peggy’s father’s business had to close down. The same year, her father passed away. This dark cloud of bad luck forced the family to find ways to make a living.

“We came to live in Soweto and we all became hawkers. Even my younger sister and brother joined us in selling goods. We made a living out of selling peanuts and other goods. My mother passed away in 1986. She was still a hawker at the time. My sister is still hawking here in Johannesburg.”

Ma Peggy has six children. “My eldest child, Dudu, is already a hawker in Johannesburg. She sells peanuts, fruits and vegetables. So if I am sick, I know she is there to help.

“The five little ones are still at school, but when I come back from hawking with Dudu, we always find that the kids have cleaned the house and cooked food for supper. That makes me feel very proud of them. Sometimes during the weekend, they go with their sister to sell in town.”


As we talk, Ma Peggy sees a thin man looking hungrily at the peanuts. She calls him over and jokes: “Come here, my boss! Come buy some peanuts!”

The man buys the peanuts, empties the packet into his mouth, licks his lips and reaches into his pocket to find money to buy more. What is the secret of Ma Peggy’s success?

“Some of our forefathers believed in a muti called ‘come-one—come-all’. They believed that anyone whose business was doing well had a most powerful muti.”

Ma Peggy says she has a very simple ‘muti’. “And that is my love and respect for people. I make jokes and laugh with them. So many people come to listen to my jokes and stories. But they end up buying peanuts.”

But there is also another reason. Ma Peggy is always fair to her customers. “My customers are poor workers. They do not have enough money to buy a packet of peanuts from the shops in town. I sell them very cheap — I make just enough money to keep the home fires burning.”


Ma Peggy says many people know peanuts by another name. “They are called ‘madopis’. This is because peanuts are for all seasons. You can eat them in summer or winter. In autumn or spring. The taste will always be the same.

“Travellers enjoy ‘madopis’ on their long trips to work. They eat one peanut after another. The peanuts make the distance between home and work seem shorter. Others enjoy peanuts at lunch time. When other people are enjoying pap and meat, my customers enjoy their ‘pap and madopis’.”

Ma Peggy says that peanuts can be cooked in many ways. “You can boil them in a big pot. Or you can fry them in a big frying pan — like I do.”

She says frying the peanuts at home in the evenings is hard work — but it is something she still enjoys, even after all these years. “There is an inviting smell in the place. Some people think I am cooking a special supper. But it is the smell of peanuts in a frying pan. This smell is followed by some nice ‘music’ — the sound of peanuts trying to jump out of the boiling sunflower oil!”


Ma Peggy is known to all the people who come and go from Park Station. She has tasted the sweetness of fame. But sometimes she wishes she wasn’t so famous. “I have paid a heavy price for my fame. I have been troubled by the police since my early childhood. This has made my life sour. My mother was once arrested for two weeks. Her only crime was that she was a hawker.

“I was also arrested a number of times. I spent many nights at John Vorster Square. They demanded heavy fines from me. I wanted to challenge this unfairness. But I did not have an organised force to support me.”

Ma Peggy laughs loudly: “My prayer was answered. An organisation to protect hawkers’ rights was started about two years ago. It is called the African Council of Hawkers and Informal Business (ACHIB). I joined it without any doubt. The police still trouble us — but not like they used to.”

It was getting late — so we bought a packet of peanuts from Ma Peggy and said goodbye. As we walked, we ate one peanut after the other. And truly, the distance from Park Station to the office seemed much shorter!

NEW WORDS somebody’s bread and butter — the main way a person makes a living keeping the wolf from the door — to keep hunger away distance — the amount of space between two places to challenge — to question and fight back


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