Selling point: Shoppers from many parts of Africa — mostly women — come to Jeppe to buy cheap, mostly Chinese goods to take back to their countries and sell to customers. In her book, Johannesburg. Made in China, Tanya Zack says that while the precinct generates billions of rand, it is not seen as part of the formal economy. Picture: MARK LEWIS
Selling point: Shoppers from many parts of Africa — mostly women — come to Jeppe to buy cheap, mostly Chinese goods to take back to their countries and sell to customers. In her book, Johannesburg. Made in China, Tanya Zack says that while the precinct generates billions of rand, it is not seen as part of the formal economy. Picture: MARK LEWIS

When metro police enter the vast warren of stores that trade from the area known as "Jeppe" in Johannesburg’s central business district, they unleash a wave of silence.

Word travels swiftly. Without any warning to customers in their spaces, traders switch off music and lights. If they have roller shutter doors, these come down fast.

As Tanya Zack, author of a new photobook — Johannesburg. Made in China — writes, "shopkeepers and customers know to remain silent as the shops, now turned hideout, pretend not to exist".

 In her book, Johannesburg. Made in China, Tanya Zack says that while the precinct generates billions of rand, it is not seen as part of the formal economy. Picture: MARK LEWIS
In her book, Johannesburg. Made in China, Tanya Zack says that while the precinct generates billions of rand, it is not seen as part of the formal economy. Picture: MARK LEWIS

"Yes, I’ve been locked in during raids," Zack says. "It stands out as one of my most extraordinary experiences — other than meeting a live sheep on the fifth floor of a building. The sheep wasn’t for sale; it was for an Ethiopian restaurant."

Zack, an urban planner, and photographer Mark Lewis have just launched the latest title in their 10-book series Wake Up, This is Joburg. As is usual, they investigate people who "inhabit urban space in unusual ways".

Previous titles — all limited-edition art books published by Fourthwall Books — have investigated Jozi residents such as recyclers, an outsider artist, butchers and art deco landmark Anstey’s (as Zack says, a building can be a character too).

This time, the duo delve into the world of cross-border shoppers: international customers who purchase everything from electronics to rat poison but mostly cheap, good-quality Chinese fashion. They bundle the goods up and take them back to cities as far-flung as Lilongwe and Lusaka to resell.

Mostly women, they travel to Joburg by bus (about 465 buses leave Joburg for Botswana, Malawi, Namibia. Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe on an average day). The shoppers stay in hotels in the area, carrying piles of goods to their rooms and the bus depots.

They shop with dedication. Some use WhatsApp or Facebook to post pictures of, say, a pink bag or sneakers for their clients to see and order. And the volumes moved are impressive.

In a more detailed research study for the Johannesburg Inner City Partnership that was released in October, Zack discovered that each shopper spends an average of R14,364 on goods in the city during each shopping trip. Informal estimates suggest this adds up to more than R10bn a year.

What draws these multitudes to this northeastern slice of Joburg, which some call  "the Dubai of Africa" or "half-London"? It’s the dense conglomeration of traders in Jeppe, named after "the intense movement route that is its backbone". The book explains that Jeppe Street was once the equivalent of London’s Harley Street, known for its medical specialists. In the 1990s, many of the skyscrapers became dilapidated, abandoned or slums. Now, thousands of busy stores have taken over high-rises and the area hums with new energy.

Sixty percent of retailers have also been victims of crime and harassment by police. Yet the clothing that makes up the bulk of sales is not predominantly counterfeit goods

The first wave of entrepreneurs was Ethiopian; almost half of the shopkeepers still originate from that country. The high-rises now cater to cultural needs too, housing restaurants, barbers and churches.

The slim photobook is an accessible way to visit Jeppe and gives a sneak peek into its boundless commerce.

The text is personal, narrating shoppers’ stories and Zack’s impressions. Lewis’s accompanying images, however, are less directed at individuals and more at the scale and geographic oddity of this phenomenon.

Zack says the images capture the density of the shopping district. "You can almost smell it, and it’s a bit claustrophobic," she says. But Lewis also lifted his camera to show the surrounds. "Although cross-border shopping happens all over the world, this is not any market in any city," Zack says. "It is distinctly Johannesburg because it is a market that happens inside our high-rise buildings. That is unique in the world."

The research paper, Cross Border Shopping in Johannesburg’s Inner City, fleshes out Zack’s interviews with some hard facts and figures.

In the book, we read about Natasha, a flight attendant who takes preorders on quality men’s formal attire and makes bi-monthly shopping trips to Joburg. She also goes to Tanzania and Botswana for shoes. She says Jozi is great for choice but there is a big disincentive — crime. The research, which quizzed 300 retailers and 400-odd shoppers in a 53-block area, found at least 30% of shoppers have been exposed to violent crime. This is a real threat to the district’s continuing success.

Sixty percent of retailers have also been victims of crime and harassment by police. Yet the clothing that makes up the bulk of sales is not predominantly counterfeit goods, which is what the police purport to target. "Predominantly, it is cheap, affordable Chinese fashion," says Zack.

Informal and formal traders trade side by side in spaces that themselves can be formal or not. The lines between formal and informal trade may be blurred, but "it does not equate with the sale of illicit goods", says Zack.

She says the Wake Up! series is fed by her own and Lewis’s curiosity about the city and its stories, but she is also drawn to deep policy questions.

As an urban planner, she has pushed for the city to acknowledge Jozi’s cross-border shopping hub and its contribution to the local economy: it’s the equivalent of two Sandton shopping centres.

Its potential as a global retail hub should be "embraced" and crime and corruption in the area must be tackled to ensure customers — who generally use cash — can shop safely.

Upgrades to the area should also be prioritised: pavements are crumbling and street signs are missing. Extra services such as free Wi-Fi and secure storage space would be boons.

There are also fascinating lessons to be learnt from this blossoming space.

"This is a segment of the economy where the shopping space is not built by a pension fund or large developers or investors," says Zack.

"This is a particular kind of urban transformation which has happened one microshop at a time. It’s the collective energy of thousands of entrepreneurs and hundreds of thousands of shoppers that has built an economy inside a carcass [of] empty and neglected buildings.

"It brings this low-end globalisation to life in Johannesburg and puts the city on the map of the continent — and increases the retail estate value of that space at a higher rate than pension funds have been able to do in the inner city. That’s an enormous story …

"Here we have evidence that informality can bring us answers in ways that make commercial sense," says Zack.

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