30 Apr
  • By Jess Drewett

No Time to Think of Dying

This, the third blog in our ‘Livelihood Struggles’ series, uses the story of Louise (in addition to others) to highlight the resilience of poor South Africans to ‘idiosyncratic shocks’ which affect their livelihoods. Louise is known to SLF through our Safe Shebeens project, and gave her permission for her experience to be featured. Written by Caitlin Tonkin.

“I have no time to think of dying…”, says Louise, a shebeener from the Sweet Home Farm informal settlement, outside Cape Town. She says this because herself, her children and her boyfriend depend on her shebeen for an income. “Ek sal nooit survive sonder my shebeen.” (I will never survive without my shebeen).

Louise was one of several shebeeners with whom the Foundation worked in 2012, on a project to promote safety in shebeens in the Sweet Home Farm community. As part of this project, shebeeners were helped to produce their own digital stories. It’s in her digital story (featured below), that Louise explains her shebeen’s central role in keeping her family financially afloat, and thus how important it is that she stays healthy to run her shebeen, despite her HIV positive status (about which she is very open).

Since 2012, Louise has fortunately remained healthy, and has grown her business to include a take-aways section. On a recent visit to Sweet Home Farm, Louise tells SLF that her business was providing enough that she always had petty change in her pocket, to give to her grandchildren to buy sweets. But, earlier this year, two men were shot in a gang confrontation in Louise’s street, and died on her property, where they had run to escape further shooting. Because of their jealousy of the success of her business, Louise suspects, the families of the two men forced her to pay for the funerals. R 20 000 later, Louise’s savings are spent and she can barely buy stock for her shebeen, let alone keep her take-aways business running.

LOUISE (Safe Shebeens) from Sustainable Livelihoods Fndation on Vimeo.

Louise’s experience shows the devastating effect that unexpected expenses, often related to illness, dying and death, can have on people whose income derives from survivalist economic activity. Although Louise has been impacted by a specific set of circumstances, she is not alone in her small, informal micro-enterprise(s) and the income/savings generated by that being insufficient to keep her financially secure in the face of unexpected, shock expenses. Joey and Megan, a Delft couple, were similarly affected by unexpected illness: Joey’s heart operation, subsequent months of hospitalisation and return home wheel-chair bound meant that his wife no longer had the time, human labour or money to to continue running their succesful spaza, on top of caring for him.

SLF’s research has revealed thousands of examples of South Africans, like Louise, Joey and Megan, for whom a micro-enterprise is their key means of economic survival, either because this is their only source of income, or because revenue from that one micro-enterprise supports a host of other informal micro-enterprises which collectively contribute to household income. For these South Africans, a small micro-enterprise is at once the source of their income, their savings and what they need to continue that micro-enterprise. This makes them highly vulnerable to unexpected expenses (both financial expenses and time/labour costs) like funerals, medication, hospitalisation, or theft, which can obliterate the narrow margins of their economic survival.

 Survivalist business An informal business, usually with little dedicated business infrastructure and no growth vision, which aims to generate supplementary household income (i.e. a business for survival, not profit).
 Idiosyncratic shock Unexpected ‘shocks’ which affect the individual household (rather than having a system-level effect, as currency devaluation or price hikes would), like death in the family, illness, theft or drug-addiction in the family.

Idiosyncratic, or household, shocks disrupt poor South Africans’ fragile economic balance. Without financial security, absorbing these shocks is incredibly difficult, as Louise’s experience shows. And yet, South Africans like Louise don’t just stop surviving – they can’t. As Louise catches SLF up on her situation, she remains positive that she will find ways to continue providing for her family – already she has started renting out rooms in her shack and taking on adhoc char work, as well as continuing to make some cash off her pool tables and juke box. Louise’s story is a story about struggle, but is also a story about resourcefulness and resilience in the face of struggle. Like other South Africans who experience such unexpected shocks, Louise demonstrates a kind of heightened resilience that comes from literally having no other choice but to continue surviving.

As Louise says, “I have no time to think of dying.”

Read more about ‘idiosyncratic shocks’ and how South African micro-enterprises respond in SLF’s Andrew Hartnack and Rory Liedeman’s research paper, here.

Read more about the shebeen sector in townships in the previous ‘Livelihood Struggles’ blog, here.

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