In Soweto, small businesses come in big boxes

Setting up shop in a shipping container is now so popular that the government is trying to bring order to the entrepreneurial onslaught.

This famous township on the south side of Johannesburg looks like it's in the process of packing up and moving. Aging, corrugated metal shells - shipping containers used by freight trains and cargo ships - crowd back yards, front lawns, street corners, parking lots, even median strips here.

But these shells are not a means of flight from this struggling community - they house the first generation of black-owned small businesses. Hundreds of them, sometimes dressed up with a fresh coat of paint and windows and doors, have been reborn as laundromats, bakeries, and video-game parlors in Soweto and other poor communities across South Africa.

"People are trying to do for themselves," says Lydia Maletsoe, who runs a convenience store from a container in her yard. "That's why you see the containers all over.... People are struggling to survive."

The recycled containers illustrate Soweto's irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit, despite decades of oppressive apartheid rule, as well as the community's continued poverty six years after the founding of the new democratic South Africa. Once the symbol of the black struggle for freedom here, Soweto is now leading the nation in another battle - black economic empowerment.

The recycled hulks have begun to play a small role in this new fight, eliminating a hurdle that continues to frustrate black entrepreneurs - an inability to obtain bank loans. With a small investment of about 10,000 rand ($1,320), blacks hoping to become founding members of South Africa's black middle class can start their own businesses. "I didn't have to waste any time borrowing money or building a shop," says Ms. Maletsoe, a plump woman whom everyone in the neighborhood seems to call Mama. "If it didn't work out, I knew I could always sell the container to someone else."

On a nearby corner, a rusting blue-and-white container has provided Fistos Ramatlo with his first job. He had been looking for more than seven years. The telephone shop where he works all but one day a month doesn't have electricity. With no insulation, it is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Still, says Mr. Ramatlo, "I am very much grateful for it.... I buy my groceries in a container. I make my phone calls in a container. They give us access to many things we didn't have before."

Aging containers were first diverted from scrap metal dealers to poor rural areas and townships about four years ago. Their recent surge in popularity has prompted a government crackdown. Many container owners, unfamiliar with business regulations, had placed new shops on private property, traffic triangles, or on the edge of busy intersections. In the last few weeks local authorities have gone around Soweto telling container owners to obtain permits and leases or risk having their stores impounded.

Two weeks ago, the authorities drove off with the container where Ramatlo works. The owner had placed the container in front of an existing brick-and-mortar store without permission. A 1,500 rand ($200) fine and a rental agreement later, the shop is back in business on property leased from a church.

But police and zoning officials aren't the only threats to this new merchant class. Agitha Mbele remembers the morning last year when the owner of a public phone store down the street arrived at work to find that his container literally had been lifted by thieves. Ms. Mbele has since cemented her shoe repair shop/video game parlor to the ground. When a thief broke into her shop with a crow bar a few months back, Ms. Mbele looked into buying a traditional store. The price tag of more than 100,000 rand ($13,220) remains beyond her means.

The new use for containers has prompted a South African shipping conglomerate, Transnet, to donate about 40 old containers a year to cash-strapped municipalities and nonprofits. The shells have been reborn as police stations, Red Cross centers, and even a museum. "It started when someone saw some of our containers [sitting unused] in a yard and called us," says Donald Kau of Transnet. "But it has really grown."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.