Informal work is the foundation of any developing area, it provides an avenue for its populace to push back against poverty and deprivation. Melville is no different.

When you arrive on 7th Street in Melville, the veneer of restaurants and bars stand out to all in sight. Boasting roadside cafes and thrift shops, the infamous strip is crowded with hairy hipsters and travelling thrifters, all complementing the niche aesthetic of the area.

THE MAKESHIFT STAND: Akin to a spaza shop, the stall displays a number of different leather items – shoes, belts, wallets and bags

ARTISANS: Sam and Shepard see themselves as artists, with each item having a unique style symbolic of their distinct craftsmanship.

Two men stand atop the street, surveying the area predatorily. The first – a tall, inconspicuous man – makes a move towards the adjacent street, into a garage behind a convenience store – disappearing for a couple of minutes. He reappears with wooden beams and begins setting up a makeshift stall outside the Pakistani-owned convenience store.

The second – short and staunch – after greeting a couple of bystanders heads towards the construction site, adding the finishing touches to the makeshift stand.  Their work site is set for the day.

Sam Muzumbi, 35, and Shepard Murwisi, 30, are these two men and they are landmarks of 7th, having been there for nearly 10 years. Unbothered and bold, the two have been repairing and making shoes and other items throughout the past decade on Melville’s signature strip.

Like Yeoville of the late 70s, Melville is a multi-cultural space, where blacks and whites pose for picturesque ‘post-Apartheid South African’ moments – an enigmatically bohemian place, indeed. In recent years it has taken the role of a tourist destination, like Long Street in Cape Town, because of its artsy aesthetic – appealing to travellers pursuing the taste of an authentic Johannesburg outing.

The brother’s store, oddly named Big Fish Art, has profited from this expansion. Their stall is slotted in opposite a vintage thrift shop, that such, makes the brothers a marquee for tourists looking for genuine South African souvenirs.  These self-employed Zimbabwean brothers will provide this “genuine” merchandise.

Their story reads as awfully analogous to those of many immigrants who have made the trip to South Africa in search of job opportunities and an overall better standard of living. Sam, the one lesser in length, was the first to make the transition from Harare to Johannesburg, packing his bags and catching a bus south in 2009 seeking greener pastures.

When he arrived in South Africa, unemployed and penniless, he resorted to the same trade he implored in Zimbabwe – fixing shoes. Sam, a cobbler, first learned to repair shoes from his uncles back home.

In Melville this skill would prove helpful as the patrons of the area were thrift-driven hipsters from the surrounding residences, home to mostly University of Johannesburg students, who rather than buying new shoes would prefer to fix their old ones and save the change for more important things.

“They come here to drink, this place for them is about drinking and partying. So they don’t want to waste money on other things like buying new shoes. So they just come to me and I do it for cheap,” Sam says before letting out a cheeky smirk.

These early days were the foundations for the brand’s growth. As his reputation and pocket grew, Sam, also known as Rasta, began pulling in more customers – specifically other workers in the area.

Bartenders, waiters, domestic workers and security guards from the surrounding bars and residences were the sort of customers who would regularly need their shoes repaired because of the nature of their work and the expense of having to buy new ones.

The move was only logical it appears with informal work contributing hugely to the economy, an estimated 6% to the GDP according to Statistics South Africa (2014), and helping alleviate the strains of unemployment in the country, with the rate currently sitting at 27.2% in the second quarter of 2018.

Source: Institute for Economic Justice (2018)

SET-UP: Belts on the left, wallets ordered all in the middle and shoes scattered miscellaneously around the desk-size stand. Their bags hang over a rack facing the road, dangling with a slight silliness. 

In need of an extra hand, Sam invited Shepard, his wife’s brother, to South Africa to work with him. Shepard, a cobbler by blood, was the ideal partner for this venture, he was family and his father had been a cobbler too.

The two brothers have since come to represent an indiscernible aspect of Melville’s artsy aesthetic, an army of informal workers looking to capitalize on the demographic of its curb-side coffeehouses and bookshops with handmade products and hands-on services.

The informal sector is often considered as existing outside the economy; its impact viewed in a vacuum compared to the rest of the economy because it escapes the realm of regulation, statistics and taxation, according to Caroline Skinner, senior researcher at the African Research for Cities at the University of Cape Town.

Skinner considers this a “missed opportunity to regularly highlight the quality of work in SA.” Many of the jobs in the informal sector are unrecorded and, therefore, deprived of analysis and study. 

The work of a shoemaker, for example, is a particularly precarious one. Sam and Shepard leave their two-bedroom Auckland Park apartment at 8am on a warm spring Saturday, saddled on a small motorbike with all their tools and material needed for the day.

Most of their shoes are produced in the comfort of their own home; with their own machinery they stich up the products from the leather they purchase from a second-hand warehouse on Plein street in the CBD.

Their arrival in Melville is not met with awaiting customers and eager clients, their spot is bare, unoccupied and expressionless – no employer for them to check in with.

Their task for the first hour is to set out their stall in the same orderly fashion they do every day.

Their days are slow, spent mostly repairing the few shoes available on the day. Sam casually patches up the hole on an old loafer while Shepard sits there observing.

BREAK: Sam takes a break during the day, he usually works from 9am to 5pm. 

Statistics South Africa’s non-agricultural labour force data shows that 4.5 million people are in informal employment. Four hundred thousand of these workers are employed in the formal economy but under precarious conditions.

Source: Institute for Economic Justice (2018)

Parked on Coca-Cola crates outside the convenient store, escaping the scorching sun, the two speak about football while evaluating onlookers on the merit of their likelihood to purchase an item. No focus group or market research for them to identify and reach their ideal target market.

They simply assess their clothes, walk and proximity to the stall, working on their gut, before pouncing, “good day ma’am, you see anything you like?”  

She walks away, ignoring their pitch, and they return to their seats. This goes on for well over an hour before the first onlooker commits. “These are nice,” a 30-something year old white man says while showing his girlfriend a brown pair of leather farm-style shoes.

Sam switches into salesman mode and starts smothering the couple, “Yes, these will look nice on you, sir. Try them on”. Carefully caressing the man’s ego, Sam works his magic – the kind of sales pitch he’s worked on for years.

The moment has come for Sam to make his move as the Ray-Ban-draped man lowers the size 9, “the shoe is R700, boss. But for you I can give it for R600,” he says with the kind of ‘bargain struck’ demeanour of a true salesman.

It fails, and the man walks away with his girlfriend hand-in-hand to the opposing thrift shop. Sam returns to his seat and Shepard takes the chance to explain the maths behind their pitch.

“I can make these shoes for R250 or R300, then we sell them for a lot of money and we can always make more profit. It’s b-b-b-business, my friend,” he says with a slight stutter airing out the awkwardness which brands him the more reserved of the two.

The course of the day mostly plays out like this, Sam and Shepard share some business tips with me before putting them into practise on unsuspecting passers. Their day comes to an end and besides the few wallets and odd pair of shoes they sell; this Saturday has been a quiet one.

Operational every day besides Sunday, Saturday is usually their most rewarding day. The pair usually make around R2000 on a busy Saturday, when families gather for lunches in Melville’s niche cafes and tourists inspect the hoardings of different thrift and charity stores.

A WORK OF THE HANDS: Patrick reaches through his tools, his coarse hands have been doing this for the past eight years.

A LONG DAY’S WORK: Patrick sits outside a convenient store repairing shoes for Melville residents from 9am to 6pm every day. 

Today, the brothers leave with slightly under R1000, the kind of money that makes their 9-5 shifts seem a little shameful. It makes little difference, however, they are neither renting the space they occupy or pay taxes for their income, they simply walk away with it – likely to support their livelihoods and send the rest home to their families in Zimbabwe.

The sunset on Melville’s 7th is especially beautiful, setting just above the steep slopes of this lively street – it is ironically romantic considering all the labour that takes place here. The brothers pack up their store and return its structure to the garage behind the convenience store – disappearing unnoticed, like the sun.

The two hop back on their motorbike and return home, hoping to get a good night’s rest and an early start tomorrow.

Even in the heart of the handsome suburbs of Melville, Sam and Shepard’s livelihood is subject to the realities of a harsh economy and an unreliable demographic. Informal work anywhere in the country is largely unpredictable.

Patrick Nyame, a shrewd and hopeful Ghanaian man, sets up his site a few streets down from the brothers in Melville. He, too, is a cobbler and his work includes stitching, etching and mending shoes.

He has recently expanded his business into producing sandals and other footwear.

He came to South Africa, like Sam and Shepard, seeking a better life. His brother had been the first of his kin to embark on the journey, arriving in 2011 only to discover the sad truth that poverty and depravation were no different here.

Informal workers are often assumed to be unorganised, which is not the case. In towns and cities across South Africa, informal workers act collectively. This is increasingly aggregating up to national.

Source: Institute for Economic Justice (2018)

When Patrick, a cocoa farmer, arrived two years later, pushed by the same optimism, his brother had worked as a cobbler and was now a barber in the dilapidated Brixton centre. He was in an unyielding position to lower Patrick’s expectations, quickly helping his younger brother to set up as a cobbler in the area.

“There’s too many jobs here, that’s what everyone says. But when you get here you have to make a plan. You spend all your money coming here, so when I arrived I had no money, no job,” Patrick says while astutely focusing on removing the grip of a struggling sandal.

With a short hand knife, he picks the stitching off the sandal one by one before continuing, “And you can’t be the guy with nothing or else everyone will laugh at you, so I made a plan.”

Patrick’s livelihood wholeheartedly depends on his clientele and if they are not in need of his work he can go home with less than R100 a day compared to his usual R300 income. His dependency on his customers is a point of despair for the 53-year-old.

“If I find something else, I’ll leave this”. He drops the sandal and reaches out for a brown stiletto, rubbing its 10-centimetre sole before considering his next thought. “At the end of the day, if people don’t bring shoes then there’s nothing for me. It’s like that, one day can be good then tomorrow there’s nothing.”

The work of an informal worker like a shoemaker, thus, is irregular. The issue with informal work remains its vulnerability, with a number of informal start-ups closing within six months of their establishment, according to Skinner.

Sam and Shepard, like Patrick, have passed the test of time and are considering ways to expand their business in the Melville area. The introduction of their own merchandise into their work was an especially inspiring move for their business.

Rather than simply repairing shoes, the two brothers are creating their own signature merchandise with a production line they are in full control over, ensuring their stay in Melville is extended.

The journey to making their own products has been a long one but now it has brought some reward. Luka Epstein, 18, has observed the store’s growth in recent years and has purchased a few items in the past.

The web developer, who has lived in Melville for the past 10 years, says, “I always check on their stuff. They are putting in effort to make a life for themselves. It brings this bourgeois area to the level of the people.”

The thrift shop, the Moral Kiosk, opposite their stall has helped them reach a new and younger clientele. The two stores share an appreciation for one another, working to develop a deeper connection within Melville’s thrift community.

“They have a very unique approach, it’s craftsmanship and fashion. I think it’s very dope. A lot of people come to Melville looking for a vintage aesthetic rather than going to a store I mean. So this is more authentic,” says Lwando Gwili, an employee at the Moral Kiosk.

The thrift store sells second hand clothing and footwear as well offering vinyl and other antique items. The nappy-haired twenty-five-year-old described the bond between their store and the brother’s one while scratching his patchy beard, “We complement each other. We have vintage clothing and they have vintage accessories. It just works well.”

Dwellers of Melville have, too, taken an appreciation for the work of Sam and Shepard. Ezekiel Mofokwane, 45, has been jogging through the Melville area for over 10 years and has developed an admiration for the informal work in the area.

“This place is fine and safe. These guys make quality stuff and it’s affordable, so they give people options. Plus, its original and authentic stuff that you don’t find in other places,” Mofokwane says while sneaking a break in on his weekly jog.

Melville in all its allure and antiquity is made up of individuals like Sam, Shepard and Patrick. Their labour is the heartbeat behind the vibrant suburb – they are the worker bees of this buzzing hive. 

They go unnoticed and are only around when there’s work to be done. Modest and humble, they are the indiscernible army of Melville.

INFOGRAPHIC: This is an interactive image showing the various ways one can fix a worn-out shoe with homemade products. Hover over the image to find related videos. Graphic: Tshego Mokgabudi