Shopping in Small Town South Africa

By Julienne du Toit

Photographs by Chris Marais

When we moved to Cradock in the Eastern Cape in 2007, we needed a few furniture oddments. Like everyone in town, we first went to More4Less – an oddities emporium housed in what used to be the local Ford dealership.

This shop has literally everything, from chandeliers to jaffle-makers, old sheep shears to second-hand sideboards. There we found what we were looking for – a pre-loved table and a few chairs. But there was something wrong with our credit card.

“Don’t worry,” said owner Marlene van Nuwenhuys. “You can pay me tomorrow. What’s your address? We’ll deliver this afternoon.”

Fresh out of Sandton, we stood open-mouthed for an undignified stretch of time before nodding agreement.

Chris and I found that in this town you can still take clothes ‘on appro’, try them out in the comfort of your home, and be trusted to bring them back or buy them the next day. Everyone knows where you live anyway.

There is always something strange and wondrous at Cradock’s More4Less.

Weird Retail

Things are sometimes sold in very odd places.

In Cradock, for example, the local electrical repair shop has taken to selling kilograms of fresh string beans, patty pans and tomatoes. The gun merchant also sells jewellery. The undertaker periodically sells onions and potatoes (you’ll know because a representative bag is placed in the shop window).

For the rest, you need local intelligence – friends who will let you know what is where – or you must join the local WhatsApp groups.

So far, we have bought olives and rusks from the hairdresser, eggs from the vet, chicken from the accountants, biltong from the doctor and some amazingly fresh fish from a second-hand car dealership (now closed, alas).

It’s not just Cradock. This is the case in every small town. On one visit to Smithfield, we were astounded to hear that the local clothes boutique had a great sideline in frozen farm chickens.

Even in tiny dorps, e-commerce brings city goods with the click of a mouse.

Digital Retail

WhatsApp has become crucial for small town commerce – especially over Covid-19 lockdowns. I recently made a list of what had been marketed on one single random day via the Cradock Adverteer group:

A second hand tractor at a snip (R20 000), a black sofa, packets of prickly pears, an ancient Nokia with charger, a local restaurant’s Jalapeño Poppers (#hotstuff), sheep rails and a tarpaulin, a kitchen table and chairs, organic beetroot, picture rail hooks, a venerable Venter trailer, a wooden cot, a Sinotec colour TV (no remote), a puzzle depicting two sailing ships (1 500 pieces), a DStv satellite dish for campers, a model helicopter, an overlocker, four Afrikaans paperback thrillers (as new), a vintage leather satchel without a handle and 10kg bags of freshly harvested gemsquashes.

Almost everything seems to find buyers within minutes.

Ten years ago, we would send our Karoo books out to buyers and shops via the local Post Office. Now we use Postnet, the Pep Store Paxi system and The Courier Guy to reach our customers.

Like the rest of South Africa, the Karoo has woken up to e-commerce in a big way. Stuff comes to us via an array of couriers, instead of us having to make the 300km round trip to Port Elizabeth to trawl the malls looking like Country Bears’ Day Out in our customary Karoo attire.

Fresh and wonderful, delivered from farm to gate.

Lani’s Farm Box

Every Saturday morning during the first months of the national 2020 lockdown, we would hear a cheerful toot outside our gate and emerge to see a bakkie vanishing down the road. On the pavement outside would be a box.

Poking out of it was a bouquet of cheerful garden flowers (a few late roses, chrysanthemums, and the like) along with a double bunch of spinach. Deeper inside was a pack of lettuce, some non-standard tomatoes, a butternut, an aubergine, a bushel of beans, three green peppers, three slices of boerpampoen, a clutch of shallots, two small cabbages, three fat bulbs of garlic, some fresh thyme and mint, a brown paper bag with a crusty loaf of fresh bread, and six eggs.

A treasure, in other words. Especially in a time where every visit to the shops meant risking exposure to the dreaded Covid-19 virus.

This was all from Waterval Farm in the Cradock district. The vegetables were from Lani Lombard’s now-famous kitchen garden. The bread was from her oven. And the eggs, with their orange yolks, were from the chickens that scratch around the Waterval werf.

Fresh from Waterval Farm, courtesy Lani Lombard.

I wasted no time in paying Lani via EFT for the privilege of this splendid offering, and in so doing, became a Farmbox subscriber. Affordable farm-fresh veggies, delivered from the ground to the gate, contact-free, safe and even legal.

It did not escape Lani’s notice that after her boxes were delivered, some people treated this as a Ready-Steady-Cook experience, posting pictures of their haul and the things they cooked with it on social media.

She then collaborated with other farmers. Veggies were supplied by Zola James of Hofmeyr. There was De Pekelaar cheese from Paterson, droewors, biltong and kaaswors from Lani’s, with fresh double-thick cream from Littlefields Farm.

“No exchanges. You have to take what you get. Your neighbour might like something that you don’t,” wrote Lani in her WhatsApp broadcast, adding a crazy-faced emoji for fun.

Lani has reopened her popular True Living restaurant in Cradock, but her daughter Louzel and son-in-law Louis Steyn have upgraded the concept into Karoo Farm Box, an e-commerce service that offers a range of exclusive products from the region.

Lani and Louzel Lombard the Karoo Farm Box.

Bit of Everything

For authenticity and hands-on enjoyment, e-buying will never beat a leisurely browse through the All Sorts shops, those general trading stores that offer a fascinating snapshot of the things locals prize and need. The profit margins are too slim for retailers to stock what doesn’t sell.

For example, Zelda Ferreira of Iets van Alles in the tiny village of Vosburg does a reasonably brisk trade in Lister generator engine parts, knitting needles and wool, fanbelts, salad spoons, enamelware, toilet paper, hairspray, pliers, padded bras, diesel filters and rubber ducks.

The Lister Engine Queen of Vosburg.

In Bedford, a more modern version of these catch-all shops belongs to a well-loved Senegalese man, Thiam Miadcke, who came to this small Eastern Cape Town in 1998 and started selling goods on the pavement of the town’s main road.

It took four years before Thiam (the locals fondly mispronounce his name as ‘Chum’, which is why the shop is called Chiam) actually moved into a building. He has been so successful that his shop has slowly expanded into one of the town’s biggest retail spaces, with six shop assistants.

The secret is that as pavement hawker, Thiam sussed out local shopping needs.

“Some of my best sellers have always been wigs, doorbells, cell phones and linoleum. But I could never sell clothing because of the dust.”

Now that he has a store, Thiam can indulge his sharp eye for fashion. His other retail asset is his kindness. Everyone in Bedford has something good to say about him, how he helped them find an evening dress, or repaired a cell phone, or found an elusive part for an appliance.

Thiam Miadcke of Senegal and Bedford

The Village Grocer

Most of Nieu-Bethesda has high praise for Ali Ahmed Saju, the Bangladeshi who runs Die Winkel, just across from the post office. He and his brother own it, live in the shop and retreat to pray in the back room several times a day.

Saju, as everyone calls him, well-loved and essential for day-to-day survival in Nieu-Bethesda.

“I like it here. I like the people of Nieu-Bethesda. Everyone knows me. If people ask anything I see if I can get it for them, and don’t ask too much price.”

Ali-Ahmed Saju of Bangladesh and Nieu-Bethesda.

Dustcovers

Just down the road from Die Winkel is what Athol Fugard has called “the best bookshop in the Southern Hemisphere” – Dustcovers, owned by the only vegan in Nieu-Bethesda, our friend Victoria Nance.

She’s an animal rights champion who walks the walk, living with a pack of rescue dogs, raising money for pet sterilisation, comfortable bits for horses and kennels for community canines.

Over the years her pack has changed, but the ritual of visiting Dustcovers remains the same: there are always dogs and cats that greet you at the door of the bookshop.

Victoria Nance of Dustcovers in Nieu-Bethesda, a portrait with dogs.

Rise of the Padstal

When you walk into a platteland padstal (farm stall) you’re treated to a local slice of life. The food on offer is a variety of preserves, dried meats, sit-down meals and takeaway specials – mostly prepared by farmers’ wives living close by.

Each padstal worthy of the name would have its own specialty food item that comes with a secret recipe. This could be a bag of biltong, a delicious pie, a slab of nougat or a bottle of something with a catchy name. Just so you remember that particular little spot once you’re back home.

The shelves are lined with regional products, crafts and all manner of books, designed as gifts and mementos of your journey through South Africa’s countryside.

At Oppivlak Padstal between Aberdeen and Willowmore, it’s always Roosterkoek o’ clock.

One of a Kind

There is a famous bicycle shop in Beaufort West, called MC Ellis. Actually it is more like a completely spontaneous, unstructured half-museum, half-shop.

Owner Martin ‘Tim’ Ellis’s grandfather bought the shop in 1934 and for years it was a trading store, with a tailor upstairs.

Apart from bicycles and parts, inner tubes, pumps and MTB accessories, you might encounter an ancient box camera he bought off someone, his mother’s ginger beer, a guitar, old time fire extinguishers, even Zimmer frames with wheels waiting to be repaired.

The Ellis family coffin (never used, obviously) is now kept where the tailor used to work. Children are drawn to this shop, happily dropping in and out in this treasure trove, watching the endless repairs of punctures, and coveting their next bike.

Tim Ellis, the only one who knows where everything is, says Professor Chris Barnard (who was born in Beaufort West) popped in just before he died “to see if the shop was still such a mess”.

Tim Ellis and the glorious mess that is his bicycle shop in Beaufort West.

Oriental Bizarre

In practically every town there is, of course, a ‘China Shop’, selling an array of cheap offerings from bicycles to rucksacks, wigs and sneakers with brand names that are just slightly off – Astir instead of All Star, for example.

You have to admire the hardiness of these shop-owners from the Far East who, without being able to speak a word of any South African language, somehow thrive and trade in the tiniest dorps.  Just pay attention while browsing. A friend of ours was fingering a blanket at the back of the store when she suddenly realised that this was part of the owner’s actual bed. Red faces all round.

In 2009, University of Johannesburg researchers Yoon Jung Park and Anna Ying Chen embarked on a revealing road trip through the Free State platteland. They published their findings in a report entitled Recent Chinese Migrants in Small Towns of Post-Apartheid South Africa. Some of their observations:

  • Most of the shops were owned and operated by families from the Fuqing region of Fujian province;
  • The shops purchased stock together, to lower costs;
  • Because of the language barrier, one of the biggest problems the immigrants face is communicating with the locals. They are mostly bored and socially isolated, and spend any leisure time watching Chinese TV;
  • Most parents tend to send their children back to China to be schooled;
  • Many of the new families have arrived with debt and work incredibly long hours;
  • They often fall prey to corrupt Government officials from departments that include Home Affairs, the SA Revenue Service and local police;
  • Most have been the victims of armed robberies and break-ins – they are perceived to be storing large amounts of cash in their shops;
  • They are supported by central, city-based Chinese cultural organisations which have, in the past, warned them in advance of impending xenophobic attacks;
  • Most are homesick and dream of returning to China;
  • A small percentage of more successful shop-owners have reinvested their profits locally in other enterprises – they are happy to have moved to South Africa.
    No matter how small the dorp, there is always some kind of ‘China Shop’.

A 2012 study by the Stellenbosch research group, Econex, reveals that China Shops generally establish themselves in the formerly white centre of small towns and are careful not to go into direct competition with township spaza shops or informal African traders in the area. They’re also recognised as the largest retail chain – albeit mostly off the books – in South Africa.

Chain Stores and Co-Ops

Our elegant friend Elaine Hurford in Prince Albert had invaluable advice on shopping in a small town. Do not underestimate Pep, she said.

“Pep is the Woolworths of the platteland.”

Apart from being a purveyor of ever-changing bargain clothes and magical oddments, it has a mysterious and unpredictable side.

Sometimes, said Elaine, Pep have end of range designer garments “at a snip”. Occasionally they stock red satin pyjamas, she confided. Her advice is to pop in often and always check the labels.

Saturday morning, Main Road, Ladismith.

But agricultural co-ops are one of the best things about living in the rural regions. Don’t let the XXL two-tone farmer’s shirts or scary-looking calf weaning rings put you off.

There are true treasures inside, if you know where to look. Don’t leave without buying pink udder cream (otherwise known as speensalf), wonderful for chapped hands and winter chilblains.

No rural home should be without perdesalf (horse liniment) which is excellent for healing bumps, sprains and bruises.

Co-ops also sell all kinds of waterproof items, from Wellingtons to farming boots that will survive many seasons of rough treatment. Here you will also find sublime mohair socks and diesel cheaper than anywhere else.

The clothing range is generally by Jonssons – a hardy and sometimes rather stylish line of clothing that would never see the light of day in a city, but which is 100% perfect for rural living.

Co-ops are also hardware stores and suppliers of industrial-sized bags of Montego dog food. Naturally, this is where you go when buying a rain tank, boerewors spice, heavy-duty gardening equipment or dog kennels.

At Daggaboer Padstal, the dagga has always just run out.

Closing Time

Unlike cities, where peak leisure retail generally happens over weekends, things close down after lunch time on Saturdays in small towns. Here and there you might find a place open for lunch on a Sunday, or larger supermarkets chains that open before church, but in the smallest dorps, that simply doesn’t happen.

Sweets in a twist of paper, like the olden days.

The other thing that takes many completely by surprise is the fact that shops often close for lunch in the platteland. People head home, eat, sometimes have a small nap and then come back at 2pm.  Or in a small village, even later. After all, what’s the rush?

For more stories of all things rural by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais, read Moving to the Platteland – Life in Small Town South Africa (MLM Publishers, 300 pages, 135 black and white images). To purchase, either order here or email julie@karoospace.co.za for details.

6 thoughts on “Shopping in Small Town South Africa

  1. John Paisley says:

    Great story! Thanks! I moved to Swellendam nearly 3 years ago, and enjoyed the process of where to find what I needed. I connected with local Swellendammers and heard where the best bread / cheese /butter etc was, where to go to get car electrics fixed, who had the freshest organic veggies (and who delivered every week) I have been to the “supermarkets” and discovered they they each have their “specialities”. Then I learned that if what I wanted was not available in Swellendam, it could be obtained in Barrydale, Bonnievale,, Montague or Robertson…It has been (and will be) a fascinating journey!

  2. Jane Tordoff says:

    What a wonderful story. Reminds me of my days in Teebus, although I did enjoy our shopping trip to Queenstown.

  3. Brian Dyke says:

    Oh what a wonderful post. Just superb. And as always, the pics are super. Can’t wait for the next adventure report back. 🙂

  4. Suki says:

    Thank you I really enjoyed that journey. Seeing places I havent seen for a while and being transported on how different things are to the UK. Delivered boxes here cost a fortune. Colourful pictures that took me right back and transported me for a while, from this lockdown we find ourselves in again. Bless each and everyone.

  5. Chris says:

    Interesting article
    IF I am not mistaken your photo #3 is of Hudson street Nieu-Bethesda looking East with DustCovers at the bottom of the photo.
    Hi Victoria … hope you are healthy , wealthy , and well ( and the dogs and kitties )

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *