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Covid-19 silences vibrant Vilakazi Street

Mxolise Ledwaba in his shop at Vilakazi street in Soweto, during the lockdown due to coronavirus .
Mxolise Ledwaba in his shop at Vilakazi street in Soweto, during the lockdown due to coronavirus .

Vilakazi Street in Soweto resembles some sort of a ghost town these days. The usually bustling neighbourhood and the gateway to tourism in the township is eerily silent.

At the beginning of the street, the Soweto Gin Studio is still closed with no sign of opening soon.

A few meters away, Sakhumzi Maqubela, the owner of famous Sakhumzi Restaurant, is staring at empty benches and tables outside, something he says he struggles to come to terms with.

A security guard has kept a watchful eye on the property for more than a month now since the lockdown began.

Across the road from Sakhumzi, Vuyo's restaurant has also been closed with no patrons on the balcony for nearly two months.

The dancers who usually line the streets to entertain tourists are also missing in action.

This is the reality of the impact of Covid-19 to many small businesses across the land.

But on Vilakazi Street, it is even more evident because many businesses here are depended on movement of the people, the party vibe and socialising.

Yet, even after the government relaxed regulations to allow food to be prepared and delivered to customers instead of walk-ins, in Soweto it is still a complete lockdown. There are no signs of Uber Eats vehicles and delivery motorbikes leaving Vilakazi Street to the neighbourhood.

B&B owner Nombeko Rwaxa's business can't operate due to lockdown.
B&B owner Nombeko Rwaxa's business can't operate due to lockdown.

Maqubela was in a rather pensive mood when he spoke to Sowetan after holding a meeting with his staff, trying to figure out how can he start operating so that some of his workers can have an income.

He said right from the end of January things started going south.

"By February the tourism sector was slowing down due to Covid-19... Two weeks before lockdown, already business was down. By that time we had lost 70% because we were not allowed to sell alcohol. People come here to drink, but when they get here, they find people eating and they also order food. What is a catch for us is that we sell liquor," Maqubela.

Sakhumzi employs 110 workers who got their last payment at the end of March. Since then, things have been hard for him and his workers.

"Last week, one of the workers was asking money for food. Today, another one called me saying they have kicked her out, took furniture and threw the groceries out on the street. It is not nice. We are praying for God to help us and our government.

"For me to sleep, I have to take the alcohol that is expiring. My debit orders are also expiring. We have also put a claim to the insurance and it declined," he said.

"Our government should at least allow customers to come and pick up the orders. We cannot be enriching foreign companies. We cannot afford that when someone buys food for R100, the delivering company takes R30 of that. We still have to pay our staff, buy groceries."

Guesthouses and B&Bs along Vilakazi Street have also taken a knock. Paula Majola and Nombeko Rwaxa lead a group of 13 establishments made up of guesthouses and B&Bs in the area.

They have been trying to figure out how they can survive the drought of no visitors for weeks, but still there is no answer. Majola and Rwaxa lead the Vilakazi Precinct Accommodation Association.

"The lockdown came just before the Easter weekend. It hit us hard. We had many bookings from churches and other people for the Easter weekend. We had to refund all of them and stop business," Rwaxa said.

Artist Thando West also affected.
Artist Thando West also affected.

"It is tough. We have survived because our children help us here and there. We are even considering having long-term guests which could help us while the pandemic is here."

But one man, Mxolisi Ledwaba of Ndiza Craft Market, who sells Afrocentric fashion and art, is the odd one whose store is open and remains hopeful of a better future.

He decided to open his business on Mother's Day after the relaxation of the lockdown regulations.

To get going, Ledwaba introduced a new item to his collection - face mask.

"It is tough. I have only sold six face masks in the four days I have opened. I'm selling them for R30. They are the only items I have been able to sell. We chose to open as there is no gain in remaining closed. It is better for us to try something," Ledwaba said.

"I believe things will get better. Things cannot stay like this, they should improve at some stage."

One other person who was on Vilakazi Street was Zandile Mashinini, who was begging for food.

Mashinini turns 60 in June, therefore does not yet qualify for an old age grant.

She begged for anything and Sowetan photographer Antonio Muchave gave her just R2 which happened to be in his pocket.

Mashinini broke into tears as she received the coin with both hands.

The nearby Seventh Day Adventist Church has been providing one meal every weekday during the lockdown to the destitute like Mashinini. About 250 people turn up for the meal daily.

Vilakazi Street which is home to two nobel prize laureates - Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and the late former president Nelson Mandela - is a place of rich history.

Over the past two decades, properties along this street have been turned into businesses as Sowetans took advantage of the tourism opportunities.

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