By Thato Magano (@pothaeto)
After listening to that conversation, I found myself asking why we aren’t exploring the contribution of these salons to the economy of the country. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we took lessons from these entrepreneurs to understand what sets their businesses apart in this tough economic climate when established businesses in the malls are failing?
Black hair has been a topic of discussion for ages and most recently, a ‘concerned’ fan started a petition to compel Blue Ivy’s parents to comb her hair, showing how deep the politics run to such a point that even a toddler’s hair has become part of the fray. In the past two months alone, black hair has been discussed on two talk radio stations in Gauteng and there is a plethora of content if you ever took the time to look online. Personally, I’ve also indulged in a couple of these conversations about weaves and why black women feel the need to have long flowing tresses that do not belong to them. And it was starting to get boring as I felt that we should live and let live, and allow our sisters to do what they want to do with their heads. It’s theirs because they bought it, no?
But then, about a month ago, a conversation with Khanyi Mbau about street salons, where she referred to them as a ‘drive-thru hair salons’, on TalkRadio 702 with Steven Grootes had me touched on my studio. The conversation was a result of a report claiming that street salons are ‘stealing’ business away from salons in the malls and as a result, they were battling, with some having been forced to close. The chat was around why these street salons are being patronised and the level of service one can expect when you do decide to visit one. In the beginning, I outright felt offended as to why we are still having conversations about the relevance of street salons in 2014 South Africa. And as it went on, I got even more worked up by the framing with which the radio station chose to engage the issue.
We live in a country with profound structural inequalities that have caused the need for these salons to exist. They exist because access to established hair businesses in malls or regulated spaces is not a luxury many a black woman in this country can afford. They exist because they offer convenience and inexpensive style to many women who, if the ‘legitimate’ mall salon was the only space available for them to get their hair done, there would be no relief for them. And it’s fascinating that these street salons are patronised by everyone from your favourite Generations actress or radio show host to the Mme from Sandton, the student from Wits or UJ and the young lady trying who eke out a living on the streets of our cities.
After listening to that conversation, I found myself asking why we aren’t exploring the contribution of these salons to the economy of the country. They exist in every city and every village across the breadth of this country. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we took lessons from these entrepreneurs to understand what sets their businesses apart in this tough economic climate when established businesses in the malls are failing? Why is it that the owner of a Carlton or any mall based salon has not gone out to the streets of our cities and interrogated why these street salons are proving to be such formidable competition and taking away their customers? When are we going to start to be intentional about assessing the impact of these businesses and how we make them legitimate without changing what makes them work? Their uniqueness is that they are the antithesis to establishment and regulation.
These street salons are on the pulse and are adaptable to the needs of their clients in a way that established businesses aren’t. It can’t be taken for granted that they play a great role in keeping your long tresses, afros or dreads looking fly for any work, lifestyle or party situation. What these salons do for our mothers, friends and the black woman in general is provide her dignity in a way that is affordable. I say dignity, cause you know, your hair is your crown.
My sense is that we have not fully recognised the value of these ‘drive-thru’ salons, and that is why some among us have found themselves incredulous on seeing that these salons are taking away business from the mall salons. It could be just me but I think that is the conversation to have, to ask how we improve the service and not why the service exists.
In a previous life, Thato Magano was a strategy consultant and marketing dude at Cadbury’s and has since moved to crafting alternative entrepreneurial spaces to explore his various talents. He is a transitional griot trapped in the comforts of saxon realities and longing for the freedoms of civilisations past. A liker of things and yet prisoner to none. A revolutionary non sequitur. Motho wa Batho fela!