Jozi City Feature

Making real money from fake goods

Since the 19th century gold rush brought Johannesburg to life, hundreds of thousands of people have been attracted to the CBD with the aim of accumulating wealth from this precious metal. Today’s rush is fake gold being sold illegally by hawkers and traders.

People aiming to make quick money are disguising fake gold for the real thing and illegally putting it up for sale on the streets.

Hawking and informal trading gained momentum in the ’80s as mostly black people resisted laws proclaiming the CBD as “white space” by selling fruits, vegetables, coffee and plants on street corners. This is after local authorities, including the apartheid government, had barred them from earning a living from formal and commercial activity in the CBD.

The abolition of influx control laws after South Africa became a democratic state in 1994 has made it easier for more people to use the city space for informal trading and, in the process, saturate the CBD with sales of fake jewellery, pirated DVDs and counterfeit designer label clothing and accessories.


Fong kong: Fake gold jewellery and counterfeit branded sunglasses sold by traders in the CBD.

Teresa Steyn and her brother Vincent have been in the CBD for three years, selling fake jewellery and DVDs as a means of income. Their “workplace” is a 30m stretch of road close to the Bree and Wanderers streets intersection, which they share with their friends, Thomas Swanepoel and his girlfriend Samantha Bruford-Row, who also trade informally.

Teresa uses a trick her brother taught her to fool customers into believing the jewellery she sells is made from real gold. As gold is inflammable, real gold jewellery is resilient to flames and does not turn black when burnt. Teresa uses a cigarette lighter to burn her rings, bracelets and chains in the presence of potential customers who watch with amazement and immediately show interest in buying the jewellery, convinced that it is genuine gold.

Careful observation clearly shows that she bluffs her unsuspecting customers by placing the rings, bracelets and chains in the blue base, rather than the yellow, of the flame. The blue is merely gas output and, even though it heats up, it does not burn the jewellery. Through this trick she is able to get more sales of her jewellery.

She says the expression on people’s faces is “priceless” when the gold does not blacken and, being unaware of the trick, “they are willing to pay more than R100 for a single item because they know that they can’t get ‘pure gold’ for cheaper anywhere else”.

Vincent admits that “fooling people is not a good thing”, but it is part of the tactics they have had to learn over the years in order to survive as white hawkers in a black-dominated environment.


Laugh out loud: Teresa Steyn enjoys a giggle after selling a bracelet to a customer.

He and Teresa were introduced into the CBD by Swanepoel because they wanted a “hide-out” place in which they could avoid scrutiny from other white people, including family members, who marginalise them for not being able to succeed in the formal economic sector.

“Where we come from people look down on us and make jokes about what we do. I have three brothers and three sisters who are all involved in businesses and they say they do not want anything to do with me until I get my act together and leave the town,” Swanepoel says.

He arrives in the CBD with Bruford-Row every morning at 8am ready for a full day of work. The first thing he does is rush to the “supplier” to collect “stock”. The stock consists of counterfeit branded sunglasses which he sells, and fake jewellery and pirated DVDs which the Steyns sell.

Swanepoel says the sunglasses are more profitable because he can buy a package of 60 – a mixture of Gucci, Puma, Louis Vuitton and Adidas – for R200. When he sells the sunglasses for R10 a pair, he is able to accumulate a lump sum of R600 every day.


Money maker: Thomas Swanepoel sells a pair of sunglasses to a taxi passenger for R10.

He believes “the goods they sell are profitable because there is a market for them”. This market is mainly black people from townships and informal settlements.

“It’s really quick and easy money to make,” he says.

“Here in town we dress in dirty clothing and speak Zulu, allowing ourselves to blend in well with black people who receive us with friendliness and support.”

It is unusual to see white people walking back and forth persuading black people passing by to buy their goods.

Other white people in the Johannesburg CBD still sport the familiar suited, shiny-shoed, briefcase-in-hand look and disappear through mammoth glass doors of skyscrapers, only to be seen again when they drive out from the basement parking at sunset, headed for their suburban dwellings. But Swanepoel says he has no shame in selling on the street and what makes him happy is accomplishing his goal of “making money”.

Similar to the gold rush that was a driving force leading people to populate Johannesburg and giving birth to “downtown” as we know the CBD to be, economic forces are still responsible for the continuous inflow of people looking to make money off the streets.

Walking through the CBD, the atmosphere is filled with a deafening buzz of engine revs and hooting from hundreds of taxis off-loading passengers who chatter loudly, adding to the noise of kwaito music played non-stop in retail shops.

It is hard to ignore what smells like various mixtures of urine, sweat, smoke and rotting food stuffs in the air coupled with the visual pollution of decaying buildings, littered pavements and what appears to be thousands of men and women competing for walking and breathing space as they rush in all directions.

Population control laws such as the Urban Area Act of 1923, which prohibited black people from coming into the city unless they were formally employed, have always been disregarded by people who came to the Johannesburg illegally, feeling that pursuit of their socio-economic interests was of more importance.

The number of hawkers and street traders occupying the CBD’s street space illegally, coupled with their stock of underground goods such as the pirated DVDs, fake jewellery and designer labels,  is surely a clear indication that laws have not managed to prohibit people from realising these interests.


On the move: The CBD’s streets are always busy with traders and consumers.


A Constitutional Court ruling in 1999 declared that hawkers and traders had a right to earn a living and therefore granted them the right to sell all sorts of goods on the streets. There was, however, a condition. The court stipulated that hawkers and street traders needed to obtain a licence from the Johannesburg trade licence department, permitting them to legally trade on the street.

This was seen as a control measure to ensure that city officials had precise records of how many people were trading on the streets of the CBD and insurance that goods sold were legal, firstly, and, secondly, did not infringe on environmental, health, safety and pollution parameters set by the city council.

Despite these efforts, hawkers and informal traders, including Swanepoel, Bruford-Row and the Steyns, operate without licences, and have done so for years. Metro Police officers are a constant presence in the CBD. It is common to see hawkers running away to avoid arrest and their goods being confiscated.

The situation seems to pit the socio-economic will of the people against the laws of the city, and the ever-increasing presence of hawkers and informal traders indicates that this will has leverage, as it has for many years of Johannesburg’s history.

Swanepoel says those hawkers who get caught by the Metro Police officers for selling illegal and counterfeit goods are taken into custody and often have to pay bribes to the police to release them and return their goods.

“Because we operate as a community here, if one of us is arrested we can sometimes raise money to pay the police to let him go,” he says, “and the following day he will be back here working.

“We realise that we all need to survive and when we unite and work together we are able to achieve more.”

In an article titled “The Metropolis and Mental Life” from the book The Sociology of Georg Simmell, theorist Georg Simmell explains that human interactions formed in any city are primarily based on socio-economic relations. Simmell says humans striving for survival in a city inherently get involved in economic activity to make money.

Since making money is the common factor among city people, who are all doing the same things, collectives and mutually beneficial economic relations will develop among the people.

This means that in the city, anybody from any background, race, religion or class will be able to live in accordance with other people because they have the common interest of survival and pursuit of financial improvement in their lives.

Industrial sociologist Paul Stevens, from Wits University, says Simmell’s theory explains the reasons white authorities did not want black people to function as hawkers and street traders when they politically controlled the country. But today, white traders are able to work easily and feel welcomed in a black-dominated environment.

“The white traders speak Zulu, dress and behave like the black people. They serve exactly the same purpose as other blacks, which is to sell goods. For this reason they do not pose a ‘threat’ because they are not perceived as rivals,” says Stevens.

“The immediate need to survive which hawkers have in mind is far greater in shaping their reasoning and behaviour and this enables them to look beyond other people’s race, religion and backgrounds.”

The carefully crafted laws which were designed by authorities to keep black people from selling goods in the city were a manner of regulating the threat posed by the far greater number of blacks. White authorities did not relate to black people on socio-economic grounds and therefore they did not want them present in the city.

It’s almost as if the Johannesburg CBD has undergone a revolution because, with the withering away of population control laws, people are again going back to the “original” foundations of relating to one another in the city, which is the pursuit of economic interests by everyone there.

Tags: , , ,

About Enos Phosa

Enos Phosa holds a bachelor of arts degree from Wits University, with international relations and sociology majors. His keen interest in reading and writing about political and socio-economic issues has led him to pursue a career in journalism. He is currently studying towards an honours degree and has acquired video shooting and editing skills to enhance his storytelling abilities. Some of his other areas of interest are sports, travel and motoring.

Comments are closed.