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Grant day in Cwebe Village

By Zipho Xego

A woman carrying groceries comes back from the shop.


For someone who was been brought up in a village, I thought knew what grant pay-out days looked like. In my village, the people would wake up very early in the morning to get to town, which was so busy on grant pay-day that it became something of a no-go area, unless your business could not wait. Grant pay days were characterised by long queues at the bank, taxi rank and shops.


However, this was not the case in Cwebe village, where relatively few people went to town on the grant pay-out days, which were the 2nd of the month for old-age grants; the 5th for disability grants; and the 6th for child grants and the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grants. In Cwebe, it seemed, grant days look like any other normal day until around 10am.

On the morning of Tuesday the 6th of June, the day on which the child support grant was to be paid, I set out to observe the movement and the activities of the people in the area. The child support grant is the most widely sourced grant in the area, so it made sense to choose this day for observation.


The morning started with children going to school, some people going to town and others going to work. Then, from 8am, the village was quiet. It was almost as if everyone had gone back to bed. But this did not last long. Just after 10am, people started to move around again, with a number of them walking in the direction of the shop. I followed and soon came across others walking in groups or singly as the village came alive.


At the shop, it became clear that this was no ordinary day. There were a number of men sitting outside in small groups while the women were inside filling the shop. There were two queues at the counter: one shorter one for those buying with cash; and another much longer one for those buying with cards. Some of the women were there to pay their debts to the store-owner who had previously sold them goods on credit; while others were there to buy groceries with the money that they had in hand.


Conversations were flowing; and with each new person who entered the voices grew louder and louder. From time to time, the men, some of whom had received their SRD grant that day, would enter – and the shopkeeper would prioritise serving those who paid with cash. Since there were quite long delays in serving the customers, there was plenty of time to chat. The flowing conversations made people forget that they had been there for long time.

I spent my day there observing and joining the conversation. Some people who did not know me asked why I was there; others engaged me in conversation regardless. When the schools came out, the children also flocked to the shop. Some of them came to help their mothers and grandmothers carry the groceries home, while others just came to hang out with their friends. Clearly, the shop was the place to be.


After they had completed their business, those who lived nearby walked back home in groups carrying plastic bags full of food. Meanwhile those who lived further away gathered outside, and once a significant number who were going in the same direction had come together the shop owner would give them a lift closer to their homes.


I found out that the shop would be very busy for a couple of days until everyone in the village had had a chance to go and clear their debts and buy groceries with whatever money they had left or even ask for cash back. Then, once night fell, it would become the tavern’s chance to come alive.


I learned that the shop owner and the local people had established a symbiotic relationship built on trust. The shop owner would give the villagers food on credit and, in return, hold their bank card or grant card, which he would then use to recoup the money before giving it back. In addition, the shop owner was prepared to use his van to transport those who lived some distance away if they bought from him. In this way the locals saved the R90 that they would have had to spend on going into town to shop, while the store owner did good business. In other words, a win-win situation for both.


In the context of the reportedly high levels of xenophobia across South Africa I found the arrangement peculiar, given that the shop owner was a foreigner – a Pakistani national. However, it seemed that the villages had no problem trusting him to hold their bank and grant cards which provided access to their only source of income. Indeed, it seemed that the shop owner had integrated well into the community. He made his van available sometimes in cases of emergency in the area; and he also had a local girlfriend and a child by her.


Meanwhile, it was clearly cheaper and more convenient for the villagers to buy their groceries from him. With the credit on offer they were able to buy food throughout the month. They also said that they saved on travel costs, which would include the taxi drivers charging them extra for bringing back their bags of shopping from town.

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