Cecilia Dube’s dream has taken her from dust-choked building sites to university classrooms, from the rubble of demolished food stands to cooking meals in a park in an upscale neighborhood where fans watch World Cup soccer on a giant screen.
The World Cup. Biggest sporting event on Earth. The host nation’s month in the world spotlight. Tourists in their droves. A jolt of adrenaline for a sluggish economy. Or so goes the promise of mega-events such as these. For Dube, some of the rewards have already arrived, but for her and millions of her fellow citizens, the route out of poverty has so far proved fickle and arduous.
Her dream is a humble one — to one day run her own restaurant. But for now, she must suffice with the title of “trained food handler,” tending a food stand at the park consisting of a table, two chairs and a gas cooker. It’s a long way from owning a restaurant, but at least she’s no longer up before dawn frying doughnuts by candlelight.
Dube (pronounced DU-bay) is 36, with a 13-year-old daughter. She’s a cheerful-looking woman with a fierce work ethic that can leave her limp with exhaustion. She immigrated to South Africa from neighboring Zimbabwe in 1997 and married a car-parts salesman. She was pregnant with their second child when her husband died of kidney disease in 2003. The shock made her give birth prematurely. The baby boy, Thandolwenkosi (it means “God’s love”) died within a year.
She fell ill. A knee problem put her in a wheelchair for a while. She became depressed. Then she learned that a friend had been living with HIV for a decade. The friend’s fortitude strengthened her.
“I just thought, if this one is living with HIV, I have to live with what has come to me,” Dube said. “I decided to live.”
Life for her and many like her is a constant struggle. Two decades after South Africa broke free of apartheid, being judged fit to host the World Cup is a huge achievement. But what it most desperately needs is more jobs, houses, clinics and self-starting, taxpaying entrepreneurs.
Dube would love to be one. After her husband’s death left her without income, she worked at a fast food restaurant and traded in cheap clothes. She took extra work selling sandwiches in a tavern with no kitchen. When the tavern owner took over her business, she decided to strike out on her own.
South Africa had been picked for the World Cup and needed to build facilities. In 2006 Dube opened shop — in a shack, then a trailer — where the soccer authority’s new offices were going up. The following year she moved to the nearby site of Soccer City, the main World Cup stadium. It was being renovated and there were hungry workers to feed.
Sometimes she cooked in the open, pots balanced on three large stones over a wood fire, in the red dust kicked up by the bulldozers. She made meat stews and pap, a cornmeal porridge. She hardly ever took a day off except around Christmas, when she would visit family in Zimbabwe.
She lives with her daughter and mother in a three-room apartment in Johannesburg, an hourlong commute to and from work on two minibus taxis. She has not remarried. What keeps her going, she says, is her daughter, Thandekile, which means “loved one.”
“I need something big, so I can look after that girl,” she said.
“When I’m doing my budget, I first take out the school fees. Even before paying my rent.”
For three years she was one of a dozen cooks providing meals at Soccer City. They called themselves the Soccer City Traders. A typical day would begin before dawn with Dube barefoot and hard at work by the light of a candle stuck in an empty soda bottle, making triple-decker bologna-and-cheese sandwiches and frying vetkoeke, South African doughnuts.
Then, one morning last October, came a catastrophe. Police arrived and told the Soccer City Traders they were in the way of construction. The police broke up the stalls, loading the scraps of wood, cardboard and broken plastic chairs onto trucks.
The men and women immediately held a protest march and headed to Johannesburg City Hall. They were told they could open shop in another area near the stadium. The next morning, Dube was serving breakfast as usual. Catastrophe averted.
One evening found her at home, sitting exhausted in front of the TV. The news was on. She perked up briefly when an ad announced a sale on flour — perfect for vetkoeke. She and her mother discussed how to get to the grocery store, and concluded the travel costs would wipe out any profit.
On May 22 the stadium, renovated into the shape of a giant clay pot, opened with a match between two local soccer teams, and Dube’s sales topped $400.
But the next day, with the first World Cup match less than three weeks away, the police ordered the Soccer City Traders to leave for good. Dube had to hunt for a new place to set up shop.
Though she’d heard promises, she wasn’t certain that she would be able to serve food at World Cup events. Authorities were licensing only those hawkers who had been serving the stadiums before South Africa was named the World Cup host.
But Dube was still dreaming of that restaurant. Once a week she would shed her apron and head to the University of Johannesburg’s Center for Small Business Development.
There, she says, she and other hawkers learned about the importance of tracking earnings every day and keeping close tabs on what sells best. At a graduation networking session a representative of a big-box store explained credit terms. Another speaker said she could offer micro-loans. A third advised the class on how to Google for business information.
Thami Mazwai, head of the university’s small business project, explained, to enthusiastic shouts from his audience, why South Africa needed people like Dube.
South Africa can’t go on handing out welfare grants to 13 million people while only 7 million pay taxes, he said.
“The only (tax) income that will come into government is when people start forming their own businesses and employing people,” Mazwai said. “The decision you made to become an entrepreneur is not only good for you; you’ve got to see yourself as a very serious player in our economy.”
Finally came good news for Dube: the city had decided that in recognition of their hard work and perseverance, the Soccer City Traders would be among the 88 officially sanctioned World Cup food hawkers.
Two days before the tournament kicked off, as South Africans danced in the streets and tooted vuvuzela horns in celebration of their World Cup team, Dube stood in line for four hours at a municipal office to receive her laminated work permit.
She was too tired to join in the festivities, and still hadn’t shopped for the meals she would be serving the next day. “I’ll celebrate, maybe, after the World Cup,” she said.
A week into the games, she has been rotating among sites under a system designed to ensure that everyone gets a chance to trade in the most crowded venues. Each day she gets a text message on her cell phone telling her where she’s working next, cooking doughnuts, stew and pap and earning about $6 per boxed meal.
And thinking about that restaurant.
“It’s still my dream,” she says.
Source: The Associated Press.