Zanele Xobi, 39, does not sleep at night. She is part of network of migrant women bakers in South Africa, who work only at night, targeting winter factory workers, dodging township crime and reaping night profits.
“We call ourselves Daveyton Mobile Bakers. We are a cooperative of fifteen women, mostly widows,” says the mother of two.
“Every winter – April to August – we come from rural Eastern Cape province, 800km away, to camp near factories. We mix dough, yeast and eggs, turn it into soft buns and fat scones from 11pm to 4 am daily,” she adds, rolling flour on a “skillet” (hot stove) to make sweet biscuits.
Zanele who whose husband died in 2012, says she chose to be a migrant bread baker because the monthly R300 ($20) child support stipend she receives from South Africa´s government barely “buys beyond a school shirt and socks for my eldest son.” The Eastern Cape, her home district, is South Africa´s most poverty-stricken province, where, according to South Africa Human Sciences Research Council, school results are dismal and young men flock to glitter cities of Johannesburg or Cape Town.
Where she comes to every winter, Daveyton, is a township along the “East Rand” hub, a district that lies 60km east of Johannesburg, South Africa´s commercial capital. The East Rand district hosts South Africa´s biggest manufacturing industries.
“Our main target are winter factory workers for whom a slice of baked bread and hot ginger tea at 4am is a cup of life,” she laughs narrating in her vernacular Xhosa language.
She beats a mould flower into a salty croissant in the dead of the night, inside a makeshift tent at an open taxi rank. “This is a seasonal enterprise. We travel from the rural districts to pitch camp here in East Rand only in winter. The reason is: factories have a high turnover of casual jobs night workers in winter.”
Ayanda Langa, 41, a widowed mother of three, and the treasurer of the Daveyton Mobile Bakers explains why they only bake scones, bread and trade at night. “Crime, jealousy and profit,” she says.
“Some local bread stores in Daveyton Township feel threatened by our winter prices. The price of a processed loaf of white bread is R13 ($1). Ours is only R10. Shop owner we suspect sent some thieves to mugs us.”
“Our street bakery enterprise is unregistered. It makes sense therefore to mix flour at night when competitors are asleep and municipal health inspectors are asleep too.”
So baking cake rolls in the dead of the night in open air makes a sense of security. “We only do it near minibus taxi terminals. The drivers, touts are our guarantee of security. Our midnight tea draws passengers to them too. Some of the drivers carry small revolver guns. Pickpockets think twice before drawing near,” continues Zanele.
“Business is brisk especially at dawn 4 am,” she says, mopping jugs of oil into a pan where Ayanda is turning rolls of croissants. This is because, apart from factory workers, there is a unique type of customers too: illegal gold miners.
“Illegal gold miners, mostly immigrants from Zimbabwe; they are a blessing to our midnight tea and scones business. We call them Zama-Zamas meaning “the daring ones”. They demand our ginger tea every dawn or midnight because they too walk and work at night to dodge police raids. When they are overjoyed they can pay R20 ($1, 50) for bread that costs just R7. We like them.”
Zanele sums up how they share profits and plot the journey back to rural Eastern Cape in August when South Africa´s blistering winters ebb down and business plunge. “We share the tea and baking profits evenly and set aside 20% of our income to replenish our cooking utensils and source flour for the next year when winter begins, and we return.”
(Photo captions: Phot by Walter Muraisi. Photo shows Zanele and Ayanda baking sweet biscuits at dusk)
Quality journalism is expensive to produce. At WTR we thrive on your support. DONATE to keep investigative journalism alive
the following fields are required to be filled out before leaving a comment. your email address will not be published.
All comments are mediated before publishing to ensure all content published onto this page is not offensive