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Shop by the Robots

by Elaine Groenewald / 03.05.2011

You can count on them to appear at your car window day or night, from Menlyn to Sunnyside, come rain or sunshine. The robot entrepreneurs. Persistence is definitely a virtue with these guys. Sure they’re peddling glut. Fake watches, knockoff designer sunglasses, pirated perfume and DVDs. They’re the endpoint, the interface of down and dirty global trade. Reminders of the booming, near-infinite black market economy. That not-so-secret parallel trade going off the books and unregulated. Somehow the retail face of all those bulk-buy cut-rate deals, midnight convoys and backhanded palm-greases seem to be skinny black guys with upbeat smiles at our car windows at stop streets. It’s beautiful in a way. Globalism in your face. Inflatable toys you shouldn’t really put to your lips. Ferociously flammable flags. Lurid rugby memorabilia in primary colours. Caps that’ll make your head itch and shirts that’ll make you scratch. All thanks to our tireless traffic light entrepreneurs.

You may think that you have no need for an oversized world map but your friendly neighbourhood robot seller has other ideas. A never ending, one-sided bargaining spiral conducted through closed car windows wears you down. These guys are relentless. It’s survival for them. The difference between good times and bad. And it’s all up to you. Their growling belly is in your hands. It’s his job and he’s working you. Yanking empathy.

To you waiting at an intersection or getting stuck in traffic is annoying. To them it’s an opportunity. Jammed cars and truncated traffic flow is “Wall Street” in their terms of trade. It’s money. The robot entrepreneurs appear at my window while I shake my head. My disinterest is a minor skirmish in Afghanistan. A civil war in Chad. It barely affects trade. Barely impacts the numbers. It’s an opportunity cost that comes with the territory. Resistance is futile unless you can accelerate away. My head shaking prompts a frenzy of price negotiation. Change lights. Change!

Traffic Light Hawkers

Our robot entrepreneurs are the signs of great shifts in social and urban life. They’re living examples of the crises you read about. Housing, planning, crowding, skilling. There they are. Look into their eyes. That alone ought to make us pause. They’re what’s going on in our reality. Plus some of their merchandise is handy. Who doesn’t need more refuse bags? The occasional 20 pack of coat hangers. These guys spare you the mortification of the mall. So be nice.

We need to drop the pestilential approach to our robot entrepreneurs. They’re not parasites. They’re winging it. They’re getting stuck in. They’re surviving. That’s the African dream. As life under the shadow of the market gets tougher and tougher, we may all have to start inventing our own luck. Flinging ourselves on the mercy of productive chance. Risking unconventional approaches to sales. Show, without shame, the truth of our finances. Rely on others. We need to rethink our sense of distance and disdain towards them. If things keep worsening, we have to admit we’re on our way to being roadside entrepreneurs ourselves. Unsheltered by insurance. Abandoned by traditional routes to prosperity.

Business basics from the old testament, face to face talk between buyer and seller. That’s all it is out there on the street. A transaction as old as the hills right through your car window. That’s convenience. What more can we ask for? My only quibble is product selection. Listen up all you robot tycoons out there, sell stuff we can really use, like airtime vouchers or little snifters of Klippies and Coke.

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