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Shop by the Robots

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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  1. Anonymous says:

    you have brought a new and fresh perspective to an angle of SA culture I never knew existed. who would have thought that this wall street of trade happens on our streets, every day!

    I especially like the part where you expressed no personal investment or attachment or self reflection beyond ‘change robot change!’ That kind of hard angle is essential to journalism.
    i also like the title, ‘Shop by the Robots’ – that was very telling in it’s metaphorical potential.
    I like how robot industry is that age old batering, the old testmant kind when a sucker could roll up on his donkey and get his purchase on, face to face like the good old days. You know, with the pesky internet being so relevant in the majority of south africans lives that we hardly even get to see a friendly retailer anymore.
    I like how you talk about you and yours as we and us.

    This article definitely ‘made the cut’. Keep maintaining this quality benchmark guys!

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  2. Anonymous says:


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  3. Andy says:

    Got beef, Anonymous? You’ve now commented negatively on the 4 stories you’ve surfed today on Mahala, without really engaging or adding to the debate in a meaningful way… beyond spiteful little barbs of finger-pointing and going: “that’s kak!” And you’ve done so anonymously. As if your kak opinion on our efforts needs to be protected by the veil of anonymity because it’s so edgy and dangerous.

    More like, it’s just easy to talk shit on the internet anonymously… because you never have to back it up. You can never get called out. You can just spew bile and be a superior, disappointed little misery. Because that’s your outlook. Seriously, if you don’t like a story explain why, start a debate. Involve yourself. You’re already here, reading all this stuff. Use your brain. Make a substantive comment. Instead of just defaulting to the hipster ennui and perpetual suburban disappointment your sarcasm embodies.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    I only comment on the ones I hate.
    And sorry my sarcasm didn’t hit you like the intended brick, butyou know I dont have your flair for words Andy! I was hoping by being as blatant as a 2×4 to the face I might imply some of the reasons why I didn’t like the article.

    Hey is your biggest role as an editor to run around telling everyone in the comment section to not be so negative and nasty? You know you have a habit of ignoring critical review and assigning it to teenage angst or hiding it under the veil of the anonymous tag to make it seem less relevant.

    I am sure I read an article somewhere where you lauded the anonymous comment function and how it keeps review more honest.

    Andy, did you feel this article shed new light on any angle of the street vendor situation? Do you think the author indulged on a personal level? Do you think it was a luke warm toe dipping excersize that stayed on the safe side and missed any point? Oh good, me too.

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  5. Anonymous says:

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    you’re the fucking editor. Stop complaining about an element of your site you previously championed, or fucking change it. Dont expect it to only work in your favour and when it suits you, and then complain in the instances that it doesn’t.

    You probably thought the article was empty and soulless too. You could have said so you know, with your handy anonnymous comment function. Dont hate.

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  6. Xenia says:

    Thanks for this refreshing post and unique perspective on the Robot Entrepreneurs.

    We’ve recently launched a site ‘African Cartel’ which aims to provide an online marketplace for talented African artists. We launched our site with a feature on a group of artists who sell their brilliant 3D township paintings at the robots in Cape Town, we termed them ‘The Robot Artists’. We also put together a short 8 minute film on these guys to try and get just a glimpse of their story, why they do what they do and the kind of issues they face.

    Feel free to check it out here: http://www.africancartel.com/robot-artists and help support them away from the Robots by buying some of their art on the site.

    Thanks again for the article!

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  7. Tim says:

    @ Anon; it does keep review more honest if stating your name makes you uncomfortable with being honest. It does not take the words of an inconsiderate fuck hiding his name and make them honest.

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  8. Anonymous says:

    how inconsiderate of me to express opinion.

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  9. Anonymous says:


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  10. Vote for Pedrobear says:

    I liked it.

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  11. Ahnnie says:

    They should totally sell loose draws!

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  12. Piss artist. says:

    Good piece.
    One of my favourite quotes from these vendors are always “This car! this is my dream car” regardless of the car. “Or take this! it’s free!” only to ask for a donation, no donation, hand back the goods. haha!

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  13. whatever says:

    the man sits in the sun ,its 37degrees,he’s hungry and the back of his thoat is dry and scratcy.he slightly dizzy but he knows he cant leave his post his famaly depends on him.he could not bare the thaught of returning home empty handed again.every car is his dream car the one oppertunity to make a sale,to put bread on the table.he puts on a big smile even tho all he wants to do is sit in that airconditioned car,just for one minute.he manages to swallow and say,;hi brother,while the driver thinks, ur no brother of mine!

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  14. Deryll le Libertin says:

    Back in Ghana we have dual core robot entrepreneurs with PHD in street bargaining. Well written article with a bit of infused empathy.I must admit thats not the african dream, street vending is a phase for self employed youth with no access to bank loans. So, get tanned (really :D) and save up some money for a small retail shop (kiosk), pedaling single rothmans cigarettes, sachets of nido and…. (use your imagination).
    From my experience they do have a business model: every car especially private cars deserve a minium of 25 seconds, and stock should be mostly non perishable, so they will be right there tomorrow hoping the traffic lights jam.

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  15. Greg says:

    I like it when I’m called “tough guy”. It makes me feel, well, toughish.

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  16. Your Daddy says:

    Hi Elaine ! Very nice article! I love your writing style and perspective on things ! You must get that from me !
    Personally I hate those pesky vendors, but prefer them to the beggars !

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  17. Tom_wood says:

    @Anon , etc. For my money, every site should require people to register, preferable using their real names so that you don’t have to sift through inane comments. Luckily most people on this site are sensible when it comes to commenting on the articles. Not like, say, News24!

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  18. mega-douche says:

    by-laws should be enforced. i wont buy anything from a streetside vendor. not becuase i don’t care for them personally. trade should happen in formal trading places. i go there, and then i’m fair game, but leave me alone at the traffic light and on the beach. the reason we have formal trading places is so the vendors have some proper place to shit, and i have a place i can return faulty goods to. this informal crap is just backward. no tax-base contribution, and miserable inhumane working conditions. away with it, even if it’s noble and charming and useful!

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  19. Stevo says:

    Top article E Girl!!!

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  20. Jackson says:

    @ Anon. You are the only thing wrong with South Africa. Doos

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  21. chris says:

    this is funny. it sounds like a promotional businness pamphlet.
    someone should make some adverts for hawkers on sabc.

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