Video produced by Janae McKenzie and Isabelle Robles. Edited by Isabelle Robles.

Janae McKenzie

Whether the style is a weave, braids (also called plaits) or relaxed hair, the hair stylists of Cape Town’s townships are essential to the beauty of its people. While the economic success of these artists can be hindered by various factors, the pride they take in their work motivates them to continue providing for their community members.

The road to Cape Town styling

Hair stylists in the townships are drawn to Cape Town for several reasons. Some have escaped war. Some have left for better economic opportunities. Some came for love.

For sister duo Maria João and Adelia Joaquim, hairstyling started as an obligation. They immigrated from Angola in 1994 and 1996 respectively, hoping to escape the civil war. Joaquim remembers having to “run for [their] lives.”

Starting anew, the sisters passed down knowledge of styling through the family and did what they could in order to make a living. As time went on, they continued styling and slowly fell in love with what they were doing, seeing the effects of it reflected in their new home.

“I [saw] people that were happy, which means I was bringing joy to people,” Joaquim said. “When they come again and ask for me, it means I was doing something for the community. For me, I feel happy. I feel blessed.”

Grace Hungwe, of Zimbabwe, has been a professional hairdresser for 29 years. She initially came to Cape Town in the wake of an economic crisis in Zimbabwe, hoping for opportunity. Hungwe, a widow, stretches herself to make enough to help her kids and herself. On a given day, she can work from 7 a.m. to midnight, between working with Chi-Chi Hair Salon and freelancing in the same craft to make ends meet.

“I feel proud when I’m making somebody beautiful, you understand?” Hungwe said. “Your beauty is my pride.”

“I feel proud when I’m making somebody beautiful, you understand? Your beauty is my pride.”

Grace Hungwe

Nine years ago, Sandra Anyanwu immigrated to Cape Town from Nigeria, opting to see a new life with her husband. Having worked in her home country as a stylist, she continues to focus on keeping up standards and doing the best service she can, finding stress relief in her hair styling. She views it as a way to unwind rather than a job.

“I like it because sometimes you need to rest, you need to relax when you’re doing the work,” Anyanwu said. “It’s like nothing. You see, some people work and it’s stressful. This is like playing. You go to sleep, you wake up, you come out. It doesn’t give me stress or any pain doing it.”

The hurdles to success

Despite the love these women have for their craft, their environment presents several obstacles for them to overcome in order to do their best work. These can range from economic difficulties to racism that closes doors just as they open.

Grace Hungwe is a hair stylist at Chi-Chi Salon in Langa. Her position as an employee means she gets commission on each head of hair she styles, rather than getting the full payment as she did when working in her home country of Zimbabwe. Photo by Isabelle Robles.

Outside of her work with Chi-Chi, Hungwe continues to search for jobs that can support herself and her children. In this search, she finds that her complexion works against her. Possible jobs would have her do test runs on hair, and while these would go well, they would turn her down because of her “darkened color and [body].” One such shop, as Hungwe explained, had a staff of women who reviewed her work and were pleased, until another voice weighed in.

“She said, ‘Let me talk to my husband and hear from him.’” Hungwe said. “When the husband came, he said, ‘No, because she is black.’ That’s the challenge which I am having here. It’s a very, very, very painful challenge.”

While Hungwe enjoys styling African hair in the townships, the difference in transaction presents an issue for her. If she is working in a professional salon, where her income would come through the bank, she can strategize what she saves and spends. Working in the townships, transactions are looser, keeping her from controlling her income as she would like.

“It’s a matter of how do you save the money,” Hungwe said. “The money which you are taking daily, sometimes you see some vegetables when you are going home and you have to remove [some] and buy. It’s not proper.”

Anyanwu feels as though she makes enough money to support her family in the township, but is interested in working America, where there is greater income potential. The path to do so, however, isn’t simple. Although she has friends in America, the barriers to proper documentation keep her from the possibility of bringing her passion abroad.

“You have to pay for the flight or whatever, but it’s the papers, you see?” Anyanwu said. “You need original papers to go, and documents. It’s hard for me to get it from here. There’s so many scammers out there, you need to know what you want, you know?”

The customer’s experience

When a customer visits a salon in the townships, a historically impoverished area, they are making a conscious decision to invest in their appearance and how they present themselves. The stylists find their own joy in creating the styles and helping their clients look their best, but the customer’s joy comes from the return on the investment they made.

“Normally, you invest money on something that will benefit you,” João said. “Let’s say you go to the shop and you buy a product and that product doesn’t treat you well, definitely you won’t go back there, yeah? You change. But then when you don’t change, which means you see improvement in what you’re spending [on], it makes you happy.”

Helga Michaels, a regular customer of Joaquim and João, has confidence in the sisters to give her the best style to face the world with. Michaels feels that she “can stand up and won’t be shy because of [her] hairstyle.”

“You come here with hair that is upside down, and when you get out it’s like going to the doctor.”

Helga Michaels

“You know that they will be plaiting your hair with whichever style that suits your face, so that you can feel comfortable to stand in front of the crowd,” Michaels said. “You come here with hair that is upside down, and when you get out, it’s like going to the doctor.”

These hair “doctors” are fixtures in the community, contributing to the self-esteem of a place so historically disenfranchised. Even with the obstacles in their way, they continue to provide themselves with a sense of purpose and happiness through creating this beauty for a living.  

“Women are naturally meant to be beautiful, you see?” Anyanwu said. “And they are always looking for beauty. Every day, every moment, they want to be beautiful.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s