South Africa: Trading On the Wrong Side of White for 100 Years

A shop in Dullstroom on the Highveld in Mpumalanga survived a depression and a government set on pushing it off its land. Then a tornado hit and the town showed its true colour.

The tornado touched down somewhere near the Dunkeld Country & Equestrian Estate, on the outskirts of Dullstroom. With twisting winds of upwards of 200km an hour, it headed towards town. Just before 7pm on 1 August 2006, the tornado hit the settlement of Sakhelwe. There it took the roof off Siyifunile Secondary School and then continued southeast, felling trees and uprooting electricity poles as it went. It jumped the railway line and tore into the town of Dullstroom.

Directly in its path was the Blue Shop, and the tornado went to work. It knocked down seven concrete pillars one by one and ripped off part of the roof. A heavy piece of corrugated iron that carried the emblem of a merino sheep was flung off and found more than a kilometre away.

Mahmood Vaid was on his way back to Dullstroom from Durban with his father Yousuf when his wife Fatima called and said the house had been flooded in a storm. Mahmood realised something was seriously wrong when he passed through the neighbouring town of Belfast and a traffic officer who recognised his car switched on his blue light and escorted them to Dullstroom.

As he drove, he worried about the shop in which he had grown up. In its 86 years, the family store had survived both a local and global depression, nationalism and apartheid, but now a rare tornado threatened to close its doors forever.

It was only a handful of years after the railway line was completed in 1910 that Ebrahim Vaid, Mahmood's grandfather, stepped off the platform at the new Dullstroom station and went looking for business in the farming town. "With his bicycle and his suitcase he would go to the coffee shop, have his coffee, then he would pedal down to the bottom where all the businesses were back then," says Mahmood. In his suitcase were catalogues listing goods that he would try to peddle to the few shops that were clustered around the Crocodile River. Everything from farming implements to dresses was for sale.

Once he had filled his order book, he would return to Johannesburg. Ebrahim had arrived in South Africa in 1908 as a 15-year-old boy from Gujarat in India, and found work at a shop owned by Suliman Mia on Market Street in Johannesburg. In a short while he was made a sales representative and with his bicycle, he would travel around the towns of what was then the Eastern Transvaal.

Starting a business during a depression

In 1916, the decision was made that Ebrahim would move to Dullstroom, where he would run a general trading store for Mia. "You must remember, 1916, that was just after the Anglo-Boer War, and those in business were really finding it tough. There was an economic depression," says Mahmood.

Four years later, Ebrahim bought land on Slachters Nek Street, then the main road that cut through town and headed on to Lydenburg. In 1920, there were just eight shops in Dullstroom. The Vaid family built what was to become known as the Blue Shop with building materials imported from Britain.

"E.M. Vaid & Co" was printed on the shop's stationery and the general trading store opened for business.

This was a time before trout arrived and tourists followed, and Dullstroom's economy revolved around sheep farming. There were still large, seasonal sheep drives.

Yousuf recalls how the farmers would trek their sheep to what would later become eSwatini to protect their flocks from the harsh, high-altitude winters. In Vaid's shop, these farmers would stock up on flour milled in Pretoria, and the few that had motorcars could buy oil supplied by the American Vacuum oil company. Those with money could pick silk garments, ladies' hats and the latest gramophone records from the shelves.

Each family, explains Mahmood, would have their name in a ledger in which was jotted down - with a fountain pen - the pounds, shillings and pence each owed. "Then the farmers used to tell you, 'I will pay you na die oes (after the harvest),'" says Mahmood, who has studied his family's history. "Back then, everything was done on trust and a handshake."

When times were difficult, credit was extended and a helping hand offered. The Vaid family eventually closed the shop they had bought with Mia at the bottom end of town. Their neighbour, a blacksmith, moved his business next to their shop on Slachters Nek Street.

But progress was soon to shutter the blacksmith's shop and replace it with a service station. The arrival of the 1930s ushered in the Great Depression, a drought and great hardship. The Blue Shop, however, kept on trading.

In 1935, Mahmood's father Yousuf was born, and in a few years the world would be plunged into a global war. But it was after this war ended that trouble began to gather on the horizon for families of South Asian descent like the Vaids.

An era of Afrikaner nationalism

The National Party swept to power, dividing Dullstroom. The town's white population became either "Natte", those who backed the National Party government, or "Sappe", supporters of the recently defeated United Party.

Afrikaner nationalism came to the Vaids' shop in the form of an agitator. Yousuf would tell the story.

The agitator called for a boycott of the store because it was taking away business from the white-owned stores. Some, Yousuf said, did heed the call, but then it all fell through when it was discovered that the agitator was secretly buying from the shop at night.

By the 1950s and 1960s, the town had started to change. Increasingly, visitors from Johannesburg were arriving with cane fly rods in hand, looking to catch trout. The fish, for which Dullstroom would later become famous, had been introduced to the town's first municipal dam in 1927.

As the town moved to accommodate these new visitors, so did the shop. Yousuf became an early convert to fly fishing and part of the shop was turned over to fishing equipment. Soon there were tens of thousands of trout flies on sale, together with high-end fishing rods and reels.

The sign on the door was changed to "E.M. Vaid & Co, Trout Tackle Specialists". And it was as a fishing shop that the store got a lick of paint and a name. A customer wanting to learn to fly-fish suggested that the shop be painted blue. "She told me, 'You know when you look up in the sky, the sky is blue. When you look down in the water, the water is blue. Paint your shop blue, you'll never regret it,'" says Mahmood.

But while Dullstroom was making its transition to a tourist town, apartheid legislators in the Cape were carving up the land, corralling the country's citizens along racial lines. The Group Areas Act came into effect and the Vaid family were soon given notice. "The government came and said, 'You must move.' They would either send you to Nylstroom, Lydenburg or Laudium," says Mahmood. "We would have to sell the shop. We had become illegal occupants of our own property."

A helping hand from Helen Suzman

Not long after the Vaids had received notice from the government that they would have to move, Yousuf was sitting at the shop counter one day when a regular customer and friend entered. She had popped in to buy trout flies so that she could fish in one of the dams just outside the town, Mahmood recalls.

"She looked at my dad and said, 'Something is wrong with you.' My dad took the envelope out and put it on the table and she took the letter out and she took it away with her."

The woman happened to be Helen Suzman, then the sole member of Parliament of the Progressive Party. "She said how on earth do you take an old tree that has been planted and you want to plant it somewhere else?" he recalls. It is not clear how Suzman prevented the Vaids' eviction. "She wrote a nasty letter to the government," is what Mahmood remembers.

The director of the Helen Suzman Foundation, Francis Antonie, who knew Suzman, could not recall the parliamentarian ever speaking of the incident. But throughout the country, says author and historian Kiru Naidoo, other Black shop owners were using creative ways to circumvent the Group Areas Act. Many efforts did not involve politicians.

"They skirted the law in a lot of different ways, where you might have white folks as nominees for businesses and shops, [or] where it might be nominally owned by a white person but run by someone else," Naidoo explains.

Instead of eviction, the Vaids had to apply for a permit to keep the shop. It had to be renewed every two years, and this the Vaids did until Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Mandela's release soon brought new visitors to the shop. Future president and fly-fisher Cyril Ramaphosa once popped in to buy trout flies.

From apartheid to a tornado

When Mahmood arrived in Dullstroom on the night the tornado came, he first headed to the mosque to pray. Then he went to survey the damage. He discovered that the Blue Shop was severely damaged but still standing. His house at the back of the shop had also lost its roof.

The tornado had left six people injured seriously enough to go to hospital, and it had damaged at least nine buildings. The next day the cleanup began. A friend put up a stepladder and assessed the damage to the shop. A list of materials needed was compiled, and people from Dullstroom and the surrounding areas gathered around the store.

Some of them were members of families who for generations had shopped at the store. They helped rebuild the Blue Shop. Three days after the tornado had hit, it reopened for business. When Yousuf approached one of the families and offered to pay, he was told not to worry. They were paying back for all the times his family had helped theirs through the years. "In a town like this, it comes down to everyone helping each other," says Mahmood.

Dullstroom has continued to evolve as a tourist town. Slachters Nek Street, where the Blue Shop is situated, has had a name change. It is now Blue Crane Drive and is no longer the town's main street. The main street is the R540, which today lies flanked by boutique stores, coffee shops, restaurants and pubs.

In 2013, Yousuf died. He had affectionately become known as Mr Trout, the man who had done much to promote fly fishing in the town. Five years later, the Blue Shop went through another change. A new sign was lifted on to the roof of the shop. It reads "Fatima's Kitchen".

There are chairs and tables in the shop now and the aroma of slow-cooked lamb curry drifts from the kitchen. The Blue Shop has become a restaurant, although in the corner is the fishing section, still with those thousands of trout flies on display under the counter. There is still the pressed ceiling that came from England and was laid down a 100 years ago.

Through the doors, a new generation is being introduced to the Blue Shop. Late in the morning recently, Brendon de Boer and his two young daughters walked into the shop. He had come to show them the store he has been visiting for the past 35 years.

"I brought them here for the experience," says De Boer, who is from Johannesburg. "Where do you find a shop that has been around for 100 years? It is just so real. Don't ever close it. My children's children need to come here, too."

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