Defying the odds

Achmat Husain

As customers walk up to the stall in St George’s Mall outside Newspaper House, Achmat Husain already has the person’s item in his hands.

A deaf man walks in, and Achmat hands him a cigarette. “This man cannot hear, but I already know what he wants.”

Achmat, who is fondly known as Habib to the city community, owns the stall, where he sells sweets, chocolates, chips, cigarettes, airtime and electricity, but what makes this stall different, is that the items are presented to you before you mention what you want.

“I know all my regular customers, and I know what they come to buy. I know that you come to buy chips and Paaper Bites – that’s your favourite.”

Asked why he was given the name Habib, he said: “It’s just another name people call me by, and I got used to it.”

Habib grew up in Somalia, and came to Cape Town in 2010 to escape the conflict in his country. As he never attended regular school, he had to find a job quickly. “I only went to Madrasa (Islamic religious school) so I had to find a job. I started working in a shop in Joe Slovo for about two years, and thereafter I decided to start my own business.”

Living in Bo-Kaap, he decided to open a stall near to home, in St George’s Mall, and has been serving the community of Cape Town since. “I may not know names, but I know faces and I learn what they buy. I love all my customers – they keep me going.”

A woman enters the stall, greets, and Habib gives her R5 airtime, and she smiles at him as she gives the money. He said he even remembers people’s electricity numbers. “I don’t know how I do it, but I am quite sharp.”

Come rain or sunshine, Habib opens his stall at 4.30am, and leaves at about 7.30pm. “Business starts picking up between 6am and 7am, but I am here early because I must be ready. When you sleep in, no one will provide you with opportunities. I must be here for my customers.”

He said now that the call centre has moved out of Newspaper House, business has quietened down.

“There isn’t so much business now, but I have grown used to the spot. I still have regulars from Newspaper House and the Taj Hotel. I have seen the regulars come and go.”

He has even met some famous people who come to the city centre. “I have seen Zahara, the South African singer, and premier Helen Zille also came to the stall while she was campaigning.”

He said he loves his spot in the city centre as the environment is very pleasant. “Shopkeepers in the townships have lots of problems with rowdiness and people swearing at them. Here, even if there is no business, life is busy – there is always something to keep you busy.”

While Habib enjoys the peaceful environment in the city, he says his only gripe is when people protest or have a strike.

“The stalls are the first ones targeted when there is a strike. Stall holders get scared and you pack up and lose business for the day. My stall was looted three times in three years, but the next day I open again. If I stay home, I won’t have money.”