Hairdressers go underground as lockdown drags on in South Africa

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Hairdresser Beauty Matunhira arrives at her client’s home in Johannesburg armed with dye, relaxer and gel, ready to tackle her next case of lockdown hair.

Discreet house calls have become routine for Matunhira, who found herself out of a job when salons and barber shops were forced to close under South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown, now in its 11th week.

At times she is even forced to sneak into apartment buildings to avoid detection by security guards, but it’s either that or going hungry.

“It’s better because we’re managing to buy food,” Matunhira said as she applied black dye to her client’s faded blond hair.

Unable to pay her rent or send money to her parents back home in Zimbabwe, she is also worried about the future. Before lockdown she was saving up for her son’s university tuition.

“I don’t know if I’ll manage to budget for him to go to university next year.”

Matunhira is risking jail time by visiting clients at home, as hairdressers are still banned from working under the lockdown rules, even as the government has begun to relax restrictions to allow for a partial re-opening of the economy.

The lockdown restrictions are being challenged in court by barbers and beauty specialists who depend on an industry that consumer data firm Statista says is worth billions of rands in sales.

Mariska du Plessis, Northern Gauteng divisional manager at the Employers Organisation for Hairdressing, Cosmetology and Beauty (EOHCB), said an industry survey in April showed that around 70% of businesses were contemplating closures and job cuts, and up to 21% had already closed.

Last week the government told EOHCB it was drafting guidelines for the re-opening of the personal care sector but did not provide a time frame.

In the Johannesburg central business district, some hairdressers are operating on the roadside, offering to do clients’ box braids and dreadlocks.

They declined to be interviewed.

Other businesses are trying to survive through online retail, but this is proving tough.

Standing in her empty hair and beauty salon at Johannesburg’s Northgate shopping mall, Cola Mthembu said online retail sales only account for about 20-30% of her overall turnover, which is not enough to cover monthly expenses.

“(The lockdown) has been really detrimental for our business,” she said.

“We are not making any income … we are just left stranded.”