Institution of the family shop slowly comes to an end in Pietermaritzburg

2010-05-27 00:00

I WRITE these words with a touch of sadness, happiness and nostalgia as I observe the beginning of the end of a commercial and family lifestyle in South Africa that is similarly taking place in Ireland and England.

I’m talking about the closure of the small family-run shop, an institution especially reminiscent of the early thirties when upper and lower Church Street were the commercial centres of Pietermaritzburg and people came from all over northern Natal to shop in Pietermaritzburg.

The M. I. Bhamjee Hardware Shop, which closed in 2006, served the dreams of its founder Mohammed Bhamjee, my father, who emigrated at the tender age of 12 and later to educate­ his children.

His children and grandchildren now live in all parts of the world and do not need to continue working in the small shop as they are all professionals. Some are doctors, opticians, accountants and pharmacists.

This institution symbolises the endeavours of a long-forgotten generation who struggled for survival in apartheid South Africa and who were the backbone of the retail sector, not only in Pietermaritzburg, but in the rest of South Africa.

Mohammed was born in Lachpur, Gujarat, India in 1906, a small village 320 kilometres north of Bombay during­ British rule. He emigrated to Pietermaritzburg­ with his father and younger brother Suleman.

He was employed at Amod Bhayat’s General Stores in upper Church Street near the railway station as a shop assistant­ and was self-taught in Gujarati­, English, Zulu and accountancy.

With the assistance of Amod Bhayat, a small licenced general store was opened at 473 Church Street, the lower­ end. He then sent for his wife (now 93) and two children who arrived as deck passengers after a three-week journey on the S. S. Karanja passenger liner.

The shop sold groceries, hardware, clothes and everything else. The family­ lived behind the shop in one-bedroom veranda-type rented accommodation and became well known to all sectors of the community, because my father would open the shop to help people at any time of the day or night. The shops profit margin was small.

In time this family-run shop’s business became­ as famous as OK Bazaars, John Orr’s, Kings, Kara Nicha’s, Dhodas­ and the African Market (Machini).

After Mohammed’s death the shop was run by his son, Ismail, who was later joined in 1969 by his brother Ebrahim and assisted by their sister Ayesha and their mother.

This shop closed five years ago.

Around 1987 Ebrahim opened his own hardware shop at 550 Church Street, which still does business today.

• Dr Moosajee Bhamjee is a consultant psychiatrist and former Labour Party member of the Irish parliament.

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