Spaza is a slang term used in South Africa that means “just getting by.” It’s what locals call the corner store. Spazas are a staple in townships where they sell basic necessities to customers from behind a metal grate, often in small increments and sometimes on credit. As photographer Marco Casino explains, “One egg might set you back 12 cents. A single cigarette costs 18 cents.”
In 2013, Casino bought a plane ticket to South Africa because he wanted to document train surfing, a dangerous sport he’d learned of on the Internet. His interactions with the train surfers quickly brought him into the townships and catalyzed his continued interest in exploring the social and economic complexities of life there, specifically in Katlehong, the second largest township after Soweto. Casino always stays in Katlehong when he’s working, so naturally he’s needed to buy a thing or two. He’s become well acquainted with spazas, also called tuck-shops. And in the fall of 2014, he began documenting them.
“Aesthetically, my choice was to make something really clean and straight. Usually [spazas] are really active. There is always someone outside the shop, so my choice was to isolate them from daily life,” says Casino. “I shot only on rainy days with gray skies to create more tension. I’m trying a different approach to the African landscape. We all have stereotypes of Africa, so in my opinion it was interesting to shoot Johannesburg like London, for example, when it is always rainy.”
Besides the soft drinks, candles, and the pap and amasi (a typical township meal of maize flour porridge and fermented milk) the shops sell, what attracted Casino to the spazas was the architecture. “The characteristic that really got my attention was that grate, and that most of the spazas were totally locked. A good percentage are containers and people live inside them, store the goods there, and don’t move from there for days. They all have that grate because tuck-shops are the first kind of economic operation at risk of robbery and violence,” he says. “They have to live daily with that kind of barrier.”
The job of a spaza owner is dangerous—generally due to robbery, but sometimes because of other reasons, such as xenophobia. A figure is difficult to calculate since not all of the shops or the workers are recorded, but some studies estimate that as many as half of tuck-shops are owned by foreign workers. Casino lists Somalia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as the home countries of some of the people he met while working on this project. Some are asylum seekers fleeing conflict, others are searching for better opportunities. South Africa has seen instances of xenophobic attacks in the past, and a string of recent lootings of foreign-owned shops puts some spaza owners at a higher risk.
But last fall, xenophobia wasn’t at the top of Casino’s mind, as it wasn’t a time of heightened tension between natives and foreign nationals. Casino was more interested in the economic role of the tuck-shops as townships continue to develop after apartheid. “During apartheid, there were no official shops in the townships, so these spazas developed primarily for the poorest part of the population. The tuck-shops are still most of the market in townships,” says Casino.
Something else that differentiates the tuck-shops from other retail stores is that they often operate on direct credit. “People don’t usually pay for what they’re buying because they know they can pay in later days. Spazas have a strong social role as an informal social safety net for the poorest part of the population,” says Casino.
Most of the shops are part of the informal sector, which means they aren’t registered for VAT, a tax added to the purchase of most goods and services. Casino thinks that over time, the shops will be integrated into the formal sector as both national and foreign companies try to develop their market in the township, and that ultimately these unique, off-the-grid shops might become a little more streamlined. “My goal for this series was to document something that can change in the future. In a short time most of the spazas will be different because they won’t be independent traders in the informal sector, but they will be slowly acquired by official traders,” he says. “In my opinion, eventually these shops will disappear.”
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