Robbie de Souza and Maxine Wiehe Picture: Facebook
Robbie de Souza and Maxine Wiehe Picture: Facebook

Unlocking survival in lockdown: People reinventing themselves to pay the bills

By Staff Reporter Time of article published Jul 25, 2020

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Johannesburg – Covid-19 has wreaked economic havoc in the lives of South Africans, as they battle the jobs bloodbath. Some people are reinventing themselves to pay the bills, like those we spoke to this week.

Brad Maxwell

Maxwell ran his flooring company in Fourways for 12 years but as the economy faltered, fewer clients walked through the doors.

Then came the devastating commercial impact of the Covid-19 lockdown. Maxwell, 43, was left with no choice but to close his iFloors showroom and move his company to his home in Radiokop, west of Joburg.

“I’m still out there doing quotes, but the problem is people’s minds now. They’re very scared of letting contractors in their house,” says Maxwell, who has an 11-year-old son.

“What’s happening at the moment is that every time the president announces something it just changes the outlook on people wanting to spend money.

“There’s a lot of fear, especially in a services business like mine We’re just trying everything to make ends meet and pay the bills.”

To help bring in an income, he and his family started making masks. “The masks were a small thing, it was just a couple of hundred rand here and there.”

If there’s one silver lining of the lockdown, it’s that it’s given Maxwell and his fiancée, Jenine, time to nurture and grow their own venture, Vanilla Home Decor, which they started two years ago. It specialises in custom-made furniture.

“The response that we're getting now for the time we’re in is quite good. I think once this all blows over, it’s a business that can make some nice money, along with the flooring.”

He feels disillusioned at the lack of support from the government.

“I can understand that the government wants to bring the numbers down, but the president should stand up there and say ‘Let me put myself in the nation’s shoes, the average person or a poor person’s shoes’, which they are not doing.

“I always wake up in the morning and try to be positive, but it’s really getting to me. Luckily the banks have been lenient on me with the three-month payment holiday, but that all comes to an end now.” Sheree Bega

Jonathan Leepo

From the age of 8, judo has been Jonathan Leepo’s life. Through his Master Shifu Judo Academy, the black belt coach instructed 100 children at four schools in Joburg.

But when the lockdown started, contact sports were stopped.

“I started doing Zoom classes, but it wasn’t the same. With judo, you mainly need a partner. It’s almost like trying to play rugby without tackling each other,” explains Leepo, an international judo federation instructor.

One by one his students fell away and the classes dwindled. “Payment just wasn’t coming in at all. I received my last payment, which was an e-wallet, at the end of June.”

He knew he had to make another plan, deciding to try to break into the personal protective equipment business.

“But the mask world is very tough. One of my dad’s sayings is ‘you can’t go into something you don’t know'. I just jumped into it. I thought it would be a good way to make money but I got literally no deals at all.”

This month, Leepo, started selling load-shedding boxes for a power supply inverter firm and is optimistic. “It’s slowly flying,” says the father of two.

He has a “side hustle”, too, working as a production assistant for TV commercials.

“You are literally running around finding anything you can pick up and work on. Since the lockdown started, I haven't been making any money at all. We haven’t got anything through the government.”

His wife, Heloise, who works in accounting, has also had clients unable to pay during the lockdown.

“Literally, everything has come to a halt in our family," he said.

"I’m trying to get loans here and there and it’s just going to pull me in deeper. “We are just scraping through by the bare nails - that’s why I’m trying to hustle and hold up the fort.

“You come from being the breadwinner, to boom, suddenly nothing. It’s really hard.”

Leepo, ranked number one in SA for the U73 masters division three times in a row, says his academy is frozen, but not written off.

He still runs his Zoom classes for free. “I do it for the passion and hope to start classes again next year. Sheree Bega

Blessing Masuku

In the pre-Covid world, Blessing Masuku was in the hospitality industry.

For 15 years he was a waiter at an Italian restaurant and it was work he enjoyed. Then came the lockdown. “When I realised that UIF doesn’t pay foreign nationals, I knew I had to make a plan,” says the Zimbabwean.

He turned to buying groceries for Zimbabweans back home.

How it would work is that people living in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, would email him shopping lists. Once he received notification that money had been transferred to his bank account, Masuku would go shopping. Then he would head to a petrol filling station on Smit Street in Braamfontein.

Here trucks leave for the Zimbabwe border throughout the week and he would make sure the groceries were packed.

But the problem Masuku has found is that his new business is not that lucrative.

“It was slow, because people only buy groceries once a month,” he explains.

So Masuku had to make another plan.

Four weeks ago he became a delivery driver. He works for Takealot and Mr D. It came just in time. Shortly after he joined, he received his retrenchment letter from his employers at the restaurant.

Masuku will miss the banter with the customers, the human interaction that he doesn’t experience enough in his new job.

“The problem is that I don’t think the hospitality industry will improve in the next five months. We still have to wait for a vaccine, or a cure for the coronavirus.” Shaun Smillie

Robbie de Souza and Maxine Wiehe

Joburg events manager Robbie de Souza lost his job at a well-known events company in Joburg during the first week of lockdown.

“The hospitality industry was hit hard by the pandemic early on and still continues to be,” he says.

“The week prior to the president’s address, the industry was already falling apart. When the president announced the lockdown, I knew we were in for a rough time in the hospitality sector.”

De Souza, however, wasted little time in bouncing back, helping his girlfriend Maxine Wiehe fulfil a lifelong dream: an ice cream business.

That’s where the Joburg couple have put all their hard work and effort for the past few months.

With De Souza’s experience in events and management and with Wiehe’s experience as a professional chef, they launched mmmMOO’s Unique Creamery.

Last week, the couple finally opened their business to the public.

And mmmMOO’s Unique Creamery offers uniquely flavoured premium gelato-style ice cream in 125ml tubs in flavours such as Tonka Bean, Burnt Sugar and Choc Chunk, as well as Smores.

Currently the couple are selling their ice cream online, however three stores - Melrose Stores in Rivonia, The Perfect Cup in Parkview, and My Fish in Florida - started stocking their ice cream this week.

They hope to open their own store soon.

“I think the fact that we were one salary down and Robbie had free time on his hands, and of course the push of encouragement and support from him, meant we finally did it and made dreams come true.

"Hopefully one day it becomes a quirky and stylish ice cream shop,” Wiehe says.

The couple are confident their ice cream business can flourish even during lockdown.

“I think more and more people and businesses, being big or small, are looking at supporting small and local businesses and start-ups,” says Wiehe.

“If we market ourselves correctly and use social media to our advantage, as well as word of mouth and all the support from our friends and family who are willing to go the extra distance to spread the word and love, we will absolutely flourish and hopefully blow up and grow into bigger and greater things.”

De Souza agrees. “Like all start-ups, it takes a lot of hard work, but if you put the effort in it you will be rewarded.

“Yes, it sounds like a cliché but it’s true. We’ve had some amazing support and I don’t know if we would get the same support if the pandemic wasn’t happening.”

You can purchase their special premium ice cream on

Saturday Star

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