“I never imagined coming here, to be honest,” says Khan. “It was more out of desperation. I never wanted to be separated from my family.”
His family’s financial struggles and the lack of prospects in India forced the 22-year-old to consider moving abroad to earn a decent income.
“A close friend of mine moved to South Africa a few years ago. We used to speak regularly over the phone. Each time I spoke to him, he tried convincing me to come to South Africa.”
His friend owned a barber shop in Joburg and offered him a job and a place to stay if he was able to make the long journey from New Delhi to Joburg.
“I was still a kid. I was only 18-years-old, and moving so far away was daunting. But deep down, I knew I had to make the move.”
Khan was taught how to cut hair when he was a boy, and so the idea of working at a barber shop wasn’t completely terrifying.
“I learnt how to cut hair for the first time when I was 11. We didn’t spend money on going to any barbers. When we needed a cut, either our siblings, parents, or cousins would cut our hair, so you can say I was familiar with a pair of scissors.”
After a few months of pondering the move and a long chat with his parents, Khan packed his bags and said his goodbyes to his family and friends before heading to South Africa.
“The one thing that terrified me was that I couldn’t speak any English. I’ve spoken only Gujarati and Urdu all my life. I could already tell that this was going to be a big problem for me.”
Within days of his arrival, Khan was immediately put to work at his friend’s barber shop in Northcliff.
“I had to learn about the different hairstyles that South Africans like. I also needed to learn English, which really was and still is the most challenging aspect of coming to South Africa.
“When you are interacting with other people all the time, it’s important to know how to speak the language.”
Three years after his arrival, Khan is a fully established barber in Johannesburg.
He may battle with his English, but he’s built an impressive list of his own clients.
“I’ve managed to find a way around the challenges I have with the language barrier. I have a huge poster up on the wall in the barber shop, which shows different hairstyles. When I battle to communicate with certain customers, they point out which hairstyle they would like. It makes my life so much easier.
“I’ve also worked really hard on learning the different names of hairstyles that people want. So if someone says to me they want a Mohawk, I know exactly what they are talking about.”
Khan’s journey to South Africa isn’t unique, however.
Over the past few years, thousands of foreigners from countries including India, Pakistan, Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt have flocked to South Africa to pursue a career in hairdressing.
Their barber shops have become increasingly popular among men because of the cheap prices and availability of these shops in suburban areas, malls, or in shopping complexes.
And these barber shops don’t only give haircuts and shaves, they offer an array of services.
“We do threading, facials, head massages, and a few other things. We give our customers the full package,” says Khan.
For around R200 a customer can get a full package, which includes a haircut, a steamed shave, a facial and a head massage.
Khan was surprised at the large number of Indian nationals who were in South Africa doing the same job as him.
“I never expected to meet so many Indian and Pakistani barbers. It’s actually really nice because it makes us feel more at home. We miss our families every day, but it makes a difference having people from your country around. It’s like we a big community here.”
Khan says he loves South Africa and enjoys his work.
“Looking back at the last three years, I think I made a good decision to come here. I’ve been saving money and sending it home, which has been helpful.
“The country is wonderful, and the people are really nice here. I do feel at home these days. Also, I think my salary is fair, so I don’t have much to complain about.”
Khan works long hours, though - six days a week from 8am to 10pm. “My parents always told me that if you want to go far in life, you have to work hard and so I have no problem with it.
“Also over the past few years, I’ve fallen in love with what I do. When I have a pair of scissors in my hand, I’m in my element.”
He is yet to save up enough money to visit his family in New Delhi.
“Insha’Allah I can go home and see my family soon. I miss them very much, and it will be nice to go back.”
He even convinced his cousin, Arif Khan, to come to Joburg three months ago.
He is also from New Delhi and doesn’t speak a word of English. But he certainly knows his way around a pair of scissors. “South Africa is beautiful, and it’s not overpopulated like India,” says Arif, as his cousin attempts to translate for him.
“Since I started working here, the people have been very nice to me, and understanding. They don’t get angry because I don’t understand them which is nice. Slowly I will learn more and more English,” he says.
A few streets from Khan’s barber shop, are well established Algiers barbers. The barber shop has been around for several years, but barber Moussa Alleg only started working here two years ago. “I was cutting hair in Cape Town, it is so much better than Joburg,” Alleg says, giggling.
“Just like in Joburg, where there are many many barbers from Algeria, it is the same in Cape Town. Things are really great here. I love South Africa. It’s become home now.”
Alleg left Algiers in Algeria as he battled to find a job. “Things weren’t easy in Algeria. I don’t think the situation has changed, even now. For us, South Africa has always been an attractive place to come and work. We hear stuff from our friends who have moved here.”
He didn’t know a thing about hairdressing when he arrived in South Africa. “I was a businessman all my life, so when I look back now, I’m really impressed that I am a fully-fledged barber.
“I had plenty of friends from Algeria who had come to South Africa and who were barbers. I decided to learn the trade from them almost nine years ago, and here I am now.”
Alleg’s customers are mostly elderly people. “Cutting hair for old people is so much easier than for the young guys. They just want simple haircuts and trims. The young guys ask for fancy haircuts. They want lines, and colour in their hair, it’s complicated.”
While most foreign barber shops are relatively small scale, there are a handful that have built empires. One is the Moroccan Barber. It has two huge branches, one in Honeydew in Joburg, and another in Nelspruit in Mpumalanga.
The Honeydew branch has more than 15 barbers with employees hailing from countries such as Morocco, Algeria.
Like * Nabil Hakim, who ventured to SA from Algeria four years ago. “My family ran a business in Algeria, and I worked there for a long time until I realised that I needed a change in my life,” says Hakim
“I moved to France for a few years, and it was there where I first learnt how to cut hair. When I came to South Africa, I continued learning from friends.”
While competition is quite stiff among foreign barbers in Johannesburg, Hakim says there is enough business for everyone. “Everyone eats their bread here. We’re not short of customers. We don’t see it as competing against one another. We help each other wherever we can.”
* Not his real name