‘Nowadays it’s feet first for ladies’, so scrub up and sneak in for the win
A booming sport-shoe trade has given rise to secondary sneaker industries and locals are cashing in
The verge outside Gontse Nxumalo’s home in Orlando, Soweto, is busy. It is the shopfront to Orlando Sneaker Care Technicians, pandering to the premium sneaker owners put on caring for their carefully selected footwear.
Entrepreneur Nxumalo, 28, has now turned this dedication to the sneaker into a successful business, with four employees from the township.
And there are always people hanging around to catch a glimpse of celebrities Spikiri and Jakarumba, of kwaito group Trompies, who stop by to drop off their designer shoes.
“I created this business for the community, I wanted it to be a kasi business. There are a few sneaker-cleaning companies popping up now. If others are inspired by it, then that’s a bonus for me.”
Feeling restless in his job as a brand consultant for a major clothing retailer, Nxumalo quit in 2016.
“I sat at home for two weeks wondering what I could do. I’d often chat to a friend about life and my ambitions. These talks would usually happen while he washed his shoes in the garden. One day I had the idea. I said let me go out and find some customers, and you can clean the shoes. I posted an advert on Facebook and that’s how it all started.”
“Before then I was a shoe man, but the business has been a good training ground for entrepreneurship.”
His was the first dedicated sneaker-cleaning business in Soweto and Nxumalo gained notoriety, not only because his business had been featured by brands vying to attract the youth, but because of his celebrity clients.
Before then I was a shoe man, but the business has been a good training ground for entrepreneurship.Gontse Nxumalo
Also riding the wave is Mduduzi Mnisi, 24, who is including upholstery and carpet-cleaning in his offering.
Mnisi matriculated in 2017, but could not afford tertiary education and was unable to find work. Seeing Nxumalo’s success, he realised he, too, could make money from cleaning. In 2018 he established Mdu Cleaning Services.
“When I got my first pair of Timberlands (R2,999 for the iconic six-inch premium boot) to clean, I nearly died. I had to Google ‘suede care’. They are so expensive and I was worried I would ruin them, but I didn’t and now I get at least a pair to clean a week.”
Nxumalo sympathised, revealing that when he first started he ruined a pair of New Balance shoes (R2,800, as they were a one-off) belonging to his friend, Nkululeko Thabethe.
Thabethe, 26, is an athletic shoe enthusiast and works at a designer sneaker store in Johannesburg, where he has access to all the latest designs.
Nxumalo said a new staff member accidentally bleached the sole of Thabethe’s expensive shoes and all attempts to restore the colour were futile.
“But I learnt from it. One of our new services is colour restoration; it sets us apart from the rest. It’s our own special recipe — the secret sauce.
“Owning a business has been rewarding, but challenging. I had to change the way Soweto thinks about washing shoes. We’ve grown up using that green bar of Sunlight soap. I had to convince people that they could send their shoes to me instead of washing them themselves.”
Thabethe said shoe-cleaning was something he and his friends in Soweto did from an early age.
“In the townships we take pride in what we wear on our feet. Growing up, we only really had two pairs [one for school and one for play] and our siblings would inherit our old shoes. Having more than five pairs was seen as privilege.
“In the townships your choice of shoe tells people a lot about who you are. For example, internationally Converse was a basketball shoe, here it was used for dancing. The kwaito and pantsula dancers wear this shoe. Before the streets in Soweto were paved, dancing on the soil would mark the shoes and the dirt was worn like a badge of honour.”
Before the streets in Soweto were paved, dancing on the soil would mark the shoes and the dirt was worn like a badge of honour.Nkululeko Thabethe
But once Converse began collaborating with artists, producing one-off shoe collections, there was a renewed ambition to keep these precious and pricey items clean.
Now different shoe designs tell a story about the person wearing them.
“Like the Puma suedes,” Thabethe said, “The B-boys [breakdancers] all wear those. Grandkids stole their grandfather’s Bubbles shoes. That’s the ‘gangsta’ style. So you look like a gangster, but a nice gangster. The Vans are for skating, but not many people skate here; they just like the shoe.”
Thabethe is passionate about his Nike ACGs [All Conditions Gear], but his favourite shoes are his R3,400 Nike Air Max 95 “Animal Pack” sneakers, a chunky takkie made with real-feel faux fur.
Nxumalo joked that Thabethe had more than 100 pairs of shoes because he brings a new pair for cleaning almost every week.
But Thabethe said the number was closer to 20.
“Shoes are very important. Nowadays the ladies are looking at your feet first. If they like what they see, then maybe you have a chance,” he said.