The Big Issue. A report by Helene Brand

Employing homeless people and getting them off the street, is all in a day’s work for Shane Halpin, Project Director and also one of the initiators of The Big Issue project in Cape Town. In 1994, while Shane was working in Cape Town with the street youth, he saw the need for a similar project that could be as successful here as in the United Kingdom.

“The big problem here,” says Shane, “is that there are homeless people all over the place, and we’ve got to do something. This is how the whole concept started – we did an initial feasibility study in 1996 and went ahead with the first issue in January 1997.”

What started off as a bi-monthly magazine with a core vendor base of about 34 people, succeeded to become a monthly publication with more than 150 vendors. The Big Issue now has a vendor basis of upwards of 250 people employed in any one month.

Their circulation is currently in the region of 17 000 copies per month, and the magazine was launched in Johannesburg in April 2001 for the first time.

Shane’s background is in public and media relations in London. “So it was sort of a sideways thing for me,” he explains, “because I came out here for two years to take some volunteering work on, and ended up doing some media work again. The whole concept behind The Big Issue is a hand-up, not a hand-out. The idea is that of social change, and being able to affect it, which is quite an interesting side of things.”

Since the start of The Big Issue, a substantial difference has been made in the community. “We’ve pumped R2,5 million directly into the hands of the unemployed,” Shane says with pride. “The idea is that the vendors buy the magazine off us for R4-55 and then sell it on the street for R8-95, so they get the profit with every publication that they sell.”

The magazine is run like any other publication, the only difference is that it is what is seen as a social business. They are a Section 21 company for non-profit. The idea behind the project is to make money, but the difference to any other company is where the money goes. They are not allowed to sell the magazine through retail outlets, so the vendor makes a profit on the income, and no-one gets in the way of that.

“Then there is The Big Step, which is an aspect where we look at the holistic development of the individual selling the publication. It’s not just a job – we have vendor support people doing crisis counselling, we have job clubs, we have vocational training, we encourage the guys to take The Big Step and go back into mainstream. This is one of the few vehicles that allows you to get back into society.”

They don’t ask the vendors any questions like ‘where are you coming from?’ The only thing that they are interested in, is where the vendors are going, which is quite key. There are no qualifications required, and it is an opportunity to get back into mainstream society.

Shane laughs when asked about what difference the magazine has made. “A lot of people say you must be very depressed about a situation because it’s so bad. I’m not depressed at all, because I think this project works and it is tangible. It’s not often that you can reap the benefits of what you put into it.”

The Big Issue has a full editorial team, and the perception that it’s a magazine written by homeless people for homeless people, is not the case. The reality is that the magazine has been bought by thousands of people living in Constantia, people with money, people who want to help and get a good insight into what is going on in society.

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Shane Halpin, Project Director of The Big Issue in Cape Town

Lucky is proud to be selling The Big Issue to secure a roof over his head and food to eat.

John Hendricks, one of the vendors of The Big Issue, dodges the traffic in Cape Town every day to make an income. He lives just up the street from where he works.


Photographs by Jean-Pierre Ramackers