Maverick Citizen

Makers Valley, Johannesburg: In the midst of crisis, a network of possibility

By Mark Heywood 13 July 2020

The Swop Shop: open for business. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

If we lived in the type of society envisaged by our Constitution – one where there is equality and social justice – Johanna ‘Jojo’ Monama would probably be employed in the public or private sector. But our society is neither fair nor equal, and that’s how Jojo found herself among many other talented people who can’t find jobs. But help came from an unlikely source. Covid-19 gave her a mission.

Johanna ‘Jojo’ Monama leading the Community Needs Survey. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

Last week I joined Jojo and a team of 12 volunteers as they hit the streets of Bertrams, conducting a door-to-door community survey to identify people whom Covid-19 has left in need of food and other assistance.

Like Orange Grove (whose Community Action Network I wrote about recently) the suburbs of Bertrams, Lorentzville and Judith’s Paarl are part of old Johannesburg. The area is still beautiful, crunched between the Yeoville ridge and the Troyeville koppies. But it hides the desperation and despair that exists behind the facades of many of the once substantial homes.

During my visit with the team, I witnessed some of the pain.

The team of volunteers involved in the Community Needs Survey. All it takes is a cellphone and compassion. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

At the first house we visited, three young men occupied a single dark airless room off the yard at the back. Each is qualified and articulate, but lost their jobs because of Covid-19. As a result they are forced to “hustle” to stay alive – their word, not mine.

Jojo asked them whether they would be able to grow their own food if they were provided with seeds and support. “Yes,” said Ayanda, immediately pointing to a few spinach plants in a pot on the corrugated rooftop.

In the last few weeks, Jojo’s team has visited over 1,000 such households. The volunteers wear bright yellow T-shirts which, Jojo laughs, unfortunately confused some people. 

“They thought we were from the ANC; they got angry and refused to talk to us. They complain that they only see politicians at the time of elections and then they are forgotten again.”  But once that misconception is cleared up, people are willing to talk.

The team is on the streets three times a week.

At each household (sometimes up to 10 families live under the pressed ceilings of a single house), the volunteers ask the same set of questions; they type the answers into cell phones, grade the level of need, then send their reports to a database kept back at their ‘headquarters’, Victoria Yards.

Those most in need of food will receive an SMS within 24 hours, requesting them to collect a R400 food parcel. The result is that 30 people arrive at Victoria Yards every day to collect food parcels which, if the family has young children, will include Early Childhood Development materials.

Inside Victoria Yards. Siya Ndlangamandla’s ‘edible gardens’. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

The Makers Valley partnership

I went to Bertrams that day because I kept hearing positive stories about a community initiative being run by the Makers Valley Partnership (MVP). On WhatsApp – a world that zaps news across groups but swallows it up again just as quickly if you don’t take note fast enough – I had seen reference to plans for a “community currency”, seen graphics for a Swop Shop, and heard talk of plans for a “well-being” economy.

On the day I visited the MVP, I was introduced to a small welcoming party: Jojo, Siyabonga (Siya) Ndlangamandla, “in charge of food gardens”, Zweli Magwaza, “recycling”, Lassie Ndlalele (Lasman da Stuntman), the “safe learning” space, CEO Thobile Chittenden, and Ilka Stein who has played a crucial role coordinating the food security response.

As I was being introduced, I realised that each person performed a particular role in a rapidly evolving ecosystem aimed at meeting the needs created by Covid-19. But they were trying to meet needs not as a charity, but in a way that is dignified, empowering, educative and sustainable.

What also struck me, as we touched elbows, was their sense of pride, excitement and a desire to share their story.

My question, “Where does this story start…?” The answer is a complex one.

“Makers Valley is how a group of entrepreneurs renamed a collection of inner city suburbs just to the east of the Johannesburg city centre,” according to Thobile Chittenden, its recently appointed CEO. “The Makers Valley Partnership was started in 2018, but only registered this year.”

Their website says:

“The name ‘Makers Valley’ refers to the growing presence and activities of many forms of creative entrepreneurism in the area.  Artists, cultural practitioners, artisans, urban gardeners, carpenters, shoemakers, metal and woodworkers, clothing designers and others, live and work in the Valley.”

A pavement garden under construction. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

The physical site for the realisation of this dream is Victoria Yards, a beautiful campus of shops and spaces carved out and rehabilitated from the remains of buildings that, at the start of the last century, were part of a small industrial estate in Lorentzville that included the once famous New York Steam Laundry.

The MVP was the vehicle created to give life to the big idea. Its founders dreamed of creating a common space for art, local production and innovation – but a space that would be integrated with the local community and draw its energy from connecting with its people and traditions.

However, back in those not-so-distant days, nobody dreamed that a virus would remake the world faster than they could remake the Valley.

Nonetheless, when the Covid-19 crisis hit, the MVP and the entrepreneurs who had taken up residence on its beautiful premises, could hardly ignore it and get on with their big dream. The lockdown locked out their customers while the need in the disadvantaged community around them simultaneously exploded.

A ‘security food programme’ was started by a small coalition of willing MVPers. One of the restaurants at Victoria Yards, Food, I Love You, made its kitchen available and Mpho Phalane, its owner, became one of its chefs. She was joined by Nonhlanhla Godole, an indigenous foods chef, who repurposed her start-up catering business (also affected by the lockdown) to meet the community’s needs. Nandos (with its head office next door), SA Harvest, a pioneering food rescue and distribution forum, and others generously provided the food.

On 19 April, three weeks into the hard lockdown, a community food kitchen was born. Over the next 11 weeks, there were 31 sittings providing food to 11,150 people. In addition, food was shared with another kitchen run by the Bertrams Residents’ Movement.

The food kitchen also provided residents with over 1,500 masks made by local mothers and supported by Masks4Good.

Residents line up to exchange bags of waste for food vouchers.
(Photo: Mark Heywood)

According to Ilka Stein: “The demand for the kitchen just grew and grew. People queued out into the streets… sometimes we were scared the food would run out, but it was always dignified and disciplined.”

However, even as the kitchen was meeting local food needs, the MVP team asked itself questions about its sustainability and how they could continue feeding people in a manner that was safer, more dignified and which led to community development. 

Innovation seems to be the name of the game. For example, during this time they introduced vouchers which beneficiaries could redeem for food at local spaza shops.

This saw a series of innovations getting underway which, although still in early stages, are beginning to bear fruit – or should I say food.

From food kitchens to good gardens

It’s now July and midwinter. Instead of one food kitchen located at Victoria Yards, today there are five kitchens in the community – each providing “at least one wholesome warm meal a day” to anywhere between 50 and 200 people.  

According to Sandra van Oostenbrugge, the itinerant activist who I first encountered at Londani Lushaka, “We are helping the community to set up soup kitchens per street.” 

However, as I had discovered at the food kitchen set up for children in Alexandra, the challenge lies not in finding willing hands, or even food, but in paying for pots, pans, gas cylinders and PPE equipment.

To try to meet this need, the MVP has launched a Mandela Day appeal calling on people to “invest in local community food kitchens that will not only support a community but provide a sustainable business for a family”.

“You can fund an entire kitchen for R5,500.” Sounds like a worthwhile investment.

Zweli Magwaza harvesting waste and turning it into food. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

The community survey led by Jojo Monama isn’t only about identifying people in need of charity. Its volunteers, who work in partnership with the Bertrams Residents’ Movement (BRM), also identify people willing and able to start their own food gardens; children in need or out of school; and people with skills (arbitrarily deemed “redundant”) who may be put to use in the community at a later date.

Jojo explained that when her team goes door to door, “we ask people if they have space to grow their own veggies where they stay, either in the yard or on the pavement”. 

Those who express an interest go on the database and are visited by Siya Ndlangamandla, the urban horticulturist who is responsible for the edible food gardens that exist on the outside of Victoria Yards and is planted in the prepared areas on the pavements outside the property. Here he has had some success in educating the community and the side of “community growing”. The gardens inside Victoria Yards are the result of the hard work and dedication by a small team of 3 gardeners consisting of Kwanele Ngwenya, Ziphakamele Don Mseleku and Tony Bensusan. The gardens provide a sustainable food source for both tenants of Victoria Yards and members of the surrounding community.

Siya dreams of a city where every inch of vacant lawn or pavement that fronts so many houses, particularly in more wealthy areas, is seeded with tomatoes and spinach and lettuce. And why not? So far he has four backyard gardens up and running.

The idea is that, “as funds allow”, interested residents will be supplied with a garden starter pack that includes seeds, seedlings and compost. Siya and his team will then provide ongoing guidance and link the local farmers to a network of “mutual support and learning”.

Growing spinach in the front yard of a house in Bertrams, Johannesburg (Photo: Mark Heywood)

Finally, Zweli Magwaza and his wife, Keitumetsi Mokoena, the originators of Love Our City Klean (LOCK), lead a team that is piloting the community Swop Shop. In the scheme, they are putting together bags of waste brought in for recycling that can be exchanged for dry goods (foodstuffs, noodles, eggs, bread, chips) and, on a good day, some fresh produce.

The Swop Shop is in its early days, but it works like this: people get points for the big blue bin bags full of recyclable waste that they bring to Victoria Yards once a week. One bag of recycling is worth one bag of dry goods.

Last Friday I watched as a long dignified queue waited to exchange waste before moving to the other side of Victoria Yards with a voucher to claim food at the Swop Shop (at this point just a trestle table with more volunteers). 

I spotted Zweli and his team marshalling the queue – “social distance, social distance” – then sifting and sorting the huge pile of retrieved boxes and plastics. To complete the circle, some of the waste is retrieved and immediately put to use in developing educational materials for the Safe Study Project, which Lassie runs out of Timbuktu in the Valley, a wonderful learning space in Victoria Yards which is devoted to equipping local youth with skills that allow them to become independent, self-determined citizens.

Truly a circular economy in embryo.

As I drove away from Victoria Yards, I realised I had developed a sense of attachment and belonging. In the midst of a crisis, there is indeed a ‘network of possibility’. Human beings working together, using their imagination and innovation, in order to advance the common interest. They may not get paid, and their businesses are suffering badly like so many others, but they clearly get a great deal of satisfaction and reward from doing it.

Their ambition seems to have no limits. According to Sandra, “We are working on a local currency. We are working on setting up a permanent dry goods shop and clothing shop where people can redeem points earned.” 

The ultimate aim is “to get a circular economy going which will allow people to access whole food, clothing and so on in a more sustainable way”.

I felt I had glimpsed a future that can work. 

The challenge, of course, is that the MVP provides succour to only a ‘small’ suburb of 45,000 people. As the Covid-19 crisis deepens, similar initiatives are needed in communities across the country. 

A tall order, yes, but definitely possible. And there is nothing to lose. DM/MC

If you would like to support the Makers Valley Partnership or any of the projects described in this article contact Thobile Chittenden at: [email protected] or on 072 529 7226. If you would like to support a local community food kitchen make a deposit to: Account name: Curriculum Development Project Trust, Reference: Mandela Day, First National Bank, Branch: Eastgate Shopping Centre; Branch code: 257 705; Type of account: Cheque account; Account no: 5527 004 1699; SWIFT CODE: FIRNZAJJ

 

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