South Africa

Lockdown Level 2

Uncertainty, joy and fear are the plats du jour as Jozi restaurants reopen

Uncertainty, joy and fear are the plats du jour as Jozi restaurants reopen
Friends Lucy Moeta, Lerato Lebea, Mpumi Toloane and China Tsotetsi return to Fox Street, Maboneng ‘to paint the town red’. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

The easing of the lockdown caused some to celebrate, while others stayed closed in fear of the virus.

Kassahun Gebrehana’s neighbour drove him crazy – for eight long years.

But he cried the day she left.

His neighbour was a casualty of the Covid-19 lockdown, her restaurant didn’t survive long enough to see the crowds return to once again fill that strip of Fox Street that cuts through Joburg’s Maboneng precinct.

Kassahun Gebrehana, owner of the Little Addis Cafe on Fox Street, Maboneng is open for business. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

Gebrehana, who owns the Little Addis Cafe, had helped her clear her restaurant when the rent got too much.

“Then it hit me,” he recalls. “I went into the kitchen and I cried. Why did she have to close? We have no consideration for each other, and that has killed a lot of businesses here.”

Slim pickings are still the norm on Fox Street, Maboneng despite the South African government downgrading the nation’s Covid-19 lockdown to Level 2. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

Inflexible landlords not willing to give their tenants a let-off during this unprecedented time have snuffed out restaurants in Maboneng and the rest of the city, believes Gebrehana.

But step outside the Little Addis Cafe and there is little sign of grief or sadness this late Saturday afternoon. Happy people struck poses for street photographers and sipped trendy cocktails from jam jars. Here and there a whiff of marijuana hung in the air.

Life returns to Fox Street, Maboneng in the form of two dogs named Typhon and Sir Vato from the breeding kennels of Colossal Kennels and VIP Bully Champ respectively. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

Maboneng was getting its vibe back on the first weekend after President Cyril Ramaphosa downgraded the nation to lockdown Level Two.

The Covid-19 pandemic seemed far away to the drivers of the luxury cars that paraded up and down Fox Street, revving engines and dropping soft tops on convertibles to enjoy those first hints of spring. In one corner of the street, a photo shoot was taking place. The stars were two leashed, high-bred, gargoyle-faced dogs that scared a few passers-by.

A street photographer shows his handiwork to happy customers on Fox Street, Maboneng. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

But there were none of the usual tourists here – this was an exclusive upmarket Jozi jol. And few were heeding the health minister’s plea for the citizens of South Africa to embrace the “new normal” of social distancing and wearing masks.

Outside Bertrand Café on the top end of Maboneng, four women were having a reunion. For the past five months, contact for the four friends was through screen time: Zoom meetups and the odd WhatsApp message.  

A street seller walks up Fox Street, Maboneng hoping to sell his wares to returning customers. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

“This is like Christmas,” says Thulisile Kgamedi. Her friend Nolita Mankayi told Daily Maverick that not having her friends around had been stressful.  

Not far from the bustle of Maboneng, in Chinatown, Cyrildene, there was no sense of celebration sparked by the relaxing of the lockdown.

Many restaurants along Derrick Avenue went into early lockdown in February, when there was fear that returning Chinese nationals fresh from celebrating the Chinese New Year in China would bring the virus.

Candy Liu who is in charge of the Fong Mei Restaurant allows takeaways, but no sit-downs. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

A number of restaurants went bust, one of which had existed for at least 24 years. Those that survived were trying to make it selling takeaways.

Unlike Maboneng, most customers have stayed away, and the restaurant owners believe this is because of fear. Fear of the virus, that is still infecting at least 3,000 people a day in South Africa, is keeping a few restaurants on Derrick Avenue from reopening.

“I will only open when everything is 100% safe; now is too dangerous,” says Candy Liu, who is in charge of the Fong Mei Restaurant. She does allow takeaways, but no sit-downs. She plans to reopen when there are no more cases in hospital, while sales from takeaways have become a slow trickle. The other day, she made just R300.

Up the road, Yang Pan Fong is also yet to reopen his restaurant, even for takeaways.

“People are just too scared to come out,” is all he will say.

Chef Dana Bosch returns to Chinatown, Cyrildene in order to buy ingredients for her miso caramel dish that she plans to serve at a private lunch. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

However, the supermarkets on Derrick Avenue are still open, with their uniquely Chinese offerings that can’t be found elsewhere in Joburg. It was to one of these supermarkets that chef Dana Bosch was heading on Saturday on a hunt to find ingredients to make miso caramel, a dish she planned to serve at a private brunch.

Bosch used to own the Little Love Food in Braamfontein, but was forced to close with the lockdown. Like other chefs, she had to improvise and she started offering private dining experiences at people’s homes. 

“People are more comfortable in their homes at the moment,” she says. While she does some prepping at home, most of the cooking is done at the customer’s residence. 

“They like the performance. Often they will say it is just for the family, but when you get there, you realise, they have brought friends,” laughs Bosch.

Down the hill from Chinatown across Bezuidenhout Valley is the Troyeville Hotel. In the past, patrons made the drive from across Joburg to enjoy book launches, eat Portuguese-style chicken, or drink a catemba or two.

Theo Sibanda in the Troyeville Hotel kitchens after his first day back at work. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

Saturday was waiter Theo Sibanda’s first day back at work. Lockdown had been devastating for him and his family.

“It feels very very good to be back, and we are just so grateful for a second chance,” Sibanda says.

The four months and two weeks of no work had forced the Zimbabwean to dig into his savings and call on his family back home for help. But help over the weeks came from an unusual quarter. Patrons would phone him up and deposit money into his account.

“They would phone and ask, ‘Theo are you okay for groceries?’ ”

One customer, who is a regular on Sunday afternoons, helped Sibanda pay his rent.

“It has been a dark time,” says Sibanda.

Part owner of the Troyeville Hotel Lawrence Jones hopes for the better trade in the coming months. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

One of the owners of the Troyeville Hotel, Laurence Jones, said business last week was between 30% and 40% of what it had been before Covid. 

“But it is gradually creeping up,” he says. Returning to normal also means restocking supplies. On Tuesday, when the alcohol ban was lifted, they had to delay collecting stock when they saw the bakkies lined up outside the liquor stores on Jules Street. They are slowly getting there. 

“We have been in survival mode; we had to dig into our reserves, but we were lucky in that we don’t pay rent.”

But there is an uneasy future ahead for the likes of the Troyeville Hotel and other restaurants across Johannesburg. The virus has yet to disappear or be defeated by a vaccine.

“We will just have to see what happens with the second wave of the virus, and if there is going to be another lockdown,” says Jones. DM

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