Make way for the white elephant – respected Bertrams Inner City Farm faces forced removal
For the past 15 years, Mam Refiloe Molefe, known as Mam Refiloe, has tended to the soil at the Bertrams Inner City Farm, in inner-city Johannesburg. But now the two-hectare farm has been ordered to be closed immediately, its fields will be bulldozed and construction will start on a Multi-Purpose Centre. But activists are fighting back.
On a small patch of land in the inner city, she has developed an oasis, an organic farm that grows vegetables for sale, but also for use in local food kitchens, supporting children and adults in the impoverished communities nearby.
But since our report in March 2021, the need for such a farm has only grown greater as hunger and food scarcity increase in the inner city. Recognising this, in the local government elections in October 2021 several major political parties — although notably not the DA who now run the Johannesburg City Council — said in their manifestos that they encouraged local food gardens and co-operatives.
All of this makes the decision of Johannesburg City Council to bulldoze her farm (literally) and use the land to build a Multi-Purpose Centre (MPC) all the more inexplicable.
Maverick Citizen will publish an article giving more detail about the background early next week.
However, as the deadline for Mam Refiloe’s removal gets closer, it has catalysed a mobilisation from NGOs and activists in the area and beyond.
Yesterday over 60 organisations issued a statement criticising the decision in the light of food insecurity. Many of them work closely with the farm. They question the lack of transparency in the process, particularly after Mam Refiloe was told a year ago by the Johannesburg Department of Social Development, who owns the land, that her tenure was secure: a Farmer Incubation Agreement was signed with her “with a principal place of business located at Bertrams Agri Resource Centre.”
The statement is signed by organisations such as the Makers Valley Partnership, the Bertrams Residents Association, NOSH Food Rescue and the University of Johannesburg Community Engagement Unit. It includes community-based organisations, academics and activists.
In addition, the Legal Resources Centre has been brought on board and is acting for Mam Refiloe. A letter sent by the LRC on 20 May led to a meeting with officials, who were described by those present as rude and aggressive, but at least a promise of a written reply was extracted. None has been received yet.
Activists have also contacted Johannesburg Executive Mayor Mpho Phalatse and her advisors to question the decision. Here they report having received a more sensitive and listening response and a promise that their questions about the process will be looked into and answered.
Reference to the Bertrams MPC can be found in an annexure (C) listing capital projects in the 2020/2021 Final Integrated Development Plan for the City of Johannesburg, where it is described as “Demolition of existing old structures construct a One-Stop Social development Service Centre building, parking and greenhouse” and budgeted for at R61.5-million in the medium term. A further R137-million is proposed in a draft IDP covering the years 2022/2027 (for which public comments closed on April 22, 2022).
No mention is made of an existing productive farm on the site!
But to add salt to the wound, Mam Refiloe has been offered a new location for the farm in Eikenhof, on the Southern outskirts of Johannesburg and 20km away from the present farm.
She visited there this week.
From photographs, we have seen the new location is reminiscent of a dumping ground in the old days of forced removals. The land is hard and previously uncultivated. There appears to be little infrastructure such as water and electricity. It is far from the markets and communities that have come to depend on her produce, as well as the students and young people who have learnt about agroecology on the farm.
No one doubts the potential value of an MPC, but they question its cost — close to R250-million — and whether it is a priority at a moment when inner-city communities are facing a crisis of hunger, crime and unemployment. They also question why existing non-profit organisations in the area that have provided facilities, food and support to communities throughout the Covid-19 pandemic have not been consulted.
Although no one will go on record yet, some activists suspect that the sudden urgency may be linked to people who will stand to gain from construction tenders. They point to officials in the City with private businesses and to the high levels of corruption in the Johannesburg City Council.
Ironically, earlier this week a report on corruption in Gauteng was released by the Premier (see our report here). It included both the City of Johannesburg and the Department of Social Development (DSD) in its list of departments under investigation by the SIU in relation to allegations of corruption. An amount of R977-million spent by the DSD is being investigated. On this basis, the activists’ suspicions are justifiable and warrant careful scrutiny of the process to decide on and tender for the MPC.
This is an ongoing story. DM/MC
REMOVAL OF FOOD SUPPLYING COMMUNITY FARM FROM JOHANNESBURG INNER CITY
Food insecurity is a widely acknowledged national crisis. Right in the middle of Johannesburg, the Bertrams Inner City Farm has provided fresh organic produce to the surrounding communities since 2006. Established by Mam Refiloe Molefe, this unique urban food garden has evolved from early beginnings as a source of healthy food for needy children to its present wide-ranging local food security and skills development role.
The City of Johannesburg (CoJ) intends to build a R240-million rand (sic) Multipurpose Centre on this land. Although the City’s plans for the Centre have been in the pipeline for a number of years, there is no evidence of plans to maintain the food security role played by the garden during the construction. Local community members and organisations (see list below) would like formal assurance from responsible CoJ executives that Mam Refiloe’s considerable investment in agricultural equipment will be protected; that she will have access to comparable alternative land; and that she will have the right to create another community food garden as part of the new development in the City.
What began as a means to feed children at a creche, has transformed into a vibrant and vital organisation promoting food security in the inner city. In 2006, Mam Refiloe was allowed to use the vacant land on what was then offices of the Department of Social Development for agricultural production. Mam Refiloe now sells fresh, organic produce to the community, and to numerous small grocery and catering businesses. Her co-op is also involved in agro-processing, creating fresh juices and sauces from her produce — an example of the entrepreneurial spirit the City is so fond of promoting.
Mam Refiloe is connected to a number of organisations in the area that provide support for children, homeless people, and others who cannot afford sufficient, healthy food. She runs an informal soup kitchen at the garden and supplies vegetables to several other community soup kitchens and feeding schemes through The People’s Pantry, an NGO that operates out of nearby Victoria Yards. She also frequently donates vegetables to nearby creches, shelters and to the Maurice Freeman Centre — this was especially important during the Covid-19 lockdown when hunger was rife. Beyond her immediate community, Mam Refiloe also works with food security organisations such as Meals on Wheels, Nosh Food Rescue and others.
In addition to providing food, Mam Refiloe offers education on food and farming to children from nearby ECD centres and schools. She also provides training on organic farming to the youth, often through tertiary institutions. She has partnerships with the University of Johannesburg, Wits University, Tshwane University of Technology, Gibs and Henley Business School, providing training, research and volunteer opportunities to many students. She is currently training a group of young people through the Presidential Youth Employment Initiative. Over the years she has educated hundreds, if not thousands, of young people on these important topics, helping them understand what healthy food is, and how to produce it themselves. The garden is also a safe space for children from the local community, who get to enjoy a little time in nature when their parents come to purchase vegetables.
Through links to bicycle and walking tours, Mam Refiloe’s garden creates a space to educate visitors from other parts of the city and country, as well as international tourists, about healthy organic food and urban farming. She has hosted many corporate teams over the years, showing them the garden and preparing fresh, healthy meals from her produce. Her excellent work has earned her many awards and has been featured on Top Billing, Morning Live and CNN, as well as many radio and print media publications. As a result, she is loved and respected by people all over the city, and throughout the world.
The CoJ has had a Multipurpose Centre in the Bertrams area in the pipeline for many years and has recently announced its plans to proceed with the building of the Development through the Johannesburg Development Agency. Whilst the Fountain of Youth Co-Op was made aware that they would be relocated once the construction took place, the terms around the removal and the future of the functioning of the co-operative remains uncertain.
The Food Resilience Unit of the CoJ has told Mam Refiloe that she will be moved to Eikenhof, almost 20km away from Bertrams, and away from the organisations and community she has been serving for the past sixteen years. It is unclear if the land at Eikenhof will even be cleared, and the soil is certainly not healthy like the organic soil that has been built up over years of careful tending at Bertrams. Mam Refiloe’s training in permaculture and her commitment to food as medicine require that she practice chemical-free farming, which may not be possible at Eikenhof. The Fountain of Youth Co-Op is not opposed to the new Development and understands the need for social services in the inner city. However, in the five or six years that it takes for construction to take place, there is no plan as to how the services currently fulfilled by the Co-op will be addressed.
The Co-op and its partners are concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding the relocation. They were told that they would be ‘moved out’ by the end of this week. We call on the City of Johannesburg and the Department of Social Development to urgently provide the Fountain of Youth Co-operative with a written undertaking which sets out exactly what type of support will be provided in order to allow the co-operative to continue to fulfil the vital social role with regard to organic food production, food security and training of youth, and a written undertaking that the Co-op will be given an opportunity to return to Bertrams to participate in agricultural activities at the new Multipurpose Centre once the Development has been completed.
STATEMENT ISSUED BY:
- Abundance Wholesome Foods
- Alana Potter (Head: End Water Poverty)
- Allan Wentzel
- Anne Timms
- Balance Sk8 Co
- Bertrams Residents Movement
- Chris Engelbrecht
- Corona Care
- Carrie Pratt, independent consultant & educator
- Colleen Du Toit, volunteer MVP
- Curiocity Johannesburg
- Essence of Humanity
- Eugene Ulman, writer & film maker
- Extinction Rebellion Gauteng
- Faarooq Mangera, civil society worker
- Feed (Food equity, equality and democracy)
- Future Space Solutions
- Gender CCSA Women for Climate Justice
- Ikhala Trust
- International Labour Research and Information Group
- Jenny Hunter, activist
- Johannesburg Against Injustice (JAI)
- Jonathan Rees
- Kathy Brookes
- Katie Stubbs
- Khanya Hunter, activist
- Kula Organic Produce
- Lawyers for Human Rights
- Legal Resources Centre
- Lesley Haynes
- Makers Valley Partnership (MVP)
- Marlies Bron
- Mcebo Unlimited Wealth
- MES Johannesburg
- Mokgadi Itsweng, food activist chef
- Noah CAN (Norwood, Orange Grove & Houghton Community Action Network)
- Nosh Food Rescue
- Observatory CAN
- Prof Heather Brookes
- Prof David Brookes
- The People’s Pantry
- Sadi Motsuenyane, Ketloditswe Development and Trading
- Safe Study
- Sharon Ekambaram, activist
- Siyabonga Nglangamandla, urban farmer
- Sneakers 4 Change
- Stephen Greenberg, independent researcher
- Straight from the ground
- Ten Million Makers
- Timbuktu in the Valley
- Tsidii Le Loka, artist/director
- University of Johannesburg Community Engagement Department
- Unwrapped Co.
- The Wayside feeding & Development Org
- We Will All Eat
Organisations wishing to add their names can sign up below: