Maverick Citizen


Make way for the white elephant – respected Bertrams Inner City Farm faces forced removal

Make way for the white elephant – respected Bertrams Inner City Farm faces forced removal
Youth from the community in Bertrams are seen working land at a inner-city farm run by Refiloe Molefe, Johannesburg. (Photo: Denvor de Wee)

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. 

We have previously told the story of Mam Refiloe’s farm and some of its achievements.

The new location in Eikenhof, Johannesburg. (Photo: Supplied)

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.”

Ground unbroken – the new location in Eikenhoff. (Photo: Supplied)

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

Media Statement:


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.

Mam Refiloe at home on her inner-city Joburg farm. (Photo: Brittany Kesselman)

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. 


  1. Abundance Wholesome Foods
  2. Alana Potter (Head: End Water Poverty)
  3. Allan Wentzel
  4. Anne Timms
  5. Balance Sk8 Co
  6. Bertrams Residents Movement
  7. Chris Engelbrecht
  8. Copac
  9. Corona Care
  10. Carrie Pratt, independent consultant & educator
  11. Colleen Du Toit, volunteer MVP
  12. Curiocity Johannesburg
  13. Essence of Humanity
  14. Eugene Ulman, writer & film maker
  15. Extinction Rebellion Gauteng
  16. Faarooq Mangera, civil society worker
  17. Feed (Food equity, equality and democracy)
  18. Feet2Grow
  19. ForReal
  20. Future Space Solutions
  21. Gender CCSA Women for Climate Justice
  22. Giwusa
  23. Ikhala Trust
  24. Impact4Good
  25. International Labour Research and Information Group
  26. Jenny Hunter, activist
  27. Johannesburg Against Injustice (JAI)
  28. Jonathan Rees
  29. Kathy Brookes
  30. Katie Stubbs
  31. Khanya Hunter, activist
  32. Kula Organic Produce
  33. Lawyers for Human Rights
  34. Legal Resources Centre
  35. Lesley Haynes
  36. Makers Valley Partnership (MVP)
  37. Marlies Bron
  38. Mcebo Unlimited Wealth
  39. MES Johannesburg
  40. Mokgadi Itsweng, food activist chef
  41. Noah CAN (Norwood, Orange Grove & Houghton Community Action Network)
  42. Nosh Food Rescue
  43. Observatory CAN
  44. Prof Heather Brookes
  45. Prof David Brookes
  46. The People’s Pantry
  47. Sadi Motsuenyane, Ketloditswe Development and Trading
  48. Safe Study
  49. Sharon Ekambaram, activist
  50. Siyabonga Nglangamandla, urban farmer
  51. Sneakers 4 Change
  52. Sobae
  53. Stephen Greenberg, independent researcher
  54. Straight from the ground
  55. Ten Million Makers
  56. Timbuktu in the Valley
  57. Tsidii Le Loka, artist/director
  58. University of Johannesburg Community Engagement Department
  59. Unwrapped Co.
  60. The Wayside feeding & Development Org
  61. We Will All Eat

Organisations wishing to add their names can sign up below:


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Why do we always f-up our priorities. Besides, there are many rundown areas in Joburg where that centre could be build.

  • louis viljee says:

    Yet another can of rats. And corruption. It’s like the continuing battle in Cape Town of the Philippi Horticultural Area to prevent it’s being carved up and concreted over. These green areas are not only valuable green lungs in our cities but also provide nutritious food closest to where needed. If we want to get ourselves out of the ecological and climate crisis brought about by corrupt capitalist systems, we would recognise that we need many more of these kinds of developments where communities can take ownership and supply the basic needs of survival for themselves. End the corruption, listen to the community and ZA can thrive.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    How does this even begin to happen. Where can I sign something to get this stopped?

    • Paddy Ross says:

      In almost every situation, there are two sides to the story. Best to wait for the enquiry to be carried out before being being carried away emotionally.

  • Change is Good says:

    This Multi-Purpose Centre with no details and transparency definitely raises questions on corruption. Dig deep Daily Maverick, let’s see who is behind this and what is an MPC.
    DA run council, look into this, Mam Rafiloe’s inner city farm is what the citizens of every town and city in the world want in 2022.
    They do not want more shopping centres with chain restaurants facing a carpark and industrialised food delivery through dominant supermarket chains. There is certainly no need for factory space in this area, so what exactly is being planned. Is this tender fraud ? Will anything actually be built.
    Mam Refiloe’s farm could be an amazing mixed use, farm, farm shop, small business food processing development if property developers just thought about communities for a change and what makes a city great to live in.
    Property developers, take note, this could be your chance to create something that enhances our city’s and creates spaces that communities want. Another caution to the greedy and uncaring, citizen activists are out in numbers. The days of steam rolling are over.

  • Craig B says:

    They really could take that money and repurpose a dilapidated inner city building and formalise the farm which is functional. Why destroy that which is just people power doing stuff. Give her the land for Gods sake!!!!

  • virginia crawford says:

    Please name the individuals who have signed the documents for the demolition of this inner city farm. They should then be investigated for any links to the tenders for construction. Why is Bertrams considered convenient to reach for a one stop centre? A brutal decision that shows an extreme kack of respect and understanding of ordinary people’s lives and hard work. Heads should roll.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


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