Maverick Citizen

URBAN FARMING

Friday activist: Mam Refiloe grows a new community after Bertrams Inner City Farm removal

Friday activist: Mam Refiloe grows a new community after Bertrams Inner City Farm removal
Refiloe Molefe proudly posing in her field of mealies, 2021. (Photo: Mark Lewis) Among Mealies

Refiloe Molefe, ‘Fifi’, or Mam Refiloe, as she is affectionately known, didn’t set out to be a farmer. While she trained as a nurse, her passion for growing food was born out of a desire to feed her community. And for over 16 years, she has done just that.

It is this from this community that Mam Refiloe was removed when the Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality’s bulldozers brought an end to the inspirational story of the Bertrams Inner City Farm – a thriving urban space where she and those she trained worked the soil tirelessly until it turned into an oasis of life and hope. 

Bulldozers ploughed what was the Bertrams Inner City Farm, 28 June 2022. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

A thriving urban farm

I first met Mam Refiloe in November 2021. Her crops were plentiful: carrots, potatoes, ground nuts, spinach and mealies – all grown organically. 

Peach trees donated by Food and Trees for Africa were laden with fruit. 

Mam Refiloe stood among her mealies, with the backdrop of the Ponte tower serving as a reminder of the truly urban nature of her efforts. She generously shared her produce.  

Mark Lewis, the photographer who accompanied me on that visit and subsequent trips, spoke of his own family’s experience of Mam Refiloe’s generosity, with his daughter, who has learning difficulties, visiting the farm and tending to the plants on a daily basis for more than a year – benefitting, in the process, from the therapy offered by the soil. 

Many others have benefitted too: children living on the street, invited in to learn the art of growing their own food; agriculture students who have complemented their training with practical experience at the one of the city’s most famous urban farms; hundreds of hungry Bertrams residents who queued during the height of Covid lockdowns – drawing sustenance from the healthy meals cooked from vegetables grown under Mam Refiloe’s care.   

Mam Refiloe’s journey from nurse to urban farmer reflects both her tenacity in the face of obstacles, and her commitment to making a difference. 

Inspired by memories of the community members who played a part in raising her after her mother’s death and her father’s subsequent departure, she chose to start a creche – using the space in her daughter’s garage “to care for young ones like me who were orphans or could not go to creche because their parents could not afford it”. 

Providing care and love was, however, not enough, with many of the children also needing food. She secured a daily donation of bread from Blue Ribbon, which she used to feed the children in her creche – while also setting up feeding points across the wider community to share the bread with others in need. 

She soon realised that “bread alone is not good food”. 

In 2006, in the process of trying to get handouts of other food supplies to supplement the bread, she came across the old Bertrams bowling green – a space numerous people had tried, unsuccessfully, to turn into a food garden. 

Mam Refiloe approached the custodians of the land, the City of Johannesburg’s Social Development Department, and asked to use the space to grow nutritious food for her children. Despite their scepticism in light of the numerous failed attempts of others before, and a lengthy delay before a decision was taken, the department finally granted her the right to farm. 

Reflecting on that time, Mam Refiloe notes: “I knew why I was there. I wanted to feed those children.”  

Partnerships, donations, competitions – and a dash of alchemy 

A consistent thread across Mam Refiloe’s story is the magnetism of her passion, and her ability to inspire and galvanise partners, donors and volunteers – weaving magic, despite her limited resources. 

In 2008, Nestle came on board, offering the support of Early Childhood Development practitioners – and more food. 

The children under her care grew, as did the plants. With more children in both her own and other creches to feed, she realised she needed to focus her attention. 

“Plants and children are the same. You can’t simply say, I’m not feeding my child today – I’ll feed them tomorrow. The plants also need to be taken care of, like a baby”.  

Some of the food harvested from the gardens in 2018. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

Mam Refiloe’s colleagues took in the children from her creche, providing her with time to focus on growing more food. As her vegetables and fruit grew, she shared supplies with more creches, “never forgetting where I came from”.

With hard work (“using my hands like tractors, to plough the land”), donations from companies like JoJo, Servest and Talborne Organics, winnings from entries into multiple competitions, and training from organisations like Prof Michael Rudolf’s Siyakhana Food Garden, the Bertrams Inner City Farm flourished. 

Mam Refiloe ploughed the rewards from competitions into tools, pipes, taps and compost – establishing a fertile farm from which she was able to harvest more crops.   

Growing a community

In 2013, Mam Refiloe realised that it was not enough to just grow food: she needed to transfer skills so that others could do the same. 

Drawing youth from her community, she started providing practical training. She worried that her trainees would need more than the knowledge she had gained through practice – reaching out to Agriseta for help. Four years of plant production training followed, resulting in a cohort of skilled youth. 

Mam Refiloe joined them in the classroom, equipping herself with further knowledge to accompany her passion. 

It was through this process, and the input of the youth around her, that she learnt hers was a truly organic farm: a space full of healthy and well-fed soil, supported through natural remedies such as garlic and chilli sprays to ward off unwelcome pests.  

This was the first set of students Mam Refiloe worked with and trained, with numerous others following. Students from the University of Johannesburg and Wits University could walk to the farm, given its accessible location, contributing time and effort as part of their community engagement – while simultaneously learning new skills from Mam Refiloe, and benefitting from the therapy offered by the soil. 

In turn, the farm fed more people. 

From 2006 to June 2022, Mam Refiloe and members from the community provided those in need of food with meals every Tuesday and Thursday. 

During Covid lockdowns, the queue of hungry people snaked down the road. Given physical distancing concerns, Mam Refiloe worked with the Makers Valley Partnership and others to establish more food kitchens, providing meals and hope for many, in a context of rising food insecurity. 

Extra produce was sold in markets and direct to loyal customers, and turned into juices and other products, with funds used to provide work opportunities or invested back into the farm.

An end – and a different beginning

On 6 June 2022, the organic inner city farm that had generously provided community members and the surrounding food kitchens and creches with vegetables and fruit for over 16 years – while also serving as a space of learning – was demolished to make way for the construction of the City’s new Multi-Purpose Centre (MPC). 

The office and packhouse originally donated by JoJo were broken up into pieces – despite Mam Refiloe’s wishes for them to be moved to an alternative site that she had found in Naturena, where she hoped to start over. 

The drip irrigation system that she had installed with hard-earned funds was damaged; 66 fruit trees that had grown to maturity were torn down; Mam Refiloe’s multispan tunnels were dismantled, with pieces of the structures left behind, rendering the remaining segments of the tunnels incomplete. 

Refiloe Molefe gathering the last of her things in preparation for the move to Naturena in the south of Johannesburg, 2022. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

Refiloe Molefe waiting for transport for the move to Naturena, south of Johannesburg, 5 June 2022. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

The garden on the last day, 6 June 2022. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

The Bertrams Inner City Farm – a place of inspiration in an area often flooded with challenge – was left decimated.

Community members visited what was left of their urban garden, gathering bags of spinach and kale from the final harvest. 

While the new MPC may bring other opportunities in the future, the empty space where Mam Refiloe and her team nurtured the soil over the years to yield harvest after harvest of nutritious organic goods now reflected an added burden faced by many, in a country plagued by unemployment and rising living costs: the question of where their next meal would come from.  

The land that Mam Refiloe farmed after finding it empty all those years ago has always remained City land. Two years ago, City officials advised her of their intention to move her to make way for the MPC. In the interim, Mam Refiloe continued farming – planting and sharing the fruits of two additional harvests. 

“I did not stop farming, because we are a hungry nation. Someone who has a lot of money in their pocket can sit back and say that they will buy food from the shops.” 

Reflecting on her original reason for farming, she notes that she never thought it would grow large enough to sell produce. 

“I just wanted to feed my community.” 

It was only on 7 May this year that Mam Refiloe learnt that the City had finally secured the necessary funds to start construction of the MPC. 

Despite this, she received no detailed input on when or how the move of her goods would take place, although the City committed to move her belongings to Naturena and to land in Eikenhof – a dedicated agricultural farm where a number of cooperatives have been allocated land and tunnels as part of a farming incubation project. 

Read in Daily Maverick: Make way for the white elephant – respected Bertrams Inner City Farm faces forced removal 

The arrival of removal teams in June 2022 therefore came as a surprise. 

Mam Refiloe remained in the dark about what the City was offering at the Eikenhof Farm, with commitments of access to land, a tunnel, borehole water, organic fertilisers, seed and tools only communicated on 22 June, when we travelled to the site with her.  

The critical ingredient missing from the arrangement was Mam Refiloe’s community – the reason she started farming and the source of her passion.

Despite the events of the last few weeks, Mam Refiloe intends to continue feeding the Bertrams community – cooking food at the space she has secured in Naturena, and transporting it to the community she has worked so hard to support. 

She has continued caring for underprivileged children who are in need of shelter and food, teaching them how to tend the soil and plant seeds. 

In May 2022, she started training a new group of 50 youth from the Bertrams area as part of a six-month programme, with the support of the National Youth Service and Hand in Hand. When news of the potential move came, she secured a space at Joubert Park where she could continue to teach them: a place that was close enough for them to walk. 

Sadly, the new space she hopes to farm at in Naturena is too far to reach by foot. The Eikenhof Farm is almost 20km away: an unbreachable distance for someone who thrives on supporting her community, given that she would need appropriate transport, petrol and accommodation for both herself and her learners.  

During our visit to Eikenhof Farm, City officials promised to transport her 50 youth to the farm for Mandela Day, and committed to providing food and tools. Unfortunately, the ongoing sustainability of an initiative that is fundamentally about “community” remains in question, given that it is so far removed from its urban roots.     

Moving forward

The Bertrams Inner City Farm was known not only as an urban food garden, but also as a result of the way in which Mam Refiloe managed it – engaging, exciting and drawing in the goodwill of so many. 

It provided a place of food, connection, training, shelter, therapy – and a string of feel-good stories about overcoming adversity. 

Refiloe Molefe at the Betrams Inner City gardens with Nompumelelo Mqwebu, chef and author, in 2018. Refiloe started the gardens in 2006. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

During our last visit, Mam Refiloe declared that she was starting over. 

“I don’t have any fear inside me. I managed to do it before, from nothing. It would be difficult if someone else had done it for me. But I started from scratch… and people came and supported me. We will do it again.”

It is already happening. 

Mam Refiloe has secured the support of the Starke Ayres nursery for Mandela Day. She will be planting seeds at a new site: the unused land of a local church, where she has been welcomed.  Here she is closer to the communities she cares about. 

She is hoping that someone with a good heart can come on board and repair the engine of the VW that her daughter bought for her, so that she can transport the youth she is training.  

Gibs’ Entrepreneurship Development Academy has visited – offering support – while Henley Business School has started developing a website

Mam Refiloe hopes to nurture this space, and many others. “If you don’t have money but you have soil, water and seeds, you are sorted. You can never go hungry.” 

Refiloe Molefe sorting her seeds in her new garden and home in Naturena, south of Johannesburg, 8 June 2022. A long way from her community in Bertrams. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

Refiloe Molefe inspects her seedlings that she planted in her newly erected tunnel. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

The newly erected tunnel in the garden. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

Eikenhof Farm, where the City of Johannesburg has offered Refiloe Molefe land. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

The following are on Mam Refiloe’s wish list: protective equipment such as gumboots, overalls, gloves and sunhats, tools – forks, hoes, rakes and cutters, an industrial machine and glass bottles for processing and packaging juices, a deep freezer, razor wire to secure the perimeter of her farming space, a pump for the irrigation system, a borehole for water and a generator or solar panels for energy, a packhouse and a laptop.  

Holding the fresh earth in her hands, Mam Refiloe tells us: “We come from the soil and go back to the soil. There’s lots of therapy here. You will find me here, working.” 

She is unstoppable. DM/MC

Justine Neke is the Managing Director of Indlela Growth Strategies, a consulting firm established in 2011 to provide clients with research, strategy, facilitation, organisational design and development, and performance improvement interventions. She holds a master’s degree in Industrial Psychology from UCT, an MBA from Gibs, and several coaching qualifications. Justine is known for her commitment to facilitating change in the public sector – and for her involvement in varied research and strategy development projects, particularly in the local government domain.

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