All aboard the travelling Mzansi fair

All aboard the travelling Mzansi fair
(Photos and composite image:Tony Jackman)

When the Kamers/Makers circus rolls into town, the money spent by shoppers feeds a burgeoning creative economy-within-an-economy that came from unlikely beginnings. It’s a far cry from its parochial origins almost two decades ago.

Imagine a travelling show that rolls into town like a circus and sets up its tents and showpieces, spills out its star performers and its ingenues keen to find their way in the hierarchy. Only this is not a circus. It’s another kind of fair and its ringmasters are conjurers of a different kind of magic.

Instead of sawdust, death-defying highwire acts and the smiling menace of the clown, there’s stardust being thrown around. Stardust that lands on the shoulders and in the hair of people with a creative talent who are prepared to work hard and take a chance on themselves, their future and their craft, and who just need that hand up that we all need at some stage in our lives.

People like Nomsa Malgas, who two years ago was struggling and desperate. Lost and frightened of the future, she looked at her old skirts and saw opportunity. She started making masks and selling them outside Constantia Village shopping centre, somebody came along, saw what she was capable of, and introduced her to the people from Kamers/Makers, a roving market that sets up camp in the way that a circus does. They waved their wand over Nomsa, declared her the best newcomer of the show, and today she has her own fashion label, Malgas, making eye-catching garments in striking colours and beautiful textures.

Nomsa Malgas, left, epitomises the kind of success story that the Kamers/Makers crew thrive on. Janine Collins of Embo, top right, turned a passion for crochet into a community-based brand of mats, bags and baskets. Michelle Ludek, bottom right, is one of the stars of the show. (Photos and composite image: Tony Jackman)

And the A&TG Ekasi brand by Abass Ma-azu from Gugulethu who makes spectacular bags and exquisite circular fans and from whom I was aching to buy several fans and at least one bag, had I not already blown my budget on the Malgas couture. Every one made by his own hand, they could be sold for hundreds of euros apiece. And this does happen to some vendors and their wares, says brand fundi Jeremy Doveton-Helps. There are instances of massive orders to be shipped elsewhere in the world.

Abass Ma-azu from Gugulethu makes spectacular bags and exquisite fans. Even the interiors are extraordinary (bottom right). (‘But why,’ asked brand guru Jeremy Doveton-Helps, ‘are you wearing Prada?’) Bummel (top right) makes superior ‘vellies’. (Photos and composite image: Tony Jackman)

There are many Kamers/Makers stories like Malgas’s but hers epitomises the magic wand effect the fair has. This doesn’t mean they operate as a charity might, doling out largesse for no return. They advised her as to how to get started in pursuing her dream, invited Malgas into the fold, with a stall at one of their markets, then another and another. Not free of charge. There is a fee to pay, infrastructure is provided, a central pay point system, and much more. 

Thokozani Shezi of Nguni Apparel, a lifestyle brand ‘with an eco-conscience’, demonstrates (bottom right) how his name is ‘spelt 12345’ when a calculator is turned upside down. (Photos and composite image: Tony Jackman)

Nomsa and others must make and provide their products and ship them to wherever the market night be, whether Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Pretoria, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein or even small outlying areas such as Nieu-Bethesda. The ethos of the owners’ approach is to encourage upliftment and create opportunity while imbuing them with an understanding that we must all do our bit in order to advance. Strolling around the market, however, it is clear that for all the leg-up stories, there are others spawned of less trying circumstances; people from middle-class backgrounds who have a craft and a vision.

Jeremy Doveton-Helps, brand and business strategist, with one of many examples of his way with a concept and a turn of phrase. The tent shows the progression from its founding in the Stellenbosch white Afrikaans community to the multicultural, national affair it is today. (Photos and composite image: Tony Jackman)

Doveton-Helps talks about what he calls “the brown bag generation” and “the sudden growth of farmers’ markets in the last 10 to 15 years; it epitomises the shift from 8os, 90s plastic to niche, who made it, where did they make it, why did they make it and most important, how did they make it”. And that generation comes out to play at places such as this fair.

From the rooms of an emptied-out house in Stellenbosch 19 years ago, via venues on wine farms, the fair now often uses private school grounds as they have the infrastructure needed. And the other day in Inanda, the circus train rolled in…

Imagine a grand scale pop-up, not a circus but a roaming shopping mall, that travels to where the people might be, then rings a big school bell to announce that the fair is open for business. Just as the big supermarket chains anchor a great mall, with smaller concerns benefitting from the footfall that Pick n Pay and Checkers bring in, at Kamers there are anchor tenants that are the big success stories of the fair who had made their mark, with new vendors benefitting from the footfall that those stars bring. People like Michelle Ludek, whose playful ready-to-wear clothing is one of the biggest Kamers success stories. 

The traders have all flown in from elsewhere in the country, from cities and from towns, and have stacked and lined up their lovely wares, put up their signage, wandered around glad-handing and hugging their compatriots who they haven’t seen since the last market, and now it’s time to start selling.

The people traipse in, picking up a colourful Kamers/Makers shopping bag at the entry point, and brisk and lively trade is done all day, for six days. Thousands of people are passing by, seeing your product, clocking your brand and logo. Everywhere you look, the accent is on ethical goods and sustainability.

The venue for this particular Kamers/Makers fair, promoted as “SA’s favourite Artisan ‘Up’-market”, is St David’s Marist, a very posh school in Inanda, a suburb of Sandton, where the preferred mode of transport is more Porsche than Peugeot. Sandton ladies-who-lunch head towards the stalls in many tents at a leisurely pace; these are not people who need to rush at life. And the venue is a good fit, because, as the owners readily admit, the prices are not downmarket, just as the wares aren’t.

But everything here is made and produced in South Africa by South African hands and using South African materials and expertise. You will find nothing Made in China here, co-owner Wanda du Toit emphasises with conviction, and seamstresses and crafts people who help the “makers” produce their goods are paid a proper wage for it. The makers carry their own overheads just as anyone in business must; it’s the umbrella and the infrastructure it brings that makes this the economy-within-an-economy that it has become.

Also key is the attention paid to ensuring that the fair is not like other markets where you see the same old vendors and their wares at every market you go to. It’s “the coolest stuff you’ve never seen” is their promise.

It wasn’t always called Kamers/Makers and it wasn’t always the massive affair that it is today with a focus on creating jobs and livelihoods for people who deserve a chance. But in the beginning it was very different, with a brand logo that was more Tannie Kappie than urban chic. Two decades ago it was Kamers vol geskenke, founded by dominee’s wife Amelia van Zyl in 2003 in a house in Stellenbosch which had been emptied out and filled up again with geskenke (gifts) made by 30 “makers”, local women in that state of limbo of the mother with kids who chooses to stay home but needs to do something. Eight hundred shoppers came through the house that day. Fast-forward to 2022 when 60,000 pairs of feet browse through the wares of 300 makers at six national shows, most, or even all, of them going home with something they have paid for.

It was, and they readily acknowledge it now, “very Afrikaans” and a very white affair back then, but in the past decade a different path has been pursued with energy and commitment. Nobody imagined that it would grow over time to become the travelling show it is today, with an emphasis far removed from its small white beginnings. This year they expect to turn over R72-million, an injection into lives, local economies and the South African economy in general. And, it must be said, substantial income for its owners.

“We really want to be taken seriously for our contribution to the country and to the economy,” says Magdel Kemp, co-owner, COO and CFO. “This is the future, the people have to help each other.”

It may have come out of the Afrikaans culture of the Saturday bazaar, of the tuisnywerheid or cottage industry, but instead of the koeksisters and jars of tannie’s preserves there are handmade dresses and leather goods, handbags made of T-shirting and palm leaves, outrageously colourful reversible jackets, leather crafted shoes (vellies) by Bummel, and NinaSkep, Nina Steyn’s vivid luxury wearable leather art and limited-edition lino prints. And Christmas wreaths made of succulents. It’s hard not to stop and be captivated by Carol Slabolepszy’s “sculptures with soul” which seem to be looking right back at you. Her brand (“my hares and graces”) is as quirky as her tagline (Hare. There. Everywhere.)

Carol Slabolepsy (playwright and actor Paul is her husband) makes life-size animal sculptures ‘with soul’ for her My Hares and Graces brand. They’re even given names and personalised for you. (Photos and composite image: Tony Jackman)

Of the 170 makers at the recent Inanda market, 40 were new to the Joburg show and selling to this market base for the first time. That’s 40 people with a chance at creating a business and turning lives around, their own and those who work, or might one day work, for them. It’s the kind of ripple effect an economy needs if it’s to grow.

There is food too. Where I go there always is. The organisers are quick to explain that it’s about the textiles, accessories, woodwork, artwork, decor and homewares but that the food component is there only because people must eat. Co-owner Wanda du Toit, who started as a maker right at the beginning and later became one of the owners, is chief creative officer and a fierce proponent of the philosophy that it is about the makers and the crafts they produce, and both she and Magdel Kemp are brimful of passion when they talk about the ship that they have steered since taking over from the founder.

Razia and Kareema Shaik of Razia’s Pickle, and mom’s products, top right and her famous chilli mayo, below centre. ‘Not that one!’ smiles daughter Kareema when saying her surname. Below right: Suvania Naidoo of Artisanal Spice makes handcrafted, ethically sourced plant based spices and blends, dressings and relishes. (Photos and composite image: Tony Jackman)

But when you see the creativity of the food “makers” it’s clear that there’s just as much creative suss and sass in this department. 

Artisanal Spice with its almond chipotle sauce and huntsman plum chutney; Carrington Cookies’ ready to bake cookie dough (almond spice, white chocolate walnut, shortbread, peanut butter chocolate chip) and tubs of cookie dough (birthday cake edible cookie dough; chocolate brownie batter); Ooh la la’s artisanal confectionery (“pebbles” in sesame, pecan, French nougat, Scottish fudge, festive chocolate marshmallows). And The Lollipop League offering “everything you ever dreamed of in a lollipop”. Gingerbread lollipops; grapefruit and mint, Early Grey and gold; Amarula butterscotch, gin and tonic; dehydrated strawberry.

In 1993, advocate turned confectioner Karen Schneid of Ooh la la Artisan Confectionery fell in love with the calisson, a confection unique to Aix-en-Provence, and that moment changed her life. (Photos and composite image: Tony Jackman)

There are times when a maker will be gently kicked out of the nest because they’ve learnt to fly on their own and need to make room for others who deserve their time to have a lift up and to shine. Others realise of their own accord that they’ve had all the help they need, and there are plenty of other markets where they can sell. Yet others may find themselves as a small tenant in an actual mall, benefitting from the Woolies footfall. 

Tenille Dinkelmann’s Fancy Schmancy produces liquid pearls; manager Carla Claassen shows them off, left. The Lollipop League, top right, offers “everything you ever dreamed of in a lollipop”. Bottom right: more about pearls and what goes into them. (Photos and composite image: Tony Jackman)

“We try,” says Kemp, “to have 50% new vendors at every single show we have.” Some, she added, start to realise that it’s time to move on. “I mean, if they can find you at the church bazaar then why would people come to Makers to find your products?”

At heart, “we are an incubator”, Kemp says, and the vendors coming under their wings are startups finding their space in the market and the economy. But the real heart of Kamers/Makers is the real people and their rags-to-riches stories. People like Nomsa Malgas, whose wares will be under the Christmas tree in the Jackman household this year. Money spent on goods made with heart is money well spent. DM/TGIFood


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