Maverick Citizen


Lungi ‘Qhakaza’ Hlatshwayo: A community hero whose camera and bicycle shine on brightly

Lungi ‘Qhakaza’ Hlatshwayo: A community hero whose camera and bicycle shine on brightly
Victoria Schneider (left) and Lungi Hlatshwayo, date unknown. (Photo: Supplied)

Lungi worked tirelessly for her community, day and night. She insisted on being called Lungi Qhakaza – ‘to sparkle, shine bright, to blossom’ in Zulu. And that she did: sparkle, shine bright and blossom.

Lungile Hlatshwayo, who died on 8 March 2023, had many pseudonyms, many phone numbers, lived many lives and was ever elusive … but ever present.

A maverick from KwaZulu-Natal with a degree in social work, she was a whirlwind in life, and remains one thereafter. At her memorial at Victoria Yards, the magical cultural, community and commercial institution in Bez Valley, Joburg, on 14 March 2023, her sister Nellie Matau spoke with exasperation about Lungi, who would disappear for months and then send a text message insisting that Nellie e-wallet her money for “shoes for the children … blankets for the homeless … NOW”.

lungi hlatshwayo

Lungile Hlatshwayo photographs an easter-egg and Covid mask drop-off. (Photo: Supplied)

Cash would be e-walleted. And then Lungi’s number would change … until the next request for “money for food for the pensioners”. On 14 March, Nellie learnt she was not the only sister always on the hunt for the ever-elusive Lungi.

The hall at Victoria Yards was filled with sisters and brothers and children in search of Lungi. Well over 100 people were there – it would have been many more, but the memorial was held during school hours. They were all Lungi’s close family. Not all genetically connected. But all gathered in search of Lungi. One more time.

Known by the communities of Yeoville, Troyeville and Bez Valley as a fleeting phantasm on a bicycle, wielding a camera, she tended to the needs of anyone who crossed her path; and ensured they learnt to become self-sustainable. If she passed a woman on a pavement, requesting help, she would invite her to Victoria Yards to learn how to bake bread and sustain herself thereafter. One speaker, Silibaziso, shared how she rose at 3am to get to work to cook for the community. Lungi was there to meet her on arrival.

lungi hlatshwayo timbuktu

A children’s Timbuktu workshop. (Photo: Supplied)

A young learner, Alicia, who was sitting on a pavement with her neighbourhood friends, cheekily called out to Lungi as she cycled past. Lungi stopped, invited her to join the few (now 200-plus) kids in after-school activities at Timbuktu in the Valley, based in one of the spare buildings at Victoria Yards. Lungi was Alicia’s mentor, her mother, her father, her guiding light – the first one to believe in her: “I must not cry. Lungi told me it was ugly to cry. Rather stand up and be strong!”

lungi timbuktu

Children from Timbuktu in the Valley visit Javett Art Centre Foundation in Johannesburg, South Africa. Date unknown. (Photo: Supplied)

Established by Lungi and Victoria Schneider, a journalist from Germany, Timbuktu in the Valley evolved organically. Lungi and Victoria were sitting in the Maker’s Valley co-working space in Victoria Yards, when a young boy from the neighbourhood wandered in, saw them, and asked them for help with his bicycle.

What started off as a five-minute bicycle maintenance intervention led to a second session the next day, and, thereafter, a full-time after-school group for children from the ’hood, aged three and older.

The group met every day for over a year, with the two community heroes feeding more than 30 kids, tweens and teens daily; keeping them engaged with learning arts and crafts and life-skills, as well as school curricula. They visited art museums, attended workshops and found a few willing donors to help along the way. 

With the Covid-19 lockdown, Victoria Yards had to close its doors. Victoria reluctantly headed home to Germany leaving behind Lungi, the kids and a broken heart.

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In no time, the community had realigned and Victoria Yards, the erstwhile playground for aesthetes, was transformed into a sanitised community soup kitchen, ensuring the survival of up to 400 people daily.

Lungile Hlatshwayo and Blessing Sinyolo discuss mask quality. (Photo: Supplied)

In those days when mobility and physical contact were forbidden, the stalwarts of Maker’s Valley applied for exemptions, and banded together and distributed food to the community – boxes of vegetables and fruit, soup and sweets. 

With a team of masked heroes, Lungi established a well-oiled, mask-making and distribution machine in the community. Daily, Lungi would set off on her bicycle from Yeoville to Lorentzille, winding down Stuart Drive, “into the Valley” where, from her bicycle, she would distribute food and fabric. Those with sewing machines set to work making masks to be distributed into other communities, earning enough to keep hunger at bay.

Lungile Qhawaza Hlatshwayo

Lungile Hlatshwayo slices bread. (Photo: Supplied)

Not content to just feed and mask the immediate community by day, every night Lungi would head out into the dark, wintry streets with her home-made vegan bread and soup and samp and beans, reclaimed from the kitchen, and distribute meals to homeless and hidden people.

Lungi worked tirelessly, day and night. During lockdown, I wrote about her. She insisted on being called Lungi Qhakaza – “to sparkle, shine bright, to blossom” in Zulu. And that she did: sparkle, shine bright and blossom.

A first encounter with Lungi grew into life-long change for the “encounteree”.  The most hilarious and quintessential Lungi memory was related by Leylla Mullings, who was running the presidential suite at a major soccer final.

There was a knock on the door. There stood Lungi (whom she had never met), proclaiming, “I’ve brought the people. I see you have lots of space.” In her wake was a traffic jam of wheelchairs. Lungi had encountered “her people” being barred entry at turnstiles. She took control of the situation and led them to the most spacious venue in the stadium.

lungi mask covid

Lungile Hlatshwayo fits a locally made mask for a young child during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: Supplied)

After Covid, Victoria returned from Germany to her beloved community and expanded Timbuktu in the Valley with Lassie Ndalela, fellow cyclist, youth trainer, stilt walker, clown teacher, gym instructor and art teacher.

Lungi, not one to let grass grow under her wheels, had moved on to co-establish a complementary institution at Victoria Yards, Safe Study, with Gina Bennett, serving an additional local 200 kids, a water project to keep the Jukskei River clean, and other initiatives.

Lungi died at eight minutes past eight on 8 March, International Women’s Day. She had a lung infection and stubbornly refused to seek medical help. After days of resistance, members of the community confronted her, insisted she comply with their wishes, and she was taken to end her last days at a quiet public hospital on the East Rand, where birdsong and the trickle of running water from a water feature outside her window led her on her iridescent way. DM/MC

Kathy Berman is a social, community and cultural activist and strategy and impact consultant.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • betsy Kee says:

    We need more people like Lungi. Sadly she may no longer be with us but her name will continue to sparkle.

  • Annemarie Hendrikz says:

    Kathy (allow me that familiarity – I knew you briefly as a child while working for your mother Esme) this is a lovely tribute, thank you. How privileged you are to have known Lungi Qhakaza. May her spirit flourish in all those she touched.

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