A courageous Malawian woman making big life changes to ensure her own happiness, she first left her country of birth to attain financial freedom and then her husband, who tried to rape his stepdaughter. A mother, friend, mentor and sister, she lives in Orange Grove and works in a fruit and vegetable store on Louis Botha Avenue.

LEFT: Mtsunge Katola, a single mother, tightly embracing her daughter outside of her fruit and vegetable store on Louis Botha Avenue on a sunny day. Photo: Jabulile Mbatha.

UPON entering a store selling luscious fruits and vegetables on a sunny weekday, I find a young- looking woman engaged in telling a story to a man leaning close to her, with both his hands clasped tightly on his lap. From the deep stare in his eyes, I am curious to find out what this tale entails. The petite woman with brown, fuzzy hair puts her story on hold and welcomes me with a warm smile, kindly asking what assistance she can provide.
I am pleased with the service, retrospectively comparing it with a recent misfortune of a cashier who scanned my products without even looking at me once, refusing to end the conversation I found her having with the cashier opposite us.

The woman, with the body and height of a 20-year-old, takes me through the different price ranges of her mouth-watering products, and instead of the weather small talk we get straight into the hardships of working and living on Louis Botha Avenue. Just like that, I was let in on the life of a single mother, abandoned by her spouse, who migrated for survival.

The planting of the seed

Mtsunge Katola is a Malawian mother who works at a fruit and vegetable store on the west side of Louis Botha Avenue and 7th street. She lives only two streets away from where she works to make a living. There are numerous walk-ins on an hourly basis on the right hand side of her store, where *Salem Kuran, a Pakistani man, owns a supermarket, allowing more people to pass by the fruit and vegetables on display outside her own store.

On the left hand side, a pot-bellied, one eyed Malawian man sells home appliances. A stray black-and-white cat keeps him company through the day as hardly any customers come into the store. Always found outside, he stares and smiles, rocking backwards and forward, and just when I think he will finally utter a word when I look back at him, he shyly walks into his store, only to come out a few minutes later to continue watching us.

Somewhere in the suburbs of Johannesburg lies one of the longest streets joining opposite ends of the city, with a century-long history. We find Louis Botha Avenue, a road that could be north of Pretoria and south of Bloemfontein.

(Left to right) Mtsunge Katola, Alex Khado and Garry Manaka, the entrepreneurs of Louis Botha Avenue hanging outside Katola’s store on a sunny day waiting for customers to help them make a living for themselves. Photo: Jabulile Mbatha

The Groove of Louis Botha Avenue

With a plethora of churches, businesses and eateries, Louis Botha in Orange Grove, Johannesburg, is a place where work and home can easily co-exist. With some describing it as “little Africa”, many have migrated to make a living for themselves.

John Smith, one of the many regular day drinkers is picking up a fresh pineapple with a beer on his left hand from the fruits on display outside Mtsunge Katola’s affordable fruit and vegetable store on Louis Botha Avenue. Photo: Jabulile Mbatha.

This is the same for David Leckison, a 27-year-old man who works at another fruit and vegetable store on Louis Botha Avenue and 6th Street. Almost always found just outside his store, with his pants sagging as he stands, an automatic bounce accompanies his walk. He looks left and right before entering, as if talking outdoors is taboo.

The Malawian-born man relocated to South Africa in 2015 to seek employment and better his family situation. Leckison is the second of three children of Joseph Leckison and Jennifer Izeck, who are back in Malawi surviving on the money sent by their children. “When we first moved to South Africa my brothers and I stayed in Pretoria CBD, but because John and I were not making money we had to move to a place where we could make money”, says Leckison as he refers to Louis Botha Avenue.

Mtsunge Katola is a fruit and vegetable store owner on Louis Botha Avenue who has found a home away from home. She takes us through a journey of her life in Orange Grove and her workplace in Louis Botha Avenue. Video: Jabulile Mbatha

Handshakes and a half embrace take place between Leckison and a tall man, who I hear say, “I really look forward to working with you, my man.” As I find the conversation ending, Leckison folds his arms, revealing a faded tattoo and simultaneously putting his chin up, eyeing me and standing with his legs far apart from each other as he says “Mhh” as a way of greeting back, as he always does.

The friend is known as Dexter Ndlovu , a resident of Orange Grove who shops regularly on Louis Botha Avenue. His relationship with Leckison began on credit.
“I regard David as my own brother,” says Ndlovu. “When I did not have enough money, he would allow me to take things on credit; he never expected the money to be paid back. I knew he had a good heart.”

LEFT: (Left to right) Mtsunge Katola allows the guys (Alex Khado and Garry Manaka) to drink and operate their business outside of her fruit and vegetable store on Louis Botha Avenue as it brings in more customers for her. Photo Jabulile Mbatha

Orange Grove is an economic hub with a multiplicity of activities within what is a residential area. Although it experienced a decline in development in the late 1900s, people still find a way to make it work. There is a vast variety of nationalities, races, religions and incomes in the area. It shows even in the infrastructure, from the exclusively Ethiopian churches to the Christian schools, to the Italian eatery and through to the newly developed apartments opposite ancient, shabby ones. The streets are loud with chatter from residents walking from place to place, and from the engines of BMWs and Porsche Cayennes.

 A culture of getting sloshed 

One late evening in Louis Botha, streets are filled with passers-by rushing back home and many hand signs are flashed in the air by those waiting for almost broken-down taxis to take them back home. A number of uniformed old women slowly drag their feet to wherever home is, walking in silence, too tired to even speak to each other after a day of scrubbing the kitchen floors of their sir and madam.

The taverns fill up with sweaty men in safety boots and tattered PPE clothing wanting to grab one for the road, leaving behind those who have been there since the sun came up.

On a buzzing night just like any other, on the corner of Louis Botha Avenue and 7th Street, Stanley Maseko and Susan Mkhize are among numerous others drinking inpublic, with some still in uniform from their respective work places. The drenching smell of a brewery is detected from a mile away and one of the men sitting in a line shouts to me as I ask what the occasion is.

LEFT:The purchase of vegetables are essential to Mtsunge Katola because it means that she will have enough money to feed her children and take care of other financial needs. Photo: Jabulile Mbatha

“Hey sister, this is Louis Botha and we drink for a living!”

A severely scarred face approaches me with a smile of broken teeth and with deep, sad eyes. This resident of over 20 years shares that his late mother used to work at Hospice Wits and now that she is gone, he is left all alone.
“I have made my fair share of mistakes in this lifetime and I do not want to blame it on being motherless, but I do think I wouldn’t have done some of the things I have done if I had a family.”
In the crowd of public drinkers, Mkhize interjects, cursing Louis Botha Avenue for being rotten. “There are no jobs here,” she says. “What is the point of having family if we are going to live in poverty? I would rather be alone like you, Stanley.” She explains that Orange Grove hardly has running water, let alone electricity.

Mtsunge Katola is patiently waiting inside of her fruit and vegetable store for customers. She misses her children who are back home taking care of the house. Photo: Jabulile Mbatha

I discover that the electricity crisis is true after several visits to Katola’s store, which becomes as dark as the night when the sun has set. Katola is almost never alone in her store. A man who seems to be fixing wires in the back peeps out to see who has come in as she stands to hug and welcome me. She apologises because her little shop is lit with a single candle, and asks that we sit close to the door so we can use the street light to see each other clearly.

The man, who is constantly emerging from the back of the store, is *Thulani Khumalo.
“I have stayed with ‘Mama wa Ishmael’ for years now. I am always in the store because I live in the back, guarding her store during the night. I do this because she saved my life. I can say God blessed me with another mother,” Khumalo says.
Many refer to Katola as the mother of her children’s names, as a way of showing respect. She earned this respect by giving Khumalo a chance from a life of homelessness and drug use, by distracting him with maintenance work at the store and the task of guarding it at night.

With the sun setting much later in the evening, and the warm air putting people into shorts and sleeveless shirts, the fruit and vegetable business does better since the season has changed.

LEFT: *Portia Smith embraces Mtsunge Katola with a big smile on her face after Katola agrees to help her with applications for schooling so she can better her future. Photo: Jabulile Mbatha

Although there are a number of fruit and vegetable stores along Louis Botha Avenue, each one caters to a different part of the city, from Orange Grove to Alexandra. Louis Botha Avenue has the potential to generate economic growth as it did in the past; the city of Johannesburg is working on developmental programmes such as the Transit- Oriented Development Programme to alleviate inequalities in this high-density area.

Captured by the storytelling, assisted by continuous hand movements, a mother and her son pick up and analyse the vegetables, almost as if lifting weights. They bring our conversation to a halt. Katola Mtsunge stands up with her warm smile, saying, “How can I help you mama?”
It may be this hospitality that makes her more than just a woman selling veggies. When the woman cannot find the last of her needs, she is referred to one of the other stores across the road. Like a mind reader, Katola takes one look at me and answers, “We help each other out. When I don’t have something in store, I refer my customers to someone else who might have it, because after all we are all trying to make a living.”

With the notion that life is better in South Africa, Katola left a country with an unemployment rate of 5.40% for a struggling South Africa with a high jobless rate of 29% to date.
“The education in Malawi is good, I must admit, but after I completed high school I struggled to find employment so I moved up here in 2008.”

Xenophobia is defined as “fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers; it is embodied in discriminatory attitudes and behaviour and often culminates in violence, abuses of all types and exhibitions of hate”.

Having lived in Pretoria at first as a domestic worker earning only R800 a month, a place rife with xenophobic attacks, she moved to Louis Botha Avenue feeling underpaid and afraid for her own life. With a breaking voice, Katola says, “I watched my friend being burned to death in Pretoria, knowing there was nothing I could do to help her because I am a foreign national too. The only solution was to move.”

FEATURED IMAGE: A woman selling at an informal stall. Photo: Supplied