‘Welcome to Kwa Mai Mai’: A hub of unforgotten culture


Joburg’s oldest market showcases how migrant workers weaved their cultural practices into what is now known as CBD’s popular trade zone.  

Anthropologist and music guru, Dr Sipho Sithole and Bridge Books, a bookstore focusing on African literature in Marshalltown hosted a tour of Kwa Mai Mai – Johannesburg’s oldest traditional market — early this week.  

Kwa Mai-Mai, located in the CBD is an economic centre, where you can find traditional healers, clothes and medicine. The place is also popular for its food: phuthu which is a staple, traditional South African dish that is made from Mielie-Meal served with braai meat of your choice. Overall, Kwa Mai Mai is a place welcoming for everyone looking for relaxation, healing and traditional items for any purpose.  

The market was first established after 1929, as a camp for migrant workers coming to work in the mines. It has now become a home to many people, a community and an entry way to African spirituality.  

The tour was part of the marketing of Sithole’s book about Kwa Mai Mai, titled Maye  Maye! The history and heritage of the Kwa Mai Mai market. The book gives readers a historical view of market and the people who reside, sell and work in it.  

The tour began at Bridge Books in Commissioner Street where Sithole spoke about the inspiration behind the book followed by a trek on the busy roads down to Berea Road, where Kwa Mai Mai is located.  

Dr Sithole, who was leading the tour, first introduced the audience to the popular Shisanyama spot and then the Nazareth Baptist “Shembe” church and next to it, a compound where cultural goods are sold.  Dr Sithole said, many of those who visit the compound are surprised that the shops, which typically measure 3m x 6m, double up as living quarters for the traders. 

Sithole said the market consists of 218 stalls, including shelters, catering to more than 400 individuals and has more than 100 kids living in it with their parents. 

Walking into the traditional market. Photo: Mbalenhle Dlamini

Sithole, who holds a PhD in Anthropology from Wits University explained that “this book records my collective observations and interpretations from the ethnographic work that I conducted over a period of four years among Kwa Mai Mai traders and residents”. 

The market’s committee chairperson, Malibongwe Sithole said that: “Kwa Mai is an informal trading zone, but we want to formalise it so that it can be recognised and respected worldwide”. 

Street photographer Nonzuzo Gxekwa who attended the walkabout said: “[I am] fascinated by the fact that there are a lot of women that run this space, but I have never known the story behind it and going through the city with someone else’s insights is always refreshing, it gives me something to think about”. 

Bridge Books founder, Griffin Shea added that the book and the walkabout are a way of thinking about the CBD as “a massive trading space that is super valuable” that can receive the same level of support as places like Sandton get for small businesses to run effectively.  

When asked what he hopes the book will achieve, Sithole told Wits Vuzuzela that he hopes it will “redress the past, formalise that place and bring traffic of people to buy there because those people do nothing but sell their goods.” He also added that he wants it to bring awareness to young people so that they talk and write about the place.

FEATURED IMAGE: Dr Sipho Sithole speaking about the office at Kwa Mai Mai. Photo: Mbalenhle Dlamini


REVIEW: Keeping play and art alive in the city

Breaths of Joburg was an exceptional childlike fusion of art forms in a performance about the experiences one has with Johannesburg.  

The exceptional childlike fusion of art forms enabled the audience to have encounters with our material conditions through art.   

Created by the renowned Jade Bowers (director), Lebo Mashile, Tina Redman (performers) and Yogen Sullaphen (musician), the site-staged work took to Nugget Street outside the Windybrow Arts Centre in Hillbrow from April 20 till April 22, 2023. The theatre work was produced by the University of Johannesburg Arts and Culture division and the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS), and aimed at young audiences although with a broader appeal to people of all ages.  

Bowers, Mashile, Redman and UJ Arts and Culture students created childhood experiences of living in Johannesburg with all their innocence, naivety and boundless play. 

In a press release, UJ Arts and Culture said that Breaths of Joburg was part of a “larger research project that considered creative writing and site-specific theatre as tools for engaging urban publics in dialogue about every day, ground-up, place-making in city spaces”.

Lead researcher Alex Halligey told Wits Vuvuzela that a “smaller model of the research project asks the questions of how we use creative arts, how you can see something in the city and write a poem about it”.  

The Windybrow Arts Centre mostly draws in young people coming from school who use the centre as a place of play and diversion from the stresses of living in the city. Promoting access to art for everyone, Breaths of Joburg enabled the audience to have encounters with our material conditions through art.  

The performances, which were outside the arts centre, attracted children coming from school, students and adults, who lined the wall fence, settled on the pavement and on the theatre’s steps that lead to the street to resemble a theatre in the round.  

Using short and immersive acts, the actors took the audience to a Johannesburg familiar to me – from late night encounters to the vibrant economy of the city run by street vendors, hairdressers and taxi drivers who can take you almost anywhere in the city. 

This Johannesburg is Sindi’s and Babes’ world, two little girls played by Mashile and Redman respectively. The production used plastic beer crates as props and the performers’ creativity to create this world and the characters’ transition from childhood to adulthood. 

Babes (Tina Redman) and Sindi (Lebo Mashile) perform for an audience of schoolchildren at Windybrow Arts Centre. Photo: Mbalenhle Dlamini

“The show is about them (Sindi and Babes) travelling through the city. They want to learn how to make money, and we are those adults,” Redman told Wits Vuvuzela.

The actors had tough conversations with the audience as they explored themes that could be deemed complicated for young children to digest such as crime, death and sex work. However, Redman and Mashile and the student actors gained the young children’s attention with animated singing, dancing and hand-clapping games. 

Mashile captured the audience with her spirited spoken-word performance while the rest of the cast huddled quietly around her, moving in ways that symbolised air and a flowing river. She spoke about how Johannesburg was land that had rivers and fed its people before “they” (colonialists) “discovered” gold. It was an effortless transition of the child into the world of adults that they were trying to convey. 

After the three-day run at the Windybrow Arts Centre, Halligey said, “We are looking for funding to do Breaths of Joburg again and opportunities to do projects that are similar to what we did with Breaths of Joburg.”

Vuvu rating: 9/10

FEATURED IMAGE: Babes plays a monster chasing Sindi around the streets of Joburg. Photo: Mbalenhle Dlamini


SLICE: Pageants may glitter, patriarchy still tarnishes them

Throwing around buzzwords such as ‘social change’ and ‘inclusion’ cannot disguise the misogyny at the root of beauty pageants.  

The search for Miss South Africa 2023 is on and like clockwork, every year social media is filled with entry videos from young women who have their eyes set on the pageant crown.  

This year the Miss SA organisation has changed some rules and will now accept entries from aspirants ages 20-30 years old, a change from the 20–28 years range. For the first time, married women and those with children may take part in the contest. This comes after Miss Universe announced in August 2022 that married women and mothers would be allowed to compete in 2023 for the first time in its history.  

Miss SA prides itself on advocating for women’s rights and its awareness of social change. The organisation in its own words describes itself as “a platform for change, a powerful organisation, a leading voice on female empowerment and a launch pad for much needed change”. 

However, changes made to the competition rules, glitter and buzzwords such as “empowerment” and “social change” cannot distract me from the problematic fundamental nature of pageants.  

I am also reminded that in 2021 the organisation sent Miss SA Lalela Mswane to Israel to participate in Miss Universe 2021 despite the SA government withdrawing its support and that of South Africa for the pageant. This is related to Israel’s historical and ongoing apartheid politics.  

The Miss Universe organisation on its website says it “celebrates women of all cultures and backgrounds and empowers them”, and yet hosted a pageant in a country that actively disrupts the lives of many Palestinian women. And Miss SA took part in the competition and represented a country still wounded by its own history of apartheid in another state that perpetuates it.  

In 2018, when Miss SA celebrated its 60th anniversary it revived controversy around apartheid when black women could not compete in the pageant, and relegated to contesting in “Miss Africa South” until 1992 when the pageant became inclusive. The organisation failed to acknowledge that racist and segregationist history contributed to black participants breaking away to a pageant of their own. 

What does “inclusivity and diversity” mean when finding one woman out of thousands is at the heart of pageantry? What does “woman empowerment” mean when only the woman who fits into a set criterion of beauty and femininity wins?  

The ways of beauty pageants have changed over time, from awarding women for simply being beautiful to promoting other attributes such as education, eloquence and a demonstration of general knowledge. This is what Miss World calls “beauty with a purpose” which also focuses on how the contestant will use the title or opportunity to better their communities. 

Third wave feminism recognises that women have agency and rejects the idea that women do not have choices and therefore is in support of women participating in pageants. However, it does not accept the gender binary and exclusion of other genders such as transgender or gender non-conforming existences. 

The question remains whether these competitions uphold patriarchal norms. The rules may say contestants need traits other than beauty, but at the end it is beauty that determines the winner. 

Whether women have agency or not, the objectification of beauty measured by competitive processes that have so much to do with the body specifically, reinforces patriarchy instead of taking it apart.  

With the changes to the rules, Miss SA has shown the ability to challenge ideas in nonthreatening ways and by some right, they have shown that with enough time they can adapt their steps to new socio-political and cultural climates. However, it is a matter of how dismally late changes come.  

By the time I am done holding my breath for another step in the right direction for pageants, maybe we would have fully obliterated the need for them.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Mbalenhle Dlamini. Photo: File


Music meets queer rights

by Mbalenhle Dhlamini | March 30, 2023

The British Council alongside Business and Arts South Africa host a queer edition of karaoke night at Wits’ Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct.

On Friday March 24, 2023, people took to the stage for their fifteen minutes of fame, at the queer edition of Fak’uoke (wordplay on Fak’ugesi and karaoke) in Braamfontein.

Fak’ouke is part of the Fak’ugesi Festival, which showcases and celebrates African digital creativity annually. Festival planner, communications intern and MC, Nontokozo Qhobosheane said, “With the help of our partners, Business and Arts South Africa and the British Council we were able to make all our attendees feel like stars.”  

This queer edition of Faku’ouke was inspired by Five Films for Freedom, a nine day film festival with queer rights as the theme.

Rowann Hermans, karaoke night attendee and ‘best power ballad prize winner said, “Bear in mind that I didn’t know it was a competition until they said that they were going to start voting.”  

Hermans walked away with a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses and six bottles of wine for their rendition of Estelle’s ‘American Boy’.

“I really just enjoy performing so my expectations were to make a show and engage with the audience, I was more there to perform a song than to win,” they added.

Lathitha Gqokama who was in the crowd and attending a queer event for the first time said that “it was a safe space for any kind of self-expression, and I particularly enjoyed experiencing the diversity among the people who were there”. 

The Faku’gesi festival plans to host another Faku’ouke queer edition during pride month from June 1 to June 30, 2023.   


FEATURED IMAGE: Attendees second self is Fantasia onstage. Photo: Mbalenhle Dlamini