The green lungs of the inner city

On the eve of the Greenhouse Food Festival, a wet and grey Friday morning, Mamonosi Mahlophe and her colleague and friend Mamosweu Tsoabi, are picking weeds from their garden. They are preparing for the festival that will provide emerging farmers with the platform to showcase their innovations and produce to private funders, and potentially sell their products.

As the rain worsens, they hurry into the run down, yet architecturally-appealing glasshouse to join another colleague, Dineo Tsoabi. This building houses more of their produce and is expected to be a big attraction for the festival.

With the thundering sounds as a backdrop, the ladies go about their business while discussing the work that still needs to be done. It has been a busy week for them. Amid the rain and preparations for the festival, the ladies held a workshop teaching women how to make what they call the “Wonder Bag”.

On the corner of Klein and Wolmarans streets in downtown Johannesburg, is a place that is home to a shining beacon of the symbiotic relationship that can exist between society and nature. It is a place where lush green vegetables and herbs abound, bees and other small creatures swarm the space, producing honey and pollinating plants; it is a place of hope not only for the people who work there, but also for the surrounding community that relies on its produce.

It is a place where the medicinal properties of the stinging nettle are as valuable as the delicious taste and fresh aroma of the mint being harvested. A place where waste material is not just waste, but a vital resource to create gas, compost and to generate an income.

GREEN LIVING: Mamonosi Mahlophe and Mamosweu Tsoabi clean up the garden in preparation for a food festival at the Greenhouse People’s Environmental Centre. Photo: Mokgethwa Masemola

Serapeng Co-operative

The Greenhouse People’s Environmental Centre has been a place of great pride and hope for people like 24-year-old Mamonosi who, together with three close friends, has formed a company called Serapeng Co-operative.

The women of Serapeng have partnered with Greenhouse and Gender CC, a network of women for climate justice, to establish a number of sustainable and renewable projects that generate food, energy and income.

The ladies of Serapeng manage many different projects at Greenhouse. Their primary work is the harvesting of vegetables and herbs. The food which they produce is used to sustain life at the centre.

The rest is sold to generate an income as the ladies are renting the space from Greenhouse.

In addition, they grow medicinal plants such as rhubarb, whose roots have healing properties for people suffering from muscle aches and pains and comfrey, which is used for cuts and bruises.

But the most fascinating of their harvest, is the stinging nettle. The subtle sting may be a bit of a shock when first touched.

But this is the beauty of the plant, it’s value lies within this sting. The Serapeng ladies say is can cure many ailments including high blood pressure issues. The plant may also be drunk as a tea, which is good for cleansing the blood stream and immune system.

They also produce ointments, cough mixtures, syrups for women, hair and skin-care products which they sell to surrounding communities.

“We also make candles from beeswax which also helps with air pollution because once lit, the flame can change carbon dioxide and release oxygen,” says Mamosweu.

In addition to their garden, the ladies from Serapeng manage a biogas digester plant which produces the gas they need for cooking and for making their products. “We use cow dung to create the methane gas.

Once the gas has formed we use weeds and organic waste to feed into the digester to produce gas,” explains Mamosweu.

GLASS HOME: The beautiful glasshouse which the centre is planning to revamp and extend its use to an entertainment area. Photo: Mokgethwa Masemola

On the day of the Food Festival, the weather has cleared up. It is a beautiful and sunny day with a slight breeze. Today, the ladies work on a Saturday which is unusual for them but a good cause nonetheless. The festival not only gives other farmers a platform to showcase their work. But also allows people to come in and behold the beauty of this place. Tent upon tent is filled with food activists, climate activists and tables of honey, mustard-coloured soap made by bee farmers and even organic tools such as knives.

Serapeng’s commitment to a sustainable way of life and producing of energy speaks to their passion about being conscious of their impact on nature. The ladies refer to themselves as climate change activists at heart.

“We are also engaged in climate change and energy awareness programmes. We go into communities and give talks and screen films that raise awareness about climate change and what causes it. We then introduce renewable energy as a way of solving the climate crisis and rejuvenating the city in a sustainable way. One of the ways in which this can be done is by using our Wonder Bags, which we design. We also design solar cookers which are mostly used by people in rural areas and informal settlements. We use galvanised sheets which can absorb the sunrays,” Mamosweu boasts with visible pride in their work.

The Wonder Bag she speaks of is a simple bag made of cloth which is sown together and stuffed with little pieces of sponges. When complete, the bag saves energy in that one need only, for example, boil one’s rice on the stove until boiling point and then take it off the stove, put it in the bag and let it cook by itself for as long as eight hours. This limits the time that one uses energy.

“A lot of people believe that work is when you go work for someone else. We want to ensure that people know that they have the ability to create work for themselves. There are a lot of women who are employed and when you look at it, once you equip them with skills, they can do things for themselves,” says Mamosweu.

Formative Years

Mamosweu and her sister, Dineo, grew up in Vanderbijlpark, south of Johannesburg, but now live in Vereeniging. Their passion for their work stems from their childhood.

They were raised by two parents who loved nature and farming. “They taught me that farming is what sustains life and how important it is to have your own food garden, to be able to sustain yourself and have your own project rather than always looking for work,” says Dineo.

Like the Tsoabi sisters, Mamonosi also grew up in the Vaal area. She was raised by her grandmother who enjoyed harvesting vegetables and had her own garden.

They would plant food in the garden and whenever they wanted to eat they would just get food from the garden and cook it. “Agriculture is in the blood because I was raised on it,” she says.

It was these formative years that set her on a path of eco-friendly living.

A few years ago, Mamonosi met the Tsoabi sisters and another lady who shared her passion for organic farming. They were attending workshops about farming and climate change.

As it turned out, Dineo and Mamosweu had a piece of land in the Vaal which belonged to their family. They decided to seize the opportunity by turning it into a farm and growing their own produce.

They still grow vegetables on this farm, which is managed full time by the fourth member of Serapeng.

Eventually they were introduced to Greenhouse and two years ago, together with Gender CC, they formed Serapeng Co-operative.

Today, the ladies of Serapeng have expanded their business beyond farming. They produce medicinal products, farm bees, advocate for eco friendliness, generate their own energy and they are now teaching the surrounding community about sustainability and renewability.

The role of Greenhouse in the CBD

The Greenhouse People’s Environmental Centre has become a sanctuary, not only for the surrounding community, but also for local informal traders and small businesses.

It is a breath of fresh air in a place where tall, dull and grey buildings line the city sky. It has become a “walk-in demonstration centre [where] people can walk in and they want to know what happens to the centre.

We have international tourists who are curious about it,” says Greenhouse centre manager, Thabisile Mchunu.

Besides Serapeng, the centre is home to Conlinea Health and Wellness Centre, which is an ethno-medical facility. Another project located at Greenhouse is Trashback which was set up to manage Greehhouse’s recycling plant and deal with waste that is brought in by waste re-claimers.

“We have another team called Vuk’uzakhe,” says Thabisile, “which is a group of three young men who come from the Eastern Cape. They are volunteers who are here every day.

Before that, they were a part of the Johannesburg Eco-Guides which was a project financed by the City of Johannesburg.

When the stipend ended, they were very eager to continue working on the site because they see themselves as future farmers if they can obtain bigger land to work from.”

There is also a hothouse which is utilised by Urban Farms who produce compost from earthworms. Their latest project is producing portable geysers.

The centre is working with a young man who is distributing small, portable geysers and has already begun attracting major financial donors. The geysers can be attached to taps and then dispense hot water.

The centre allows peoples to come in as volunteers and acquire skills in sustainable and renewable living.

A number of successful projects have sprung up as a result of the work being done by Greenhouse including several food gardens on roof tops in the CBD. In addition, Greenhouse encourages entrepreneurship as a means of sustainably solving social issues.

The centre is what they call a “plug-in” centre where aspiring business owners can use the Wi-Fi and also get business advice from the centre management.

“By 2025 we won’t have coal anymore”

Greenhouse is somewhat of a utopia of sustainable and renewable living. It reminds us of the good which can come from being conscious of our impact on nature. Unfortunately, like the rain falling down during a season of drought in South Africa, Greenhouse is a rare place to find. In fact, there is no other place like it in the inner city.

The problem, according to Earthlife Africa’s education officer, Thabo Sibeko, is threefold. On the one hand, we have to begin to change our mindsets when it comes to sustainable living.

“We need to develop people’s mind-set. There is a misconception that having a food garden is for the poor of the poorest, which isn’t true,” he says. Secondly, sustainable energy technologies have to be modernised to meet the needs of a busy workforce in the city.

Most people just don’t have time to use cookers that take three times as long to prepare a meal, eco-friendly or not. The biggest problem, however, according to Sibeko, is over-population.

“We have a serious problem in the city with regards to population. We are running out of space, even to walk. Sustainability can add value by firstly dealing with issues of policies about living in the city,” says Sibeko.

The ever increasing number of people moving into the CBD has led to lack of space and the over-use of resources, which are depleting rapidly. According to Sibeko, “We are running out of coal in our country. By 2025 we won’t have coal anymore.”

Unless we can find more sustainable and renewable sources of energy, we run the risk of depleting our natural resources. In densely populated parts of the city such as the CBD, the need for energy is crucial and for many, expensive.

Sibeko is an advocate for sustainable and renewable living in Africa. He spends his working days teaching, lobbying for and building sustainable and renewable methods of generating energy, income and food security. He is currently working on a project called Sustainable Energy and Livelihoods Project which is a collaborative effort between Earthlife Africa and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to install biogas digesters in schools around the city.

Earthlife Africa is the lessee of the property on which Greenhouse operates. The property belongs to the City of Johannesburg (CoJ), which has leased it to Earthlife.

Despite all of the challenges, the ladies of Serapeng have chosen to look on the greener side of life. “The things that we face currently, we do not refer to as challenges, we face them head on,” says Dineo. “We learn from it and create a solution for the future. In that way we are able to stand on our own feet. Everything we do here is of our own accord and that also inspires the community to come here to see our work and learn from us.”

The heavy rains that have fallen during this week may have been tragic for some, but here the rain is highly appreciated. Every drop is celebrated. Finally, the produce can be rejuvenated. Much the same way as the ladies of Serapeng rejuvenate their community.

FEATURED IMAGE: An image of a food garden. Photo: Mokgethwa Masemola


Cool kid on campus

FIERCE: Mongezi Mkhonto is this week's cool kid on campus. Photo: Mokgethwa Masemola

FIERCE: Mongezi Mkhonto is this week’s cool kid on campus.
Photo: Mokgethwa Masemola

“I never get worried of being too much because I don’t think I’m too much. Whenever I think something is too much that’s when I know it’s not me.” Within those few words is the spirit of this week’s cool kid.


Mongezi Mkhonto Photo: Mokgethwa Masemola

Mongezi Mkhonto
Photo: Mokgethwa Masemola

Mkhonto is a 21-year old Bachelor of Accounting Science student in his second year. But it is what he does outside the classroom that makes him so cool. Hailing from the East Rand, Mkhonto had aspirations of working in a corporate environment, but after completing matric at the National School of the Arts (NSA) in Johannesburg, his dreams became very different.


Soon after starting his studies at Wits, he visited a local cosmetics store, where he saw celebrity make-up artist, Muzi Zuma, and he was instantly inspired. Since then, he has cultivated his passion for make-up to the extent that he intends on working in the beauty and media industry after completing his studies.

Mkhonto describes himself as someone who is fun, expressive, artistic and energetic. He spends his spare time on Instagram looking at beauty trends and playing the violin. “My general escape is the art of make-up,” he said.

Despite how difficult he thought campus life would be, Mkhonto finds that he enjoys it and he has been embraced by a lot of people. His time at NSA taught him how to deal with different kinds of personalities and so he can easily brush off negativity.

“A lot of people will be really negative but they are not gonna do it to my face, because (of) the way I carry myself. People only show me love because I only carry love and beautiful energies,” said Mkhonto.

Slice of Life: How much longer?

IMG_0765 (2)Thabo*, a student I knew at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, had once applied to the Dean of Humanities to allow him to take a certain combination of subjects. His choice of subjects was quite complicated and his request was rarely agreed to. Thabo though was a high-performing student who had achieved top marks throughout his university career and so it seemed obvious that he would be granted permission.

He had heard of this combination from a classmate of his, (Kate*), who was recently allowed to pick up these subjects. To our surprise, the Dean declined his request, citing marks that did not quite meet the requirements for such a combination. Both Thabo and his classmate were doing the same degree with the same subjects for the first two years at Rhodes, but Kate’s marks were much lower than that of Thabo’s. Naturally, questions of race surfaced and specifically why it was that a white student with lower marks was allowed to take this combination of subjects while a black student couldn’t. The incident revealed to me the issue of white mediocrity in this country.

How much longer will we continue to celebrate white mediocrity? How much longer should black people, women and other minority groups have to work twice as hard to receive half of the recognition and reward offered to whites and men that are clearly not worth it?

How much longer will our lecturers, mentors, tutors, and academic institutions repress the black child? The very same people who are meant to be moulding a new cohort of intellectually, socially, financially and personally “woke” young graduates, are the very same people using their power to ostracize them and belittle their work. I am tired of watching my peers treated as though they can never amount to anything simply because their lecturers do not like them. Academic spaces are supposed to be a hub of intellectual, mature individuals who concern themselves only with the expansion of knowledge and yet this is not the case.

How much longer will it take for the LGBTIQA+ community to be free in their own home? To have the social – not just legal – right to embrace their love, their personhood and their right to belong? It is inconceivable to me that in 2016, people are being killed, raped, heckled and kept out of certain spaces purely because of who or what they are.

How much longer?

How much longer will black knowledge and history be regarded as second grade to western thought? Ours is a rich history shaped by intellectuals and leaders who have transformed what it means to be black and to be African. These are the stories that have to be told in universities, schools, churches and social spaces. For it is in celebrating the fact that we can produce knowledge of a sound and intellectually superior standard, that we are able to move forward as black people.

How much longer until minority groups can rise up and create for themselves a system that embraces them, a system that not only nurtures them but allows them to flourish and realise their truest potentials? In the wake of collective student movements, we must become the leaders we so desperately need, leaders who can recognize their faults, admit that they have failed and yield power others when it is necessary.

How much longer?

“We believe you,” says Silent Protest

SOLIDARITY: Wits students protest against rape and sexual violence in the 2016 Silent Protest. Photo: Mokgethwa Masemola

SOLIDARITY: Wits students protest against rape and sexual violence in the 2016 Silent Protest.
Photo: Mokgethwa Masemola

“We believe you!” That is the over-arching message of the silent protest against rape and sexual violence that took place on Wednesday at Wits.

“If you have never been believed. If someone has tried to undermine you saying ‘I have been violated’ and try to question whether it constitutes violation or not, you need to know that the number one aim behind the silent protest is to say ‘we believe you’,” said the Silent Protest project coordinator Limpho Kou.

The Silent Protest has served as a campaign where women, and now men, can speak out about rape and sexual assault.

“This protest creates the conditions where people feel safe and held in order to tell their most closely-guarded secret,” said founding member of the Silent Protest and the Aids Healthcare Foundation’s advocacy manager Larissa Klazinga.

According to Klazinga, the protest was born at Rhodes University in 2006 to support “Khwezi”, the woman who publically accused Jacob Zuma, then deputy president of the ANC, of rape. About 80 young women gathered at Rhodes with Khwezi to speak out against gender-based violence. Zuma was later acquitted of rape in the High Court.

Since then, the protest has spread to other campuses in the country and is now an international movement. The protest also expanded to include men who have been sexually-violated.

In light of recent protests such as #RememberKhwezi, #IAm1in3, #NakedProtest, #RUReferenceList, the silent protest in 2016 “can’t be business as usual, we can’t ignore everything that is happening,” said Kou.

In response to these movements, the silent protest was a week-long campaign this year with documentary screenings, talks and public exhibitions of the female body on campus. The advancement of student protests over the past year has made the organisers of the silent protest question their portrayal of the victim and the significance of silence.

As such, the organisers have also introduced the blowing of whistles on the day of the protest to “introduce a certain level of disruption”, said Kou. Following the #RUReferenceList and #NakedProtest, the 2016 silent protest at Rhodes will focus on disrupting the institution and the powers that be.

“We can’t get away from the fact that there was another silent protest two weeks ago which made the whole nation take stock of who our leader is and where we are as a country,” said Klazinga referring to anti-rape protesters disrupting Zuma’s speech at the Independent Electoral Commission in Pretoria.

The value of the silent protest remains its ability to serve not only as a platform for men and women to break their silence on rape and sexual violence, but also its status as an incubator for activists who have shaped the feminist discourse in the country.

“The women’s movement that we’ve been able to build has begun to build a new kind of a completely different feminism in South Africa and the silent protest is a part of that,” said Klazinga.


Wits staff cuts rumours

WITS has not dispelled rumours of possible staff retrenchments and budget cuts, in a statement issued by the Wits Senior Executive Team (SET).
In the same statement, the university announced the establishment of the “Senate Task Team on Trade-Offs”.
“The university is looking at how we can collectively fund strategic initiatives in the 2017 budget,” the statement said.
The university says it needs over R150-million to cover the costs of insourcing as well as to “contribute towards the funds required to renew the Wits IT network”.
This comes amid expected fee increases countrywide to cover costs arising from last year’s insourcing protests.